At what point in your career did you start in the direction of Jazz education?

I’d been married and needed to get off the road for a while so I started teaching private piano and theory lessons in my 34th street apartment in the late 70’s. It developed I had a knack for verbalizing musical concepts into comprehensible terms, especially when it came to explicating jazz proverbs, the oral tradition used to hand down conceptual musical information from one generation of jazz musicians to the next. I had become interested in looking for, studying and developing the musical concepts and theories inherent in these proverbs. I also began researching the latest theories and scientific studies about how the body, the mind and emotions are trained and used during performance. Eventually figuring out how to apply all this to achieve a more rapid rate of improvement, my students began to improve much more rapidly.

Musical knowledge falls into three categories; theoretical, conceptual and experiential. Educators, including myself, had adopted the Euro-centric informational approach to teaching jazz improvising as opposed to an Eastern conceptual, experiential approach embodied in the African oral tradition. It’ easier to teach numbers, notes and letter and much more difficult to change some ones way of thinking. Forgive the poor paraphrase,but, “Give a man lick and he’s just got a lick. Give him a concept and he has a million licks.” When you change the way someone thinks you put into effect global, not incremental change.

Scholarly and trade magazines began publishing my articles. Downbeat Magazine published the first three articles on Forward Motion in the early eighties. It turned out I also had a knack for writing as well and I continued writing and publishing articles in scholarly and trade magazines. Arnie Lawrence was a mench of the first order. Limitations of space prevent me from going on and on about what a great person, musician and teacher he was. He had just created the New School Of Jazz and Contemporary Music out of whole cloth. I guess the word got around that I was an effective teacher with “street” knowledge as a bonus and he invited me to join the faculty. I then went with Phil Woods from 1980 to 1990. I kept teaching in the cracks. After I left Phil and started my trio in 1990 we stayed on the road ten years teaching and playing the national and international college, and non-profit Arts-Presenters circuit as well as a rare club appearance here and there. During the last three years, of touring and booking the trio I wrote my first book “The Touring Musician, A Small Business Approach To Booking Your Band On The Road.“ (Billboard Books). In 2000 I broke up the trio and was invited by Todd Coolman to join the faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase. I then self-published published the first downloadable interactive musical instruction e-book “Forward Motion. From Bach To Bebop.” You can play it on your computer’s desktop by clicking on any of the book’s three hundred examples connected to a hiddenInternet website. There was so much demand for one I had to put out a printed version now being published by Sher Music.

Getting back to the subject of Jazz education there is an interesting article in the October 2006 issue of “Jazzwise”,in which Branford Marsalis had this to say. “My father(pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis) used to say people learning technique through learning jazz exercises is the reinvention of the wheel. He says classical music has one thousand years of established pedagogy in teaching technique so what do we need jazz technique books for?They are pointless,all they do is teach regimented performance techniques.” I would like your comments on this?

I get bored when I hear this bogus “Noble Savage“ rational that classical technique takes the soul out of jazz. I run into it all the time with students of mine who had classical training in their youth. Generally, young jazz students are insecure about their ability to swing. To compensate, they overplay their instruments resorting to excessive hand and body motion in a misguided attempt to energize their playing, causing over-use syndrome and stiff articulation, often at a volume too high to apply dynamics successfully. For some reason they have made a disconnect between their early classical technical training and jazz, as if the two have nothing common. Playing the piano is playing the piano no matter the musical context. To bridge this disconnect I have them play a Bach piece. Immediately their physical demeanor changes. They become physically and emotionally “quite” and play with a lighter touch and singing tone. As soon as this occurs I’ll ask them to switch over to playing the head to “Donna Lee” using their classical chops. It‘s always rewarding for me to see the shock on their faces when they realize they had, in their ignorance, been throwing away years of valuable hard work.

I agree that you can’t learn instrumental technique from jazz books. For the majority of us technique is taught in the context of a one-on-one master-student relationship. It as an absolute requirement that the student’s physical behavior be monitored and constantly corrected by the teacher. As is true for most who’ve had some classical training, this involves a long-term relationship with the teacher. My first three years with “The Madam“ I went to her Back Bay carriage house apartment once a week. I practiced six hours a day, six days a week during that period then the following three years I’d come back for a “tune up” when I‘d strayed from the path. I wish she was still around because I could use one. I suppose a musician can use any material to develop instrumental control. Some have it naturally. The story goes that Red Garland was playing in town he went to visit Madame Chaloff for a lesson and she refused to teach him saying “You don’t need any lessons from me.”

