By January 8, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Play along with Jamey.

Anyone who has taken even the most remotely academic or pedagogic path to learning how to play jazz in the last 50 years or so will know the work of Jamey Aebersold. In what seems now to be a natural way to teach improvisation and ear playing, Aebersold was one of the first to offer a series of recordings over which students could create solos, thereby learning the mechanics of jazz in the most immediate and effective way.

While in college back in the mid-1970’s, I was first exposed to his work by a roommate, who owned a few of Aebersold’s records. Typically, they would begin with Aebersold counting off the tempo, followed by a piano trio playing simple, comped backgrounds of a jazz standard upon which to improvise. Fake sheets in concert and horn keys would be provided with the discs. A simple idea now, and one akin to karaoke recordings, but at the time, they were seen as a way to free jazz education from the worst sins of the then-standard, sometimes comically professorial approaches to opening young ears to the mysteries of improvisation. Approaches that threatened to create an entire generation of stiff, sterile players.

Jazz feel, rhythm and sound are more innate among all genres of musicians now than they were 50 years ago, and among academics there seemed to be an either-or approach to jazz. Either you approached it from an analytical, European classical position, or you treated it as a non-academic, seat-of-the-pants sort of enterprise, with virtually no rules of engagement. Established conservatory-style educators almost never had any jazz background, nor did symphonic players, while jazz musicians—especially older ones—typically had less knowledge of theory and harmony than your average high school instructor. Learning jazz, then, usually meant using two sets of teachers to get the complete package of skills necessary to play it at anything like a competent level.

Aebersold’s recordings were part of a very new educational approach in the late 1960’s, one that for the first time utilized jazz-savvy, but academically-trained, teachers. David Baker and a very few others were the forerunners of this method which, for better or worse, has become the way most jazz players learn their craft. Regardless of one’s opinion of the increasing emphasis on pedagogy and repertoire in jazz over the last 40 years or so, Aebersold’s recordings seem to remain above reproach. After all, during the formative years of jazz, musicians learned not only at the feet of their mentors, but by playing along with them on records.

One is reminded of the recordings discovered some years ago of a young Charlie Parker playing with Dizzy Gillespie in a hotel room in Chicago—the so-called “Red Cross” recordings. Essentially amateur recordings made in 1943 while these two geniuses practiced and bullshitted in between shows with then-boss Earl Hines‘ band, in several instances they are simply Parker playing over the records of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Aebersold himself—and just about every other musician who’s ever attempted jazz—grew up using this technique, so he simply adapted it for horn players by eliminating the need to “ignore” the soloists on existing records.

Aebersold ended up teaching at the University of Louisville, and the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that in 2014, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards will recognize him for his contributions.

The paper reports that his legacy may well be defined by an incident that happened while Aebersold was visiting England, and he happened upon a busker playing saxophone accompanied by recordings stored on his iPod. Aebersold asked the busker if he had any Aebersold recordings on his playlists, and then tipped him off by reciting the rapid-fire introduction he has used on hundreds of tracks: “one, two, one-two, three-four.” “He (the busker) said, ‘hey, you’re Jamey Aebersold,’ and I thought that was great that he recognized me,” Aebersold recalled. “The guy had taught himself to play using my records. He was pretty good, too.”

If you’re curious, buy an Aebersold lesson and try it out, below.

Posted in: Jazz

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