I try to be both a classical musician and a jazz musician. This dual pursuit is sometimes detrimental to both sides, but often beneficial, and I enjoy it. I’ve put in serious study, listening, and practice hours with both kinds of music.
Jazz has influenced classical composers enough that classical musicians can’t ignore it—if you’re an orchestral clarinetist, it’s only a matter of time before you have to face Rhapsody in Blue. So it’s not unusual to hear classical musicians, especially in academic situations, address aspects of jazz playing.
It’s disappointing to me to hear classical musicians use pejorative language when describing jazz style, but frequently terms like “sloppy,” “lazy,” “harsh,” or “piercing” are used to characterize its techniques and sounds. In the last few months, some egregious and ill-informed examples of this have appeared in the blogosphere, and I can think of several examples during that same period when I have heard that kind of talk in masterclasses and workshops.
I don’t think that the examples I’ve seen lately were intentionally belittling or snobbish. And, in fact, in some cases the intent seemed to be to express appreciation for jazz music and jazz musicians, but the choice of words betrays some underlying attitudes about the relationship between classical and jazz.
If you’re a classical musician, these are the kinds of things I want you to know about jazz playing:
- Classical musicians hold themselves to very high—and very specific—standards when it comes to tone. But in jazz, we take what we consider a more open-minded approach. In jazz, the fact that my tone doesn’t meet classical standards doesn’t mean that I’m undisciplined. It means that I’m an individual. I worked just as long and hard to develop my sound as you did. It’s not that I’m unconcerned about my tone; it’s that I’m unconcerned about yours.
- The unique trappings of jazz style (inflections and other effects) are a complex and nuanced language of expression. When you suggest that scoops and smears can be added to your “jazzy” repertoire piece without properly absorbing and understanding their use and execution in jazz, I find it insulting to my craft and unpleasant to listen to. Can you imagine a musician untrained in Baroque style telling a room full of attentive students, “just put in some trills and stuff?” The results would be, um, unconvincing.
- The same goes for swing. There’s a popular myth that to swing simply means to play eighth notes with a triplet feel. If you take the time to really listen to some good jazz (an hour with the Count Basie band is time well spent), you’ll quickly find that the triplet approach is inadequate for reproducing the subtleties of jazz rhythm. You’ll also find that swing is more than a rhythmic thing—it has a great deal to do with phrasing and articulation. Be aware that these things are not accurately expressed by the notation in your excerpt book.
- There’s nothing careless, loose, or facile about jazz playing. I personally find that in many ways (not all ways) jazz is more mentally and physically demanding to play than classical music. For jazz playing, I need all the control, precision, and focus that I need for classical music, but with a much wider expressive range. I need the ability to do all the poised, graceful, and delicate things that classical musicians pride themselves on, plus a whole world of other sounds that you won’t find in Beethoven (or even in genuinely jazz-influenced composers of the twentieth century onward). Oh, and I often do these things while improvising—performing a spontaneously-composed melody in real time.
What I’m getting at is that playing convincingly in a jazz style (even setting aside improvisation) is as complex and subtle an art as playing classical music, and to do it well requires dedicated study. And that it’s a mistake for classical musicians to think of jazz as a charmingly primitive tribe that could be civilized by airlifting in some etude books.
I encourage musicians of all stripes to be curious, open-minded, and respectful about each other’s art.