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THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATION AND

LISTENING
IN JAZZ IMPROVISATION AND EDUCATION.

Enrico Le Noci Critical Jazz Studies

Academic year 2016-2017


Teacher Mr. Wouter Turkenburg
Jazz is a language. This is probably the most overrated but at the same time
overlooked sentence in jazz education or jazz talk in general. Everybody
makes a reference to it in order to talk about transcribing and learning the
grammar. The overall concept of language became a vehicle to say
something you learn by repeating over and over.

The point is that what the languages are in fact made for is communication.

A jazz performance, unlike a classical execution, or a pop-music show is


nothing but a conversation about a specific topic: the head, the melodic
fragment, the song in question.

Lets say four people are sitting at the bar, talking aout last nights basketball
game. All of the sudden one of them stands up and really theatrically, with
close attention for expression, says out loud:
We know what we are, but not what we may be.

Good Shakespeare quote. Beautiful words well put together. The phrase is
well thought, plus the guy in question put some serious effort in learning it,
repeating it over and over till he could spell clearly every word by heart, and
gave it some time until it sounded right in expression and emotional content.

Theres just one detail missing: the context. This is a clear example of lack of
communication and, mostly, lack of listening.

Jam session situation. The cats are swinging a medium slow blues. Right in
the pocket, 3.00 AM perfect late night style. No slick shit as the jazz slang
people would say. All of the sudden the tenor saxophone player stands up
and really expressively starts is solo screaming with great anger a long,
complicated, outside of the harmony Woody Shaw lick.

The example is really clear.

In jazz education, language is often used as its meaning for learning the craft,
but the real point should be the context of the content, and its musical and
logical meaning in the moment. Thats why we improvise. And thats why its
easy to see a whole bunch of good jazz students out there playing incredible
chops with amazing theorethical and harmonic understanding of their
material. But theyre lacking context and depth due to one simple thing: their
lack of listening and merge with the conversation.
The history of this music teaches us that the two first forms of jazz
improvisation were simple, coming straight from the roots: the variation of the
melody and the Call and Response.
The first, going way back to ancient greek music, is a form of composition and
improvisation thats based on slightly varying the first melodic fragment. It
gave birth not only to the first examples of improvisation in New Orleans, or
as it was commong in the Swing Era , but to classical forms like Melody
and variations.

The second comes from the blues, the gospel and the American roots, and
consists in making statements with two symmetrical phrases: one is the call,
and the following one its response.

What these two techniques have in common is theat theyre both all about
being on topic. Everything thats improvised, or comes after the given
melody still keeps the same material or its a logical response to it. Just as if
people are having a conversation, it only makes sense if theyre talking about
a topic.

Having a conversation with Joel Frahm in New York city in November 2016
he explained it in music in a very practical way:
When you play a solo you just have to think that you dont need to be
sophisticated, or being saying out lines, you just need a good sound and a
good timing to make sure the audience gets your message clear and it sticks
with them. Then you play one note, or one simple idea, look at the other guys
in the band, and open your ears to see what they think about it.
This is a perfect, beautiful and really clear description in music of what
everybody should do in a conversation in order to succeed: listen, and be true
to the natural development of the communication.

Again, in April 2019 in Den Haag during a conversation with Branford


Marsalis he said:
In New Orleans where I grow up theres no bullshit or small talk. Cats will
come to you and just be like Hey, whats going on baby?, and that means
theyre ready to listen. And you just actually tell them what happened in your
life and be spontaneous.
This is a great lesson on communication, about being true and outspoken
without having to impress anybody or saying anything that doesnt come from
oneself. And it takes great listening and high level of involvement to be ready
to catch the information pure as it is.

One further step in jazz education would be to take these practical concepts
about communication, and make it a bigger aim for learning how to play the
music, not only the material.

The world of jazz gives infinite example in every era and style: the continuous
dialogue between Charlie Parker and Roy Haynes in Antrhopology (Charlie
Parker at Birdland in Roy Haynes Quintessence, New York- Paris 1949-
1960), the furious argument of Trane and Sonny Rollins in Tenor Madness,
the whole work of the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet.

The essence of it is more than scales, chord progressions and articulation.


Its more than tools. Its the point of communicating with the band and with the
audience. Listen. Because at the end, as Epictetus would say:
We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we
speak.