Nurture, not nature: a Christmas message on learning jazz

If you want to become good at playing jazz, you can, but you have to put in the work. This is a message of hope and encouragement for all students learning jazz. Forget about about whether or not you “have it”. Don’t be tricked into thinking it is all “just from the heart”. Ignore claims that jazz musicians are born not made. It is not just nature that creates jazz players, it is teaching, learning, and work. Nurture, not nature. Magic does not create great jazz musicians, but great jazz musicians can create magic. Ignore the hype and just get on with the work.

Our message to you, dear jazz students, teachers, parents, and everyone really, is that becoming good at playing jazz does not start with some kind of special gift. It comes through effort over time, greatly helped by effective teaching, learning, access to opportunities, mentorship, and dedication. This may sound hard and drawn-out, and it can be. But it also highlights that achievement in playing jazz can be accessible to anyone who sets their mind to it.

The rest of this post expands on this, arguing the case supported by evidence. If you are time-poor, treat the above as your “TL/DR”.

Unbelievable claims

Some jazz people may argue against this. For instance, a number of jazz musicians interviewed by Australian journalist and critic Jim McLeod through the 1980s and 90s made unhelpful claims such as that jazz is indeed a born gift. Singer Betty Carter said ‘You’ve got to have a feeling for it. I don’t think jazz can be taught … if you don’t have that little ingredient that makes you a jazz player you never will be’ (2001, p. 76).  Saxophonist Don Burrows claimed that the root of his success was based on “Ninety-nine percent natural ability” (2001, p. 18). Art Blakey, a legend of jazz drums, told one reviewer “I’m self-taught—I had no kind of training at all”, attributing his learning to “a natural gift” (Blakey, 1987, para. 13). This was despite taking piano lessons as a child (Miller, N.D), playing piano at school and drums in junior high school band (Blakey, 2005), drum lessons with Chick Webb, and mentoring by Sid Catlett and Kenny Clarke (Gourse, 2002). Former child-prodigy, pianist Joey Alexander more recently claimed his playing “comes from my heart, not from technique or anything… and that’s jazz” (Rowan, 2015). He has also told interviewers that he had no teachers, a claim that, anecdotally, upset and bemused the several teachers he had in Bali.

Sometimes musicians will disguise their grandiose claims of natural gifts behind assertions such as “you can’t teach jazz. You can learn how to play it but nobody can teach you jazz”, made by clarinettist Artie Shaw (2001, p. 30). The implication of foregrounding self-teaching in this way is that jazz comes from within, success is dependent upon the special characteristics of certain gifted people. As saxophonist, academic, and educator Keith Kelly highlights, this mystique surrounding jazz musicians is reinforced for the jazz community by the relative and uncritical general silence of biographers on the early learning of famous players:

there are few accounts of how musicians learn to play jazz in the earliest parts of their musical lives. Those that exist are within the biographies of notable players and tend toward the fantastic, as a way to position the musician as somehow having a preternatural connection to the music that could not help but be let loose on the world. (Kelly, 2013, pp. 8-9)

Interrogating the wild claims

However, if we interrogate some musician’s claims more deeply, we may start to get at the truth. For example, when Joey Alexander claims his ability as “a gift from God”, he goes on to add that “it’s a gift I’ve had to learn. It takes hard work and focus.” (2016, Paragraph 7). So, sure – maybe he has a gift, but such gifts are meaningless without learning and focused hard work over time. Similarly, when pianist Hal Galper argues that “no one can teach anyone how to play jazz, it is, has and always will be, a self-taught process that cannot be bypassed” (n.d), he is certainly being misleading about the significant role of teaching in jazz, but the subtext is that it takes individual work.

The widespread notion that jazz greats are almost universally self-taught is quite simply false. For in-depth research to show this, see Ake (2012) or my own doctoral study (Richardson, 2019). Participation in organised music education, very often jazz-specific training, is extremely common among jazz musicians, great or otherwise. It is genuinely rare to find a jazz great who did not receive training during their early years.

The reality: It just takes work

As a teacher, of course I would argue the importance of teaching. However, it was the contradiction between the popular rhetoric of jazz as dominated by gifted autodidacts, and my own experiences as a student and a jazz educator with many successful alumni that sparked my interest and led to my research. The explanation for why the contradiction exists is for another post (also see Richardson, 2019), but it exists. Gifts from God and self-teaching make for sexy publicity, but for those of us who wish to learn or teach jazz, that rhetoric is misleading and unhelpful. Don’t be fooled by it nor distracted. Gift or no gift, hard work over time is what will get you there, if anything will. An effective teacher will help make your learning much more focused and efficient and can provide invaluable mentorship and encouragement during your jazz journey. Even if there were preternaturally gifted autodidacts who can play at a professional level from the first moment they pick up a horn (there aren’t), the near-universal majority of the musicians you admire and aspire to be got there through sustained and focused hard work. You can too.

Merry Christmas!

Dr Saul Richardson, Principal & Co-founder at Jazz Workshop Australia

References

Ake, D. (2012). Crossing the street: rethinking jazz education. In D. Ake, C. Garrett, & D. Goldmark (Eds.), Jazz/not jazz: the music and its boundaries (pp. 237-263). Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Alexander, J. (2016). The master of the keys: Joey Alexander, Indonesia [interview]/interviewer N. Jenkins. Retrieved from https://time.com/collection/next-generation-leaders/4518781/joey-alexander-next-generation-leaders/. Time magazine.

Blakey, A. (1987) More messages from the messenger/Interviewer: L. Tomkins. Estate of Art Blakey.

Blakey, A. (2005). Interview with Art Blakey/interviewer: W.R. Stokes. In W. R. Stokes (Ed.), Growing up with jazz: twenty-four musicians talk about their lives and careers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burrows, D. (2001). Don Burrows [interview]/interviewer: J.McLeod. In J. McLeod (Ed.), Jim McLeod’s jazztrack (pp. 15-22). Sydney: ABC Books.

Carter, B. (2001). Betty Carter [interview]/interviewer: J.McLeod. In J. McLeod (Ed.), Jim McLeod’s jazztrack (pp. 74-83). Sydney: ABC Books.

Galper, H. (n.d). Letters. Retrieved from https://www.halgalper.com/commentary/letters/

Gourse, L. (2002). Art Blakey: jazz messenger. New York: Music Sales Group.

Kelly, K. (2013). A New Cartography: learning jazz at the dawn of the 21st century. (Doctoral thesis). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global (UMI No. 3559620)

Miller, Y. (N.D). The estate of Art Blakey: biography. Retrieved from http://artblakey.com/biography/

Richardson, S. (2019) Teaching jazz: A study of beliefs and pedagogy using Legitimation Code Theory, (Doctoral thesis). University of Sydney, Australia. Available from https://hdl.handle.net/2123/22066

Rowan, Y. (2015), Joey Alexander – My Favorite Things (Behind the Scenes). (video).Motema Music. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/UCyfG9M5hz4.

Shaw, A. (2001). Artie Shaw [interview]/interviewer: J.McLeod. In J. McLeod (Ed.), Jim McLeod’s jazztrack (pp. 23-40). Sydney: ABC Books.

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