by Russ Nolan
Teach Jazz Students to be Relevant
Jazz as a Conversation
Finally, as important as it is to give beginning improvisers the proper tools to build with, it’s equally important to reinforce the idea that these tools are only the means to the end, not the end in themselves. Let’s go back to the ‘jazz as a language’ analogy. Just like English, Spanish, German, French, Latin, etc., Jazz is a language. It is another medium of communication with an intended audience. Do you enjoy listening to someone who speaks in a mono-tone (as opposed to a ‘Mellow Tone’?!), or at one volume, carries on with run-on sentences, or jumps from topic to topic without finishing any of them? What about the person who tries to impress you with their vocabulary? You probably don’t–so let’s try not to do it with the Jazz language. Why do we enjoy reading books or going to movies? If they are good, it’s because they tell a good story and involve their audience. ‘Telling a Story’ in Jazz doesn’t mean you have to play a ton of notes and have brilliant technique on your instrument. Mastering one’s instrument and jazz theory are only means to a musical end. A memorable solo is one that communicates to the audience that you love playing and it’s shown through passion, good time feel, good rhythm, and melodic development.
I remember Kenny Werner once asking me in a lesson, “Are you relevant?”, and “Is your music or message relatable to an audience outside of your peers?” “Jazz is best when it satisfies its peers on an intellectual level, and relates to non-musicians on a soulful level” is a phrase my former mentor, David Bloom, founder of the Bloom School of Jazz used all the time. Non-musicians respond to story telling, tension-and-release, and group interaction aspects of music, rather than theory. We can still be true to ourselves and yet reach more than the 3% that typically listen to Jazz. Wouldn’t that be great?