Jazz is for kids

Listening to: Harry Connick, Jr. The NY Big Band Concert.

Learn jazz like a kid. This is what I remind myself when I reach the point at which I feel like throwing in the towel. And it’s always on a night when I’ve been sitting at the piano for hours, trying improvise, because I kind of stink at it. And it seems to be a mental thing: I want to do it right. Which reflects a crazy, grown-up, riff-killing frame-of-mind. Kids don’t swear off Legos because they’re afraid they’ll never build something right. “Creating” and “right” don’t combine in children’s heads. At least, not until they start listening to us, the grown-ups, who pass onto them all the nonsense we’ve been collecting since that first moment someone explained to us, “You’re supposed to color in the lines.”

I suspect a kid would approach learning improvisation in a much different way from me. A child wouldn’t even use the word “learn.” She’d say “do.” As in “do Legos.” Because no one “learns” the steps to creating. We all begin our lives with that knowledge.

The enormous challenge for me, as someone who has been educated in all the right ways to construct sentences and develop marketing plans, is to stop looking for the lines. As I’ve written before and truly believe, “There are no wrong notes in jazz.” And yet, I’m thoroughly encumbered by the fear of them.

I can remember a time when I approached the piano with complete conviction that whatever sound I produced was magic. To quote Gonzo the Great Philosopher, “I’m going to go back there someday.”

I’d love to get advice on improvisation. What do you think about when you sit down to create? Or when you want to add your own sound to a favorite standard? What guides you?

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If you haven’t watched Oscar Peterson’s BBC special, do that now. About halfway through the show, Peterson and Count Basie play together and talk about coming of age as a musician. Highlight: their memories of Art Tatum. Basie was a funny man, and Peterson’s keyboard impressions of Tatum are brilliant.

The two men also provide a lesson on improvisation: You don’t need a lot. Just great rhythm and interesting sounds. (That said, Peterson ends the special with a performance that reminds you why people called him the “Maharaja.”)

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