Photo by John Nation
Musician and teacher Jamey Aebersold believes that anyone can improvise and he's developed the tools to show them how. [27:11]
JO REED: That’s jazz saxophonist, music educator, and 2014 NEA Jazz Master Jamey Aebersold playing the saxophone accompanied by his play along. And This is ArtWorks, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
In 1967, with the production of his first Jazz "Play-A-Long" recording and book, Jamey Aebersold began a new form of jazz education- founded on the belief that anyone can improvise. Aebersold created a series of volumes that each feature a selection of 10-12 jazz standards, though some do focus on scales, or standardized chord progressions. The recordings normally feature a professional rhythm section (typically piano, bass, and drums) performing an improvised accompaniment without a solo instrument. For example, at the top of the show, we heard Jamie play the “B-Flat Blues.” Here’s the play along that accompanied him.
Now, once again, here's Jamey improvising with his play along.
As you can hear, The play along allows one to improvise with a rhythm section. In effect, playing with professionals and noted jazz musicians, creating an interactive jazz environment in a classroom, living room, or street corner. To date, Aebersold has produced 133 volumes of the Play-A-Long, carving a new avenue for jazz education. Since 1977, Jamie Aebersold has been director of the Summer Jazz Workshops which provide intensive training in jazz improvisation for musicians at all levels. Housed at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, The Summer Jazz Workshops have been held in eight countries and feature an element of jazz education that Aebersold has long advanced- the value of small group combos. All the while, Aebersold hasn’t given up performing. He leads the Jamey Aebersold Quartet. He also runs Jamey Aebersold Jazz, which publishes and sells an extensive selection of educational for jazz.
Given the arc of his long career, it's little wonder that Jamey Aebersold has been chosen for the 2014 A.B.Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy. I spoke with him recently in his home in New Albany, Indiana. I was curious how he first came up with the idea of the Play Along.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I think I came up with the idea of a play-along out of desperation. When I was young, especially-- junior high school and high school, I didn't have anybody really to play with. We started this little band. But we just kind of rehearsed arrangements. But I wanted somethin' to solo with. I wanted to play with them blues. And I wanted to try Cherokee. And I remember April and songs that I heard Charlie Parker and other people playin'. So-- and Music Minus One, a company that's still goin', Irv Kratka in New York.
Music Minus One, he had 'em originally. But he had soloists playing along. For instance, a famous person would play two choruses. Then they'd leave two choruses of blues for you to play. And then the other soloists would come back in again. But I said, "I don't want that. I want-- five minutes of blues in the key of B-flat, five minutes of blues in the key of F, so we can practice with it." And I thought it would be good.
So I think I m-- made the record first, about 40 minutes. And then I said, "Oops, if somebody buys this LP, they won't know what to do with it, unless I write a book." So I wrote a book, tryin' to explain how in the world somebody out in Podunk, Iowa, can play with this LP record. But I think it was just out of frustration in the beginning to have something to play with. And I really didn't-- when I put out the volume one and got the book going and put a little ad in Downbeat Magazine and took around to some local music stores and so forth, I had no intention of doin' volume two, let alone volume 133.
And we started that way. And then after a couple years, we put out the blues, volume two, nothin' but blues. We really took off with volume six, Charlie Parker. I got the rights to do eight of his songs. Then we did some Miles Davis tunes and some Sonny Rollins tunes. And the rest is history. Just gradually got the rights to tunes and so forth and put 'em out. And everybody loved 'em.
JO REED: Who uses play-alongs?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Everybody uses 'em. Everybody uses-- band directors use 'em. Individuals use ‘em. Old people use 'em. Young people use ‘em-- classical musicians who want to dabble in jazz on their own privately in their-- music room or their bedroom, you know, they won't be embarrassed if they play wrong notes and so forth. I don't think there's a second that goes by that somebody's not playin' with a Jamey Aebersold play-along record somewhere around the world.
