By Hal Galper

Most of the great masters I had the good fortune to apprentice with did not know theory and played completely by ear. They learned how to play by copying their masters. They didn’t “know” the “rules” of music in an intellectual sense. If, as Miles Davis suggested, you “only copy from the best” you’ll learn the rules of music and “know” what you’re doing on an intuitive level, by ear. The operative concept behind Miles’s advice is that if it sounds good you must have used the rules correctly, that, if you copy good sounds you’re learning the rules of music by ear. The term “knowing” often describes a body of intellectual information. But the intuition and the ears often “know” more that the intellect does. It is the student’s faith in the intuitional aspects of learning and playing music that requires attention. The difficulty western educators face is that the intuitional aspects of music are not easily codified into a pedagogy that can be transmitted to their students in an academic environment. Understanding the information contained in jazz proverbs offers a viable solution to this predicament.

“Attitude Is Everything” (Jazz Proverb)

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “proverb” as “a maxim of wisdom… An allegorical saying of the wise that requires interpretation.” The roots of jazz music are firmly planted in the oral tradition of African music. The oral tradition is the process masters of the music used to efficiently pass musical wisdom down to succeeding generations of musicians. This wisdom is usually experiential and difficult to record in written form. Jazz proverbs are ubiquitous throughout the history of jazz. They contain enormous amounts information that, after much reflection by the student and guidance from a master, illuminate the subject at hand. Over the years, both through research and personal experience apprenticing with the masters, I have concentrated my efforts on collecting, analyzing and explicating these jazz proverbs to unlock the information they contain. My articles are derived from my investigations into this rapidly vanishing and most valuable, resource. It’s the nature of these proverbs that you may or may not gain a complete understanding of it’s meaning for decades. You hear them one dimensionally. They make sense to you at the time but the information in them is hidden. Their other dimensions are illuminated only after one has had enough experience and acquired enough knowledge to relate to the proverb personally. Throughout this book, I have used jazz proverbs, quoted both from jazz masters and many of my own creation, as subtitles for chapter headings, followed by their explication. The greatest challenge that I, as author, and you as reader face, is my capability to not only explain these proverbs but to affect their meaning to the reader on a gut level, to change the way the you think.

Jazz proverbs are very powerful. They function on a conceptual level. The information in them is usually experiential in nature, and after lengthy consideration, have the effect of changing a musician’s mental, emotional and physical actions. Mental states, attitudes, conceptions and perceptions, the way musicians think and feel about themselves, the music and their relationships to their instrument, practice, performance and other players, effect musical behavior achieving global, as opposed to incremental, changes upon their playing.

The ultimate proverb of all is the one above. It is the most basic and elemental proverb from which all others come. It postulates that the most of important aspect of studying and playing music is what is going on in the player’s mind. All actions (playing music is an action) are preceded by a thought, by a signal from the brain. One cannot have an action without a thought that precedes it. All actions describe the mental processes that created them. For example:

There are a thousand ways to say something. The particular way one selects to express a thought, accurately reflects the person’s mental state. Reading backwards from the choice of expression and tone of voice with which it was delivered, reveals more about the persons thinking processes than the statement itself. In the same way, a trained musician, can analyze a player’s inappropriate actions backwards to understand the mental state of the player so it can be corrected. The only way to change an action is to change the thinking that produced it. By changing the way one thinks, changes occur on a global as opposed to an incremental mental plane (See the Article on Radical Change).

This inexorably leads to what I consider the most important of all musical concepts for music study and performance: What goes on in your head comes out on your instrument! If you want to change your playing, you have to change the way you think!

There are two categories of musical information, intellectual and experiential. The difficulty we face when trying to learn this music is that we are trying to learn a music derived from an African sensibility within the context of western society. The African and western approaches of learning music differ greatly but are not incompatible. Each approach has it’s advantages and disadvantages.

