Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gary Bartz, Jazz Education & Improvisation

An interesting interview with Gary Bartz on All About Jazz which I was alerted to via @freeformjazzy on Twitter. He makes some interesting observations regarding the jazz study programs and young students – Bartz is a professor at the Jazz Studies Program at Oberlin Conservatory of Music – as well as the notion of improvisation.

On jazz students:
  • "My students come in and they can't listen because their first (music) education was reading," he shares. "That's backwards! Your ear is the most important thing in music and you have to start by really listening."
  • [H]is wish to get music out of the classroom and back into the streets more where young people will learn it the same way they learned to talk. Music, he points out, is a language, one he thinks we should learn from a young age.
  • [S]tudents are learning someone else's version of a composition rather than listening and figuring it out for themselves. 
  • "I didn't just listen. I studied. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was studying the music and that developed my ear."
  • "[Students] go to school to learn jazz which means they miss out on a whole lot of stuff. If all they are studying is jazz, they are not studying music. They need to study music and then they can play whatever they want."

On improvisation:
  •  "Listen to the dictionary definition for improvise: 'unstudied, off-hand, unprepared, unplanned,'" he reads from the dictionary app on his iPhone. "I resent all of that. I've studied too hard over all these years to have what I do described that way." The term Bartz uses instead is "spontaneous composition." Practicing some days for 12 hours at a stretch, he says he knows what he is going to play, even if it is only the second before he plays it. He only improvises if he makes a mistake.
I don't know which dictionary Bartz consulted, but Merriam-Webster is a bit kinder: "to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously" or "to make, invent, or arrange offhand". However, I see where he's coming from. It's not like jazz musicians, when they do not consult or stick to written charts, pull things out of the thin air. No, their knowledge is tied to Bartz' first points, by having listened, then played, made up their own thoughts about what was going on and developing that further. It's what I understand when I hear "improvisation", but using "spontaneous composition" (reminds me of the late Butch Morris' conductions, described as a spontaneous arranging method) might rectify some misconceptions that could still be out there concerning playing jazz-related music.

1 comment:

Toby said...


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