JO REED: Jamey, when did you know that, "Okay, I'm doing a series now"? Was it volume six? And from then on, you just knew more would be coming out?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I didn't know when the series was gonna take off, no. I just knew that at-- once we had done several, that there was a big need for this. But each time I put one out, it took a lot of work. And it took me away from practicin' and so forth, 'cause I had to do proofreading and recording and this, that, and the other. It takes a lot of work and a lot of money and a lot of time.
But once we got it goin', then I realized, "These are really important parts of the jazz educational process."
JO REED: Have the play-alongs changed over time? Is-- is volume one pretty similar to volume 133?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Volume one is pretty much the same as it's been since 1967. We've rerecorded the music several times. And about a year and a half ago, we took that original LP, which is, of course, now on CD and slowed the tempos down to make it-- more advantageous for younger people or inexperienced people to play with it.
When I started out, it was just somethin' for people who already played to have somethin' to play with. And then jazz education started in the late '50s and through the '60s. So you've got a lot of younger people playing with volume one and trying to play with volume six. So it's evolved. I've evolved as the need has evolved over the years.
JO REED: When you were a kid growing up, was there music in your house?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh yeah, my mom played the piano, she sang. And my dad played the banjo, played a little piano. Yeah, there was always music. We didn't eat breakfast or lunch or dinner without my dad puttin' a stack of 78s on the record player.
JO REED: Did your father play a musical instrument?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Yeah, my father played the banjo. And he played the piano. And my mother sang and played the piano. And my father was in a banjo group called Indiana Banjoliers. So once a week, three other people would come over. And they'd rehearse the four banjos.
JO REED: And when did you start studying music?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I started playin' the piano-- takin' piano lessons when I was five years old. I've got two brothers. One was four years older. And one was four years younger. And the one older started playin' the piano. And I wanted to take real bad. But they didn't let me. They waited about a year. And then they said, "Okay, Jamey, you can take the piano." So I started takin' piano lessons. And I played-- five years. And then my piano teacher fired me.
JO REED: What happened?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I guess I wasn't practicin' enough. She said-- she gave me my $2 back one day and said, "Jamey, you go on home. You'll never be a musician. You don't want to practice."
JO REED: Did you want to practice?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I didn't want to practice what she wanted me to practice, just readin' stuff out of the book, classical things, little tunes and things. So I went home and made the natural switch to tenor banjo that my dad was playin'. And started takin' lessons on it.
JO REED: Were you drawn to music? Or w-- did your family just expect you to-- to play music? Where was this impetus to play music? Where was it coming from?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I guess it was from me, yeah. This impetus to play music came from me. I liked music. I just didn't like practicin' the piano. So I played piano. And then I played the banjo. And my brother was-- older brother was playin' the alto sax. And he kind of quit. So I took it over. And-- then I joined the-- grade school band in the sixth grade. But I thought it was pretty boring, 'cause I'd already learned how to read music and so forth. And I guess the other kids were beginners.
And then-- in junior high school, I figured that's-- that was really gonna be neat. But it wasn't so neat, 'cause they were doin' the same thing. I was busy listenin' to records at that stage in my life. And I loved-- the jazz had intrigued me, 'cause I couldn't figure out how people were playin' what they were playin' without music in front of 'em. And I knew they weren't playin'-- memorized solos. So I couldn't figure out where all these great solos were comin' from. Of course, it was comin' from their mind and years and years of practice.
JO REED: Was there any artist or a particular song that just stood out for you, at that moment, that you would listen to over and over and over again?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh yeah, there was a lot of it. I can remember Ted Heath, a big band from-- London, U.K. And they played-- had an arrangement of Sweet Georgia Brown. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world.
But then there were combo groups. Kid Ory, a Dixieland trombonist, I played that over and over.
Then I gradually graduated into-- the bee-bop era, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And man, I-- I was left behind. I couldn't figure out what in the world was goin' on. But I was intrigued by it. So I started buyin' more and more records and listening.
