Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Thursday, June 15, 2006

How To Play Jazz.

The last year I spent in Canada I taught at a private college. The tuition was outrageously high by Canadian standards (though a real bargain compared to Tulane) and most of the students were the children of mainland Chinese party officials, parked there for a couple of years by their parents to polish up their english and do a little clubbing.

The guy who ran the place was a completely unprincipled clod who viewed the students as money on the hoof and discouraged tough grading lest we scare them off. My immediate supervisor, however, was an Irish guy with a beautiful brogue and a love of learning who believed in holding students to the highest possible standards. Being caught between these guys was no fun, and when my acceptance to the graduate school at Tulane came, I had to make a tough deciscion; stay where I was and try to maintain my integrity in a bad situation, or blow off a secure job and take a flyer on Tulane. I decided against doing the 'sensible' thing and came down here, and aside from that pesky hurricane, things have worked out rather well. I've concluded that every bit of trouble I've ever invited into my life (and there's been considerable) has been a result of my chickening out and not going after what I really want.

Anyway, my last semester in this snake pit (spring, 2003) they asked me to develop a course in jazz improv. With a few changes, it's essentially the same course I now teach at Tulane. The difference being that Tulane gives me the support I need to really make it happen. Back in '03, I composed (strictly for my own amusement) a handout for that class, which I never actually distributed. At Tulane, I could probably get away with it.

I'm toying with the idea of giving this to Tulane's Jazz Improv APMS-350-01 course in the fall of '06.

"Dear Improv Students,

Today you are going to begin the honorable and exacting process of learning jazz improvisation. The language of jazz is a rich and eloquent one which bestows great rewards upon the serious listener. Unfortunately we live in a culture that rewards shallowness and stupidity above all else, so, if you are serious about this, get used to having no money, no respect, and no future.

Improvisation is ultimately about playing what you hear. But this does not mean you are excused from learning any theory or ear training because the process is synergistic, meaning that learning more theory allows you to 'hear' hipper things. Everything feeds off of everything else.For those of you approaching this from the classical side, I would advise you to throw away your notions of perfection in performance. Nobody sounds good the first time they try something, and waiting until you've got something 'perfect' before you try it in a jam session is a surefire recipe for not playing anything at all. People with classical backgrounds ( and I include myself in this category) can be very inhibited. I 'solved' this problem by becoming an alcoholic and a heroin addict, but I would absolutely not recommend that you try this as it creates a whole host of secondary problems that, believe me, you do NOT want to know about. Suffice to say that for me, anyway, shooting as much dope as Charlie Parker did NOT help me to PLAY like Charlie Parker. The system I use these days (diligent practice with no chemical distractions) works much, much better. That being said, those of you without alcoholic tendencies could probably stand a little loosening up. If the college would let me get away with it, I'd insist on an open bar at all rehearsals.

For all you hipster types, I'd recommend that you throw away any notions you may have about playing jazz making you a 'cool guy'. Jazz musicians are not cool. They have no money, first of all, and in our culture that is the most uncool thing of all. Plus they spend enormous amounts of time in the practice room dealing with the minutae of scales and chords and miniscule variations of phrasing and attack, all in the name of producing an obscure music that the vast majority of people would only listen to if you strapped them down on a table. Don't even bother trying to impress your fellow students in adjacent practise rooms. They're far too competitive to ever admit that you sound good anyway, and if they themselves are good players they'll realize that you are wasting your time in there practising stuff you already know. You should be practising stuff you're NOT good at. You should SOUND LIKE SHIT in the practise room. And that could be a terrible blow to the ego.

But then, if you're a jazz musician, you have no use for an ego anyway. No one cares about what you're doing, or how well you do it.

In spite of all this, I really do believe that it's a privilege to be a musician. Our lives will never be dull. Scary, yes. Penurious, always. But never dull. We don't need any fucking 'extreme' sports, man. Standing up there in front of an audience armed with nothing but a hunk of metal and your own imagination is the most frightening and exhilirating thing a human can do. And even though you have no money, you'll know you have all those PEOPLE inside of you. Because it's not like Coleman Hawkins is dead. It's not like Lester Young was just here for a visit and then went back to whatever planet he came from ( though with Lester, man, who knows?). Those people live. Bird lives. Here, now, in us. We speak in their voices every time we pick up an instrument.That is a great and honorable thing to do.

In conclusion I'd just like to say,don't worry. Learning those twelve mixolydian modes doesn't mean you have to learn twelve new scales. They're just major scales started on the fifth degree. I really have NO IDEA why Jamey Aebersold doesn't just tell you that."

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