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Point of View 

We asked respected Australian musician/
composer/teacher, Greg Foster
to answer the following question...

Greg Foster

February 2010

The Question:
Can any musician learn to play jazz?

Response by Greg Foster share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

I don't come from a particularly musical family but even as a young child I quickly found my way around a piano and worked out melodies, harmonies and chords instinctively. I was given a mouth organ and in no time could play any song from the popular repertoire of my contemporary Australian 8 year old peers. I took an interest in the blues music records my older brother was listening to and was fascinated by what Sonny Terry could get out of the humble mouth organ. I always felt the need to know how things work so I listened intently and worked out what he was doing to produce the notes and bends and trills, etc., and so taught myself to play blues harp.

When I was a teenager going out and listening to jazz bands playing in pubs I would be watching the musicians, watching their hands and their faces, and listening to each individual performer, working out the role of each instrument and admiring the ability of each player, and sensing the musical form of each song.

One day it struck me that not everyone in the audience listening to the band could hear what I was hearing, notice what I noticed or connect the way I did. The whole audience burst into applause at one point because they thought the song had finished. It was obvious to me that there was no finality in the chords just played. What were they hearing? How were they being affected? It seemed to me they were connecting to the music on an entirely different level. They felt the beat, were drawn in by the mood and excited by the driving pulse but few felt the balance of the song's structure, related to its tonality, or understood how the soloist's improvised pattern of notes related to the chord structure. If you asked almost anyone of them "How many musicians are in the band…What instruments are playing?…Who played a solo during the last song?...Was the last song in a major or minor key?" I doubt that the response from most would be much more than a blank stare.

That was a revelation to me because until then I guess I just assumed that everyone thought the way I did. I suppose there are many musicians who could tell a similar story. So how then should a band of musicians "sell" their music to an audience? They could either play the music that is most satisfying to their own creative thirst in the hope that the joy or self-satisfaction exudes from the stage and connects with the audience, or they could, making a conscious commercial decision, try to appeal to "the lowest common denominator", in other words, work on the elements which will most likely excite and satisfy the average listener.

But the interesting question to me in all of this is why doesn't everyone perceive music in a similar way? It doesn't seem to be contingent on musical education. I doubt that my own set of circumstances would be rare. Does this mean that only some are born with the "music gene" – providing a capacity to instinctively understand musical concepts? or at least a predisposition to a musically investigative capacity? My opinion is that there is some truth in this.

Let's now take this a step further. There are of course lots of young musicians who would be similarly observant and manage to connect to the intricacies of the music when listening to a live jazz band performing. Does this mean that they could all potentially play jazz? I think not. There is another dimension, another level of connection involved in jazz performance that is not present in many other types of music. Classical music requires a great deal of skill, musical aptitude, a high level of musical knowledge, sensitivity and dedication but this does not mean that any classical musician necessarily possesses the wherewithal to become a successful jazz performer and this applies to even the finest classical players. However I believe that the finest jazz players, generally speaking, do have the necessary attributes to be classical musicians if so inclined. In fact many would have been classically trained before going into jazz. There are of course many musicians who successfully play in both genres and perhaps even play rock or other types of music. Many of the best rock bands in the world are at least partially made up of musicians with a jazz playing background.

It is also important to note that popular musical styles including Rock, Folk, Country, Bluegrass, Blues and others frequently incorporate a similar improvisatory element to jazz although to a lesser degree. In jazz it is the principal defining element.

So apart from the "music gene" there also seems to be a "jazz gene" that is required as well.

You may well ask "Where was this 'jazz gene' before jazz came into being in the early 20th Century?" In my opinion "jazz" does not just refer to the style of American music labeled "jazz". I go along with the pianist Bill Evans who said jazz is more a process of spontaneity than a style. I believe that this improvisatory process of spontaneity was always present and that there were always "jazz" musicians. In earlier forms of music – early classical, baroque, and renaissance, etc., musicians were often required to improvise and some even became renowned virtuosos in the art of improvising impressive cadenzas and other solo passages. These and perhaps countless folk musicians and singers from many cultures and countries over the centuries probably possessed the "jazz gene".