In western society, musical information is delivered to the student in an intellectual format, usually involving notation, theory and analysis. The student is presented with a musical concept that is then broken down into its smallest parts. Each part is then analyzed and later put back together to create the whole concept. The difficulty of learning music this way is that it interposes an intellectual process between understanding the music and the “sound” of it.

In African society, the music is learned orally, through the process of the master/student relationship. The master plays something and tells the student “make it sound like this.” It is through the direct experience of imitation, or copying the master, that the student is introduced to the music without intellectual intervention. It goes directly to the “sound” of the music. For example:

During the 1980’s I was a regular member of Jamey Aebersold’s Summer Jazz Camps. Drummer Adam Nuessbaum was making his first appearance as a faculty member. Adam, never having done one of these camps before, and an intuitive player, learned his art through direct playing experience. He was somewhat concerned about his educational qualifications in an environment where most of his peers were well versed in musical theory. I assured him he would do quite well under these circumstances.

One day my roll at the camp was as a “floater,” going from room to room, offering whatever advice I could. I passed a room where Adam was trying to get a young drummer to play a certain figure correctly. The student repeated it a number of times to Adam’s dissatisfaction. At one point, Adam kicked the kid off the drum set and demonstrated the figure for him a few times, then got off the drum set and urged the student to “make it sound like this.” I was much impressed as this was a perfect example of the master/student relationship in action. Later that day I ran into Adam at lunch and congratulated him on his educational approach.

The disadvantage of the African approach is that it tends to be one dimensional in that the student only learns what has been copied from the master. The advantage of the western approach is that analysis can be applied to a copied musical idea, expanding the idea into wider dimensions beyond that which has been only copied

Both approaches are not musically exclusive and each can work well together to support the other. The problem arises when one approach is concentrated upon to the exclusion of the other as is the case with most western jazz education. The African oral tradition has never been successfully codified into a practical form that would aid western jazz educators.

The “Set and Setting” (a phrase borrowed from the 1960’s psychedelic culture) of the western and African approaches are radically different and have a profound effect on the student and how music is learned and performed. The term suggests that the mind set (frame of mind) and the setting (environment) are integral elements to the success of an educational/musical experience.

The African teaching environment is the master/student relationship. The student lives with the master, may clean his house, cook his meals, do his laundry and generally be involved with the daily life of the master. The master coaches the student on a one-to-one basis as well as within a group context. The advantage of this system is that the student not only learns the music and absorbs the master’s attitudes, his way of thinking about the music. As mentioned in the Forward to “Forward Motion” the student not only learns the “whats” of music but the “hows” as well. Seymour Fink in his article”Can You Teach Musicality” (May/June 1997 issue of Piano & Keyboard magazine), defines these two processes as ” conscious factual knowledge (knowing what to do)“ and “ procedural knowledge (knowing how to do it).” The crux of thus approach is that the master also gets to know the student, customizing the student’s education to fit the individual, ensuring that they have the proper mind set for the task at hand, developing the students individual voice.

The western environment of teaching is the classroom. Students are gathered together in one room where codified scalar, rhythmic and harmonic information transmitted en mass. The student/teacher relationship is less personal than the master/student relationship. Contact with the teacher is minimal. In this environment the teacher very rarely gets to know the student’s way of thinking, often to the detriment of the development of each student’s individual voice and mind set. The added burden of accompanying liberal arts courses fragments the student’s time and ability to focus (mind set) solely on the music. Although masters of jazz pedagogy, academic educators rarely possess the experiential knowledge that has been handed down from the jazz masters through the apprenticeship system.

It was only until the standardized jazz pedagogy was introduced into the academic environment that a serious imbalance between the African and western approaches occurred.

Western education’s emphasis upon theory and analysis tacitly conditions the student into giving priority to the intellectual aspects of the music as opposed to its sensual and conceptual aspects and the sound of the music. Obviously, one can’t analyze or theorize about music without the sound of it occurring first. Not to belabor the point: one must learn the sound of the music first and, to understand it in a fuller sense, analyze it afterward.