“PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT” is a common cliché phrase that many people believe is the ultimate solution to reaching perfection. I, however, believe this statement to be ambiguous and too general. Of course practice can breed good results and often perfection! In jazz, if you practice a certain lick or play your scales five hundred times, you are bound to grow better as a musician over time. As a musician myself, I understand that practicing something over and over helps build mental memory and dexterity. Although, sometimes the phrase “practice makes perfect” is not the answer to solving musical problems. For instance, if you are trying to work on improvising or becoming more creative, is it possible to practice it over and over again until you reach perfection? I am sure there are ways to reaching perfection but I feel that improvising or being creative is not something that you can practice. When looking at this dilemma, I think that a better solution would be to say that “listening makes perfection”. When you listen to jazz, you are studying another person’s ideas, creativity, and style which helps in building a rich vocabulary and a deep understanding/appreciation for jazz. Jazz is a universal language that includes a distinct vocabulary. You cannot play jazz if you cannot understand jazz. For example, you cannot speak English if you do not know how to understand English. Listening to jazz also helps you to develop your own style of playing and discover who you are as a musician. Having a distinct sound is what makes you unique, it defines who you are, how you feel, and your perspective on jazz. I feel that this is vital for all musicians as it sets apart the great musicians from the mediocre musicians.
Over the past few months, I have been studying and playing the music of Duke Ellington. Ellington has been looked at as a jazz icon and a jazz legend. He is famously known for his contributions to the big band scene with his distinct compositions and unique band sound. Duke Ellington’s music is looked at as being the building blocks for jazz because it teaches people the fundamentals like how to swing, how to play the blues, or how to improvise. It is said that his music can be applied to all styles of jazz whether it is traditional or modern jazz. Wynton Marsalis states that “Duke’s work was an entirely original blend of New Orleans jazz, blues, spirituals, American folk music, and various European forms–a complex brew that was uniquely itself”. Although, to truly understand and capture all that Ellington has to offer, you need to listen to his music. Being able to memorize notes on a paper or read written lines is not capturing the true essence of Duke Ellington’s style. A piece of paper cannot describe exactly how Ellington played or how he approached his music. This is why listening is so important for jazz musicians.
“The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.”
How do you listen? What do you listen for?
Now, besides “just listening” to jazz, it is important that you know how to listen to jazz most effectively. It is useless for someone to listen to jazz without knowing exactly what to listen for and what they are listening to. Normally, when I first listen to a musician, I look at the obvious. What makes them unique? How do they interpret the music? Do they have a distinct sound or style? What do I like about their playing? After that, I look deeper into their playing. How do they interact with other musicians? Who are their influences? How do they approach a certain style or lick? What type of vocabulary do they include in their playing? How do they contribute or further jazz? These questions are geared towards understanding more about the musician and how they contribute to jazz overall. It also looks at trying to figure out what aspects of that musician’s playing appeals to me and what characteristics I would like to implement in my playing . By knowing what you like about a certain musician will help you to develop your own sound and style. In addition, other more common things to listen for are the musician’s sense of time, technical skills, tone, arrangements, composition, and understanding both harmonically and/or rhythmically. By listening for these key things, a musician is guaranteed to learn something about either the artist or jazz in general.
Remember, just like practicing, listening requires a certain dedication. You cannot breed results if you only listen to jazz once. You need to listen to jazz on a consistent basis and include it in your normal practice routine. Soon, you will notice the difference in your playing and your appreciation and understanding for this traditional yet diverse form of music.