JO REED: When you started college, you went to Indiana University. And you studied the saxophone. So at that point, had you already decided you would have a career in music?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Yeah, but I hadn't decided what I was gonna do. I-- I was gonna be in music. I thought I was gonna go to the Manhattan School of Music and study classical saxophone, until the guy finally wrote me back after a couple months and said, "We don't offer the saxophone." So then I told my parents, "I guess I'm not goin' to New York to go to school." 'Cause that was the seat of jazz. I wanted to be there.
14:39:08;12 And I heard a friend of mine mention who was goin' to Indiana University. He said, "They're jamming in the halls." So that to me meant there must be some jazz goin' on there. And that's only a hundred miles away. So I guess I'll go there. So I went there. And when I got there, they told me they didn't offer the saxophone either. So I took a woodwind degree. I studied oboe, bassoon, flute, clarinet, and they let me take lessons on the saxophone from the clarinet teacher the first year.
JO REED: Did you have your own band, at that point?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I had a band in high-- high school. Yeah, we were called the Nighthawks and we played about--
JO REED: Good name.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: --every-- yeah, Nighthawks. And we played every weekend, $3 or $4, $5, you know? We played a lot of these animal clubs like The Moose, Elks, play-- Lions Club, places like that. And we enjoyed it. We enjoyed it. We had a good time. But when I got to college, I kind of gave up that little band. And the first year of college, I don't think I played much with anybody. But then after that, I started playin' with various people at the sorority and the fraternity houses and so forth, still tryin' to learn jazz kind of on my own, because they weren't teachin' any at I.U. They finally started a big band, jazz band.
JO REED: What did you see as your life's plan?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: My life's plan after I graduated from college was to eventually make my way to New York and make a Blue Note record.
JO REED: And why not?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: (LAUGH) Yeah, why not? And finally, many years later, volume 38 is the Blue Note play-along record. But that wasn't what I meant to do.
JO REED: What-- what did you end up doing?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Well, I got married. And while I was still at graduate school. And I was teachin' privately in Seymour, Indiana, $2 for a half hour lesson, teachin' flute, clarinet, saxophone. And I enjoyed it. And then when we graduated-- when I graduated, my wife and I moved down here. And we-- lived a block from where we are right now, in an apartment that my dad had. And I worked at the florist and then I'd come home and give private lessons.
And the private lessons gradually grew to where I had enough people that were interested in jazz. And these are all high school students. And they would come and form a combo on Monday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday afternoon, so forth. And some of those people that came through my combo have become very famous and have made a livin' playin' jazz.
JO REED: Now I had read (and correct me if I'm wrong) that you had decided that you didn't want to teach, that you were going to be a performer, and you were not gonna be teaching. First, why were you so adamant about not teaching? And then what changed your mind?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Well, I was really adamant about it, because when I was at I.U. in the practice rooms practicing, I would hear other people practicing their trumpet or sax or trombone or clarinet or flute. And they were gonna be music educators. And I just didn't think the standard was very high.
So I-- for some reason, stupidity, I guess, I told everybody that I wasn't been be an educator, 'cause I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to play better than they played, you know? And-- if that's education, then I don't think they're gonna be very good conveyor of what education is. Little did I know that I was gonna end up being an educator, but a different educator, you know?
But that's where they came from. And I-- can remember, in the spring of the year, when this guy came up to me in the parkin' lot, his name was Gene Montooth (PH). He played tenor and he played oboe. And he never really spoke to me. But he said, "Jamey, I want to ask you a question." He said-- "I'm teachin' privately down in Seymour, about 40 miles from Bloomington, on Saturdays, $2 for a half-hour lesson. If everybody shows up, you make $20 bucks. Would you like to do it? I got a job teachin' high school in the fall. And I-- I've gotta stop."
