Thoughts on Jazz Education

An interview, by one of my former students, David Udolph, as published in the July/August 1991 issue of Win Hinkle‘s now defunct Letter From Evans.

“I think it was Chicago,” says pianist Hal Galper as he taps his cigarette out against the inside of the glass. “I was playing with Chet (Baker) and he was singing a ballad. The place was really packed and everyone was quiet.” As he remembers the scene his voice comes down to a whisper. “You know Chet‘s into soft, so I’m comping with my foot on the soft pedal, hardly hitting the keys at all.” He smiles and motions with his hands in the air, miming the chord changes as if he were on tiptoes. “Everything was fine until I hit one chord a little bit to loud. Then Chet just stopped. He turned around and screamed ‘You Got It!’ I mean you either learned how to play soft, or he was going to embarrass you to death.” He laughs but you can see the picture is still clear in his mind.

This was the real school where Hal Galper says he learned his craft. It was in the heat of things, playing behind band leaders, such as Baker, Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley. Treading water in the deep end, the real world where people demanded that the music sound the way they heard it and nothing less would suffice. With Chet this time, the lesson was volume control and drama, but there were many other lessons on the road to experience. And they all come with stories and maxims, like little devices that glow with the revelation of scripture and keep the wisdom of the music alive for the next generation.

While this oral tradition is by no means extinct, it gradually has been transformed, as jazz has achieved more respectability as a “serious“ music. Over the last twenty-five years in particular, the oral tradition has been subordinated within the academic community as a romantic cliche’ which typifies the colorful history of the music in the public eye, it also has distorted some of the truths that lie behind the notes. As jazz becomes more homogeneous with the times, it faces the danger of losing touch with this personal spirit that still survives in the anecdotes of the experienced players.

I discussed this problem of paying your tuition rather than paying your “dues” with Hal Galper. A dedicated teacher for over twenty years, he offered a unique perspective on the problems that the jazz instructor face and he provided some solutions. He also spoke about the deficiencies common to university music departments, which seem to churn out players who often are more technically proficient than expressive. – U.D.

DU: One of the primary difficulties in educating people for careers in the arts is trying to come to terms with what can and cannot be taught. Any kind of creative activity is ultimately personal and demands a certain amount of originality. A teacher must work within the parameters dictated by the talent and potential of the student. In jazz, the important things you learn aren’t passed along like famous dates in a history class. It’s more a process of self discovery. In this light then, what are the benefits of a formal music education.

HG: It’s true, any art is basically a self-taught process. No matter how much education you have, the final result is always due to a process of trial and error – working things out on your own. The value of a good education is that it gives you a way to teach yourself. A good teacher will coach you and make sure you are on direction. In this way, you can develop a good disciplined, logical approach for your own way of playing or painting or whatever. A teacher teaches someone how to teach himself and then keeps track of him to make sure he is using the process correctly. Eventually this all becomes ingrained and automatic, and you use this system for the rest of your life to learn any new information.

DU: So teaching is necessary?

HG: Yes, absolutely.

DU: You don’t think it’s good to learn on your own, without any instruction?

HG: There’s a basic built in problem with learning any art. No matter what the medium, there is always a projection of an illusion. If you are learning solely from observation (listening to music or looking at paintings), you are subjected to the illusions the artist is projecting and you may not learn what is going on behind them. The craft or skill that makes the art work is not always readily apparent. A good teacher can show you what’s going on behind the scenes. He can help reveal all the assumed processes that are only alluded to in the work itself. And these are the important things to know, since they are the things that give the work its logic and strength – the things that make it project in the first place.

UD: But it doesn’t have to be a formal education does it? It could be like Charlie Parker listening to Lester Young when he was with Basie – an informal apprenticeship.

HG: Well, you aren’t picking a very good example. You’re picking Charlie Parker, who happened to be one of the greatest musicians and had the greatest pair of ears of anyone we know of. Red Rodney has admitted to me that as far as he could figure out, Bird didn’t know theoretically what he was doing. Every time someone would ask him the chords for a bridge he would say, “Oh, ugh, ‘I Got Rhythm.’” He was not that thoroughly educated – at least in terms of the information that is available today. This brings up and interesting point. What kind of an education are we talking about? Are there distinctions to be made in educations? I think there are. If you are lucky enough to have ears like Charlie Parker, great. But what if you’re not?

DU: So, you think talent is a valid consideration, or is learning jazz ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration?

HG: You have a formula there that varies from person to person. I’ve seen sixteen-year-old kids who have great time-feeling that would take other people fifty years to learn. Yet their notes were not together. And then there are others, the same age, who have great notes, but no time. So there is no hard and fast rule here. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, and it is the job of the teacher to point them out. It’s coaching.

