A letter to a student at a Jazz Conservatory

Here is part of a letter that I sent one of my students who recently moved out east to study at a major Jazz school in the New York area. I thought that it was worth reprinting because it contains a lot of advice that I wish that someone had given me when I was a student at Berklee.

"I'm glad you're enjoying school. It sounds pretty exciting. In fact I just had a dream last night that I was back at Berklee. In the dream I told myself- "this time I'm not going to get distracted with a girlfriend". What a huge distraction that was. :-)

Mr.X (major tenor player) sounds like a teacher that you need to be more pro-active with. There are a lot of great players out there that aren't as organized as teachers. You can still get a lot out of lessons with them if you as a student take more initiative. This means being more prepared for your lessons and not being so passive. Transcribe your teacher's solos and then ask them what they were doing, or you can ask them how they approach specific tunes or types of changes. If I were studying with X I would try to find out the what his approach to reharms is. He has some very cool harmonic devices that he uses.

In general you just need need to be more self directed and self motivated when you get to college. There just usually isn't anyone there to ride you and to make sure that you're being productive. You need to take more initiative and research things on your own with the help of what I'm sure is a great music library. I regret not copying as many arrangement as I possibly could when I was in school. Start copying or scanning whatever interesting stuff you can get your hands on- tunes, charts, transcriptions, harmony books. You'll be so glad you did after you get out of school.

It's all the things that you took the initiative to learn and weren't assigned that you'll really appreciate after you graduate. Don't make the mistake of just accepting the curriculum the school gives you as being your only option. You could go into the city and take classes with Barry Harris (only something like $15 a class at School of the Streets), or you could save up and go take a private lesson with about anyone that you may like, or you could find out when good master classes are happening at the New School, MSM or NYU, or you could go watch an open rehearsal of the Vanguard band. But whatever you do- MAKE SURE YOU GO SEE THE FRINGE WHENEVER POSSIBLE!!!! There's no better Jazz group than the Fringe and you'll regret not seeing them as much as you could once you leave NY.

Jazz isn't about grades, so don't let that mentality keep you from doing whatever is possible to get better as a player. You're not there to get good grades or even graduate ( which are of course nice things to do, but not the reason you're going to school). You are there to become BURNING. All night practice sessions should be the way you spend most nights. Try to listen to everything on that hard drive. Fall asleep with headphones and listen to X all night long every night!!

You are there to try to prepare for a music career and it's a brutal world out there right now and it's only getting worse. You simply cannot just sit back and accept that the school is going to teach you everything you'll need to have a successful career. You need to work harder than all of your peers and when they're partying you should be shedding. What you're doing there (going to college for Jazz) is a fairly insane proposition to begin with and the percentage of students there that will actually end up as full-time professional musicians is abysmally low. You seriously do not want to get out of school and have to take a shit job because you don't have a gig and absolutely no marketable skills.

"Would you like fries with that?"

The music business is on the verge of a total collapse. This is something that they probably don't tell you in school. The colleges are churning out more and more young players with Jazz degrees every year and the number of gigs is drastically declining. This formula is not promising to say the least. If you want to make this happen then you're going to have to work harder than 99% of your peers, because only the top 1% achieve any measure of success at this thing. Even if you end up having a good Jazz career you will most likely end up working at something other than performing, so you've got to make yourself marketable in other areas as well.

Working as a musician is rewarding, but you need to understand the reality of the situation that you're going to find yourself when you get out of school. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that everything will just work itself out once you get out of school. You have four (or more) years to start working on your career before you'll have to support yourself. Don't wait until you get out before you start working on your website, putting your book together, making connections, thinking about making a CD, writing original music, and presenting yourself as a professional. Hit the ground running or you stand a good chance of falling flat on your face and into a job in the wonderful field of food service.

I hope this letter has motivated you and not discouraged you. You just need to make yourself better than everybody else and you will be fine. This is completely possible, but it will take discipline, motivation, focus, and a little luck.

Good luck! DCV"


WTF: Pops sings Pharaoh's 'The Creator Has A Master Plan'

Yes, it's no joke.

This is from the great Avant-Garde Jazz site Destination: Out

"We tend to think of Armstrong and Sanders as inhabiting entirely different universes, but one of the interesting things about the late 60s and early 70s was the generational overlap of so many key jazz figures. But rarely have worlds collided in more unexpected and almost hallucinatory ways.

The mere concept of this track smacks of the most clueless sort of commercial pandering. For some reason, it brings to mind Jackie Gleason’s LSD trip in Skidoo (check out the Youtube clip here). Did Louis really need this so late in his career? Initially, we wondered if producer Bob Thiele didn’t foist this track on Armstrong at gunpoint.

But… but… but… the surprising thing is that the music isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s an interesting concoction. There’s a solid arrangement by Oliver Nelson and check out the list of stellar musicians above. And to his credit, Louis doesn’t seem nearly as out of place as you might imagine

LA, vocals; Leon Thomas, vocals, percussion; James Spaulding, flute; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Sam Brown, guitar; Frank Owens, piano; Richard Davis, bass; George Duvivier, bass; Gene Golden, congas; Bernard Purdie, drums, plus strings."