And I can still see myself standin' there and goin' back and forth in my mind-- "I told everybody I'm not gonna teach. I told everybody I'm not gonna teach." But I finally said, "Well, I don't think this is really teachin'. You know, private lessons isn't teachin'. Besides, I need the money. I'm gettin' married. So I took the job and loved it.
JO REED: You loved teaching right away?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh yeah, right away. I realized right away I didn't know much about it, but I was gonna learn. As a matter of fact-- there was a girl there, I forget what her name was, she was Dr. Black's daughter, and she played the flute. And one day, I don't know how long into my teaching there, we got through with our lesson in about 20 minutes.
So I said, "Why don't you play across this scale, just improvise for me?" I didn't even use the word "improvise." I said, "Just play whatever you hear." And there was a piano in the room. So I'm playin' some background. She starts to play. And I realized she's playin' exactly what she hears in her head. She's improvisin'. Her phrases make sense. And she's playin' jazz. She's improvisin'.
But then another part of me said, "But-- she's not a jazzer. She doesn't have a big record collection. She doesn't drink coffee. And she's not grumpy. How could she be playin' jazz?" That's what went through my mind. I was probably about 21 years old. And then I ask other people if they would do the same thing. And I found out everybody can improvise, if you show 'em what scale to play and play a little background for 'em.
JO REED: Tell me what you mean by "improvisation"?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Takin' what you hear in your head and playing it on your instrument. And if you don’t have a lot of facility, then you're not gonna play much. But she had good facility.
JO REED: So having the musical foundation, scales, chords, it's crucial, because you need the elements of language in order--
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Exactly.
JO REED: --to be able to express yourself?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Exactly. Or else you're gonna be flyin' by the seat of your pants and playin' by ear. And that would allow you to play certain songs. But as the songs get a little more difficult, then you're gonna be left out. You're gonna have to play that song over and over until you finally hear what the chords and scales are. And now these people don't have time to-- sit and play that for you while you learn. That's why we have the books. You use the left side of your brain, your eye looks at the music and says, "Oh, that's a certain scale. That's a certain scale. Oops, what's that scale there. I better practice that one. I better think about that."
JO REED: You have been a great proponent of improvisation for musicians. Can you talk about why-- why you are, what you think the ability to improvise gives musicians?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh, I know what it gives 'em. It gives 'em freedom of expression. And most people, even if you're a classical musician and play in an orchestra and so forth, and say that you don't want to improvise, I know deep down inside of you, you would like to improvise. It's like talking. Why would you want to say the same sentences over and over and over, you know? Uh-uh (NEGATIVE). It's more fun to make up sentences. And that's what goes on with improvisation.
So my mind was sayin', "Anybody can improvise if-- if you show 'em what scale you're gonna play on and give 'em a little background." When most people are comfortable and not afraid, they play fine.
JO REED: So, a fear of doing something wrong—
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Right.
JO REED: -- Keeps people from improvising.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh yeah. The two things I've found that keep people from even trying to improvise are they're afraid they'll get lost and stop at the wrong time. And then the other thing is playing a wrong note or maybe several wrong notes. Other words, "When I improvise, if I decide to improvise, first time, it's gotta be perfect." Now where that idea came from, I don't know. But it's kept a lot of people from trying to improvise.
JO REED: Now some people might say, "How can there be wrong notes in improvisation?"
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: How can there be wrong notes in improvisation? Well, I guess it depends on how deeply you're listening. The more you listen-- the more you listen, you can tell that it all-- it fits together. The piano's listening to the base. The piano and the base are listening to the soloist. The soloist is listening to them, what they're playing. And it's-- it's like a basketball game.
Jazz is like a basketball game. You know what's gonna happen. You're gonna come down the court. And your gonna try to score. You don't know who's gonna score. And you don't know how quickly it's gonna score. If it's-- NBA, you know you've got 24 seconds to do somethin' or the ball's gonna go to the other end. In jazz, you don't-- you're not limited by timea nd we hope that what you're gonna do is take the musical-- take the listener on a musical journey from point A to point B.
