by Todd Stoll
As I meet with jazz educators around the country, my go to question is, “what is the one thing that would help you be more effective teaching our music”? Ninety percent of the time the response is, “how do I teach improvisation”? This question is always a bit puzzling to me, not in the content, as we all know that soloing is like the “secret sauce” in jazz, but more due to the fact that there are so many resources available on the teaching of improvisation. Many renowned educators have made careers out of writing and publishing their methods, and there are copious camps, workshops, and seminars one can attend. So, why this constant and unrelenting question? Maybe the answer lies somewhere between an open criticism of these methods and a more practical look at our pedagogy.
A few years ago, at a band director’s clinic on rehearsal techniques, I watched in absolute amazement as a group of well-meaning directors, about 30 of them, got into a heated debate on the efficacy and value of various approaches to teaching improvisation. It was supremely interesting (and then a bit shocking) how intense and then little by little how aggressive the discussion became. The debate basically became about directors (or other professionals) “cheating” by writing out solos for students who then went on to win competitions or awards or scholarships or whatever. I will leave some of this for another column. But, suffice to say, I was unaware how polarizing this topic is. ‘If a student uses a quote, they should be given a lower rating”, “you can always tell if a student is improvising”, and “improvisation is the heart of jazz-it’s the most important element” were just a few of the statements. I believe that while these types of heated exchanges can be useful, and lord knows, I have been in many of these, it goes without saying that a little perspective and context is useful.
First, if you are a jazz band director at a public high school, and you are a confident, working, jazz professional-you are in the arts 1%. Seriously. The number of competent jazz musicians teaching in public schools is very small, and is way less than it was nearly forty years ago when I was in high school. So, perhaps we need to approach this topic from a place of understanding and empathy.
Second, these are kids we are talking about; 12 to 18-year-old kids. Now that doesn’t relieve them, or us, from the responsibility of the educational process, but, it should give us a better understanding of the context. I would hazard a guess that 99.99% of our students will not become working jazz musicians, and improvising in front of an audience, especially their peers, is akin to giving an oral report in a foreign language in front of a class (and for concerts) an especially large and intimidating class.
Third, many of the methods and resources available, are written by professional jazz musicians, teaching at the collegiate level, who’s primary day to day, is working with jazz majors or at least students highly motivated to become proficient improvisers. Thus, the methods can be complicated (at best) and damn near impossible (for “civilians”-band directors) to understand (at worse).
Another quick aside-years ago I was having lunch with the graduate of one of the most lauded and celebrated jazz programs in the US. A school that had won numerous awards, competitions, and was recognized as the “best of the best”. My secret agenda was to ascertain, how did this person’s director address improvisation in their classes? To my great shock, I was told, “oh we never talked about it, you were expected to be able to improvise, they never mentioned it.”
That statement was very telling, and the “how” is not as germane to this article as the reality-which is-very few of our high performing schools do it “alone”. A director who is hoping to have high quality improvisers/soloists, may want to develop their own support community of instructors, specialists, and private teachers. This however, doesn’t help the majority of directors with little resources or access to a local university. That said, I have been thinking a lot lately about another approach to working with our students on improvisation-especially if you-are a jazz novice. (or not!)
Utilize the language of swing era soloists as the primary source material for your students.
I am referring here to the soloists specifically in big bands 1935-1945, many of whom went on to play more “advanced” styles, but came of age during an era of riff-based, melodically less complex, and generally, shorter solos. Less emphasis was placed on virtuosity and more on utilizing melodies that either referenced the piece, or had some type of melodic appeal for an audience-and-it always encouraged people to dance!
A great way to start this is to listen to the old testament Basie band, and choose solos on blues arrangements. A great example is “Swingin’ the Blues” by Eddie Durham, featuring all the classic soloists-Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, “Sweets” Edison, Benny Morten and the Count himself. These solos are rich with vocabulary that introduces novice improvisers to material that are the building blocks-both melodically and rhythmically- of other styles yet to come while being much more easily decipherable to young ears. Buck Clayton’s hat solo in the second half is a statement of swinging sophistication and blues feeling. (It uses only six distinct pitches) Have all your students transcribe the solos; and play along with the recordings-learning the rhythmic feel by playing along is vitally important-it imbeds the sound and style into a student’s memory. (You can also use this an assessment tool-students choose solos as part of a semester exam and play them for a grade).
There are plenty examples in the Basie catalog as well as many other swing era ensembles, one must only search for and then utilize what they believe will work. I suggest using blues-based arrangements initially and then expand to other forms. With a little trial and error, and you will quickly compile a library of solos/soloists that can become a solid part of your approach to teaching improvisation.
More on this topic in a later column!