- " My saxophone teacher tells me that I can study music theory and harmony, but if I want to improvise jazz music I have to listen, memorize and play “jazz phrases”. The same situation with learn a new language: you can study grammar but when you talk with someone, you have to use idiomatic expressions because grammar is a set of theoretical roles (sometimes “a little distant” from the current language) and pre-defined phrases are more efficient for communication."
Other licks are what I call 'Public Domain' licks. These are pattern and lines that can't really be tracked down to any particular player. These are the first licks that young players memorize as they learn to improvise. Most diminished and whole tone patterns are in this class. These licks are your garden variety stale old Be-bop licks. David Baker has done a wonderful job cataloging these public domain licks in his 'How to Play Bebop' books. These are licks are tried and true, good as gold and oldies but goodies. Everyone has heard these expressions, but they still carry a strong meaning are are understood by everyone who speaks the language. By learning public domain licks you learn how to construct logical and meaningful lines, they can also act as fillers when you aren't feeling totally spontaneous.
If you were to speak using nothing but idiomatic expressions you'd sound ridiculous.
It would be like an albatross round your neck if you thought it was all the rage to jump on the bandwagon with the rank and file who play nothing but licks, thinking they were real deal and the creme de la creme. In all honesty these dime a dozen bean counters make me lose my lunch!
Get my drift?
Like idioms, licks are meaningful elements of a musical language, but they can and usually are overused. I once heard Donny McCaslin say that you need to learn all the common licks so that you don't ever have to play them. Many professional players never get past the point of playing nothing but licks, we would call these guys totally derivative or BOOOOOORING. True, some great licks never get old, no matter how many time you hear them, but some dumb licks can make a great player sound corny and hokey in an instant.
It also depends on location. You might get away with playing an old Bebop line in Idaho that would evoke groans from an audience in the East Village. The less the listener knows about Jazz, the better these corny-ass lines sound, because they haven't heard every beginning soloist play them already. You can fool an uneducated audience into thinking that you're can really play by stringing a bunch of stale licks together, it's a fast way to sound like you're playing Real Jazz. Is this really creative? Some would argue that it is and that the goal is to sound good, and playing lots of licks helps you sound good. Many, many players take this way of playing to the extreme and play nothing but licks that they have memorized. They are happy to regurgitate dumb licks for their entire career.
There are different approaches that teachers take with students with regards to learning licks.
The first approach is to have the student memorize a ton of licks in every key. The great disadvantage to this approach is that the student ends up sounding redundant by repeating the exact same lick in many different keys during a solo. Also if the student never breaks free of this mode of learning they end up sounding totally generic. There is also no cohesion in the player's solos, just a bunch of unrelated parts.
- "That guy sounds like every other tenor player, but no one in particular"
How is the evolution of the language of Jazz much like the evolution of language? Once in a while a particularly strong personality comes along, say like a Snoop Dog, and suddenly everyone is putting 'izzle' on the the end of words. Sometimes these fo'shizzles and mo'nizzles pass like fads, other times they work their way into the language and end up in Webster's dictionary or maybe even spoken on the lips of the queen of England.
Yusef Lateef used to tell his students that it is never too early to start developing an original sound and style. The idea that you must first learn all the idiomatic Jazz licks before you can really start creating an original style is total BULLSHIT.
You can be working on your own unique way of playing from the very beginning by learning to make everything you absorb your own. Yes, practice the public domain licks and patterns, but as you learn them put your own twist on them. Displace a note here and there, change a rhythm, leave a note out, add an accidental, just do something to it. Take different pieces of patterns and combine them in unusual ways. I have my students look at David Baker's ii-V7 licks (the ones that are all in the same key and stacked one above the other) and play the ii-7 bar from one lick and a V7 bar from another lick. I have them try all different V7 resolutions with the same ii-7 bar. Then I might have them play the same ii-7 bar and play an improvised V7 using a diminished scale, then a whole-tone, then an altered dominant, ect. Then I have them play different ii-7 bars while keeping the same V7 resolution the same.
You don't have to wait until you've mastered the Jazz language to start creating your own personal idioms. On the other hand if you create a personal language that has no relationship at all to the languages that everyone else is speaks then no one will be able to converse with or understand you. Remember Steve Martin's routine when he talks about wanting to have a kid and teach him to speak random gibberish for laughs?
It all comes down to balance. A good balance between original and idiomatic material is essential in order to sound fresh and still sound like you're grounded in the Jazz tradition. You don't want to alienate the other musicians or your audience by playing the music of the spheres all night. You also don't want to sound like the you sleep with the Omnibook under your pillow
(which I thoroughly approve of by the way) or that the only record you own is Heavy Metal Bebop.
Why bother even pulling out your horn if you're just going to play licks that you memorized from records and books? Respect the tradition by adapting it's idioms and making them your own own, not by being stuck playing nothing but music from before 1957. Take a chance and be creative, even at the expense of sounding sloppy and bad once in a while. Try not to use long licks, instead only use short fragments.
Innovate as you emulate. It's possible to sound very original without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
- Foshizzle Monizzle?
How to Play Bebop - Volume 1