The Education of the Jazz Musician

jazz article

Our teacher Andy Phillips has translated this interesting text by Sean Petrahn which serves as an introduction to Jack Reilly’s book “The Harmony of Bill Evans”.

My first important jazz piano teacher was a Jack Reilly at Mannes and The New School in New York. After many years, I have just come across his book on the harmony of Bill Evans.

The introduction to this book, written by Sean Petrahn, seemed interesting enough for me to translate and share it with the Creative community, although I don’t agree 100%.

I hope you enjoy it!

The Education of the Jazz Musician, by Sean Petrahn

On the shelves of any major bookstore you will find at least one volume devoted to the evolution of jazz, that musical phenomenon derived from American folk. Therefore, I’m not going to attempt to create a resume that complements or creates parallels to the importance and influence of the most important figures of each era featured in the books. Instead, I will talk about two of jazz’s greatest 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 two great figures that will endure historically, more so than the Jelly Roll Mortons, Duke Ellingtons, Bud Powells and even the Lennie Tristanos. What I mean is that in the year 2080 only these two names should be mentioned in a curriculum on the history of jazz, because they are the synthesis of all that came before and all that will come after.

Both artists absorbed innovations, not only from the talents of lesser pianists (such as those mentioned above) but also from the wind players, such as the Armstrongs, the Beiderbeckes, the Lester Youngs, Parkers, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Coltranes. These other talents, interesting though inferior, forged the melodic paths of jazz improvised lines. Aside from that, Art Tatum, and even more so Bill Evans, also absorbed the music of the Western classical world, from Bach to Schoenberg, and any analysis of their styles should be aware of that.

What is it that differentiates jazz from Western classical music?

The answer is apparently simple: jazz is almost entirely improvised, while classical music is almost exclusively written. Classical music is a composer’s art: even the fastest and greatest compositional geniuses in history – Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Schubert, Chopin, Berlioz, Strauss – took hours, days, even weeks to compose even a single minute of music. While it is true that Bach, Mozart or Chopin were famous as great improvisers, very few of their improvisations ever made it into their published works, and there was always a process of refinement before the works were sent to the publisher.

However, jazz developed as the art of improvisation. Although there have been some very skilled jazz composers and arrangers, who invented introductions, main themes, bridges and codas beforehand – names like Morton, Ellington, Eddie Sauter, George Handy, Monk and Mingus come to mind – the main interest of a jazz performance is not the pre-arranged formalities, as in classical music. The crux of the sonic experience is the way these themes are woven and developed.

In classical music, the development is written down while in jazz it is improvised. There is no editing when improvising, but there is constant editing when composing. In other words, in jazz it takes exactly one minute to create one minute of improvised music, and that is where the excitement and risk of playing jazz lies, and the difference from playing classical music.

Despite this difference, and apart from the fact that both musics use Western musical forms and tonalities, there is one very important similarity between the two: one learns to compose by imitating the best composers; and one learns to improvise by imitating the best improvisers. In other words, the quality of today’s music depends in part on the quality of the music of the past. And implicit in this dictum is that the musician must learn to play his instrument virtuosically before he can imitate Art Tatum or Bill Evans. And that the musician must be able to read (play) classical masterpieces before he can learn composition.

With all this in mind, what would be the right curriculum for the jazz student – should there be a curriculum or not?

And to discuss this, we will first take a brief historical overview of music in the West.

Jazz began between 1910 and 1913, when classical music petered out, and if we isolate the elements of music (melody, harmony, and rhythm), we can, using an analogical and metaphorical comparison, get a clearer portrait of what we are looking for.


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