The three basic concepts...
Goal number one is to get the learner out and playing with real people*...
You've probably heard expressions like the only way to learn to swim is by actually getting in the water. Unfortunately, some Jazz training methods pretty much to anything but this. Heavy on scales, etudes and theory (elements that actually will be important down the line), they pretty much do anything but get the student in the water. You might wonder, just throw the student in the water? How is this possible? Isn't it necessary to learn tons of theory, scales and all that other next book stuff to get playing?
Actually not. Yes, all of that stuff is necessary in the long term, but there's a way to start with that stuff to develop other important skills prior to tackling it head on. It starts with the blues, great accompaniment, chords on a need to know basis, and opportunities to experience the different ways in which chords are used and modified. Once students get this down by rote memory they have a pallet which they can then build upon infinitely.
Successful learning begins with feel, form and attitude.
Sadly, I've inherited students who have studied for years and still struggle to keep time with a metronome. There's good news and bad news about this. The good news is that the reason I make play alongs for my students is to ween them off of metronomes and get them listening to what they really need to, the rhythm section within and without them. This is why we start with simple forms such as the blues and work from there. Learning to play in time confidently and with feel is the first step to playing anything. This is why the simple 12 bar blues takes so much precent in my feeling. A student can learn it quickly, sit in on tunes with players of virtually any level (once they get it) and while being training can get an intensive jump on mastering the basics of almost everyone.
Skeptical? Note that most likely the first time you sit in at a session you'll likely be invited to play 2 tunes. A blues is a common request, and you may very well have a horn player willing to take the melody. That means by being able to accompany through a one of the more common keys, you're already half way there!
Knowing is never enough.
Typically, Jazz attracts intelligent people. Professional Jazz musicians aside, I have had students who are Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers and come from every walk of life. Unfortunately, these professionals can be the most difficult to teach, often because they can find satisfaction with knowing over doing. Improvisational music, especially ensemble based is very functional, very pragmatic. Getting students out of the overthinking realm can prove to be the greatest challenge possible, but once they get into the realm where what's referred to as "kata" as the master arts: simplistic visceral mastery of form. Once internalized, building upon them at all levels becomes cake.
How does this play out here?
First, on a pedagogical level, we recognize that skill can be enhanced by knowledge, but knowledge does not naturally beget skill, so our focus is on developing abilities, then enhancing the abilities with experience, reflection and experimentation. Here's an example of this:
A student is struggling playing playing through the changes of a tune in time. What would you do? If you're a typical teacher, you'll probably point out the errors, then move on to the next assignment. Heck, they'll get it eventually. So, you just move on to the next assignment and teach them some more. Unfortunately, this approach is tragic as it piles mediocrity upon mediocrity, and sometimes misunderstanding upon misunderstanding. Our approach is different. We slow down and work on things until we get it right. Later on, rudimentary mastery serves as a powerful learning asset down the line. In other words, students who are confident about what they know will be more likely to apply it to what they're learning moving forward. Put plain and simple, mastery and self confidence are everything.
But here's a fair question...
Wouldn't this involve working not the same thing over and over until the student gets bored?
Absolutely not! In the earliest stage of learning, tunes need to be viewed less as repertoire (which they also are) and more as pallets helping students to hone in on schools which will eventually help them master 100s of other tunes on their own. Hence, selection of repertoire is important. Tunes need to open doors, not serve as ends within themselves.
So here's an example of our own pedagogy. It involves 6 basic elements...
Blues, Minor Blues, ii V I standards (major key), Minor Key Tunes, Ballads, Longer Form Tunes, AABA tunes and cookers
- Get working on your 12 bar blues, various keys (common ones especially), various tempos and rhythms.
- Master your minor blues in C- especially, but dabble in some other keys.
- Learn the chord progressions in your blues by rote memory. (They're the same as all the other standards.)
- While doing so, start learning your basic chord construction theory.
- Begin exploring simple major key standards such as "Autumn Leaves", "How High The Moon" and "All The Things You Are". Tunes like this will get you solid on your ii V I progressions and voicings.
- Move on to minor key tunes such as "Stella By Starlight", "I Love You" and "My Funny Valentine".
- Start working on Bossa Nova and Bossa influenced tunes ON THE SPOT, as well as tunes such as "Song for My Father", "Work Song" and "Blue Bossa".
- Try out some moody ballads, while exploring passing chords.
- Go for some longer form tunes while focusing more on Roman Numeral Analysis. ("I'll Remember April", "I've Got You Under My Skin", "Just One of Those Things")
- Master "rhythm changes tunes", especially in Bb, especially ones with simpler melodies,
How does this all tie in with the three basic concepts?
12 Bar Blues
The blues will help you begin to master your basic dominant 7th and ii V type progressions, while developing time and feel and exploring song form and structure.
