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To Dream the Impossible Dream: the quest for a music education


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What came out of those tinny speakers was a revelation. I spent all afternoon just playing this record over and over again. That was how I wanted to play the guitar! After all these years, in my own way, that is still how I want to play the guitar.
I've been thinking a lot about how jazz is taught recently. I realize now, my search for a real musical education was not a simple thing, but a series of life changing moments. My son, on the other hand, is planning to study music in college after he finishes high school. Though it would fill his grandparents with dread were they still around to see it, to Ben and his peers it is a natural choice, focused on finding the best school to suit his ambitions and goals, shaped by figuring out who he wants to study with, and hampered only by the potential cost and a struggle for scholarships.

Ben is 16, and is determined to become a jazz violinist (God help me!) and is clearly becoming a strong player. I have to tell him sometimes to stop practicing, because there is such a thing as practicing too much believe it or not, and he walks around surgically attached to his headphones. He has done several paid gigs, the last one with NJPAC and featuring Regina Carter, where he was invited to solo and got a rave audience reception. It helps that we live in New York City, which is, frankly, a great place to be if you harbor such ambitions. His jazz teacher, Benjamin Sutin, and I spend a fair amount of time talking about how to teach jazz, and what is important at the foundational level. And unfortunately for my son, because he has a musician father who sometimes teaches, he can't bullshit too much when it comes to practicing, especially when he insists on doing it in the front room where I can hear him rather than in his bedroom, where I used to hide with my guitar at his age.

When I was a teenager in England in the 1960s, jazz education was minimal. Even finding a teacher one on one was a challenge, let alone a jazz course. The only one at the time was Leeds College of Music, founded in 1965. By the time I found out about it, it was too late for me to drop everything and try and get in. I think it very likely I would not have, anyway. My friend Dave Cliff, who's several years older than me, was one of the first students in the course, and graduated around 1970 after studying with jazz bass players Peter Ind and Bernie Cash. Peter had recently returned to England after living in New York and California in the 1950s, and had played with musicians like Roy Eldridge, but more relevantly, had studied, played and recorded with the great Lennie Tristano and many of the musicians associated with him. Lennie was arguably the first jazz musician to systematize and teach the study of jazz improvisation. He taught a host of players. Among the best known were Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, Sal Mosca, Ted Brown, and singer Sheila Jordan. He also taught Charles Mingus and Connie Crothers and influenced Bill Evans, and Ray Manzarek of the Doors. The core of his teaching influenced the founding of schools such as the Lenox School and the Berklee School of Music.

"[One of] the basic things that Lennie [taught was] about knowing your instrument so you don't have to worry about making [a] tune," said saxaphonist Ted Brown, in a 2001 interview(watch now). "[Another] thing that came from Lennie was about being relaxed with your playing, no matter what the tempo was. And that comes in part from a certain confidence [that stems from] knowing your instrument." The Tristano approach embraced an emphasis on listening to your fellow musicians and the study of solos by the greats, such as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. It treated jazz as a language you were learning to "speak," underscored by learning to sing the improvised solos first, and then to play them on your instrument. Warne once told me, "The voice is the first instrument." There were deep dives into a handful of standard tunes, the study of rhythm and polyrhythm, as well as ear training, such as singing intervals, scales and extended chords. And the key was to do it all really slowly and deliberately.

Having a musician for a parent can help if you want to be a full-time musician though it's not always obvious. On the plus side, it is something you can imagine doing for a living, and you often have a realistic idea about how fulfilling and/or frustrating it can be. For example, while my dad had a series of jobs before starting his own small company, the idea of me becoming a professional musician, even had I the courage to try and embrace that idea, which I didn't, would have never flown without a huge fight. Dave Cliff's dad, however, played guitar and double bass in local dance bands. "Dad made me my first guitar," Dave once said. "But, unfortunately, the neck deteriorated and became badly bent and when it needed fixing sadly he wasn't around to fix it, as he died when I was just 14 years old. Lessons? No, I didn't have any—I just taught myself. I didn't practice seriously until I was 19. So I wasted a few years being a '3-chord merchant.' "

