Sunday, August 29, 2010

Free vs. Traditional Jazz Teaching

 A common concern of many of my colleagues who are engaged in teaching improvisation is the resistance of the more traditional jazz education community to non-jazz improvisation pedagogy.  I find this kind of in-fighting between improvisers to be distressingly short-sighted and self destructive.

Jazz pedagogy has performed an admirable role.  It has made it possible for millions of  people to study and delight in one of the predominant forms of improvised music.  It has painstakingly carved a place for the study of improvisation in conservatories and music departments of schools and colleges throughout the world. 

But it really is time to acknowledge that the study and teaching of improvised music, (and of improvisation itself), has moved far beyond the confines of any particular genre.  There is a growing understanding of the fundamental role that improvisation plays in music, the arts, creativity, learning, therapy - in all parts of life.  There are classes that teach improvisational comedy, theater, dance, art, and therapy.  There are people studying the influence and possibilities of improvisation in education, in the workplace, and in society in general.  Learning about improvisation is no longer limited to learning about improvising jazz. 

In this larger context, the benefits of teaching and practicing free improvisation are undeniable. 

• It benefits everyone.
Teaching free improvisation directly explores the process of improvisation.  Since this process is integral to pretty much everything we do, free improvisation is useful for everyone.  

• It can be done with anyone. 
It can be taught to people with any amount of experience, musical knowledge or instrumental skill.  It can be done with any instrumentation or size of the group.  It can be done with anyone, from any musical genre. 

• It is capable of many kinds of cross fertilization.
The process of improvisation is the same, no matter what product we are creating with it.  This means there is vast potential for cooperation and cross training throughout all areas that have improvisational curriculum.

Free improvisational pedagogy is not a replacement for traditional jazz pedagogy, it is a supplement to it, and having it available benefits even the most traditional jazz teachers and students. 

• It helps players be better improvisers. 
A better improviser is better at improvising, no matter what their chosen genre.  I would even say a better improviser is a better musician (and a better person) - but that's a post for another day!

• It creates greater interest in improvisation.
When people get a taste of what it's like, many of them develop a strong interest in creativity and improvisation.  This exploration often leads to greater interest and understanding of jazz.

•  It attracts more people to the music department.  
Jam band, folk, rock, and other players who aren’t involved in the typical music department all enjoy and benefit from this training.  Having more people involved creates more publicity and possibilities.

These are just a few of the potential benefits.  The possibilites are just beginning to be explored.  The fact is, any forward looking music department should welcome and embrace a strong non-stylistic improvisation pedagogy as a highly desirable facet of any music program. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Improvisation Is For Everyone

Tom Hall and Lennie Peterson • ARTsWorcester  2010

I improvised an event called “Improvisation in Life and Art(s)” last week with Lennie Peterson and Mark Campbell. Lennie talked about improvising and improvised a drawing of Duke Ellington, while Mark improvised some looped guitar and I talked about improvisation, played sax with Mark, and facilitated some improvised audience participation. At the end, Lennie joined us on trombone for a trio version of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”.

The people there, ranging from ages 12 to 85, loved it. More than one person told me that they came out of some kind of obligation, but ended up absolutely enjoying themselves. More than one person came to me and said they had never thought of themselves as an improviser, but now realized how much they improvise in their life and work.

Despite my own evangelical confidence in the importance of improvisation, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by how easily and gratefully all these different kinds of people embraced the ideas we presented. Once their awareness was pointed in that direction, improvisation just naturally made sense to them as a way of understanding themselves and the world.

More affirmation - it really is true. Improvisation is for everyone.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Art of the Obvious

Don’t be afraid to be obvious. Don’t be afraid to let your intentions be known.

Improvisers often become so caught up with being free, being new, being unexpected, being bold, being avant-garde, being different; that they avoid (and may even disdain) the obvious, the expected, the inevitable. But the ability to be clear and obvious about your intentions is an essential part of group improvisation, one that is often ignored.

Last Sunday, I had the immense pleasure of hosting Session X, with myself on saxes, Kevin Barry on guitar, Marty Ballou on bass, Dean Johnston on drums, and April Hall on vocals. All master musicians (in many different styles), and I had brought them together to improvise with me. I had framed the evening’s improvisations to be about the groove, but that’s about all I said. When listening back to the music it sounds like a killer band playing some loose, funky, grooving tunes. It doesn’t sound particularly weird, or different, or avant-garde. But it’s completely improvised.

And believe me when I tell you, it is incredibly difficult to improvise music this clear, music that people can hear and understand, music that grooves and has beats, and bass lines and melodies and lyrics – all the things you would expect to hear from a funk band, but not necessarily from an improvisational quintet. It takes an immense amount of patience, and commitment, and deep, deep listening. And a willingness to let your intentions be known, to be obvious, to commit to a focus and to share it freely.

There is an art to being obvious. There is joy in understanding and being understood. And sometimes the hardest thing to improvise is a (seemingly) simple and beautiful group composition that just flat out feels good and makes sense.