In my capacity as a jazz professor at UNI, I meet or email with prospective students on a more or less weekly basis throughout the school year. One question that arises again and again is some variation of “How can I best prepare myself for success in jazz in college?” Most of the first-year college students I encounter have received first-rate instruction in reading notation and ensemble playing, but lag in jazz vocabulary (think line construction) and deep stylistic knowledge. The very best way to acquire those skills is through spending time with recordings. This should take two forms: focused listening and learning by ear.
It has never been easier to access the entirety of recorded jazz history. So much music is now available, free of charge, on platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, as well as “pay what you wish” sites like Band Camp and subscription services such as Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer. On one hand, this is great news! When your teacher tells you to listen to the recording of “If I Were a Bell” from set three of Friday Night, Miles Davis in Person at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, it’s actually possible to find that exact recording (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS8Tr5xdUfc), and even to compare it to the version from set one from the following night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpaMLjbfR2s). For those of us who grew up in rural Iowa in the 1970s, this is an unimaginable paradise. I can still recall visiting BJ Records in Iowa City (30 miles north of my hometown of Washington) once a month with the money I had saved from mowing lawns, hoping to find a record I had heard about from my teacher. I remember the day I found Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra’s Bob Brookmeyer, Composer/Arranger in the cutout bin for 99 cents! I still have that record, and I can sing along with all of the Dick Oatts solos on it. Portions of those solos come out in my playing without my having to think about it.
As exciting as it is to have immediate, free access to so much music, there are potential pitfalls. When I make a listening assignment, I typically have something specific I want the student to get from the recommended recording. For example, Miles Davis recorded “On Green Dolphin Street” many times in his career, but something unique happens in the exchange between Wayne Shorter’s and Herbie Hancock’s solos in the version found on The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, second set from December 23, 1965 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO2wouv4xpA, around 10:40). This particular moment doesn’t happen on any of Miles’s other recordings of this tune. Listening to every version of that song (or putting the entire recorded output of Miles Davis on shuffle play) is not likely to yield the desired result. Nor is hearing that moment only once likely to cement it in your memory. Repetition is how we learn language, and the language of jazz is no different. How often do we listen to a single track (or even a single solo)multiple times in a row for several days running? Try this experiment—select a brief solo you really like. Listen to that solo 5 times in a row every day for a month. At the end of the month, see how much of the solo you can sing without the recording. You almost can’t avoid absorbing the material.
This leads to my second suggestion for preparing for jazz in college—learning things by ear. I firmly believe that you can derive benefit from learning anything by ear, whether it’s video game music or Coltrane solos. However, if you want to learn to ”jazz,” you would be well served to learn some jazz by ear. The melodies of standard songs are a great place to start. I usually recommend that students learn melodies from vocal versions because the interpretations tend to be less ornate. An added benefit is that you are also learning the words, which helps with getting the proper phrasing. Start by singing, then transfer what you have learned to your instrument. Once you can handle standards, move on to bebop melodies. This will help you learn idiomatic usage of chromaticism (approach tones and passing tones). Once you learn a melody by ear on your instrument, learn it in different keys. You will retain it better, and you will improve your relative pitch. Paraphrase the melody your own way. Strive to do it slightly differently each time. I use the analogy of a rubber band—you never know how far it will stretch until you snap your finger and hurt yourself. Don’t be afraid to stretch the melody in the practice room (in the practice room, no one can hear you scream).
The next step, of course, is to transcribe improvised solos. Begin with solos that are both learnable (not beyond your means technically) and compelling (do you really love the solo?). The second part is important because you will be living with the solo in an intense way for a while. Learn solos the same way you learn melodies—start by singing. Learn the solo phrase by phrase, slowing it down with your voice and accounting for every note and nuance. Then, as with your melodies, transfer that knowledge to your instrument. I don’t feel that it is terribly important to notate the solo on paper, but you may do so if you wish. If you do, write in the chords above your notation so you can study how the soloist constructs lines within the confines of moving harmony.
Of course you should also listen for enjoyment. As you listen, don’t limit your attention to the featured instrument (or your own instrument). Listen for how the bass player and drummer work together to create the time feel. Are they in exact sync, or is one more on the front edge of the pulse? Notice where the pianist or guitarist places comping gestures. Does the rhythm section play any gestures together? How arranged is the performance? Does it sound worked out or off the cuff, like a jam session? Pay attention to the space between the notes. How often does each player choose not to play?
In closing, I will relate to you the advice that my teacher, Dr. Yusef Lateef, gave to his students: Whatever you practice (scales, arpeggios, melodies, transcriptions, improvisation, etc), make it the most musical experience it can be.
Professor of Jazz Studies, Director of Jazz Band Christopher Merz, Professor of Music, has served as Director of Jazz Studies and Director of the award-winning UNI Jazz Band One at the University of Northern Iowa since 2002.