DU: What are the ways a teacher can contribute to the psychological development of a player? Creativity must be nurtured correctly, and certain environments are more productive than others. What can a teacher do to bring out the best in a young player?

HG: In order to improvise jazz, a person must be relaxed and in control! The ideal state of mind is the playful-state – the child-like, non-caring, non-goal oriented state of mind. We had it all the time when we were kids but it was trained out of us, because it’s so unpredictable. Creativity is a threat to this. Even your own parents are afraid of it. They want to see you develop habits and patterns that they can understand like doing your home work every day. So, we have been conditioned out of being creative. The good teacher can help bring the student back in touch with this childlike spirit, by getting him to relax and not weigh down the creative process with unnecessary psychological baggage. All nervousness and problems with physical and emotional tension inhibit the natural flow of the music. The teacher should encourage the player not to take the musical performance too seriously. Basically, you can’t give a fuck about how you play while you are playing. There is simply no time, and it restricts you.

DU: So, criticism and self-judgement come after the fact?

HG: Well, yes, but even then, your appraisal will be poor and inaccurate. Self-judgement is really a joke. There is no objective ‘how you sound.’ The science of psychoacoustics has proven that no two people hear the same way; so, all judgements are ultimately opinions. Some people will love it, some people will hate it, and it really has nothing to do with your performance. And of all the opinions, yours is the least valuable. When you are playing you’re much too involved to step back and judge. And even if you make a tape of your performance, it’s not going to sound the same. People hear in a linear fashion, not in layers stacked on top of each other. And different perspectives produce a completely different listening experience. If you are listening to a record, or watching a band live, you are on the outside listening in on the music. Whereas if you are in a band playing, you are hear the inside of the music, the bare bones. Everyone is involved and reacting to what is being played. Unfortunately, people often sound bad to themselves because they compare how things sounded on the tape or record with how they played live. But, these are two different ways of hearing. So, it’s a mistake to worry about how you sound.

DU: We seem to hear a lot about all these young musicians coming up with exceptional ability. Do you think a lot of this can be traced to the current system of jazz education?

HG: There has been a lot of talk lately of all the great young cats coming up. But I think the press is misrepresenting the reality of the situation. There have always been great young musicians coming up. Paul Chambers was playing with Miles when he was eighteen; Tony Williams, Scott Lafaro, Clifford Brown. It’s as if there were never any great young musicians.

DU: Well, a lot of the attention is due to the fact that this generation is choosing to re-examine the acoustic tradition of the music, as opposed to joining electric fusion bands. However I agree that the hype is slightly unjustified. Today’s younger musicians are very conservative and are more concerned with preserving the identity of the music than treading new ground. Yet all the players they revere were artistic radicals – originals. The people who write these articles often fail to mention that while all these young players have assimilated a tradition and have learned how to play stylistically correctly, someone like Clifford Brown at the same age was innovating.

HG: Yes, but there are very few originals. The faintest hope of all is to become an innovator. Most of us are synthesizers. We have absorbed different styles of playing and, eventually through that, have developed our own particular way. It’s only a few guys, Like Bird and Miles, that are the innovators; Ahmad Jamal. These people keep the rest of us going by contributing something really original and different. But even in their case, it all begins with imitation. This is the true process of learning any art. You must copy before you can be original. So there is nothing wrong with going back to the tradition. But, basically all this attention is behind the times, because the movement back to bebop started about ten years ago.

DU: B. W. (Before Wynton?)

HG: Yes, Wynton’s just gotten the credit for it. But, I have been teaching for twenty years, and I see what’s going on in the schools.

DU: Has the tradition of the music been distorted at all since it entered the mainstream?

HG: Yes. These young guys are learning the notes right, but they haven’t got the heart and soul of it. It’s the feeling of the music and what’s going on between the notes that is hard to learn. You can’t really learn just from school and records. Records are only a distillation of what’s really happening. I learned how to play from records first, too. I loved Red Garland, and I copied him as much as I could. I had a teacher at Berklee who would transcribe solos on order, and I would learn Red’s solos and chord visions and everything. But when Red came to town and I got to hear him in person I had to change everthing. All the assumptions I had made about his playing were incorrect.

DU: Is this related to what you were saying about the different ways of hearing? It’s a different perspective for the ears?

HG: Yes, but it’s more than that. You’re not hearing reality when you’re hearing a recording, because everything cannot be transmitted electronically. Emotion, feeling and intensity are not easily expressed, even with the most sophisticated recording equipment. And when I heard Red in person, he was swinging ten times as harder than I thought he was. Relying solely on recorded music, without catching the players live, can lead to a lot of misconceptions. The big problem I have had with the rhythmic aspect of jazz over the past twenty years is that the beat has gotten thinned out, because people are learning from records. And this is the main aspect of the music that defines it as jazz. The notes are western and have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is the rhythm of the music that is so innovative. This is what came over from the African continent – the syncopation and rhythmic intensity.