In my case, at 14, I was going to London on the train, usually with my brother, Steve, and haunting a jazz record store in the Charing Cross Road in the center of London called Dobell's. It was mysterious and hip and adventurous all at the same time. Upstairs was for the squares who just wanted the new Frank Sinatra or rock and pop LPs. The magic was at the back of the store and down a narrow, dingy set of stairs to a little basement presided over by a slightly overweight guy with unruly though thinning hair named John. If you were a jazz fan, and a kid jazz fan at that, John would answer questions for you and point you to different stacks of second hand records. (At least, he did for me and my brother anyway.) You would find a potential treasure, and then take it into a tiny soundproofed booth barely big enough to fit two skinny teenagers, and carefully listen to a track or two to see if you liked it. If you decided to buy it John would sometimes give you his opinion, maybe steer you to something else as well. It wasn't long before we were buying two or three records at a time, taking them home to listen to them for a few months, and then returning them to John for pennies on the pound in order to add that money to our pocket money so we could afford to buy several more "new" second-hand jazz records. Downstairs at Dobell's became a doorway into a world that for years I had yearned for but had no clue how to find. Maybe a year after I started going there I stumbled across a record called "For Django," by Joe Pass—and it changed my life.

By this time I had started playing guitar (badly) in folk clubs in front of audiences who at least didn't jeer or throw things at me. I had painstakingly learned some Bert Jansch tunes, and Davy Graham recordings of jazz tunes. I'd figured out the clubs would let you in for free if you had the stones to get up on stage and perform a number or two, and that way I could afford to see headlining artists like John Renbourn, Jansch, Davy Graham, and Diz Dizley. Nonetheless, I really couldn't conceive of being a full time jazz musician much as I secretly dreamed of becoming one. It was too exotic, and far flung. How was I going to get from suburban England to New York City? There was no one around to encourage or guide me, and the last thing my parents, God Bless 'em, would encourage was their eldest son becoming a full time musician when of all instruments, he chose to play an "illegitimate" one like the guitar which wasn't even accepted as a "real" instrument in most of the classical music schools at that point. When I sat in front of our little suitcase-style Dansetta record player with my latest treasure from Dobell's and carefully put on that Joe Pass record my jaw dropped. Tune after tune was driving, swinging, inventive, overwhelming. What came out of those tinny speakers was a revelation. I spent all afternoon just playing this record over and over again. That was how I wanted to play the guitar! After all these years, in my own way, that is still how I want to play the guitar.

Like almost every other non-classical guitarist back then, Dave Cliff and I spent our formative teenage years teaching ourselves from books like Bert Weedon's Play in a Day music book, the Tune a Day books, and then—wonder of wonders—Mickey Baker's jazz guitar books (two volumes!). I had to teach myself how to read music, which took me a long, painful time. Steve played recorder and then clarinet for a while at school (we went to different schools) until he switched to flute, and he could read music. I would occasionally ask him for help, but he was usually too occupied figuring it all out for himself to do more than help with a particular question. I tried to get a music teacher at my school to help, but he was pretty turned off by the whole idea and ignored most of my pleas. There was no such thing as a school band. The handful of guitar teachers around taught either classical guitar which didn't particularly interest me, partly because reading music was so hard, or rock and folk licks which I could figure out myself from the records. I found myself listening to Davy Graham, whom I got to know a little bit when I was older, who was a really subtly good guitarist live. He could switch from jazz to folk, to classical, to Arabic, to Gaelic because he had not just learned to play the tunes, in many cases he had lived in and studied the cultures of a country as well. In particular, he would take tunes like "'Round Midnight," "Better Get it in Your Soul" and "Moanin" and adapt them to solo guitar which I tried to copy by ear. I instinctively understood that the guys I loved, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson and B.B. King were the progenitors of the rock and blues I heard on the radio like the Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. As I got older I moved on to John Mayall.

