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Mark Stefani’s ‘Seven Steps to Changes Heaven’ – Step #1

Mark Stefani

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JGT Contributor Mark Stefani presents his ‘Seven Steps to Changes Heaven’. In this first step of the series, Mark embraces Blues as the Foundation of Jazz.

“Seven Steps to Changes Heaven” is a no-nonsense dissertation targeted directly at aspiring jazz guitarists, many of whom are spinning their wheels, confused and/or frustrated when it comes to understanding the most optimum way to acquire and speak the language of jazz. Why does this sad dilemma exist in jazz educational circles? While the reason is anything but simple and logical, the great news is that the solution is abundantly simple and logical. Read on… 

Music is indeed a language, and the process of becoming conversant is no different than learning English or any other language.

For just a moment, reflect back to when you were very young and consider how you first learned to communicate with others. You slowly began to imitate your parents until you could say a few common words, typically at about two years of age. Next you began stringing those words together, first forming phrases and later complete sentences. Years before you could read, write, or sit in an elementary school classroom studying the rules of proper grammar, you could communicate and express yourself in a unique manner. You had even developed a special personality all of your own. In other words, you were already “improvising” and you weren’t even thinking about it. With me so far? 

Now contemplate how four of jazz guitar’s greatest legends, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Joe Pass, learned how to improvise in precisely the same manner that you learned how to speak as a child. They carefully listened to and imitated their mentors completely by ear until they acquired the sounds needed to fluently communicate, again without even thinking about it. And yes, they also developed an original personality and style along the way, just as you did during childhood. Ironically, they didn’t read or write music, nor did they attend school after the fact to study theory. Why would they? It was everyone else who wanted desperately to sound like them, and make no mistake about it. In music, regardless of whether you’re playing or listening, the sound is the bottom line. 

So what happened over the years that caused so many jazz educators and students to miss the obvious truth, then falsely conclude that you should arm yourself with a plethora of hypothetical, esoteric, and abstract mind games in order to improvise? This misguided path has succeeded in making a genre of music far more complicated than it should be, resulting in players who are discouraged and often have doubts about their ability to even play jazz. My ongoing mission is to help simplify things for yourself and others, and to get you on track to becoming the player you wish to be. 

Step One: Respect and Embrace the Blues as the Foundation of Jazz 

Historically speaking, blues lies at the very core of jazz music, and all of the genre’s icons (Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Wes, etc) were blues masters who not only played it well but wrote numerous compositions using it as a vehicle for improvisation. With that in mind, don’t make the fatal mistake of taking the blues for granted, because whatever skill you achieve as a jazz improviser will be greatly diminished without the presence of blues and the resulting soulful message in your work. 

With regards to changes playing, strive to comprehend the full spectrum of the blues language (major, minor, and dominant sounds) without depending solely on scales.

Also understand the distinction between the traditional I-IV-V blues progression and the essential swing blues format that employs II-Vs and turnarounds associated with jazz music (e.g. C Jam Blues, Billie’s Bounce, Tenor Madness, etc). This progression is perfect for blending blues and jazz language, forming a natural doorway to further jazz adventures. Learn as many blues licks as you possibly can and play the blues every day for the rest of your life! 

Watch for the NEXT STEP in the SERIES!

And check out more from Mark Stefani.

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