DU: It is now the nineties and jazz still seems to have a lack of self-esteem about it. Even the older musicians, who have played all their lives, still feel the need to justify it as “serious” music. To what degree do you think all the emphasis on education is a pose of fashion – an ad campaign for artistic validity?

HG: It is true that there exists this complex with the music, and jazz musicians themselves have promoted this attitude. Jazz came out of a very disreputable background, from the whorehouses. It is basically a street music that has grown more and more sophisticated with the years. It is a bastardized form, and there has always been a pressure to legitimize it. I remember we were playing a concert with Phil (Woods) in Rome once, and we were opposite Betty Carter. And at that time, we were all dressing as leisurely as possible. So here we were at the Rome opera house, wearing jeans and T-shirts. Now Betty Carter shows up in an evening gown with her band all in tuxes. And seeing us, she started criticizing our dress. She said, “You’ve got to bring jazz up” – the perfect statement for this kind of attitude. “Betty,” I said, “I wasn’t aware it was down.” So, the music doesn’t need to be validated. When you originally saw the earlier generation of players become faculties of universities, that was really to done to give the music legitimacy. And this is ridiculous, A lot of early musicians were well-educated musically. They studied with a lot of different people, and they knew what they were doing.

DU: There’s something pretentious about all this seriousness in attitude and dress. It’s almost a conspiracy against the fun on the music. Also, a lot of players who made such a conscious choice about getting their education in a conservatory tend to overemphasize the value of reading to, again, give jazz that edge of importance. But, if anything, it is a tribute to the subtlety of a music, if it can’t be adequately captured in notation.

HG: Well, all notation is an approximation – a suggestion. Even in classical music. So, it is not a valid justification for considering one music any different than another. There’s no such thing as accurate notation. It can’t be done. Real music exists in the imagination, and everything after it is written down is subject to interpretation. The true test of the artist is how vivid is his imagination, not how well he reads the notes. While it’s always wise to study and improve yourself, it’s bad to use a degree in music to justify the quality of an art form. This institutionalizing of the teaching of music in the university has been one of the most destructive things. From 1900 on jazz already had a methodology for learning how to play, but it was not considered a legitimate process. “Faking It” had a negative connotation to it. Yet it’s just another way of saying “using well trained, highly sophisticated inner processes to compose music freely on the bandstand.” We’re all “fakers,” and eventually you learn how to do it so well that no one knows you are doing it. I’ve been faking it for thirty-five years, but I’m not going to tell anybody. I’m going to go up there and pretend that I know what I’m doing.

DU: But, if you are faking it, then you really don’t know what you’re doing; it’s just an appearance.

HG: The word “know” here is very important. There is more than one kind of knowing. There’s the knowing where you can names things, and there’s a more intuitive kind of knowing. It is this kind that is so important to playing jazz. Usually the intuition and the ears know ten thousand times more than the intellect ever will. So, the mere ability to name things is not such a valuable kind of “knowing.”

DU: Yet there still exists this prejudice against instinct and intuition.

HG: Yes, a case in point. I knew a great bass player in Boston who played totally by ear. If you told him to play a chorus of blues, and you didn’t giver him the root of the key ahead of time, he was lost. But once you gave him the F or B-flat, he could play anything under the sun. Finally he decided to come to N. Y. And give it a try. But after a while, things didn’t work out for him. He became so paranoid and intimidated by all these schooled players. They knew the names of things and he didn’t, and he thought that was so important. The sad irony here is that he was a much better bass player than most of them. You don’t know how many times I run into players who confuse the importance of a theoretical background with knowing how to play intuitively. They are being misled by the western, classical approach to learning. There is a most important methodology for learning jazz that is distinct from this tradition, and that is the African way – imitation, copying, and studying with a master and playing in a group. The master tells you, “Make it sound like this,” and he plays something on the drum, and you copy it. And then you go play in a combo with other musicians, and the master supervises your performance. This is completely different from the western mode of teaching, which is held in a classroom, and is entirely out of context with the reality of playing music. When was the last time you saw a classroom in the Village Vanguard? That was my classroom. The problem with western education is that it’s so analytical. It breaks things down to their smallest pieces and puts them back together again, like a car mechanic. This is the complete opposite of the African methodology, which deals with things as a whole. You are always in context. You always working within the sound of the music itself. You are very organically involved with it. So when an African hears a group, he hears one sound comprised of different components. When a Westerner hears a group, he hears different components that comprise one sound. It’s a very important distinction in attitudes.

DU: So, does the western approach not apply to jazz?

