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The shelves of all the major bookstores house at least one volume devoted to the evolution of jazz, this uniquely American folk phenomenon. I will not attempt, therefore, to create a curriculum that necessarily complements or parallels the importance and influence of the leading figures of each era in jazz found in the history books. Rather, I shall boil it down to two major talents. 

The evolution of jazz from 1890 to 1980 can be summed up in the music of two pianists: Art Tatum and Bill Evans. They are the towering figures who will outlast, historically, the Jelly Roll Mortons, the Duke Ellingtons, the Bud Powells, and even the Lennie Tristanos. That is to say, in the year 2080, only these two names need be mentioned in a jazz history course, because they were the synthesis of all that came before and all that will ever come after. Both men absorbed the innovations of not only the lesser piano talents (mentioned above), but also of the horn players: the Armstrongs, the Beiderbeckes, the Prezes, the Birds, the Zoots, the Getzs, and the Coltranes, those other interesting yet inevitably lower talents who forged the melodic paths of the jazz improvised line. Art Tatum and, more so, Bill Evans, also absorbed the music of the Western classical world, from Bach to Schoenberg, and any analysis of their styles must bring this to the fore.  

What is it that makes jazz different from Western classical music? The answer is deceptively plain and simple. Jazz is almost totally improvised, while classical music is almost totally written down. Classical music is a composer's art: even the greatest geniuses and fastest-working composers in history - Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioacchino Rossini, Franz Shubert, Frederic Chopin, Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss - took hours, days, or weeks to compose even so much as one minute's worth of music. And this is even true of those composers (Bach, Mozart, Chopin) who were known as great improvisers. Very little of their improvisations actually made it into their finished, published works; there was always some finishing or refining process that took place before their work went to the publisher. 

Jazz, conversely, developed as an improviser's art. Despite the fact that there have been some very clever jazz composers and arrangers who formulated, in advance, introductions, main themes, bridges, and codas - Morton, Ellington, Eddie Sauter, George Handy.

"The evolution of jazz from 1890 to 1980 can be summed up in the music of two pianists: Art Tatum and Bill Evans. They are the towering figures who will outlast, historically, the Jelly Roll Mortons, the Duke Ellingtons, the Bud Powells, and even the Lennie Tristanos."

Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus spring immediately to mind - the principal interest in a jazz performance is not the pre-arranged formalities, any more than it is in a classical performance. The central crux of the listening experience is the manner in which themes are interwoven or developed. In classical music, this development is written down, while in jazz, it is improvised. There is no editing when you improvise; there is constant editing when you compose. In jazz, then, it takes exactly one minute to create one minute's worth of music...and therein lies the excitement, the danger, of playing jazz as opposed to playing classical music. 

Despite the difference, there is (aside from the fact that both utilize Western musical forms and tonalities) one great similarity between the two musics. One learns to compose by imitating the best composers; one learns to improvise by imitating the best jazz improvisers. In other words, the quality of the present in music is always dependent, to some degree, on the quality of the past. It is implicit in this dictum that one learns how to play one's instrument in a virtuoso manner, before one can imitate Art Tatum or Bill Evans. One might be able to read (play) the masterworks before one can learn composition. In this light what, then, is the proper curriculum for a jazz student? Should there be a curriculum at all? Well, yes and no. Let's take a brief comparative historical look at Western music. 

Jazz began when classical music had exhausted itself, circa 1910 - 1913; and if we isolate the elements of music (melody, harmony, and rhythm), we can - by comparison, analogy, and metaphor - gain a clearer picture of what I'm saying. 

The modal (1100 - 1600 A. D.), tonal (1600 - 1900 A. D.), and atonal (1900 - present) periods in Western music are arbitrary divisions that define and classify the way composers think, and organize their music. Each period created a synthesis of the previous one, and therefore generated more complex structures and vocabularies. This does not mean that I adhere totally to the Kantian principle of evolution, i.e., that for each new stage or period there is a logical progression into the next, therefore, making it more complex. The motets of Gesualdo (modal period) were more complex than, say, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (end of the tonal era). I like to think of each stage in musical evolution not as "progress" but as an unfolding gradually, layer by layer of the total musical universe. A synthesis does create new problems in form, but also new possibilities. A composer living today has, indeed, much more to absorb and learn than one who lived in the 16th century, and therefore has greater demands placed on his artistic integrity in order to avoid rewriting the past. At the same time, however, he also has an enormous repertory from which to draw his inspiration. Each composer taps into a layer of the musical universe. The greater the genius, the clearer he translates his vision, and the greater demands he makes on the interpreter and listener. 

