Louis Armstrong, 1953

How do you become a jazz musician?

About a genre between street music and a university subject.

Like Louis Armstrong, jazz first saw the light of day around 1900. So »Satchmo«, as he was later known, didn’t learn to play in school, but at the cheerful funeral services in the southern states of the US. He played alongside older musicians who showed him their tricks. He listened, copied and created something new and unprecedented, a style entirely his own. And most of the other great Afro-American jazz artists, from the swing era up to bebop, learnt the main features of their music from one another, far away from any college or academy.

From the street to college

Things have changed since then, at least in Germany, and a musician who wants to make a career in jazz these days needs to take music lessons from an early age, playing in the school band and later going on to study jazz. Jazz, once electrifying, exuberant street music, has long since turned into a subject studied at a college of music, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even the chance to get a doctorate.

»the most important learning goal of all, which is also the most difficult: becoming yourself when improvising«

Fiddling around with scales and chords, transcribing and playing solos of the old masters. Having a couple of hundred »Real Book« standards up your sleeve that you can play forwards and backwards. Getting to know and playing your own instrument better and better. And above all: understanding the principle of swing that makes people click their fingers and tap their feet. This magic formula of jazz rhythm is as old as jazz itself and can still be heard in the music’s more abstract forms and styles of playing. Not every jazzman has it in his blood. And last but not least, there is the most important learning goal of all, which is also the most difficult: becoming yourself when improvising.

The non plus ultra of all jazz academies

The Berklee School of Music in Boston celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2020. It was the first college of its kind in the world, and is still regarded by many as the non plus ultra of all jazz academies. In Germany, the colleges of music in Weimar and Cologne were the only such institutions until 40 years ago, but in the meantime the budding jazz student can choose between 51 different courses at 20 colleges, from Leipzig to Saarbrücken, from Weimar to Trossingen – and that’s not counting private academies. The federal state music councils vie with one another to offer grants and scholarships, putting on competitions and vacation courses and maintaining their own jazz youth orchestras. The best of the young musicians can pave their way to a professional career in the Federal Jazz Orchestra.

Berklee College of Music
Berklee College of Music © Alejandro Castro

The Elbphilharmonie Jazz Academy

And now and again a concert hall like the Elbphilharmonie appears on the scene and comes up with a new education format like the Jazz Academy. A master class held in the Elbphilharmonie for a week at the end of August 2021 where 15 young soloists from all over Europe will be thrown together, selected from hundreds of applicants and working under the creative direction of internationally successful teachers. The subjects are trumpet/trombone, saxophone, piano, bass, drums and composition. The Academy ends with a concert given in the Grand Hall.

The Academy participants are all either graduates, or are still studying. The coronavirus year was pure horror for most of them. The colleges had to close, music clubs likewise, while wind instruments – well, the belief that they spread aerosols took the wind out of their metaphorical sails. But jazz depends on interaction between the players, on trying things out together, and not least on hanging out after the gig and swapping notes. Corona meant that none of this was possible.

Analogue or digital: does it matter?

»What counts in jazz is spontaneous invention and deviation, not music that is prefabricated.«

Some experts, and indeed some advanced novices, doubtless practised their sax or their trumpet at home day after day, and otherwise spent hours watching jazz videos on YouTube, a gigantic treasure trove full of marvellous film clips where the world’s best jazz musicians are happy to share their knowledge.

Such recordings – by Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano for example, often handmade and free of gloss, – probably bring more benefit to beginners and advance students alike than many a college lecture. How about this for a heretical theory? – If you devour enough videos of this kind, you could spend an entire lifetime applying all the tips they contain, and you probably wouldn’t end up a worse jazzman (or jazzwoman) than a Berklee graduate.

Masterclass: Joe Lovano

Technically speaking, that may be true. But even the most athletic dry run doesn’t help much in practice. Jazz changes at the moment when other people and their instruments join in. If you want to be good at it, you need to have open ears and an ability to switch perspective, and you need to be receptive to fine trends and changes of direction. What are you going to do when something you rehearsed a thousand times is suddenly missing? When all the licks lead nowhere? What counts in jazz is spontaneous invention and deviation, not music that is prefabricated. As Michael Brecker once said to a master-class student: »So you transcribed the Vincent Herring solo yourself? Great! And you played it amazingly well. But you know what? I would have preferred to hear your own solo.«

Text: Tom R. Schulz, Stand: 30. Juni 2021

This is an excerpt from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 01/2021), which is published three times per year.

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