But Eillis is only slightly off base as the wheel of knowledge about instrumental technique is reinventing itself every year. In the last 7 percent of that thousand years much more is know about the how the mind-body connection functions during the creative experience and many classical teachers have accommodated the latest information into their pedagogy. Many equate technique with “fast.” Technique‘s primary function is to better control the instrument to enhance one’s ability to be expressive. Technique must be subjugated to the will of the music that is being played and is at it‘s best when never noticed. The mind, body and emotions are the universal tools all artists use to create. Red Garland excluded, each must be subjected to long-term discipline. How these tools can be harnessed to do your artistic bidding has been the subject of continuous scientific inquiry since music began. The tools of scientific have advanced to a sophisticated degree. Instrumental technique has long escaped the boundaries of the older classical technical theorists. Some technique teachers, like Madame Chaloff, Lucy Green and Sophia Rosoff, were already teaching modern piano technique before western scientists caught up with them. I’m not so sure how true it is for the others but I know Madame Chaloff was heavily influenced by contemporary Russian piano technical research, which has always been ahead of the West‘s. She called her pedagogy “The Russian Shoulder Technique.” Without going into detail, it was a marvelous system and gave me whatever chops I have now. For the curious, and I wish I had a copy of it, you will find an article on Pianoforte Playing in the 1964 Harvard University Press edition of the Harvard Dictionary Of Music By Willi Appel that describes it in detail. I do have a few, cherished, aged and yellowed, crinkly sheets of coffee stained typewritten pages (with a burntcigarette hole in it) copied from the same edition. I suspect I got it from The Madame.

1980 was when I read George Kochevitsky’s “The Art of Playing The Piano, A Scientific Approach” (Summy-Birchard). I was stunned to realize that he was saying, scientifically, the same thing that The Madame had said to me 25 years earlier; “Hal, technique is in the brain.” The body is a complex system of weights, levers and muscles. No matter the instrument, technical mastery can’t be achieved without understanding how they all work individually and together with the mind, body and emotions. Classical technique teachers have this information. I advise students of mine who have never studied classical technique to expect to dedicate at least a couple of years, or three, to making sure they are using their tools in the most efficient manor. It is best to correct bad technical habits at the earliest possible stage in a musician‘s career as bad habits can take a long time cure. It’s not only a musical issue, it’s a health issue as well. The Miller Institute in New York City was specifically created answer the specialized need for health care to deal with musician‘s injuries. Their are health issues involved with playing any instrument.

Those who would make a case that you can learn instrumental technique from a jazz book hasn’t experienced the disciplined training of a classical teacher, doesn’t know what true technique is or is making a case for ignorance. As far as that is concerned, I agree with the Marsalis‘s.

You have been on the road on & off for a long time. In what ways has being a working jazz musician changed?

That question requires two answers, one general and the other personal.

When I was still living in Boston, listening, practicing, gigging, and working on developing the craft part of the art, I knew that I would have to follow in the footsteps of others and make my own pilgrimage to Mecca, New York City. From afar it loomed in my future. In order to prepare myself for the inevitable, whenever some NY cats came to town I’d bug them to tell me what it was like for them there. Each had a different story. It was then I realized we all write our own histories. No matter what someone else‘s story may be, my story was going to be my story. That being said, I can your question best from my perspective and experience.

When I did get to NY the third time I saw that you had to make a choice between working on the road or being a “townie,” working with one band one night or week and another the next or, going on the road as touring musician. A political instinct was one of the necessary attributes to being a successful NYC musician. Having a big mouth and telling the truth has always been one of my failings in that regard. (I can’t count the times friends of mine had to pull me off the union floor because I was about to go left on some totally jive dude). Hanging out was a prerequisite. Found wanting in that regard I didn’t made the investment of time and energy it took to be well known to the powers-that-be in the city. Most townies had families or didn’t favor the rigors of the road. But the constantly changing personnel that was the norm for NYC gigs were, with a few exceptions here and there, barely scraping the surface of the music, not plumbing its depths. Mostly it was jamming. I believed the real music was on the road playing night after night with the same band, getting tight, building endurance and chops, getting solid bandstand experience playing with the masters. The road was school for me and the only place where you could go beyond the surface and get deeper into the music. I love the road. You can keep me out there all the time. I never get tired of it.

In those days the majority of venues were “location” gigs. You could play 5 – 6 nights a week in each one. On Cannon’s gig we were on the road 50 weeks a year, playing 6 nights a week. There were enough organized working road bands in those days to fill those venues every week. You had the unique privilege and opportunity to experience almost on a nightly basis the on-the-job-training that is a basic requirement of the self-teaching process unique to jazz music. It was the apprenticeship system at work on its highest level. It affected the music and promoted musical growth. But the jazz music business has changed much since I first came on the scene. For example, take a listen and compare the tightness of the band and level of playing of the Monk/Coltrane recording at the old Five-Spot to that of the Monk/Coltrane recording at Carnagie Hall. No doubt both top notch performances but the latter recording shows what a tight band that has been playing together for a while can achieve.

