Starting jazz piano lessons
I receive many enquiries from people who want to start jazz piano lessons but I take on only about 10% of them. So why do I turn away so many potential students?
One of the first questions I ask is ‘Do you listen to jazz?’ and if the answer is ‘no’ then my interest quickly wanes. This may sound obvious, but to play jazz one needs a feel for the music and this is acquired by listening to it. I can teach you the chords, scales etc, but I can’t teach you to swing. Yes, I can explain the theory, but swing is not a concept. You may be able to play a tritone substitution, but if you don’t swing, then you’re not playing jazz. I recently took on a man in his 80’s. He’d never played jazz but because he’d been listening to it all his life there was a swing feel in his playing from the start. Conversely, I’ve worked with new jazz students of a high classical standard but who always sounded ‘straight’ in their playing. So my first point is that in order to get swing into your bones you need to expose yourself to the great jazz masters.
Here’s the second answer that deters me from taking on a new student. When I ask ‘Why do you want to start jazz piano lessons’ and the answer is ‘to sound jazzy’ I’m ready to put the phone down. Sounding jazzy is all about playing funky chords and hot licks, neither of which I’m prepared to teach. I turned pro in 1967 and for many years played Hammond organ in soul bands. People said that I sounded ‘jazzy’ but I really wasn’t playing jazz. In the 70’s I was playing in what was then known as ‘jazz rock bands’ but again there wasn’t much jazz involved. Even now, when I catch myself consciously trying to create a jazz sound in my playing, I hear the words of Howard Riley, one of my old teachers, saying ‘don’t play jazzy, just play.’ Once you are consciously trying to create recognisable sounds and phrases you’re on the slippery slope of approximating your music rather than staying within it and being true to yourself.
And this leads me to style.
When I ask a potential student why they want to start jazz piano lessons and their answer is that they want to play in the style of, say, Bill Evans, I revert to my grumpy old man mode and reply that I don’t teach styles. And there is no better witness for my defence than the great man himself. Just Google ‘Bill Evans interview’ on YouTube and you’ll hear him say ‘Jazz is not so much a style as a spontaneous creative process.’ If we are really playing in the moment, expressing ourselves and how we feel, this is authenticity and has nothing to do with style. Yes, we are all subconsciously influenced by all that has gone before, but are then bringing all this life experience into present moment to create something new. It should be like walking a tightrope; we are on an exploration. What has this to do with style? As much as I love Evans, Jarrett and Monk, I have no wish to sound like them.
So… listen to great players to get swing into your bones and don’t try to sound ‘jazzy.’ By expressing yourself you will be playing jazz.