JO REED: IN your teaching, you move the focus away from big bands to small combos. Why- why the shift?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: The idea of-- the individual in jazz has always been interesting to me. Because I wasn't someone that wanted to just play a part. I wanted to sometime to be able to stand up and take a solo. And I kind of thought everybody else wanted to do that. So when I started teaching with the big bands, camps, in 1965-- that went on for about four or five years. And I really enjoyed it.
But even then, I incorporated jam sessions at dinner time, right before dinner, with the more advanced students at the camp. I would say, "Hey, would you want to get together and jam." And then I-- I started a listening session for an hour, right before the evening concerts. Because the students didn't know who these players were.
And I would play records for 'em and so forth. That all evolved into the combo camps in about 1971 or '72, where everybody that came to the camp for that week, they were gonna play in a combo. And on Friday, everybody was gonna stand up and take a solo, drummers, bass players, you name it. Whatever instrument you brought to the camp, you're gonna play in a combo throughout the week. And then you're expected to solo at the end of the week. Instead of havin' just several people stand up out of the big band, you know?
Because back then, big bands were becomin' more and more popular, in the late '50s and '60s in high schools. So they were gettin' that big band experience there. But they weren't gettin' the improvisational experience. So that's why we started the combo camps. They became so popular, that they stopped the big band camps and they had combo camps in the summertime.
One year we did seven week-long camps around the country.
JO REED: How many students do you reach out to with the combo camps?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Well, the combo camps, we-- we do two of 'em back to back every year. And we do 'em at the University of Louisville, just across the river. And this year we had almost-- 600 people.
People want to learn how to improvise. And we've had more and more older people come to our camps over the years, above 21 years old. We've had people in their 80s. And we've had people come to our summer jazz workshops 20 years in a row. So it's not like you learn how to do it and then you stop goin' to camp or you stop learnin'. It's-- it goes on forever. There's always more things to learn.
JO REED: What's the value of an intensive experience like the combo camp?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I think it opens up to people their potential, that they didn’t realize was there. And the other thing, this they get to play with other people, which they don't do at home. And plus, they go to theory class. We have five theory classes, I think. They learn what they don't know and how to apply what they don't know, how to practice at home. It's-- it's a big experience.
JO REED: There have been studies that have shown a correlation between the study of music and achievement in other fields. Can you talk about the importance of music study?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Well, I think all the recent studies on music study, not necessarily jazz, imply that it's gonna help you the rest of your life. In makin' decisions-- the fact that you have to use your imagination-- is extremely important. And it doesn't mean that you're gonna end up bein' a jazz musician or play in a symphony. But there's articles that say if you study music, it helps you to become a well-rounded individual, period.
JO REED: There's the ability as we mentioned earlier that will have to benefit you in any-- any endeavor you take, which is to be able to listen.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: If you study music, it-- it encourages you to listen. Now I will say this. In teaching jazz, I don't know what percent, but there's a percent of people that I will listen to for the first time. And they might be an intermediate or advanced player, but I distinctly get the feeling they are not playing what they hear in their head. And those students are the ones that I have to grab by the back of the neck and say, "Now, listen, you gotta stop, play fewer notes, leave some space, and don't play unless you hear that note that you're playin' in your mind first." It takes a lot of discipline for someone that's used to playin' to back up and go to the first grade note wise. But if they'll do it, it'll pay them dividends the rest of their life.
JO REED: You've been involved in jazz education for half a century.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Wow. That's a long time.
JO REED: How would you like to see it move forward?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Where I would like to see jazz education produce people that can improvise, have fun with music, and if possible, make a livin' doin' it and spread the word to other people. 'Cause it's so much fun to play. It's-- it's really fun.
JO REED: Having fun is very important to you, for you-- for other musicians, for the students you teach. That's something that you try to impart to them.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Yes. Yeah, oh yeah. We don't want to spend all this time on somethin' and not be happy.