These were mostly clubs I was playing. As jazz clubs faced increasingly higher overhead, more and more of them went out of business. Many clubs, in order to survive, adapted, and, imitating their European predecessors, started offering a mix of nightly fare to appeal to a wider audience. Others pared down their artist rosters to those that were guaranteed draws, the biggest names, saving the expense of promotion. However this began denying newer bands access to jazz audiences, minimizing their opportunity to have a working band and build a career. Of course there were still the festivals and concerts, and eventually the non-profit sector. In those days, after rotating the circuit as a sideman you could eventually make a recording, form your own band to play the circuit yourself. The clubs needed new bands to keep the circuit vital so they’d do a little “audience-building” and give your group three shots once every nine months to a year. They can’t afford to do that anymore. This, combined with Corpo-Bop‘s marketing control via vertical integration of the jazz industry and their maniacal focus on youth, sounded the death knell of the apprenticeship system. I was lucky enough to catch onto the the very tail of this never-to-be-seen-again experience.

In a sometimes valiant, sometimes cynical and self-serving attempt to fill in this vacuum of basic jazz experience, academia has tried to raise the cudgel to fill this void. But it has failed in that regard, mainly because the jazz education industry didn’t create an educational format that fit the demands of the music. Denying the requirements of “set & setting” in jazz education, academia tried to fold a music derived from an African sensibility into the existing framework of theEuro-centric educational tradition. Jazz education‘s modus operandi has since morphed from an elitist, “earned-right-to-play,“ where only the best survived the rigors of matriculation through the jazz scene, to a democratic “everyone-has-a right-to-play” jazz education. Democracy has one downside, it assumes that since all are created equal all have equal rights. However all are of not equal talent and temperament and should be judged on their merits not rights. Protestations to the contrary, academia created a glut of mediocre jazz musicians on the market. The standards of the music have been lowered. Increased competition becomes demeaning in a way that compels musicians to perform for diminishing performance fees. Jazz radio stations DJ’s inundated with 100’s of new CD’s a week testify to this condition.

This tendency to promote all by virtue of rights is currently a topic of discussion in the education community at large. It is seen by many as a crisis where students rise through the educational strata regardless of merit, lowering standards, creating a less educated populace.

One of the justifications for its existence jazz academia promotes is that it offers an alternative to the apprenticeship system by creating a playing experience for them. A recent scientific study has shown that the drug adrenalin is the chemical that ties memory to an event. Jazz improvising is an art learned during performance by experimentation and trial and error. A classroom combo does not create the pressure from public performance necessary for the brain to secrete enough adrenalin to learn from and remember the experience. Consequently the experience of playing in a classroom combo will not be as readily retained by the students.

During the time I was with Cannon’s band we played the same circuit three times. Plus or minus a few here and there the same fans returned each time to hear us. Just for the hell of it I did an ad-hoc count of what I figured Cannon’s audience would be and came to a ball park figure of 100,000 fans world-wide that would support his band for the rest of his career. Fledgling bands, without access to these audience-building venues, now can’t maintain working bands to continue the oral tradition of the apprenticeship system by denying new bandleaders the opportunity of handing down their knowledge to succeeding generations.

Would I be correct in saying that the trio recording “Portrait” got you back on the map musically(in terms of garnering some modest degree of attention)?

Certainly modest as the album, like so many of mine, has since been deleted from their catalog. I’m not sure it got me back on “the map” at all. If I did it wasn’t because of the album but the 24/7 hard work I invested into booking and promoting my trio, quartets and quintets during the ten year period from 1990, when Portrait was released, and breaking up my trio in 2000. We were touring national and internationally four to six months as year, grossed a half million dollars and made a lot of well received recordings. If you Googled my name you’d find that most of my reviews were in the higher rating range but almost with out fail most reviewers described me as “underrated” by the industry. Most of our work was focused on the not-for-profit sector. I didn’t have the Marquee Value it took to get work in clubs. When we did, we died, mostly because of the reticence of club owners to spend money on promotion. We once played a major club in Boston and were not listed anywhere in any of the local media. Five people showed up. When I went to pick up the check from the club manager he made it obvious that we’d never be invited to return. I mentioned that lack of promotion may have and something to do with it he said, “sometimes we like to see how and artist does without any promotion.” I said “yeah, but because you didn’t promote us we won’t be invited back.” Not responding he just looked at me and handed me the check. It was only later, after doing some research, that I discovered he’d hired us because he’d had a cancellation and we were an inexpensive fill-in for the date.

