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."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Story cont.

...or maybe not so much my "story" as an overview of my approach to teaching, and approach which has been shaped, in large part, by my own development as a player.

One of the shibboleths of the Jazz Musician is the concept of "playing what you hear," ie. the ability to play the things you hear in your head in real time. A great deal of the things we do in the practise room are related to this, all of the transcribing of solos, drills on scales, modes, and various types of arpeggiated chords, all these things are ways of inculcating a kind of 'ear/hand' (or lip, or vocal chords) co-ordination, in which the player is able to instaneously and in real time play the melodies in his or her head.

Unfortunately this sometimes gives people the idea that all that stuff, those brilliant ideas, is already in there, and that all that is needed is the mastery of the instrument, the "technical barriers" to allow all this genius to spill forth. The most annoying manifestation of this way of thinking (at least to me) is the 'computer dweeb' musician model, the guy who thinks he doesn't need to learn how to play or compose, because "the computer does all that stuff for you."

To me this this is a gross misunderstanding of the way learning actually works. To any real musician it is self evident that the process is synergistic, that by studying and practising music and theory and constantly learning new things, you develop your ideas and ways of musical thinking as well, so that you can hear hipper things. It's not this compartmentalized box where you put such and such in here and so and so comes out there, and yet this is increasingly how education, not just music education but all education, is perceived as working. Otherwise why this constant push to cut 'frills' like music. (we'll leave aside for another day a discussion of why it's always arts that are cut, never sports).

I can think of no clearer example of this than a story told to me by a buddy who's a high-school music teacher. Half of his job involves defending his programs against cuts by cash-strapped administrators, and yet there always seems to be plenty of money for all sorts of computer geegaws. When he asked why this was so, he was told "parents know that computers are an integral part of success in the world of work, so they want their children to have an education that familiarizes them with this equipment." My guy thought for a minute and said, "wouldn't they rather their kids have the same kind of education as the guys who invented computers? You know, one with a music and arts component?"

I suppose one reason I find this 'short cut' mentality so irritating is that, as a young player, I suffered from a particularly destructive form of it. I had some very good teachers (the late Fraser Macpherson was a towering presence in my early development) and plenty of experienced musicians around offering me sound advice. But I suffered from crippling hubris, in general thought I was too hip for the room, and heard only what I wanted to hear. The worst tactical error I made in my late teens was the assumption that emulating the personal habits of the great players, particularly Charlie Parker, would somehow magically gift me with their chops. There's no mystery to how Parker aquired his skills. He was, quite simply, an obsessive practiser, as was Coltrane and probably every other player of note. But all I heard, all I wanted to hear, was Parker's famous quote, "if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

Twenty years and a great deal of wasted potential later, having finally smartened up and got clean and sober, I read the full quote. "Music is your feelings, your thoughts, your experiences. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." I was flabbergasted. Bird hadn't been saying I had to be more like him. He'd been saying I needed to be more like me. Since that moment, nearly twenty years ago now, I've stuck to the real winning combination, diligent practise with no chemical distractions.

That doesn't mean it's been all beer and skittles since then. My fat head still gets in my way, and I have to be very careful to really listen to what people tell me when I ask for advice. In New Orleans, I constantly find myself going head to head with brilliant players much younger than me, and I sometimes get scuffed up pretty bad in jam sessions. It's tempting to just go home and sulk, or maybe find some ways to occupy my time that aren't quite so hard on the ego, but instead I try to make a point to ask musicians whose playing I admire for tips and advice on what and how to practise, regardless of whether they are 20 or 30 years younger than me. In this way I've found myself in line for hearing, truly hearing some good suggestions, but at the back of all of them is the same principle. While hard work alone won't get it for you (all the practise in the world is wasted if you're just playing what you already know) and a great deal of success is tied up in how you practise, the bottom line is quantity. Play all the time. Practise all the time. Live it, breath it, sleep it. That's how the greats did it. There are no shortcuts.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My story.

It occurred to me the other day that this blog has gone through a lot of changes in the five-plus years I've had it. When Brian Nation of http://www.vancouverjazz.com/ first suggested I might want to contribute something to his site, I envisioned it as a quasi-scholarly commentary on the music and culture of New Orleans. He suggested I avoid aiming the thing at a specific Vancouver audience (even though the blog was, and continues to be, hosted by a site devoted to the Vancouver jazz scene) and insisted I think in terms of my "international readership." This gave me the big horse laugh at the time but I've since come to understand that a pretty far-flung group of people indeed read the thing. I once introduced myself to author Ted O'Brian whom I recognized from his photo, which had appeared in a short story collection I enjoyed (New Orleans Noir) and he already knew who I was. He had my blog bookmarked on his computer.

Katrina changed things a bit, changed the focus. It made my writing more personal, for one thing. Even though I've had probably more than my fair share of people tell me I should "write a book" and by any objective standard my life has been pretty weird, I've always suffered the nagging suspicion that most of my "adventures" have already been dissected by some other memoirist on Oprah. The world really doesn't need another "inspirational" tome from some prodigal son who wasted half his life playing music in bars and chasing cocktail waitresses. But living through Armagheddon here in September of '05 made me think maybe my own life could be a part of my documentation of this beautiful and unique place. Subsequently my writing here has tended to focus on subjects other than myself, or at least subjects outside myself as interpreted through my own conciousness. Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but that's really all any writer has.