The jazz improviser is limited by his technique. There is not one fraction of a second hesitation while improvising, otherwise he loses the "flow." It is a myth to think that an improviser hears internally more than he can play. It's always the other way around: you only create ideas that can be executed with precision; otherwise, you would stutter and stammer, hopelessly. No mistakes are made when one improvises this way: mistakes mean that you are not hearing an idea internally. The hand is the medium of the message. The secret is that you only play what you can conceive in your mind's ear on the spur of the moment. Then improvising is easy, and technical development becomes the means to a greater end...and that greater end is ease, subtlety and eloquence in your playing.

The jazz curriculum is divided into three stages: 

1. The Blues Form
2. The Song Form
3. The Free Form

Each stage parallels the classifications mentioned above - modal, tonal, and atonal - with regard to the evolution of classical music. The Blues Form is modal, the Song Form is tonal, and the Free Form is atonal. This may appear an oversimplification, but categories and labels are necessary when one decides to teach such a vast area of musical thought. I like to think of each stage as paralleling the history of the human race, from instinctive to intellectual to the stage yet to come, intuitive. The student of jazz becomes reacquainted with this long process through the Blues Form (Instinctive), i.e. playing from the “gut” or solar plexus center. The Song Form engages the Intellect. This stage is more concerned with structure, key relationships, and harmony. The study of the Free Form (Intuitive) stage always comes last. The student, at this stage, should be a master improviser, his or her knowledge of the past now sunken into the unconscious mind, its function slightly analogous to a main-frame computer that stores billions of bits of information about a subject arid its related topics (and subtopics, and subdivisions of subtopics). The student must then go through this experience, or rather process, from instinct to Intellect to intuition, of improvising at each stage in the curriculum. For example,

1) he must try to improvise on the very basic blues structure - twelve bars, three scales, three chords - and in 4/4 meter, totally by instinct, i.e., “feeling his way through,” playing and making up melodies that sound good to him;

2) he must consciously learn and memorize the modes that can be applied to this basic twelve-bar structure, and on which he can experiment. This stage (and every stage) must be accompanied by listening to, and singing along with, the recordings of the improvisers playing the blues. This is eartraining and must also include the singing of the modes;

3) He must then “feel” and "know" that what was learned and memorized in Step 2 is second nature and fully absorbed by the unconscious. (I agree with Carl Jung that the unconscious mind is just as active, and probably more so than the conscious mind, and therefore continually digesting the Information and readying It for use by the intuitive mind.) It is, in fact, in the unconscious mind that we develop understanding and wisdom. The sense or feeling of “second nature” cannot be defined, yet one knows it when it “arrives.” And you know it through your playing. At the intuitive level of Improvising, one has the feeling that one is NOT doing the playing; that someone else has taken over your mind, and is using YOUR hands to make music. 

In 1984 Gene Lees conducted a survey of more then 60 well-known jazz pianists. He asked them to name five pianists in three categories: those they considered the “best,” those they felt were the most influential, and, finally, their personal favorites. Lees reported the results in his notes for the boxed CD set of the late Bill Evans’ complete recordings for the Fantasy label, The Complete Fantasy Recordings.

In the "best pianist" category, Art Tatum got 36 votes, with Evans edging in a close second with 33, followed by Oscar Peterson with 27. In the "most influential" category, Tatum an Evans again were neck in neck, at 32 and 30 votes, respectively, with Bud Powell placing third with 24. Among professional favorites, Evans emerged the winner with 25 votes, compared with Tatum’s 22 and Peterson’s 19. 

Lees admitted that his findings were not scientific. Nevertheless, the results are revealing. In the world of jazz, where factionalism is rampant and tastes intensely subjective, it is remarkable that such a diverse group of professionals would pick the same favorites. Bill Evans’ reputation as a musician's musician, and a major stylistic innovator, is as strong now as it was in his lifetime.


This article appeared in the book "THE HARMONY OF BILL EVANS" by pianist - composer/author Jack Reilly and is used by permission. It cannot be reproduced electronically or otherwise without express written permission from the author..

Sean Petrahn 1993. All rights reserved.


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