After ten years of booking my band I realized that, in spite of the success we were having, in the end, I hadn’t earned a higher industry profile. None of the major jazz venues I‘d played as a sideman would hire us as I was still considered “underrated.“ The industry never noticed I had pulled of what I and my peers, who suffered the same career fate as I, considered a minor miracle. I got disgusted with the business, wrote my now infamous R.I.P. letter on Bret Primack’s short-lived but wonderfully muckraking web site, took my ball and went home. I was also pretty burnt out by that time anyway because I’d spent the last three years of my band not only booking and touring but also writing my first book. That too has been removed from Billboard’s catalog but shall rise again from the ashes! From the feedback I got from those that bought it I know the book helped a lot of musicians. Undaunted, I’m in pursuit of another publisher for it.

During this hiatus from the music business I resumed my teaching at the New School and was invited by my ex bassist, and now head of the Jazz Department, Todd Coolman, to join the faculty at Purchase Conservatory. During this period, after much soul searching, I experienced a complete reversal of attitude, reverting back to my original reasons for playing, my joy for playing the music. Eschewing the the chimera of “success” it eventually dawned on me; I had a situation that many could only dream of. After almost thirty years on the road, I had the time and piece of mind to devote myself to practice and study. In that regard, it has been, on a personal as well as musical level, one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

You have (much like Sonny Rollins) gone in & out of the music scene, but the trio format has been a constant aspect of your artistry. Please comment?

I like to play the piano orchestrally. The more horns in a band the less orchestral the piano can be. For that reason, except for my time with Herb Pomeroy’s band, I never worked as big band pianist. A piano is a big band. I’m also reminded of Bill Evan’s remark when asked the same question: the trio format offers the most control for a pianist. Having a predilection for the art of small group arranging my forte has always been trio’s quartets and quintets. I feel I’m able to communicate with an audience better in a trio setting. When playing with the Phil Woods band I noticed a more vigorous audience response from my trio features than my solo’s within the group. An often neglected aspect of performing in public is the psychological element. Performers are required to take hold of the listeners attention and take them on a trip. As I mentioned in my Down Beat Magazine 1994 article on the subject, “The Social Contract,” in a very real sense we have been given permission to and are being asked by the audience, to manipulate them mentally and emotionally. In a trio context I can better “read” what the ears of the audience requires to keep them involved in the music.

Would I be correct in saying that the disc “Agents of Change” is a pivotal chapter in your recording career? There seems to be a freer aspect the improvisation?

You are exactly correct. This was an unexpected result of the practicing and studying I’d been doing since I got off the road in 2000. About 11 pm every night, after running out of every excuse to avoid playing the piano, I’d sit down and start playing. This was what came out. It was all unitentional and intuitive. I’ve always been a free player at heart, my experience playing with Sam Rivers being a shaping influence on me. When Ornette’s first album, “The Shape Of Things To Come” came out I almost kissed the ground in joy. At last, I though, a direction I can really relate to. Until Sam returned to Boston, I was the only free played in a bebop environment. I started playing free on tunes like we eventually did with Sam but the cats couldn’t handle it. One bassist walked off the bandstand in the middle of a tune holding his ears, yelling I was giving him a headache. All of a sudden I’d become a stranger in a strange land.

As a result of this recent period of being “in the shed” I‘ve intuitively stumbled onto a musical concept more natural, less derivative and more personal as is evidenced in my latest trio recording “Agents Of Change.” Everything is clear in hindsight, so when I look back at my musical history I see that I’ve always displayed a penchant for “broken-time“ or Rubato playing, where the beat is maintained but using subdivided or superimposed rhythms. Ironically, I’d forgotten the incident but was recently reminded about hanging out at Richie Byrack‘s pad many years ago. I ripped of a couple of broken-time lines on the piano and he yelled rather excitedly, “Yeah Hal, that’s your shit!” I thought he was crazy, which he is, but not about music and I should have listened to him. Not that my wanderings down the alleyways of Bop have been without reward. I would not be able to play the way I’m playing now if I hadn’t spent all those intervening years, since I heard that first album of Ornette’s, acquiring a firm jazz foundation via absorbing the vocabulary of be-bop.

Congruent with the rubato style, for the last five years I’ve been developing a improvisational concept based on “Cell Theory.” It allows me to be free from the changes at will but still remain super-melodic. I’m working on a book on the subject but don’t want to write about it until I’ve completely figured out the theory and can play it, which I feel I’m just being able to do. Again, like my book “Forward Motion,” the concept is not mine but a distillation and exposition of the current and ubiquitous post-bop Coltrane style of diatonic improvising.

Whether or not this new concept adds anything to the post-bop vocabulary is not a concern of mine. I’m not really TRYING to be original. Just trying to be as honest as I can, playing what I feel, whatever that is. My musical goals and ideals are rather simple: To have fun, swing as hard as I can, play pretty and try to keep from boring myself to death with my own playing by taking risks and riding the wave.

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