Okay, I'll stop dancing around the subject and fess up that I've decided to devote an entire post to...me. Maybe not so much the incredible story of my marvelous fascinating life, but at least an overview of my musical development in the context of my life; again, that context is something we all have, and it's not an insignificant part of any musician's development. And while my own "story" may appear to be counterintuitive and full of wrong turns, I flatter myself to think that it's precisely because I ran up so many blind alleys and got so much stuff wrong that makes me a reasonably good teacher. Some of the most infuriating instructors I've ever had were the brilliant ones, the ones for whom everything came easy, the ones who couldn't figure out why us mere mortals didn't "get it' right away, like they do.

In the beginning I did "get it" right away, at least a little bit. My parents set me up with clarinet lessons when I was ten, and I made quick progress, got a sound easily, started playing simple orchestral things in the local "junior symphony" etc. More importantly, though I didn't realize it at the time, I started to learn to play things by ear. I've always had great respect and admiration for people who take up an instrument as an adult, because at that age you are cognizant of just how difficult what you're undertaking is. Kids have no idea, they just do what's in front of them, and by the time they're old enough to realize how hard absorbing musical fundamentals is, they've already (hopefully) got them under their fingers.

I'd come home from school every afternoon, and my mother would tell me "practise that clarinet, or no cartoons." I'd take out the horn and go through whatever I was working on for Mr. Arnott (my teacher at the time). Initially it was just simple tunes in a book my father had bought for me, "101 Easy Tunes For Bb Instruments," stuff like "Alley Cat" and "In A Little Spanish Town." Later it was technical excercizes and orchestral excerpts from the Klose clarinet method book. I'd chip away at this stuff for an hour or so, then at four o'clock, the afterschool cartoon shows would be on. Since the horn was already in my hand it seemed only natural to play along, and in this way I learned a whole bunch of music "by ear," the themes from the Bugs Bunny Show, Merry Melodies, Loony Tunes, and all of Carl Stallings music for these shows. I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing valuable ear-to-horn musical cognition skills, what childhood music educators call "audiation."

Puberty came along and distracted me for awhile. When I started paying attention again it became obvious to me that the clarinet wasn't exactly a babe magnet, so I switched to saxophone. It is much, much easier to switch from clarinet to saxophone than the other way around, so I was able to start playing "gigs" (really just half-assed teenaged blues band things) within about six weeks. But by the time I was 19 or so, I was able to enter tthe thriving "strip joint" scene that existed in Vancouver at this time, and actually make a living as a professional musician.

This was in 1972, and in Vancouver at that time there were a whole bunch of clubs devoted to "exotic dancing," and all of them employed small bands, usually trios or quartets. My skills at this point were of the most rudementary nature but that didn't really matter since none of the customers were paying attention to us anyway. The bands I played in were all composed of buddies who had similarly limited skills, and we all developed together. The material was mostly blues-based funk, and for a couple of years I skated by on pretty substandard musicianship.

What we learned, we learned by dead reckoning and shared knowledge. There was no "jazz education system" to speak of in our area, although all of us certainly could have benefitted from one. The tunes we learned, we learned off records, and the records we learned off of were the ones we dug. James Brown, Paul Buttefield (for me as a horn player, especially, his "Ressurection of Pigboy Crabshaw" album, with Gene Dinwiddie on tenor), Al Green, Tower of Power. Lots of Chicago blues. Jazz we considered beyond us, for the most part, and we were in awe of the people who could play it.

If I'd been studying with someone jazz and theory savvy at this point I probably would have made quicker progress, but, with some caveats, there is a good deal to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. And there's a whole hell of a lot to be said for just doing a lot of blowing and getting paid for it. Throughout this whole period (roughly 1972 to 1974) I played six or seven forty five minute sets, six nights a week. I probably could have done this 52 weeks a year if I'd wanted to, but I'd arbitrarily take time off whenever I'd feel the routine start to beat me down, usually every two or three months. I was starting to develop some issues with alcohol and drugs at this point as well, so it wasn't just simple fatigue, but that was a big part of it. The repetition though, was great for instilling a deep, reactive musicality, at least as regards to the relatively simple material we were addressing. There's nothing like working every night, night after night after night, to instill a sense of professionalism and confidence in your playing.

I did this sort of thing for many years before I finally made a serious study of music, and when I did there were still many blind alleys and false starts. The capacity for denial in human affairs is, quite simply, boundless, especially if you're as stubborn and insecure and lazy as I was. I also suffered (and this I have found is not uncommon in players of my background) from a deep bifurcation in my musical mind between written and aural skills. On the one hand, I can still, almost forty years laters, reel off the various Lee Allen and King Curtis solos I learned by ear off records as a 17 year old. But I'd be hard pressed to play, from memory, even just a couple of bars from the scores of musical theater productions I played literally hundreds of times as a pit musician. And until fairly recently, the fact that I relied on "fake books" (for the non-musician, these are books filled with sketches, basically lead sheets and chord progressions, of hundreds of 'standard' tunes) to get through "jobbing' gigs meant that I just didn't know enough damn tunes.

Ellis Marsalis once told me that in his opinion the problem with most "jazz friendly" universities was that their admission standards and audition practises were very concerned with how well potential students could play and sight-read music, but didn't care all that much how well they could hear. And that's the crux of it, really. At it's core, jazz is an "aural" skill. It's about playing what you hear, not what you read. It's the difference between Shakespeare and Improv Theater, between a social conversation among friends and a prepared speech before an audience.