HG: I’m not knocking it. It can be used in conjunction wit the African methodology. Imitation is very one dimensional. But by learning how to analyze things, you develop the freedom to expand on what you copied, and you can understand it on a deeper level. What I object to is this overemphasis of analysis. It’s much too formal and academic and is virtually useless on the bandstand. Knowing the music theoretically is goal-oriented, but knowing how to play is illogical and playful. That African tradition is an oral tradition. Western analysis should be taught as an adjunct to this tradition and not the other way around.

DU: To what do you attribute this imbalance in our system of education?

HG: There are a lot of vested interests in teaching, and people are making a lot of money at it. There are thousands of music departments in the U.S., and a lot of people are making their living from teaching the notes and theories behind the music. But, you see what these people don’t realize is that anything you can write down on a piece of paper is going to be the easiest part of the music to learn. And it’s also going to be the smallest body of information. There’s so much more that cannot be written down, that can only be learned through the experience of playing. That’s the largest and hardest part of the music. You can’t buy it. You usually get paid for it. You get paid for being a sideman in a band, and you learn. So, these academic teachers have a vested interest in stringing out the easy parts of the music and making them appear difficult. I can teach a person in one year all the theories they need to know to play all the genres of jazz. It does not take four years to learn all the easy parts of the music. It takes fifteen or twenty years to learn all the hard parts.

DU: What do you think of those play-along records they sell? Are they useful?

HG: Nothing in itself is bad; it’s in how you use it. As far as learning repertoire or practicing ideas, the records are a great tool. However, there are a lot of young musicians isolated in small towns who end up using the records as a substitute for playing with live musicians. This is bad. By doing this, they don’t learn the most important part of the group experience, signaling. They are learning how to play isolated, and they think that when you play with a rhythm section, you just “put them on” and play over them. I can tell in eight bars if a student has learned to play from these records. You can tell, because they don’t listen. They don’t know how to interact or respond. If you had a computer that could graph out the amount of signaling that goes on in a top level jazz group in the first eight bars of a solo, the paperwork would fill this room. It is all signalling. For example, if the alto player wants a certain chord change behind him, he’ll spell out a particular scale or superimposed chord, so that the piano player can cushion the line with the appropriate chord. It’s a group experience.

DU: So much of the learning process is simply participating in the music as much as possible. If this is the case, then what is the value of practicing? What can you hope to accomplish?

HG: You are preparing yourself to play. The practicing of music is ear training. The player is going up there and using that training. When you are practicing, you are training yourself on an intuitive level. You are internalizing the rules of rhythm, harmony and melody, so that when you get to the bandstand, you can make up ideas that follow these rules. The reason these rules exist in the first place is because they create the strongest possible musical ideas. Another important thing about practicing is that you are trying to cultivate an understanding of musical relationships. You work through various patterns and ideas and the different components of the music with the hope that eventually you will begin to comprehend the “big picture“ of these relationships. There is no such thing as an isolated musical event in music. It is only an illusion. There is a direct relationship between the music of Arabia, Bach, and what’s going on today. Their apparent isolation is only due to a lack of perspective.

DU: What would be your “dream school” ? How would you formalize the oral tradition?

HG: Well, the Suzuki method has legitimized learning by ear. Finally! It’s proved that you can learn music by ear without knowing a damn thing about what you’re playing. But overall, most schools are using the same inadequate methods. I have been teaching all over the world, and I have seen the same problems time and time again. There’s not enough supervised combo work, and there is no large scale acceptance of the African methodology. I would like to see a school that is less formal in the classical sense, but just as formal in it’s own way.

Most jazz education today is being destroyed by the profit motive and the accredited universities. As long as these things are a prerequisite for a person’s education, you are going to have an over-loaded curriculum and acceptance of music students that are loading down faculties. In most of the schools I have been to, the kids don’t have any time to practice what they are learning in the classroom. And they don’t have a chance to play enough. If a person goes to a school to learn how to play, then he’d better get that chance – not a place where you get a piece of paper at the end. And it won’t cost you ten thousand dollars a year, and it won’t take four years.

DU: Maybe we need the music guilds – the apprentice/master situation.

HG: Yes. People can hide in the classroom. You can’t take the time that’s needed to show everyone how to play a scale. Also, group dynamics takes over, and people become more inhibited. You know guys ask me, “What school should I go to?” I say, “What’s the difference, they’ve all got the same problems.” I tell them not to go to school. If I had forty thousand dollars and my parents trust, I would take that money and really learn. I’d follow bands around and listen to them every night. I’d buttonhole them and give them money for lessons and advice. I would get my own group together and rent rehearsal space. I would get equipment and make tapes. I would hire the best musicians who were ten times above my level to play with. You see what I mean? If had that kind of money when I went to school (which it didn’t cost then), my career would have developed much quicker.