“10 Questions For Every Aspiring Jazz Musician” by Michael Zilber

This is one of my favorite articles written by saxophonist and composer, Michael Zilber.

Here are some comments meant for any serious student of jazz, based on my years as a player and a teacher as well as drawing liberally from my talks with Dave Liebman.

I wanted to address the sometimes not-fully articulated question that underscores working with jazz students of a higher level, what legendary saxophonist/educator Dave Liebman calls the “keys to the kingdom” question and what I refer to as the magic scale/magic chord question: How does one break through beyond the level of journeyman to jazz artist with something to say? It is a hard and nuanced question with no easy answers.

As Dave Liebman observes,

I think that a typical student attending a jazz school or taking private lessons with a master might not be totally cognizant of it, but (s)he may be looking for something that is not there-sort of like the keys to the kingdom. Loving the music, being inspired by it and wanting to play is exciting and the nature of youth is to want to get it immediately. Sometimes expectations exceed reality and a feeling of disappointment may result. This is natural and probably unavoidable, but it is up to teachers and institutions to be honest and up front with the appropriate intentions.

Surely we lay out the equivalent of facts and figures to be memorized and regurgitated, but because of the special nature of the artistic process, the material itself is secondary to the process of instigating a student’s creativity. We, the teachers, are actually imparting our experience about the WAY to find oneself, more than the information itself.

The French use the word “enseigner” for teaching. I love the French language for how it refers to the activity taking place. “Ensiegner” suggests that the mission is to “give signs, signals, points of reference-to show and transmit” so that the student understands and assimilates. The proficient teacher is revealing to the student his or her own way of having discovered and developed their art. This method of teaching, accomplished by metaphor, myth telling and allusion should be focused on conveying “clues” about the process and possibilities. A teacher can help a student avoid too many blind alleys, realizing that so-called dead ends can be the best form of instruction.

That’s all incredibly important and true. BUT!!! You also have a responsibility in this as a student. Here are some questions I would ask you to pose yourselves: If you can truthfully answer yes to all of them then you are well on your way to becoming a musician of value and substance. These questions are based on my own experience as a student then a professional player who’s had the good fortune to play, record with and have the musical respect of some of the best musicians on the planet. (Now that, and $1.55 will get you a large Peet’s coffee, but that’s another discussion.)

  1. First, last and in between, when you solo, do you try to make everything you play a coherent musical statement related to what you just played and related to what the rest of the band is doing? Above all else, LISTEN to yourself – don’t go on auto-pilot. If you aren’t listening to yourself, why should anyone else?
  2. Do you consistently practice every day? Remember, an hour a day is better than 6 hours one day and nothing for a week. Ultimately, you will need to work up to 5-7 hours a day for a sustained period of time. I have never met anyone worth listening to who hasn’t done that at some point in their life, and I’m talking a period of at least 2-3 years in the shed – some, like Coltrane and Brecker, did it a lot longer than that.
  3. Does your practice including working on all the major modes, melodic minor modes, diminished, etc…in all the standard intervallic permutations and well in ALL keys? Also, arpeggiations and their variations? ACCURATELY in tempo? You want to work it up to 300 bpm for 8th notes.
  4. Do you also listen and transcribe as a regular part of your day? Not so you can regurgitate someone else’s licks and call them your own, but so you can develop a firm and detailed understanding of what these masters do?
  5. Do you play piano well enough to get through the common language jazz tunes? If not, get started – nothing will increase your understanding of how harmony works like piano.
  6. Do you have the heads and changes memorized to the most common jazz tunes and standards? There are at least 1000 tunes that make up the common language. You should know a minimum of 500 to memory. You should have a goal of learning 2-3 new tunes a week, INCLUDING changes and IN TIME. (Drummers, you should be able to sing the melody and know the form to at least that many. Horn players, learn to sight transpose as you learn your tunes, because life is not fair, and most leaders won’t transpose a C chart for you.) I learned a tune a day for two years when I was developing as a player. Some of them may fade, but the essence will stay and they will come back to you.
  7. Do you tape yourself and listen back critically? Seeing where you made the changes, where you didn’t – where you nailed the time and where you didn’t? Be honest with yourself. Work with a private teacher – the better you are, the more important that is.
  8. Do you ALWAYS practice with some external time source? Metronome, sequencer, drum machine – practicing time with out that is like practicing a tennis serve without a net. The more you work with a metronome the better the metronome’s time will be. (Always on 2 and 4 if the time signature makes sense.)
  9. Do you take every opportunity you can to session and gig, preferably with people who are better than you? Do you take every opportunity to hear the great musicians local and national who perform here? Next to NYC, San Francisco has the largest representation of national acts coming through of any major city (even LA). Carpe Diem. I remember sitting at the Village Vanguard with my feet resting on the lip of the stage while Brecker and Abercrombie played there. That was one helluva lesson.
  10. Understand that there is no “magic scale” no “magic chord” no short cut. Dave Liebman says there is about a ten year apprenticeship to becoming a competent jazz musician, and I agree – IF you do all of the above.

I will tell you an anecdote. I was 23, living in Boston and playing gigs with some Continue reading