Theory vs. Language

This is near and dear to my heart as all of my messages are. But I have to say that this one is really special to me because we’re dealing with not just the music and how it’s perceived by all, but how we project the music. 

For a long time we’ve heard, and at this point now it’s sort of a cliche, older or more seasoned musicians say: “Young folks, you gotta tell a story. You gotta tell a story in your music!”  What I believe that they’re talking about is the ability to express the narrative of the composition through your improvisation and your delivery of the melody. And to be frank, I feel that at this point, it is one of the things that we need to focus most on regarding jazz education and audience development. 

Oftentimes, we go to jazz venues or jazz clubs, and we check out performance maybe for a few minutes, and then we lose our train of thought or we kind of veer off and we do other things because frankly, it’s not as engaging. I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that the listeners, the listeners, our audience, want us to be able to express the power and the feeling behind the music that we’re playing while we are enjoying it, communicating with one another, and delivering the message of this music. 

So that being said, there are some things I want to point out: theory is not the language. Oftentimes when we teach and we learn, we are teaching people licks, we’re teaching people scales, we’re teaching people chord structures, all of those things. But those things are pieces of the language, and how they are put together to express an idea, a concise idea that has emotional content behind it is extremely important. 

I always like to go back to the blues and use the examples that it delivers to us. The blues is a 12-bar form, as we all know. And the chords in the blues progression are typically the I chord, IV chord, and the V chord, the three predominant chords. And we have variations of it, obviously. When we get into bebop it gets a little more complicated. And we know the scales that are associated with those chords, etc., etc., etc. It’s important to be able to play that narrative. If you’re not expressing that narrative, then the listener is only going to hear you, in essence, deliver them a theoretical explanation of what the blues is. 

What I’m going to do now is to play the blues two different ways. First, I’m literally going to be playing ideas that sound like theory. On the second version, I’m going to do my best to express the intent behind the theory, the story, if you will. 

So here’s number one, just theory, B flat blues.

(Sean plays blues example 1 – click the video above to watch)

Now, I played all the changes. I played the right notes, most of them, I played the progression, etc., etc., etc. If I did an entire performance like that, it is not going to inspire the listener. It is not  going to inspire the audience, and likely it won’t inspire the performer. This, in essence, is what we need to do — inspire

What I’m going to do now is play the Blues form again, and I’m going to do my best to take all of that theory, the chords, the scales, the form, all of that, and turn it into an expression that the listener does not have to cerebrally take in, but can feel the majesty and the height of its conception while understanding the guttural feeling that comes from it. Let’s do it again. 

(Sean plays blues example 2 – click the video above to watch)

All right. So what I was trying to do there is to give you all the stuff that you get with theory. You heard the chord changes, you heard the progression, you heard the scales, etc., etc., but you also got the feeling and intent of the message. 

So folks, just to wrap it up, I think it’s important for us to start conveying the idea that improvisation, which is spontaneous composition, requires us to do just that —compose spontaneously– in the moment to the listener, the ideas that are of the ultimate conception and the majesty of our theory, while getting to the guttural feeling and the essence of who we are as Americans, United States, specifically. 

It is going to be that cultural exchange and that level of sophistication, coupled with our passions as human beings that is going to get the audience back. Maybe I shouldn’t even say “get the audience back”. It’s going to inspire them to turn out more, because the audience is still there. They haven’t gone anywhere. They just want us to meet them halfway. 

Thank you so much, and I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Sean Jones