I have taught jazz piano and composition for many years at music schools including New England Conservatory, The New School, The Manhattan School and have given workshops, master classes and done residencies at schools around the world; I am been lucky to have taught a number of prominent young pianists. And one thing keeps showing up constantly when I travel around and when I teach – the need to learn how to listen. One would think this is a pretty basic thing to do – after all, not of us heard jazz, got “bit” by the jazz bug and decided to get more serious about playing it. But sometimes along the way, certain skills are not developed.
I learned how to play jazz in Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 1970’s in the oral tradition – playing with older players and learning on the bandstand. No Real Book, no chord changes on the iPhone! I just listened, learned standards and bebop tunes/jazz composition off of records or had them shown to me. I often consulted song book collections by the greats of American Popular Song – Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, Gershwin, Kern – and learned the lyrics as well. I didn’t transcribe solos, but I would often live with just one album on my turntable for days at a time and would try to “channel” that particular player when I sat down, often playing a tune I had heard him play.
The first time I sat in at a jazz club in the winter of 1973, I stumbled through “Autumn Leaves” for the first time playing with a professional rhythm section– and the local tenor sax god told me I could come back and play again but I had to learn some more tunes and work on my time feel. I didn’t know any other guys my age who were that into jazz, so I went to the record store and bought every LP that had “Autumn Leaves” on it – 13 albums! Oscar Peterson, a couple versions by Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughn – and I took them home and played all of those performances back to back. It was hard to pick one that was “the best” so I figured out that the whole idea was to play it your way with conviction. It was a real (and lucky) epiphany.
Later on, when I met some slightly older jazz players who had great record collections, we would sit for hours at a time on the sofa and just listen. No doing email, no talking, not in the car or on the treadmill – it was an almost sacred ritual. I scoured record stores – both new and used – and bought almost any album with a pianist on it to check out. Soon I was drawn to a variety of players going back to Earl “Fatha” Hines – still one of my favorite solo players.
I find that many of the younger pianists I encounter have listened to all of the same records – many by living pianists – but have not checked out the whole history of jazz piano and of jazz music in general. It is such a rich lineage that it’s hard to believe jazz is barely 100 years old! Yes, it costs some money to do this (as it does to go to concerts and clubs), but often there are listening libraries that make the music available free – and you will also get to read the liner notes where you can learn so much (something you don’t get on iTunes or Spotify).
Here’s a listening exercise that I find helpful for anyone who plays – or for anyone who is a serious listener. Take one track – I’ll use a Miles Davis Quintet track, whichever edition suits you – and listen to it seven times in a row with your eyes closed. The first time, just listen and enjoy. The second time, zero in on the bass and drums and try to ascertain what’s going on: is the drummer behind the beat and the bass player on top? Or vice versa? Does the time move forward or stay in the middle etc? The second time, listen to each soloist in turn and see if their phrases start on pickups or hard beats? Where do they leave space? The third time, the comping: where is the piano placing his chords? And when he solos, where does he place his left hand? You can go on to harmony and substitute chords; form (how do they build a solo); and whatever else you want. But listen with focus to one element of the performance each time you listen. After all, if you can listen to recorded music with concentration and discernment, how will you listen well to yourself and others on the bandstand?
Learning to listen purposefully will yield results for whatever you do in your life – whether music or something else becomes your vocation. It is one of the qualities and skills that make us uniquely human.
Written by Fred Hersch
(Note: Do you want to start learning more about jazz piano in a way that’s organized and structured? Are you looking for a starting point? If so, check out our FREE beginner guidebook to get the scoop!)