BOB JAMES CLINIC OF ITHACA HIGH SCHOOL JAZZ BAND April 29, 2005 Transcription.
Hi, very nice to meet you, Dan. You sound great!
Well, well, well . . . Kevin asked me to be a critic and critics have not always been very kind to me during my career. On one level it’s an opportunity for me to be on the other side of it and temporarily be a critic so that could be kinda cool except that I don’t think I’m going to be able to find much of anything but nice things to say, which is not usually what critics do.
You guys just sound fantastic! I was thinking, is this really a high school level? Students? Most of you are what? 15 - 16 – 17 years old? Fantastic! Wish I had that opportunity when I was in high school. We had a pretty good music program but we had nothing in the way of jazz education in those days. I think things have come a long way and there are a number of places that teach jazz.
I always had mixed feelings about it, like jazz education to me in some ways was kinda a misnomer because what I always loved about jazz as opposed to classical music was the freedom and the fact that you got to do what you wanted to do that is not always written down.
When you’re in a classroom there is a little bit of discipline involved particularly with a big band situation. I was the most impressed with this piece that you did what I like, which was to . . . you had the control over the discipline of the arrangement but you also had the bravado to relax in the spirit of having fun.
You’re playing music that under a lot of circumstances, people would want to be dancing to it. So the biggest thing, immediately for me that I liked was, thank you very much, you were taking care of business right from the first measure. This kind of piece is really hard too because from the count off, instantly you have to get into the groove. He goes 1,2,3,4 and then instantly you have to be in this Latin groove and you did it, you nailed it! And that makes a complete difference with the way the piece is going to come off because everybody is ready to go, sets up the solos and so on. I thought that was very cool.
Dynamics, I love the way that you played with a lot of dynamics and saved your loud stuff for when it’s really appropriate to be loud. Some jazz falls short for me in that area maybe more than any other area because very often you’re playing music that is not completely written down in the sense that you have to play forte here or a crescendo there.
My experience is, even with big band charts, dynamics are usually pretty minimal and you have to work out internal in that you decide for yourself whether you’re going to make a crescendo and whether you’re going to make the music more dramatic. Music becomes so much more powerful in an ensemble when there is a clear sense of where you’re going dynamically.
I felt that in the solos, Dan is quite obviously the man with the experience who could really drive home things in the solo area. I think he showed all of you how you can start with just a brief statement, which, when you’re playing a solo, which lets people know that you’ve got the ball. And then it becomes a little miniature composition, which, the way this arrangement was played out, it has to build. Dan took his time, he knew that there was going to be the moment when the background ensemble was going to come in underneath, which is sort of a built in crescendo in his solo, so he saved some of drama of it for when the background stuff was coming in.
All you guys were playing dynamics behind all the solos really, so that they all built. I loved that. Those are the things that I thought of. I don’t have anything else major to say in terms of being a critic. My short role of being a critic is over. I’d rather be back there playing the piano rather than telling somebody else how to play music, particularly in the jazz area because jazz has a million different ways that it can be expressed, that’s another thing that I love about it. It isn’t just one big style or one individual way of playing it, it’s a very free spirited kind of music and that’s the way all of you approached it. I’m very happy to see that.
I would have been disappointed in a jazz program that was too constricted, too disciplined. Even though you’re high school students when you should be emphasing practicing and becoming disciplined because this is the best time of your life to do that because later on when life gets too complicated, you probably won’t practice.
So just for whatever it’s worth, my own feeling about this genre is that it’s best when it has a very good balance between discipline and freedom.
Too much discipline then it loses it’s feeling of uninhibited, free-flowing, jazz spirit. If it’s too free, without discipline supporting it, then to my ears, it becomes chaotic and an excuse for not being fully prepared. If you have the chops, you practice, if you have the discipline, then there is a great deal of being able to relax and be free and enjoy the free spirit of jazz in that way. I encourage you to do plenty of the practice because the freedom will flow easily out of that.
One other thing. It’s interesting that the improvising part to some people might seem like it’s easy because, theoretically, you can do whatever you want to do. That’s the whole idea of improvising; you can just be yourself and act spontaneously. But at the beginning stages of learning about that, improvisation can be the most mysterious; the most difficult to teach.
I’d like to sit in on one of Dan’s classes because the times when I’ve tried to do anything in terms of teaching it, I find myself tongue-tied. I never had a method when I learned how to improvise. For some of us it’s a kind of an instinctive thing and you feel comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen next.
A lot of very good musicians, classical musicians are still mystified by the concept. They’ve spent their lives practicing and practicing to perfect something that is a known, written out thing. But, if you just told them to play something without knowing anything about what is going to happen, they would be at a loss to do anything.
I can imagine, without hearing Dan’s classes, that what he will have to offer in that way, is some kind of a foundation, a place to start from so that it isn’t just chaos, so that it isn’t just this unknown situation, so that you have weapon, so you have phrases, so that you have knowledge so that when you have the opportunity to jump out there and start something new, you have all things to work with and it isn’t just a complete random effect.
Response by Dan: "Yes, it’s freedom, but within certain, specific guidelines. As Bob said, "Iit’s best when it has a very good balance between discipline and freedom."
It may seem counterintuitive but the more discipline you have, the more freedom you can have. Disciplined practice and mastery of fundamentals will allow you to go express what you feel at the moment. Which is what jazz is about anyway, isn't it?"
Bob James (transcribed by Dan Jacobs from a live clinic given by Bob James and Dan Jacobs to Ithica High School Jazz Band, 2005)