The Creator Has A Master Plan


The Jazz Personality- by Aaron Johnson

Aaron's last post caused quite a stir all over the blogosphere. Readers and bloggers either loved it or they wanted to wring his young neck.

The role of the musician in our society has become so domesticated over the past 30 or so years. I believe this has to do with the modern trend of conservatory jazz education. Now, Jazz is just another degree that one can get...with a monetary return that is similar to a degree in Norse Folktales (with a minor in Finnish arts and crafts).

What happened to the role of the jazz musician as the romantic, wandering free spirit as it used to be during it's youth. The role of the Jazz musician is something so entrenched in the subculture of America that, if taken out of that context, it loses so much of it's power and mean. Jazz was something that you WORKED for just to have the honor to PLAY it. Now, anyone can play jazz and if they are marketable, they get a career in it!

"Oh, you're a 12 year old from the suburbs? You have a Charlie Parker album? AMAZING. Let's get you a recording contract. You'll change the music, kid!"

Let's examine some jazz badasses of renown:

Sidney Arodin: Travelled the United States playing in territory groups. Played in a later incarnation of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Listening to recordings of him, his playing sounds like a great american folk legend. So happy, however, shrouded in despair and the nature of the Artist.

Nick LaRoc
ca: The leader and Trumpeter of the ODJB. Imagine, with nostalgia, hearing jazz playing in this context...LIVE. I've heard that the ODJB was considered immensely loud during the time that it existed. LaRocca was a dark, crazy nutjob who died in an insane asylum.

Bunk Johnson
: Early jazz cornetist of mythical status. He dropped off the scene for a period of time, only to be picked up by his old friend, Sidney Bechet, to record during the 1940's trad-jazz revival. Claimed to have taught Louis Armstrong.

Bix Beiderbecke: I become teary-eyed thinking of the little white boy in Davenport, Iowa who had enough courage to do what he truly loved. Bix would wake up at 4 am to blow his Cornet into his pillow. He had total dedication to the music that drove him. Bix died in love with his horn, at age 28. He changed the music in so many interesting ways, however, the one that strikes me as being the most notable was his innate sense of lyricism.

Sidney Bechet
: How many Jazz musicians here in NYC that have been banned from Paris? Who have gotten in gunfights? Sidney Bechet was a wild man with a HUGE musical personality.

Louis Armstrong
: The KING of early (and Jazz in general, in my opinion).
A masterful technician and an intuitive improviser, Satch' lived a varied and colorful life. He smoked reefer and took laxatives every day. He wrote a diet book. 'Nuff said. Badass.

Coleman Hawkins
: The Bean was known by that namesake for a reason; he could eat! Guys would tell stories of his eccentricities from his days touring with Fletcher Henderson. He would fly into rural, Midwestern towns in a huge, expensive car. Then, he would proceed to eat 2 large meals at a local diner. He also never used a bank and kept large amounts of money on him at all time.

Lester Young: Prez barnstormed all over the southern states with his father's territory band before settling in Kansas City, MO and changing Jazz music. He was a hard living, hard drinking character who invented a hip form of the english language; used to alienate those "not in the know". Whenever I pass 52nd st. and Broadway, I think of the hotel that Prez died in, drinking himself to death. He would sit in his room, listening to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, drinking all day and watching the front door of Birdland.

Benny Go
odman: How many nerdy Jewish guys do you know that slept with Billie Holiday and Helen Ward in addition to marrying a Vanderbilt? He was a trained classical musician in addition to being the "KING OF SWING". Benny Goodman's early small groups changed the direction of Jazz and contributed heavily, in my opinion, to the bebop era.

Artie Shaw: This man was married 8 times (including marriages to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner). He was extremely well read (I believe his library consisted of over 10,000 books) and an accomplished writer. He decided that he didn't want to deal with the INDUSTRY (haha, who knew?) so he quit playing in the early 50's.

Charlie Parker
: The most mythical figure in Jazz history, Charlie Parker led a life of heroin-induced debauchery. His music has a spirit that will always live in the hearts of many jazz musicians. Among the legends that exist, my favorite is the story of him living in a storage unit, strung out in Los Angeles. Howard Mcghee found him and drug him to a recording session for Ross Russell's Dial label. After barely being able to stand, he playing his heart-throbbing rendition of "Lover Man". After the take, he threw a whiskey jug at the control booth, breaking the window. He was then taken to Camarillo State Hospital, where he regained considerable strength.

I'm losing track of time and my point telling stories. Obviously, I could go on forever, however I'll move on now. My point is simply....where are the characters today? We need eccentrics and wildly passionate people to play the music!


Master Class videos on Banddirector.com

There are quite a few interesting videos on Banddirector.com, including a bunch of Bergonzi improvisation workshops.