‣ there are 5 essentials
‣ how should we be learning?
Much jazz teaching concentrates on the last of these skills, the study of harmony, when in fact this has less importance in our playing than any of the other essentials.
Instead we must start simply, by learning how to 'hear' directly on the instrument, how to manage the push-pull of jazz pulse, how to let our feelings sing through sound, and by acquiring repertoire that we know by heart.
How best to go about this? Slowly and patiently - it's a long old business. Hence our programme of learning at Jazz School UK, which aims for progressive and sustainable progress over the medium to long-term, with occasional spurts of Summer School intensity!
The process is much the same at all playing levels, beginner, intermediate or advanced. We must all learn tunes, learn to play as we hear, learn to connect sound with feeling. Beginners may start by learning C Jam Blues by ear, while advanced players transcribe complex solos in entirety - but the activity, and its purpose, are the same. In the course of this focused listening, we absorb the language of jazz improvisation and make it our own.
‣ working it out for ourselves is important
Can we become jazz players, then, without having teachers, simply by going to the music, and working it out for ourselves? Yes, we can, and in fact that's what we need to be doing, actively, even if we have teachers along as well. Teachers can explain, exhort, reassure, prioritise, facilitate, enlighten and expedite. But as players we share the language of jazz as creative individuals, and will always be in charge of our own outcomes.
‣ but a good teacher will speed the process
In my role as teacher, being also a player and student of the music, I set out to provide a structure in which other players can find support and guidance in their learning. The basis of this structure at Jazz School UK is the regular playing session, (supplemented by short courses, 121 lessons and workshops) with these aims or features:
‣ this is my best advice
if you're keen to improve your playing, at whatever level, get here as often and as quickly as you can!
‣ and failing that…
What if you can't - if you live too far away, for instance? Well, we do have players travelling to our monthly groups from all parts of the UK, so we know it's worth the journey, but I'll tell you anyway…
‣ if you are Improver/Intermediate level
In this broad middle band, where you know quite a few tunes by heart, are relatively comfortable soloing, and have some gigs under your belt, you have a lot of things open to you. There are many holiday courses on offer where you can get expert tuition, hook up with new musicians and get a burst of playing experience. They do vary quite considerably in style, standard, content and atmosphere though; some are loose, some tight, some intensive, some recreational, some bebop, some contemporary, some singer-oriented and so on. Be prepared to try a few before you find the one or ones you like. The trouble with courses is that they tend to give you far more information than you can remember, let alone absorb over time into your playing. If you can't get to something regular like Jazz School UK during the year, it's a good idea at the very least to find an individual teacher with whom you can consolidate your holiday learning and playing ideas.
‣ if you are a jazz beginner
Fewer choices here. Most of the courses I refer to above are unsuitable for beginners, no matter what is said by organisers in search of bums on seats. If you don't have a basic level of improvising skill, confidence and ensemble experience, you may find a whole week on a jazz course very tough. It is dispiriting being behind the curve in every session for days on end. The bums may be willing, but the seats are hard! I recommend a short jazz beginners course (these are thin on the ground, but Jazz School UK run one at Easter) to give you the basic skills and playing experience needed for the longer middle-range courses, combined with some 121 tuition. This being said, if you are already an experienced and confident musician, just lacking specific jazz skills and experience, you may get along fine on a jazz course with the aid of a preparatory lesson or two and a robust temperament.
‣ for the Intermediate/Advanced player
Things get interesting. When I started teaching jazz, the summer courses attracted all the aspiring professionals, young and old. There was nowhere else for them to go. Now we have a plethora of jazz degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, and all the committed and passionate players tend towards College.
College has been a great choice, offering a concentration of student and teacher talent, great playing and networking opportunities and fairly reasonable prices. Most active UK jazz musicians under the age of 35 have been through this system, although a few still like to do it on their own! There have been downsides - one being that recent generations of muscians have by force of number, tended to congregate among their peers, creating their own scenes, rather than spreading out and finding their place among older and more experienced musicians, as used to happen in the old apprentice-style system. This delights jazz media and promoters, who love the young and the new, but frustrates older musicians, not just because they may have been squeezed offstage by younger players, but more importantly because inherited and cherished craft values are no longer being passed down through the generations. Nevertheless, overall, playing standards have rocketed, exciting new musical fusions have emerged, and jazz in College has been great. Until now, that is.
Conservatoire tuition fees will be £9,000 per annum from 2012; the overall cost of a four year undergraduate degree in a London College, rent and living expenses included, will be in the region of £80,000. The proportionate cost of a postgraduate degree may be even higher. Does this change anything?
‣ is there a career in jazz?
The price hikes should certainly give pause for thought if you are thinking of jazz as a commercial career, and College as an investment. Over the last fifty years, for a multitude of reasons, there has been a gradual contraction in the demand for live music. Once upon a time people had to go out to enjoy themselves in the warm, and they were used to doing it in front of live musicians. Parties, pub nights, restaurant meals, club nights, concerts, weddings, christenings, funerals, conferences, openings, closings, launches, lunches, exhibitions - the old list of job opportunities seems endless. The new list is shorter and less active. People enjoy themselves in different ways now - with the Internet, and Spotify, and YouTube.
