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Book Learning Vs. The Way The Jazz Masters Learned

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Many jazz students resort to book learning first, as if all they need is to find the right book and then they’ll know what to do, but that’s illogical!

I was married for 14 years to a fiction author. Being around all the books she had in the house was great, as long as you didn’t have to move too often! But seriously, I read a lot of fiction then. She helped with my explorations of the fiction world by offering reading suggestions and by discussing my feelings about what I’d read. Great fiction (and words in general) can move and enlighten us much in the same way music does, and I felt enriched and educated from all the reading I did. 

If one wants to add to the canon of Western Literature as a serious author, he or she must be well-read! With all great artistic pursuits, whether fine art, literature, or music, we strive to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ by first assimilating all that came before us, and then attempting to add to it with our own singular stamp of creativity. So, I felt it was logical that my ex-wife knew virtually everything there was to know about the field of Western Literature and had read more books than I could even imagine.

However, when it comes to learning the Jazz Literature, it seems illogical to believe that one can properly assimilate music by reading a book. Yet, many students trying to learn jazz seem to resort to book learning first, as if all they need is to find the right book and then they’ll know what to do. Now, I value books a lot, and do not seek to undermine their overall worth, but music is an aural art form, not a written one like literature is. To learn and process literature you must read the written word, i.e. read everything you can get your hands on. But to learn and process music, you must hear it, i.e. listen to everything and everyone! 

Furthermore, one of the most important aspects of learning to play jazz guitar well is one’s positioning – where one places the elbow, forearm, wrist, and fingers in relation to the guitar – and the best way to learn fingering technique and economy of movement (as I like to call it) is from a good teacher sitting right in front of you, where everything you need to know can be seen, explained, evaluated, and physically demonstrated in the moment live. Books cannot do that for us.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the jazz players whom I admire the most, such as guitarist/composer Wes Montgomery for instance, learned to play from books. They learned from listening to their favorite players live or on records, and with extremely few exceptions (Wes being one of them), they had a private, in-person teacher. In Wes’s case, his most admired guitarist was Charlie Christian.

Wes acquired every Christian record he could get his hands on. He listened to them so much that the grooves on the LPs became so worn out that the record became unplayable! 

Charlie Christian on guitar

Many, if not most of the jazz greats, players like Lester Young, Joe Pass, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, etc. began taking private lessons at a very young age. But whether they were largely self-taught like Wes, or they were introduced to a one-on-one teacher early on, they ALL, without exception, listened incessantly to the music they were trying to assimilate. They listened to their favorite solos by other artists so much that they could memorize them, sing them, and play them on their instruments. 

It’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty, but perhaps the relatively new growth in the number of jazz music programs at our institutes of higher learning, coupled simultaneously with a diminishing number of live jazz venues since people like Wes were on the scene, can help explain today’s apparent emphasis on book learning. But the fact is: it’s far easier for us to hear Charlie Christian solos today than it was for Wes Montgomery to acquire Christians’ records back in his day. So there’s no excuse for jazz students today to sidestep required listening or private lessons in favor of buying and reading a bunch of books, however good those books may actually be.

Perhaps my least favorite type of guitar books to buy are the “1001 Chords (or Scales) To Know!” type. These to me are akin to buying a “Pet Rock.” They have no real value in my opinion. In fact, they can be confusing and distracting because certain chords are named, but not others; a voicing can be redundantly named 12 times, once for every note of the chromatic scale; and the details of the chord symbols that you need to know are not properly explained. They do not teach how chords are built nor how to best explore harmony on one’s instrument. 

There is certainly NO substitute to figuring things out ON your instrument, or for having an in-person teacher educate you as to what your learning priorities should be.

Very early in my learning-to-play stage, I was given a book of transcriptions for Joe Pass’s entire Virtuoso album. I love me some Joe Pass, but I ended up giving the book away to a fellow player who was far more enamored of books than I was. He thought I was crazy not to learn all of Joe’s transcriptions and I thought he was crazy to think that the book was going to help him become the player he wanted to be.

I knew instinctively at the time (which is why I gave the book away) that learning to ‘play Joe’ note-for-note from a book would not teach me anything about how Joe learned to play like that, or about what was going on in his brain while he was playing like that. If I didn’t know his learning process and what went through his mind, then the notes, in-and-of-themselves, were basically worthless to me. I wanted to learn how to make my own notes, not copy somebody else’s! Having said that, for the record let me say that I do believe transcriptions are good to analyze, and of course, transcribing is great ear training. But copying someone else’s entire solo note-for-note, from a book instead of by ear, is certainly not the best use of your time and energies.

We can and should take a lesson from those greatest of jazz players we all admire by learning music aurally.

We must do the essential listening before doing too much reading. We can consider books after listening so much to our hero’s solo that we can sing it precisely without our axe. 

The other tip we can and should ‘take-away’ from the examples provided by the Masters is that we need a teacher. I admit that finding the right teacher may not necessarily be quick and easy, but whatever we do, let us please not make the silly mistake of thinking that we can learn to play jazz music well from a book!

A vital and valid tip for those seeking a teacher is to find those who are willing and able to give you, the student, thorough insight as to how they (the teacher) learned to play. For instance: 

What were their processes? How can you develop your own style the way they developed theirs? How can you focus on the bare essentials of information while avoiding the pitfalls they made?

Avoid teachers who simply demonstrate what they do without providing you the proper contextual data to eventually do it for yourself. Avoid those who cannot answer your questions thoroughly and clearly. Albert Einstein most famously said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Find one who can teach you how to play . . . not what to play!


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