Minor blues will get you solid on your minor progressions, and these are the tunes that began to become really popular within the hard bop, cool and modern Jazz movements of the 50s and 60s and beyond. (Believe it or. not, once you have down your basic major and minor chord progressions, you're way further down the road than you could ever imagine!)
- These forms come with the basic harmony and skills that you'll pretty much be applying to all the other tunes you know, so they serve as incredible bang for the buck training vehicle.
- You'll be able to use these forms to experiment with a wide variety of harmonic concepts, from simple blues, to surprisingly modal and outside stuff.
- They'll also make your basic harmonic studies more interesting, since you'll have pallets to apply them to right away.
- Once you have this vocabulary down, learning regular tunes, whether simple standards like "Satin Doll" or more complicated Wayne Shorter Stuff sill be easier, since you will have the vocabulary down pat.
Major Key Standards
Having mastered ii V type progressions through study of the major and minor blues, a great deal of repertoire should be pretty easy to explore!
Minor Key Tunes
Having mastered basic ii V I type song form, and having also mastered the minor blues, world of minor key tunes will open up, and with that, the realm as the b5 as well as diminished harmony, setting you on a path to exploring pivotal concepts in bebop, modern Jazz and beyond.
Ballads are tough because they required a more refined sense of time, but since, by now you you will have developed a stronger sense of the natural way in which chords move and resolve, slowing down shouldn't be so daunting. Ballads require demanding precision, but you know your chords, and by now you will know a lot about time and form, so it should come much easier!
Longer Form Tunes
Having mastered your chords, you can now explore Roman Numeral Analysis on a deeper level, and use it as a tool to start learning tunes with more challenging forms (without constantly getting lost!)
Jazz Cookers and AABA stuff
Once you are solid on your changes and have a good sense of song form, Rhythm Changes (along with Cherokee and other AABA tunes comes next.) By this point you have played and practiced a lot, so challenging faster tempos should be possible as well. Since you should no longer be struggling to find chords so you can play tunes, you should have a more natural sense of rhythm and feel, therefore, doors should be open to more groove oriented and polyrhythmic styles of playing.
What it all leads to...
By the time you've worked through these steps, your playing should be grounded enough that you are ready and challenged to take risks, and can start taking on tunes that require higher degrees of sophistication in terms of everything from harmony to rhythmic exploration and improvisational vocabulary. This may include a wide array of styles including bebop, hard bop, latin, funk, soul Jazz and beyond!
Where does modal improv come in? Actually, modal improv can serve as an excellent embellishment to many of the tunes and forms discussed above. The idea here is provide learners with pallets to apply things to, not simply to learn tunes for the sake of learning tunes, then moving on. This is why I composed tunes like "Funky Modal", a 12 bar blues that can also be used to explore concepts that go well beyond more traditional blues and pentatonic scales.
And SO WHAT? The real challenge of playing this tune is having a feel for form, which is why the blues are so important. Flow is also a challenge... in other words, being able to play with a relaxed sense of feel minus any stop and go. To this extent, I'd recommend tackling it AFTER tunes such as minor blues, "Blue Bossa" and "Softly".
Charlie Parker heads? Requires mastery of basic chord harmony, song form, deep understanding of the 12 bar blues, and mastery of "rhythm changes" and tunes such as "Cherokee" and others. My tune "Eddie's Delight" is actually an expansion of a Charlie Parker concept applied to the minor blues. That said, a short coming of many methods involve mechanical memorization of Charlie Parker's heads, without absorption into the concept that drives them. Similar to Barry Harris's approach, my method heads in the direction of methods that will eventually get learners exploring the notes between the notes (as an example diminished 6 chords as passing chords), but to reach this point, it is essential for students to have strong improvisational palettes to build upon. As countless Bird Heads are little more than interpolations of the blues, this all begins with mastery of the blues, as well as the other forms integral to Charlie Parker's harmonic vocabulary.
Giant Steps? This tune is best though of as the penultimate "Jazz Capstone". The melody itself isn't so difficult, but obviously playing at the speed Steps is usually approach requires a considerable amount of technical mastery. Beyond that; however, is the fact that it is a test of mastery of the basic ii V progression, then an ability to deal with less orthodox sequencing of progressions. This all begins with the bridge to two important building block standards: "Have You Met Miss Jones" and "Cherokee" and later on can include chord progression work outs as well.
What About Learning All Tunes in All Keys? Transposition is a basic music performance skill, but some methods get students spending way too much time memorizing and regurgitating and not enough simply getting the feel of specific tunes in the keys they actually tend to be called in the real world, benefiting from the unique shapes and ideas that are suggested by the key. On the other hand, there are many situations where transposition practice can be very useful. As an example, putting Roman Numeral Analysis to work, or affording students with the opportunity to try out tunes in keys they rarely play. That said, I worry that over emphasis on rote memorization often leads to a scenario of regurgitation over creativity.