But jazz musicians are resilient, resourceful and possibly a bit stupid, too. We taught ourselves to teach, and invented new opportunities for ourselves in Jazz Education. This has been very successful, and every year we now welcome not one or two but forty or fifty new professionals into the fold!
The combined effect of falling demand and rising supply means that jazz wages have gradually fallen. When I came into the business, in 1979, older musicians were already bemoaning the end of the good times. Those who started in the fifties were used to playing all day and all night, as much as they wanted to, in fact, for these were boom years for live and recorded entertainment. In those days becoming a musician was a sensible and desirable career choice, if you could hack the lifestyle. Long solos, short groupies, free drinks. Wages for successful players were many times higher than the national average. To these players, the eighties seemed lean and grim in comparison. But they seemed fair enough to me. The balance between supply and demand was such that if you were keen and flexible and worked hard you could earn. You could raise a family, buy a house. I remember a month in the late eighties with the Don Weller/Brian Spring Quartet (magnificent group!) where we played more than twenty gigs, mostly round the North of England, at around £90 per gig per musician with travel and accommodation paid on top.
How things have changed. This £90 equates to about £180 in today's money, and while a handful of clubs can still pay this, the volume of work just isn't there any more for the gigging jazz musician. There are too few audients and too many musicians. If you compete and are lucky enough to win a place on a touring scheme, some of the small clubs padding out the "tour" will pay tiny fees, most of the subsidy will go on fuel costs, and you will end up with less per gig than 25 years ago, not in real, but in actual terms. Bandleaders on these schemes, once their costs are fully recorded, will usually take a personal loss.
On the positive side, there remain a very small number of very highly paid concert opportunities for a very small number of very highly rated musicians. Also, while there are fewer gigs around generally, there are plenty of playing opportunities, especially in London, with a real upswing in the number of jam sessions and cheap or unpaid gigs. This is in fact a great time to be a jazz musician, unless you want to earn a living.
In these circumstances, is it sensible, commercially, to take on more than £50,000 in College debt in order to become a fulltime jazz musician? Sorry, that was a rhetorical question. It's not, of course it's not. But being a jazz musician has always been a vocational choice. If jazz is what you have to do, then you will make it work whatever the economic climate. If you don't have to do it, please go and do something else, if only for your own sake.
‣ How do you get to College?
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether it's sensible to go to College in the first place, I'll write a few words on the process of getting in. There are only a small number of jazz College places for all instruments, probably not more than sixty over the whole of the UK. Entry standards are high, and competition among the thousand or more applicants is fierce. Yet at the end of the audition period, the Colleges are often still scrabbling around to fill places on certain instruments. The reason for this is that there is actually a shortage of suitably qualified candidates for degree level jazz study. Many hundreds of keen and competent young musicians are rejected, even though there may be available places on their instrument, because they have little or no experience in small group improvising. These students will often have come up through the tiers of their County Music Service, and will be excellent ensemble players, with Orchestral and Big Band playing credits. But if they have no small group improvising language, they cannot be considered for a jazz degree. As a matter of fact, most jazz undergraduates already have a lot of jazz experience behind them. They will usually have a sizeable repertoire of tunes by heart, be keen transcribers, be frequent and confident giggers, will have had a jazz professional as an individual teacher, and may have attended the NYJC Summer School, and regular workshops at The Royal Academy, Bimingham Conservatoire, or dare I say, Jazz School UK.
This is the prevailing standard at entry, and mere jazz potential is not enough. The Colleges need to see jazz being delivered before they will consider you. If you, or any of your students or offspring are still in the pre-natal stage, my advice is, don't delay! The jazz skills and experience needed for College entry take at least two or three years to bed in. Get a consultation lesson via the Colleges, organise some individual lessons with a jazz professional, find some regular playing experience, audition for the NYJC summer school and the Junior Academy, contact us at Jazz School UK, and start learning tunes and transcribing solos! If you wait until sixteen, you may already be too late.
For older students wishing to do a jazz degree after an undergraduate degree in another subject, or as part of a career change in later life, the competition for places is still strong, but you may be relieved to know that the standard required within most institutions for postgraduate entry is much the same as for undergraduate entry. Sometimes, in fact, Colleges will allow slightly lower craft and language skills in postgraduate candidates because they are looking for other creative qualities.
It's worth noting as well that standards vary wildly among Conservatoires around the UK, to the extent that it is still possible for a student to graduate from the fourth year of one College with a playing standard which would not secure entry into the first year of another. There is a hierarchy, and this must be relevant if you are spending £80,000.
‣ but tell me, should I stay or should I go?
Anyway, assuming you can get in somewhere, I return to my question - should you go?
I really can't say. The Higher Education sector, our economy, and indeed our whole culture and society are in such a state of flux that all forward planning feels reckless. A Degree in Law suddenly has the same peril as a Degree in Jazz! You'll just have to follow your nose.
The debate continues in the left sidebar of this page, and in pub corners around the nation. But if you do have some spare time while you're deciding, don't waste it. Make your way to our lovely Shoefactory at Jazz School UK - you won't regret the journey.