How Do Ya Practice Jazz? Or Music?

I was doing a Zoom lesson with a student about playing over There Will Never Be Another You. I was teaching the idea of playing a simple phrase, then running the Licks he had been shedding. Simple. Then Practice. Simple. Then Practice the Lick. 

Basically in high school I didn’t have a jazz teacher so I would sing something I thought I should play. Then I would write it down. A college sax student came to the high school, liked me, said you need something to play, you just can’t stand up. He wrote out a triplet minor chord outline for me for my school solo. I visited his college and he said you play alto. Listen to this record. It was David Sanborn. That’s how I ended up at the Leona Theatre in High School with my High School buddy.  The Jazz method has brought us players who play their instruments on unheard of levels. But—-where is the message that is touching the heart? Why is Jazz 1-1.5% of the Market now? 

But I digress. I held up Lester Young playing on Another You to the Zoom microphone during the lesson. I wanted to demonstrate how we should start with Louis. And Lester. Et al.  And just learn how to play around a melody. I heard Hello Dolly on 8 Track so I kinda tried doing improv like the clarinet player. Later I learned it was Barney. I used to go to bed listening to Massey Hall On my white plastic turntable in Fox Chapel every night. I put it on and listened. Fell asleep. Later I found I could sing some of it. At Pitt that helped me. Frank Mallah told me, you need to learn 25 Big Birdie solos. 

Between studying the Big Birdie, Bebop Scales, Phil Woods scale exercises from Mark Kirk and transcribing, singing and my lessons with George Coleman I learned to hear and connect the changes. But it took much longer than it should have. A good “guide “ is always needed. I remember being at Univ of Pitt downstairs with Drake Smith and I was saying how simple it was to sing and hear the b9 interval, specifically the 3rd to the b9. At the time my buddy couldn’t hear it. I said it’s the Big Birdie lick on bar 8 of the blues! I started singing it! I could hear it. 

Yet I didn’t have a teacher to really show me the steps on analyzing chords/harmony. Carl Arter was the best teacher around, but I only took one lesson. Our goal is to hear melodic development, being able to hear what it is you want to play, for me a lot of that encompassed singing. My bro suggested I use tv shows and songs and just play them by ear. Check out the intervals. As I did it I found I could hear the melody in my head and then almost play the whole thing. We heard commercials and TV show themes so much. They are embedded. Great practice and interval studies. 

I believe a jazz solo must have some melody in it that the listener can grab onto. We are playing for people not musicians. We need some melodic content. We need to remember people are listening. When we play we should react to what other band members are playing. Interact. 

When you go to Music School, one learns The BeBop Method first, because the music that followed, Eric Dolphy (who I did my best to try to pick some licks, but geez), Arthur Blythe, Jackie McClean, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Steve Grossman, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, I could go on forever.....we all started with Charlie Parker. (Bop) You may not even want to play that kind of music but like classical music it teaches you the aspects of the music you will need. When you read about these cats practice habits Bebop is the BACH of Jazz Improvisation, and Charlie Parker is BACH. Even if you start with Trane, it will take you back to Bird. I also immersed myself into the tenor, writing out Giant Steps myself, Michael Brecker solos, 30 choruses of a Steve Grossman solo, I did Grover Washington, Kirk Whalum, Clarence Clemons, Gerald Albright solos, (Forget Me Nots) everyone should learn that solo etc etc. I know if I had started younger, (and hadn’t spent so much time in my early 20s burning away my time) I would have grown musically much more than I have. 

I also needed to make money, and I enjoyed playing wedding bands, and doing cover songs, though I enjoyed the $400-600 a gig it paid more. It seems learning different music is helpful. I hear cats say, I don’t get Bruce. Or Clarence Clemons. They should try to write lyrics and deliver a solo that gets into history. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. It’s all in the delivery. I’m glad that I enjoy diversity of listening. My favorite music is that which brings an emotional response inside. Count “William” Basie understood that 100%. 

What's my frickin' point? Since I was in High School, I ended up on Lead Alto, although I knew nothing about Jazz, my father NEVER played jazz in the house. But I was on Lead because of the clarinet lessons. I picked up alto myself, Dad bought me one in 9th grade so I could play stage band. It seemed easy to learn after clarinet. I was told, you play in tune, read amazingly well, and have a good tone. Play lead alto. At Lafayette College, same thing. I couldn't improvise very much at all. Univ of Pitt, Nathan Davis, oh you got great sound, Lead Alto. Frank Foster, Lead Alto. George Gee, Lead Alto. on and on. People keep asking me what does it take to play Lead Alto? Lead alto players study playing saxophone, sax studies and jazz studies. 

I was a late starter on Jazz Studies, I wanted to go to Berklee in 1977, I would have been there when the YOUNG LIONS were coming up....but I went for Bio-Chem at Lafayette College, and then later I spent my time....doing "other" things. Even with the other things, I was obsessed with practicing. Frank Mallah, Andy Fite, Ned Gould, Dave Budway, Dwayne Dolphin, Geri Allen, Tony Cambell, Don Aliquo all seemed to be doing a lot of practicing and they sounded great! 

