You’re doing it wrong: Why do so many jazz educators teach us to think first — and listen second?

I recently came across an interview segment featuring the always innovative alto saxophonist, a true artist, Gary Bartz, in which he discussed the current state of jazz education.

In my eyes (and ears), Bartz is a true artist, and stemming from the title of one of his recent albums, Coltrane Rules: Tao of a Music Warrior, he is a warrior of this music. Bartz, a Grammy award winner, has toured and recorded with the greatest of warriors including Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. Currently, when he isn’t teaching saxophone at Oberlin Conservatory of Music (one of the premier conservatories in the country), he performs with McCoy Tyner.

In the interview above, Bartz argues that jazz education has it backwards. What does he mean by this? It means that today, students are taught music theory and technique first. They learn the chords, scales and songs in the classroom, and are tested on which licks to play on a certain chord with pen and paper. The process involves thinking first and hearing second. He argues that during the days when he was learning music, because there were no schools, he and others were forced to learn from the records themselves, which reinforced learning by ear and creating a more personal way of learning: “We found our sound when we were learning the music.”

Bartz argues that today, jazz education has things turned around. Students go to the same schools, learn from the same books, study with the same teachers, and thus, they “tend to sound the same way.” It isn’t until after they learn the music that they are forced to develop their own sound.

Of course, this does not apply to all musicians who have attended conservatories and music schools. The likes of Brad Mehldau and Chris Potter attended conservatories, and they are absolutely brilliant artists, creating some of the most innovative music of today. Perhaps some would even argue that they are knocking on the door of genius.

Though I must admit that in this interview, Gary Bartz may have summed up the fundamental hang-up that the many of the younger generation of jazz musicians have. Earlier this year, I went to a jam session in New York City. Lined up against the wall in the corner of the room, was about 25 musicians, the majority of which were alto saxophonists, waiting for their turn to solo. After the tune, the person next to me said, “Don’t they all sound the same?” He said that if he didn’t have his eyes open, he would’ve thought that it was the same musician soloing all the way through. I can’t say that I entirely agree, but he had a point. And I think it’s the same one that Gary Bartz is making, which is this:

Because most of the students don’t develop their ear, and do not develop a personal relationship to the music in the way that Bartz and his generation did, many musicians today lack their own unique and innovative sound. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some mind-blowing musicians out there with incredible musical ears, because there are. They are just harder to find.

The younger musicians that I admire most seem to be the ones that learned by ear first. I find them to be the most musical and melodic. One such musician is a 21-year-old tenor saxophonist from London named Alex Hitchcock — watch out for this guy, because he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the very near future.

I certainly do not want to sound like an authority of the matter, because I will be the first to admit that I learned the music backwards. I’m able to see that all the hours that I spent reading about the theory, and memorizing the lines and patterns from the books, would have been much better spent if instead, I sat down with the records and transcribed repeatedly. I would have become a completely different player and would have had an entirely different relationship to the music.

Does jazz education have it backwards? In my opinion, coming from those that learned it backwards and is now struggling to swim against the tide to learn the way that the warriors learned this music: Absolutely, yes.

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David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a PhD researcher in music psychology at the University of Cambridge in England.He also plays saxophone in various groups including the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra. Follow him on Twitter: @dgreenberg7. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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