So my answer to the question, "Can any musician learn to play jazz?" is no. I believe the genetic predisposition must be present to some degree, or at least an innate inclination to the necessary musical improvisatory approach.

This is only my humble opinion and I'm sure I will attract vigorous dissent. The contrary view may be that given the right circumstances, being in an atmosphere immersed in jazz, that any young musician's capacity to improvise effectively may be activated and nurtured.

I would love to hear the opinions of others so please don't hesitate to leave your comments below.

(See a previous article on a related topic)

Greg Foster

© 2010 Greg Foster

Have Your Say
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to post your comments.

Hi Richie, I'm not suggesting there may be an actual "jazz gene". I'm using this term as a metaphor for a predisposition toward a capacity to "improvise", not only in the musical sense but also in the more general sense. The essentially human characteristic which separates humans from most other life forms is our ability to adapt to our environment by clever, intelligent invention. This inventive capacity is probably what enabled Homo Sapiens to prevail over Neanderthals more than a million years ago, which incidentally provides the necessary time span to facilitate its evolution (to address another of your points). Thanks for your comments, Greg

Posted by Greg Foster on Sunday 11 April 2010

I appreciate the comment on the Oliver Sax writings more than the overall body of the original article. I need to say that tho neurological in nature, the conditions of the abovementioned are more among the "mutations toward evolutionary change" category, but the essential association of natural selection for this to become a genetic trait does not, in my mildly opinion, appear to be in place. I also gravitate to the last paragraph of the article that up holds the old "Nature vs Nurture" debate. I support that view. I feel the essentially Darwinian concept of having a jazz gene is not supported by the the environmental requirements nor the time spans that would facilitate its evolution or even its development on a genetic level. I also would question that research and theory to support a specific "jazz gene" would be difficult to scientifically establish and, as such, conclusions drawn from any anecdotal evidence would be inconclusive. As we are putting forward anecdotal views on the human ability to become jazz performers, I have a theory of my own. It works on the premise that essentially, in varying degrees, we all have the genetic pre disposition to become jazz musicians. The outcome relies on two specific factors. 1. Significant and Sequential Exposure, (SSE) and 2. Early Recognition of Social and Personal Advantage. Though this needs elaboration, it would be out of place on this forum. Expansion on these two points will provide, in my opinion, all the motivation and insight that is required to become accomplished jazz performers. The forum is fab. Keep up the good work :-)

Posted by Richie Robinson on Sunday 11 April 2010

Hi Greg, I agree with all your points. At the fringes are savants and geniuses on one end and people with severe disability at the other, and the rest of the population in between. Some people seem to take to things much quicker than others - whatever the reasons are. But even Mozart was taught seriously about music from a very young age. Returning to my speaking and writing analogy I think that there are people who display great aptitude with words, or learn several languages etc. and there are others who have less ability. But most people learn to use language to some level of success. I think most people could learn to play tennis too - not enough to make a living at it but to achieve basic competency. I think that in certain circumstances a large majority of a population could learn to play jazz. Not all would exhibit exceptional improvising skills but they could take a solo on a simple song. I guess we come again to "what is jazz?" and at what level would we say "After several years of studying now this person can play jazz". In my experience playing "jazz" is actively discouraged all the way through our culture (in many cases any art is viewed suspiciously). Parents don't understand it, many teachers are threatened by it, friends can hate it, ignorant journalists ridicule it, TV stations generally won't broadcast it, arts bureaucrats don't like to fund it. Most people are indifferent or hostile to it. But I'm sure there could be a scenario where, like tennis, there existed masters, professionals, and many many enthusiastic recreational players who play just well enough to amuse themselves and have some fun.