Is that what you mean when you say that you-- you really have a holistic approach to teaching? You're--
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: I think so. Yeah. The holistic approach is taken in the way you feel. And if you have any spirituality in you. And your practice sessions and your listening to other people and-- trying to not be competitive. There's a great saying I hear from Bobby Shew, the trumpet player. He said, "Competition. If you want to compete, compete with that part of yourself that tends to be lazy." And I heard that. I said, "Oh boy, that's good."
JO REED: You were teaching at this point. Were you still performing as well?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh, yeah. I’ve been teaching and performing forever, but I don’t do private lessons anymore. I was up in Indianapolis just two days, um, three or four days ago and I did like a two hour presentation on beginning- on improvisation. Couple teenagers there and the rest of ‘em were adults just trying to learn how to improvise.
JO REED: How has your playing evolved over the years?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: It has evolved a lot. It has evolved a lot. And it's interesting. When I listen to myself playin' 30 years ago, I just can't believe I played the way I played. I hear things there that I still play, but the completeness of the solos and the continuity wasn't there then.
I think when I got around 50 years old, I think my saxophone set-- I'm 74 now. I think my saxophone set-- I don't think it's gonna give up. So why don't we make it easier for him to play what he hears in his head every time he plays. Somethin' happen around age 50 for me and the saxophone got a lot easier the play. And it's been so much more fun the last 24 years than those first years, where I felt like I was strugglin' to get my ideas out and so forth. I don't know what happened.
Maybe at that point my thinkin' and playin' became a little more holistic, where I wasn't afraid to think about stuff. And maybe I thought about stuff enough that it-- I'd incorporate it into my playing, which made playing easier, you know? I wasn't playin' by the seat of my pants. I wasn't just lettin' my fingers ramble. I was in control of what's goin' on, probably like a good writer. Startin' out writin' stuff, it didn't make much sense, continuity wasn't there. But they learned the language. And they learned to express themselves. And all of a sudden they got a novel goin' from start to finish. And it makes sense. Now I've got solos that make sense from the start to finish. Whereas I didn't have originally. But that just came in time.
JO REED: So at 74, you're still learning?
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Oh yeah. I'm anxious to play. After all this talkin', I'm really anxious to play.
JO REED: What does it mean for you to be named an NEA Jazz Master? (LAUGH)
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: When the-- when-- Wayne fir-- I think it was Wayne, when he first called. I thought it was a mistake. I thought he was-- sellin' somethin'. And he realized that I thought he was sellin' somethin'. He said, "This is not a solicitation." So then I perked up and listened. It’s a big deal, 'cause all of a sudden my name is with all these people that I've admired and listened to for ages.
JO REED: Jamey, many congratulations.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: Well, thank you.
JO REED: And many thanks for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
JAMEY AEBERSOLD: It's been a great day.
JO REED: That was jazz saxophonist, music educator and 2014 NEA Jazz Master Jamey Aebersold. Jamey Aebersold and the other 2014 Jazz Masters will receive their awards on January 13th and The NEA is webcasting it live. Go to arts.gov for more information.
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Joy Spring" composed by Clifford Brown and performed by Clifford Brown and Max Roach from the album Clifford Brown and Max Roach, used courtesy of Universal Music.
Excerpt from B flat Blues written and performed by Jamey Aebersold
Excerpt from "Basin Street Blues" composed by Spencer Williams and performed live by the Kid Ory 9. Used by permission of MPL Communications, Inc.
Excerpt from the original "Take Five" composed by Paul Desmond and performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet from the album, Time Out, and Jamey Aebersold's Play-A-Long version from In Your Own Sweet Way, Volume 105, all used courtesy of Jamey Aebersold Jazz.
Special Thanks to Chicago Jazz Magazing
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Next week, we're taking a break. But we're back on January 3rd with 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Lorraine Gordon
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.