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.
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
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 Tatums
22 and Petersons 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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