I have been reflecting on one of the paradoxes of live jazz-the extent to which the live performances we hear from are rehearsed or not. And this raises a further question concerning a jazz musician’s fitness or readiness to appear on the professional bandstand.

Prior to the mid-1970’’s when initially in the U.S. and then in Europe and beyond the development of specific jazz courses of study at higher education conservatoires became the established production line for emerging jazz talent, earlier generations of jazz musicians developed their jazz “chops “through intensive individual study and then went on to establish established their jazz credentials on the road and through live performance. 

Jazz musicians as diverse as Monk, Dexter Gordon, Bird, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Tracey and Tubby Hayes are all examples of artists who achieved greatness through a combination of intense practice and many years of performing at both gigs and informal jam sessions and cutting contests. Joshua Redmond, Emmett Cohen, Gwilym Simcock, Ethan Iverson, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Jon Baptiste are all examples of contemporary jazz musicians who initially polished their craft through intensive programmes of study at music schools.

In both cases earning the right to call yourself a professional jazz musician requires the following;

  1. An initial period of intense personal study of jazz harmony, melody, & rhythm- the phase described as “woodshedding”
  2. Very high levels of proficiency in your chosen instrument
  3. Comprehensive knowledge of many or most jazz standards in all keys, not just the familiar keys. (Singers are notorious for choosing songs in “difficult” keys) . At a jam session you will be expected to step onto the bandstand and play and improvise on a tune and in a key chosen by the resident trio. Failing to rise to that real time challenge can lead to a very public and personal humiliation.
  4. Exceptional listening skills and, in most cases, great empathy.

One of my great discoveries through the lockdown period have Emmett Cohen’s weekly Live From Emmet’s Place performances from his Harlem apartment.

Tune into any of those performances and you will hear great jazz musicians from multiple generations playing tunes with great dexterity and with no prior preparation. These are tunes that the assembled players “know” in the most meaningful senses. They know the tunes intimately and can trace their lineage back through jazz history. So, an apparently spontaneous decision to play All the Things You Are could become a homage to Lee Konitz who spent more than 60 years of his professional life playing that tune., and always finding new improvisational dimensions to it. Here’s Konitz making the same point,

“I practised All the Things You Are thousands and thousands of times. Each time I had the impression that I was improvising on it for the first time”

Which brings me to one of the great paradoxes of jazz. To reach the required four-point standard that I have described you must work with great intensity and dedication, while on the bandstand the floor is yours, and the improvisational possibilities are endless.

Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Grrry Mulligan late 40’s birth of the cool recording session

I have read scores of jazz biographies. In every one, whether we are talking about Charlie Parker, Hampton Hawes, Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman, these guys’ early years were spent locked away for up to 12 hours a day learning their jazz craft, preparing to receive ( or not) the professional respect from fellow musicians. Often a long and very lonely learning process.

One famous anecdote will suffice for this purpose. Charlie Parker was born and raised in Kansas City one of the regional hot houses for jazz in the 20’s and 30’s. Visiting big name bands almost always went on to play jam sessions in the early hours following their scheduled performances, attracting local musicians eager to test their skills against the best in class. In 1937 the Basie band were in town and a 17-year-old Parker felt that he had developed his jazz chops sufficiently to sit in. A tune was called in a key Bird was unfamiliar with, halfway through his second chorus solo Jo Jones the Basie drummer was so exasperated that he threw a symbol at Parker. A particularly brutal reaction, but Bird’s response was to redouble his practice regime and never be found wanting again. The rest of course was history.

Lester Young Courtesy of Roy Corcovado

So, to the paradox I have referred to; these generations of exceptional jazz musicians who worked so painstakingly to hone their craft, in order to join or lead bands with almost no inclination to plan or rehearse their repertoire!

Bill Evans one of the most thoroughly schooled and reflective pianists of any genre in the 20th century according to Eddie Gomez his long-time bass player almost never rehearsed and rarely pre-planned the repertoire he would play on any given night. He expected his bandmates to respond in whatever direction he chose to go on any given night.

In their individual recollections, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter all members of Miles Davis’s classic 60’s quintet describe being hired via a phone call from Miles and thrown directly into performance without any prior rehearsal, Miles had judged them to be ready and good enough. He expected them to be totally familiar with his repertoire. The rest was down to them.

Art Blakey the great drummer recruited to his Jazz Messengers in a similar rubric. In his case you were expected to both know and contribute to the repertoire and to play without the aid of sheet music. All the tunes likely to be called had to be lodged in each musician’s DNA. Blakey was also the pre-eminent developer of jazz talent and would always indicate to his sidemen when the time was right to move on, to lead their own bands.

Neither Monk nor Bird ever knowingly rehearsed. The fact that you were chosen was a mark of confidence in what you could bring to the band.

Booker Ervin Courtesy of Roy Corcovado

Neither Monk nor Bird ever knowingly rehearsed. The fact that you were chosen was a mark of confidence in what you could bring to the band.

While the great saxophonist Lee Konitz who was of this generation, he ploughed a more individual path. He practised intensely right up to the end of his life, he died at age 93 in 2020. Konitz studied at the “university” of the legendary pianist Lennie Tristano in the late 40’s and early 50’s where he was encouraged to sing every recorded solo of Lester Young. In the mid-70’s I heard Konitz at Ronnie Scott’s effortlessly reprising a Lester Young solo note-for-note with Peter Ind on bass and then proceed to weave his own improvisatory patterns over Young’s solo lines. Unforgettable.

Of his time spent studying with the driven and irascible Tristano Konitz said,

He felt and communicated that music was a serious matter, It wasn’t a game, or a means of making a living, it was a life force.”

I will be blogging in the coming weeks on the great bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus whose centenary year this is. Somewhat typically Mingus rehearsed his bands intensively but when it came to performance insisted that they played without music and with a warning never to repeat a solo. Mingus being Mingus liked to have it both ways.

The Playlist

In order to keep the playlist reasonably compact I have chosen a selection of jazz standards by jazz virtuosi from the pre-conservatoire era for whom rehearsal seemed an unnecessary chore. So, look out for music from Bird, Bud, Monk, Blakey. Bill Evans, Miles, and Cannonball Adderley. Look out for four classic versions of All The Things You Are that pop up through the playlist and paired versions of It Never Entered My Mind , My Funny Valentine and God Bless the Child.