Insights from studying Jazz

Looking back over my many years of learning about music, I can see how pieces in a puzzle were waiting to fall into place. Maybe a good teacher or two could have shown me this. Maybe not. But at any rate, I see the value now in memorizing.

This morning I got up and kept working on memorizing the Jazz standard tune, “All the Things You Are” by Kern and Hammerstein. In Levine’s Jazz Music Theory book, he has a list of tunes you should know if you are going to be a Jazz musician. Then in this list he marks the indispensible tunes. I thought to myself, what the heck, why don’t I memorize a couple?

I made a note of a few of the ones he recommended and pulled up mutliple recordings of them on Napster. I played these as I cleaned house yesterday. I found that I really liked the tune, “All the Things You Are,” and kept sitting down to play along with Ahmad Jamal, Django Reinhart or Parker and Gillespi. Before you know it, I had half the tune in my head from memory.

I refered to Levine’s piano book for a few voicings of the chords. And this is the basic insight I am getting from this study: that jazz chords are not nearly as mystical as I always thought they were. Usually I already know them in some form from playing so much music and doing some experimenting with chords on my own. In fact I have found only one chord that is actually new to me (a sus flat nine if your interested… spelled from the lowest note in the key of A: E, F, A, B, E).

As I memorized this piece I began to understand several things. First, that memorization can internalize music in a way that helps me understand what I already can hear. I had a friend in college (Phil Pilorz) who developed a sort of relative perfect pitch. He could hum any pitch but it took him a second to find it in relationship to the one or two pitches he remembered from playing rock music over and over.

In the same way, “All the things you are” is built on one basic interval over and over in different keys (the Perfect fourth is what musicians call it). I have no trouble remembering the sound of this melody in my head. But if you asked me to sing a certain pitch from memory, I would think to myself, “I don’t have perfect pitch.” But I can remember these pitches. Hmmmm. It seems to me that memorizing could help my self confidence. So what the heck, eh?

I can remember years ago listening to a Paul Simon song (Try a Little Tenderness) and hearing a chord that I remembered from a certain Palestrina or Renaissance piece. I pulled out the other recording and sure enough there was not only the chord but it was the exact same pitches.

I think my interest in Jazz right now is like being interested in a puzzle I can understand. I’m not turning into a Jazz aficionado but I do seem to be studying Jazz right now. Hmmm.

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