Honestly, Jazz is best learned young, between 6 years old and 18 years old. The Brain is easily programmed for the material then. It seems to get harder and harder if you didn't have that early intro. There are exceptions, people point to Coltrane, we can also point to the complete difference in approach from Rollins to Coltrane also. But exceptions are not the rule. Every cat I have met since I started this bizarro journey, has told me of intense hours of practice especially young. There are a few who come along and do 4 hours a day and develop in 4 years. Mysteries of the Brain. Mortals though, most of us it doesn’t work that way. 

Yet, my biggest point of all this is, we want to practice in our mind.  We want to hear the music in our mind.  Our goal is connect both brains, logic and artistic.  Ultimately we hope to play what we hear, what we might sing.  Of course complex phrases we might not sing, yet in our mind we can picture the complexity.  Above all, we should think of our audience.  It's best to start to improvise by taking a simple melody, Happy Birthday and try to make "variations" on it.  We should start with the history, the early jazz, and see how people improvised around the melody.  That teaches us it's not magic, it is something we can do.  For Classical people, with you ear, try to sing various variations of a exercise.  Sing or write out your own Classical Etudes.  Singing is essential to the process.  Also listen to the words of songs.  

Michael Brecker shared his practice methods and the hours he did with me. Kenny Hing told me of hours of practice. Frank Foster. Harvie S No Ey just told me he did 8 hours a day on bass. I don't know any short cuts to reaching the point where you can EXECUTE what you hear and wish to play. I once asked Lionel Hampton, "What is it that you like in a player the most?" Without hesitation he responded "Execution!"

Wake up. Get out of bed. Drag a comb across your head. Find your way downstairs and have a cup.

2 comments

  • Drake Smith
    Drake Smith
    Great post and great insight Marshall. I remember that day at Pitt with the b9. I want to add that now I hear that and a hell of a lot more and can sing it. We really had no guide for Jazz theory in those days. I remember the first day in Jazz Improv class, Nathan Davis played Miles playing Dear Old Stockholm. First assignment learn Miles solo. I did but he never went on to analyze it. I wanted to write and arrange more than anything so I learned a lot sitting at a piano plunking out chords and figuring out voicings. I borrowed Thad Jones, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton scores and scores of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel, started taking them apart, figuring out how they made it sound so damn good. I started transcribing parts of Basie charts,especially Frank Foster. I went to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony as often as possible. Spent hour after hours after hour harmonizing lines like what Supersax did with Big Birdie solos and even Coltrane's solo on Blue Trane. Hours voicing chords in every which way. Read a number of books as well to build arranging and orchestration chops. When I look back I put a lot of hours into it but it never felt tedious. It was a labor of love. It made all the difference when I got to study with Bill Finegan as he was on a whole other plane of existence. Lessons were about making music not mechanics. I wish I had put that much effort in my trombone playing when I was young. There were times when I got serious and built some chops but what I didn't know was that I had muscular dystrophy and my body was slowly working against me all that time when it came to the physical mechanics of playing the instrument. Anyway.. awesome post

    Great post and great insight Marshall. I remember that day at Pitt with the b9. I want to add that now I hear that and a hell of a lot more and can sing it. We really had no guide for Jazz theory in those days. I remember the first day in Jazz Improv class, Nathan Davis played Miles playing Dear Old Stockholm. First assignment learn Miles solo. I did but he never went on to analyze it. I wanted to write and arrange more than anything so I learned a lot sitting at a piano plunking out chords and figuring out voicings. I borrowed Thad Jones, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton scores and scores of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel, started taking them apart, figuring out how they made it sound so damn good. I started transcribing parts of Basie charts,especially Frank Foster. I went to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony as often as possible. Spent hour after hours after hour harmonizing lines like what Supersax did with Big Birdie solos and even Coltrane's solo on Blue Trane. Hours voicing chords in every which way. Read a number of books as well to build arranging and orchestration chops. When I look back I put a lot of hours into it but it never felt tedious. It was a labor of love. It made all the difference when I got to study with Bill Finegan as he was on a whole other plane of existence. Lessons were about making music not mechanics. I wish I had put that much effort in my trombone playing when I was young. There were times when I got serious and built some chops but what I didn't know was that I had muscular dystrophy and my body was slowly working against me all that time when it came to the physical mechanics of playing the instrument. Anyway.. awesome post

  • Marshall McDonald
    Marshall McDonald
    Thank you my long time buddy of many years! Thank you for this, and yes your ears went on to outgrow my ears, and you became a master of arranging and aural abilities. Sometimes I think that crazy moment by the practice rooms in the basement of the Music School, which was once, the WQED PBS Building, that moment when I kept singing the Charlie Parker lick, somehow jump started you. You transferred to become a student in Bridgeport CT, under the legendary Bill Finnegan, which emphasizes my point, how a great teacher and guide helps open the mind. Good to hear from you here, arigato gozaimasu! Onward and upward.....

    Thank you my long time buddy of many years! Thank you for this, and yes your ears went on to outgrow my ears, and you became a master of arranging and aural abilities. Sometimes I think that crazy moment by the practice rooms in the basement of the Music School, which was once, the WQED PBS Building, that moment when I kept singing the Charlie Parker lick, somehow jump started you. You transferred to become a student in Bridgeport CT, under the legendary Bill Finnegan, which emphasizes my point, how a great teacher and guide helps open the mind. Good to hear from you here, arigato gozaimasu! Onward and upward.....

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