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The Elvis Effect and How We Learn Jazz

How teaching and learning jazz has changed in the past 60 years, and what aspiring jazz guitarists should know.

Prior to the arrival of Elvis Presley and the pop culture shift to rock ‘n’ roll music, if you wanted to play guitar, you bought an archtop and learned the songs you heard on the radio. You played your 33rpm records over and over again on your phonograph. These pop songs and show tunes were the vehicles jazz guitarists used for improvisation. Basically, from 1930 to 1950, if you were playing guitar, it was all about the archtop and applying the improvisation techniques of big band and jazz music, which was in effect the pop music of the time.

But all that changed following the invention of the solidbody electric guitar, and the subsequent advent of rock music in the early fifties. Consequently, young players today face an entirely different situation. We all grew up listening to rock, pop, metal, etc. This puts an entirely different set of chord sounds and rhythmic styles in our ears. For a guitarist of today to decide that he or she wants to move in the direction of jazz guitar—or at least incorporate many of the techniques and scales of jazz guitar into his or her playing— the process can be daunting. Where does one start? As an instructor of jazz guitar at several colleges, it quickly became apparent to me that nine out of ten students entering the music major for jazz guitar had no experience of any kind with jazz!

In that earlier era, jazz was “on the street”: you heard it to some degree everywhere, and improvising musicians could perform in the many venues, clubs, and bars found in every city. Today, there are far fewer venues on the street, and serious study of the music has largely moved into the universities. Yet even in academic circles, jazz is sometimes met with reluctant acceptance, as if it were the redheaded stepchild who forever struggles to find the right home.

This cultural shift away from jazz and toward a simpler style of pop music means that if a player wants to put the music of jazz in his ears, it will only be through intentional listening and intentional learning.

Where to Start
Daily listening is probably the single most important element. If we consider that learning a new music style is like learning a new language, we realize the need for daily contact with it in order to become fluent. Without spending a dime we can explore jazz and listen all day long, thanks to the internet. now has more classical jazz than you could ever sort through. Start with traditional players such as Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, et al.

Study Theory, Technique, and Aural Skills
Acquiring an understanding of scale and chord construction, and being able to apply these to the fretboard, will help in your ability to advance in improvisation. Many resources are available on-line, usually free, for advancing your chord and scale vocabulary. Serious practitioners advocate slow repetitive practice in order to develop effective technique. Ear training can be advanced through learning the solos of the masters by ear, singing everything that is practiced, singing intervals and learning where they all fall on the neck, and singing transcribed artist solos. Being able to play by ear is of course the heart of jazz.

Learn to Read Music
It is a fact: guitarists are the planet’s worst readers of the black dots! Most serious players can read music and acknowledge the importance of it. If you are a non-reader who also wants to delve more into jazz, take the plunge now and do the painful work of learning to read. Even a few minutes a day will change your life!

The Repertoire
Pick several standard tunes for which you can learn both the melody and chord progressions. For many decades, The Real Book has remained the jazz player’s bible for a standard repertoire collection. As a practice method over many years, I still record myself playing the chord progressions and then practice both melody and improvising over the chord changes. This is a tried and true method for getting the sound of the chord progression in your ears.

Get a Teacher
In many cases, better results can be obtained when working with a seasoned jazz educator. A serious teacher can have a large impact, and can get you reading and improvising in no time.

Daily practice (even for fifteen minutes) is more productive than one long episode on the weekend. In an hour’s practice, divide the time into repertoire, technique, reading, and improvisation study. A practice space like the one shown, that is quiet, free of distractions, and always available, is paramount.

Remaining committed to learning the style may be the one factor that will lead to eventual success; star players usually admit that their success was based on one percent talent and ninety-nine percent hard work

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.

An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at (dealer: IslandFunhouse).
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