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


Master Class videos on Banddirector.com

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