As my brother and I grew older we noted that once in a blue moon my dad could sit behind a drum kit and keep pretty good time for someone who never practiced and didn't own a drum set, and one of his older brothers, George, could sit at a piano and bang out some standards and some basic boogie-woogie. Meanwhile, George's eldest son, Michael, who was older than me and Steve, played saxophone, and the three of us become good friends, bonded by our illicit love of wanting to play jazz. Playing music, it seemed, was something of a family secret. Michael still plays in big bands around London when he can, all these years later. Whenever we would get together for family gatherings, we would be the three kids gathered near the bandstand, often talking with the musicians in their breaks. My brother, the more classically trained and school band-based wind player, was the one who looked like he was treading that music path. By his late teens he was doing gigs on flute with a variety of professional and semi-pro singer guitarists. I was happy for him, and jealous all at the same time. Every so often they would include me in their music making and I was never happier. Even so, Steve went off to dental school for a brief period before dropping out, and I joined a local newspaper. But music more and more occupied our lives. By the mid-1970s Steve had founded and still runs the 606 Jazz Club, and as a club owner and player has become a major personality in the London jazz scene.

In the mid-1960s came expanded TV, and a series of shows on the new BBC 2 channel called Jazz 625. That's where I first heard Bill Evans, and Art Blakey, and Wes Montgomery. Meanwhile, in my late teens I was graduating from playing folk to Gypsy jazz, to going to hear Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, and Cleo Laine and John Dankworth in local pubs I was too young to officially go into. They often played with a hip Irish bebop guitarist named Louis Stewart (who I also got know a little later through Peter Ind). Here was someone who I could see as well as hear live, play in the same style as Joe Pass! I was still too young to venture to the few jazz clubs in London, like Ronnie Scott's and the 100 Club and did not know anyone who might have volunteered to take me. It was night life and I was still essentially a suburban kid in high-school.

The real musical moment for Dave Cliff, meanwhile, came when at 23 he got a place at Leeds College of Music. "It was the very first and the only full time jazz course in the country at that time. I spent four years in Leeds: three at College and one unemployed," Dave said. "Then I moved down to London in 1971."

Which was about the time I met him. My brother had been invited to go to a musical session, and came home raving about the musicians he'd met and listened to though not played with. He told me I had to come next time. The session was run by Peter Ind, who taught out of a shed at the bottom of his mother's garden in the London suburb of Uxbridge. Someone up there had thrown me a lifeline, and I jumped to take it. It wasn't long before I started studying with Peter.

Meeting Peter, and becoming friends with Dave, were arguably the next life changing events for me. I never studied with Dave, but we played together and talked about playing all the time, often in the company of other musicians Dave was gigging with, or who like me were studying with Peter. For a while Dave and I shared bed-sitting rooms on the same landing in the same apartment building in Earls Court, London. (What New Yorkers would now call studios.) I remember, a few weeks into beginning my studies with Peter, sitting in his mother's living room one Sunday afternoon. A little, white haired granny-looking woman, she bustled around bringing people cups of tea before going into the other room. Crowded in the front room were four or five musicians, including a wonderful tenor saxophonist named Charlie Burchell and Dave on an old amplified-acoustic Gibson guitar, with Peter, an imposing, long-haired, bearded presence on his Amati bass at the center of it all. Several of us students sat as an audience. I sat perhaps four feet from Dave all afternoon, and if the Joe Pass record had been the first time I had really heard the guitar played like a saxophone, seeing Louis the few times I did in noisy pubs had showed me that you didn't have to be an American to be a great jazz musician. Now, as I watched and listened to Dave, I had the opportunity to actually experience up close and personal what a great guitarist looked and sounded like.

At some point that afternoon it dawned on me I was now studying with this guy's teacher! I was coming to the party late, it's true, and at the beginning of a long learning experience, but the door had finally opened. I understood I had a chance to actually try and achieve what I had previously thought was an unattainable fantasy. And that, ultimately, led to my life in New York and a life long journey of learning and playing that I still find invigorating. So that, briefly, is what a quest for a music education did for me.

What about you?


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