Posted by Matt McMahon on Friday 5 February 2010

The fact that some people cannot sing in tune and are often unaware of this, and some seem devoid of rhythmic perception and yet others with no training sing in tune and sense rhythm instinctively, indicates that we are not all the same. Where I teach I know two severely autistic boys with limited social and cognitive skills, who have minimal communication skills and therefore serious learning limitations. One sings and whistles perfectly in tune whilst the other seems to have no perception of pitch and sings in a monotone. This tells me that we are all possibly equipped differently from birth. It is known that anomalies in the brain or specific injuries to the brain can have striking effects on a range of personal characteristics and abilities. Oliver Sacks in his book, Musicophilia, writes about a surgeon with no previous interest in music who is struck by lightning and immediately becomes obsessed with Chopin and begins playing the piano. He also writes about a condition called amusia which is the inability or inhibited ability of the brain to process music. There are two autistic savants, Rex Lewis-Clack and Derek Paravicini who are both blind and severely intellectually impaired but have incredible musical talent and can play back the most demanding musical piece on the piano after hearing it only once. Neither of them can tie his shoelaces nor take care of his most basic self-care needs. As the mysteries of the human brain are unraveled by scientific research a plethora of new questions arise. You may be thinking that I have strayed from the topic at hand but what I am trying to point out is that perhaps some are born with the prerequisites of musicianship, some are not, and perhaps some are born with the capacity to develop exceptional musical improvisation skills. I don't think we can reject this proposition out of hand.

Posted by Greg Foster on Thursday 4 February 2010

Very interesting. I think that learning to talk and being able to read and write are amazing skills, comparable to improvising in music. A large proportion of the human race manage to do these things and I suspect the learning of these abilities is driven by need and desire - "Give me food" , "I don't want to go to sleep!". It's definitely in an individual's interest to learn these things. For a lot of us in Western countries , especially these days, an interest in jazz (or many other forms of creative expression) has questionable social benefits. Only a certain kind of person who is prepared to go against the herd will stick at it - as listener or player. In other cultures and eras participating in music, even sophisticated improvising music, has occupied a more central place in daily life. The norm is or has been to participate. I can imagine a culture where many more people played and learnt about jazz or any kind of creative music. In the Sydney scene I've seen the result of a high school having just one motivated teacher and the impact that this can have on a whole music community. I'm thinking of people like Steve Williams, Saul Richardson or Anthony Gullick, Eric Dunan - teachers responsible for creating a culture of excitement for music and introducing many current professional musicians to jazz. Not all people who play jazz will become masters but many can take a chorus on a blues or Autumn Leaves and give pleasure to themselves, their collaborators and listeners. I think the real issue is "do I have a strong need/desire to play jazz?" which for most people, it seems, the answer is no. Many people underestimate what is involved in learning any kind of discipline and give up, discouraged before they've made a serious attempt. But in certain circles and situations, and for certain individuals the answer is yes. If people are exposed in an enthusiastic way then the desire may be kindled. I wonder what would happen if the government or James Packer introduced financial incentives (or extra donuts) to primary school students who could solo on Autumn Leaves - unlikely and ethically problematic but I think there would be some results. This is the kind of incentive which attracts young people to sport beyond their intrinsic interest- money, fame, respect, attention. In the West Indies cricket now has to compete with the attractions of basketball and the lure of other American sports from across the water where it was once the uniting factor amongst the separate countries of the Caribbean. The dominance of cricket by the West Indies has declined over the last couple of decades because of a changing social context. In a similar way I think the perceived importance of any kind of instrumental music has declined during the last century in the west. For many people "music" means "five minute songs". In this climate only a relatively small proportion of people have an interest in jazz. My knowledge of science is hazy. I'm not sure about genes but maybe the neurons just aren't firing...

Posted by Matt McMahon on Thursday 4 February 2010

My personal observations of musicians across the spectrum of musical genres is that not just any one can learn to be a jazz musician. Sure, if musicians who want to learn how to play jazz, just listen to jazz for long enough they will get the idea but that still doesn't mean that they can play jazz as only the true follower is touched by the magic and the others learn the twenty most popular standards and claim to be jazz players. I know individuals who have music collections of pure music and yet cant themselves play any musical insruments. But their love of the jazz makes them more like jazz musicians than some players who claim to be jazz musicians and yet to my perception, can't even keep simple time. No, not every musician can become a jazz musician.

Posted by Ian Beddows on Wednesday 3 February 2010

No other special skills are required to play jazz except determination and the ability to listen well

Posted by John Harkins on Wednesday 3 February 2010
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