One of the most important ‘laws’ of learning jazz is this: You must be simultaneously creating your own original music while studying the tradition. Digging into the past is one of the most important things you can do as a player. It’s the fuel for your creativity. Highly creative people have simply fed their minds with fuel for their creative fires. Now let’s talk about some practical ways you can dig into the tradition and feed your fire.
1. The history playlist. Begin by choosing a topic to focus on. For instance time-feel, articulation, phrasing, vocabulary, etc. Next create a playlist of one great player or band from each 10-year period of jazz from the twenties to the present. As an example you might choose an early recording of Louis Armstrong for the 20’s, one of Count Basie for the 30’s, Charlie Parker for the 40’s, Charles Mingus for the 50’s and so on. You would then listen to this playlist everyday for one month as part of your daily practice session. While listening ask focus in on your topic. Notice how your topic changed over the years from player to player. How did it stay the same? You’ll begin to notice a common thread through the tradition and you will also be filling your creative wellspring with ideas, concepts and information.
2. Check out the “in-between” guys. Miles and Trane are great. They are two of the greatest musicians to ever live. But they aren’t the only two musicians. There are literally thousands of great cats that popular history has seemed to forget for one reason or another. There is a lot to learn and benefit from studying these lesser-known jazz masters. And you’ll be pulling cool ideas out of a less crowded creative pool. Everyone checks out Miles and Trane. But not everyone checks out Booker Irvin or Lennie Tristano. Start with the sidemen of the greats you already know. Google them and find their discographies. Who else did they play with? Then ask, who else did those musicians play with, etc. It’s an endless pursuit. You will never run out of music to check out.
3. Pick a master to focus on. Another idea is to pick just one player to focus on. For instance, you could have a “player of the month.” Say you decided to focus on Lennie Tristano. For one month you would devote a period of your practice session each day to listening to and studying Lennie Tristano. Buy a few of his recordings. Read a biography. Search on YouTube for footage of him performing. Transcribe a solo. Emulate his articulation, phrasing, rhythmic feel, tone, dynamics, etc. Then, after a period with Lennie, move on to someone else. Perhaps move on to a contemporary of Lennie’s. Or jump around in the tradition to, say, 1970’s McCoy Tyner.
4. Exercise your creative muscle. I’m gonna get a little metaphysical on you here. Many musicians and artists are romantic types. They are attracted to a ‘mysterious’ side of art. Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no mystery or magic to creativity. Creativity happens because you ‘create’. Life is creativity. The universe is creativity. Therefore all of us are creative. To create you only need to take action. Get in the habit creating something everyday. Write something, anything. It could be a one bar melody, it could be a rhythm, it could be a groove. Just create something. You cannot wait for some idea to strike out of thin air. You must take action. Just do it. Overtime this creative process will become easy and natural.