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

Peter Rubie By

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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.

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