For Jazz Appreciation Month we have talked to our best-selling author Tim Richards about jazz education and learning jazz music. Here we have an interview style blog with his responses to questions discussing jazz music, why you should learn jazz and how to get started learning more.
What are the main aspects of Jazz that make it stand out from other genres of music?
I think there are three important components, which I call the three ‘I’s:
• Improvisation: There are many different styles of jazz, but there’s usually an emphasis on improvised solos that unfold over the structure of the tune. This gives it a very fresh, spontaneous feel that you don’t get when listening to (or playing) pre-learnt material.
• Interplay: In a jazz group, the musicians are free to react to what they hear the others playing. In many other styles of music, most of what you hear is the same every time.
• Individuality: Jazz gives the player creative freedom to interpret pieces as they wish – they are not bound by what’s written on sheet music, or by the composer’s wishes. This means that the same tune can be interpreted in many different ways, from changes in feel, tempo or key, to experimenting with new harmonies.
What are the benefits of learning Jazz music?
Improvising helps you develop a good ear, in order to be able to play what you hear (rather than what you see). It also encourages you to get a good grasp of basic harmony. Many of my students say that learning to think harmonically helps them in other styles of music, for instance in understanding and memorising classical pieces.
Playing jazz will also improve your rhythmic awareness and sense of pulse – a reliable sense of timing is essential, especially where syncopation and playing off the beat is concerned.
What’s the best age to start learning jazz, are you ever too old or young?
I started improvising at the age of 8, before I could play piano properly! In my opinion teachers should encourage their students to explore their creativity more, even in the context of learning classical piano.
It’s not necessary to be a virtuoso on your instrument to play jazz, but if you want to express yourself a certain amount of technique is desirable. As long as you can play a little already, you’re never too old or too young to start exploring!
The ABRSM Jazz Syllabus has been around since about 1997 and offers jazz exams at Grades 1-5, The pieces in each grade are divided into three section: Blues, Standards and Contemporary Jazz; all include passages of (compulsory) improvisation. I was an ABRSM jazz examiner for about 20 years and saw how this can offer structure and motivation for people of all ages to get to grips with jazz basics.
What can people do to start learning more about Jazz?
I recommend the blues as a good starting point. It’s very accessible, with a simple 12-bar form and a harmonic structure of just 3 chords, but shares many common features with jazz, eg: swing rhythms, walking bass lines, improvised solos, etc. My first book ‘Improvising Blues Piano’ shows how you can improvise a blues melody by just playing three major triads. As you move through the book you gradually explore different layers of harmony, adding sixths, sevenths, ninths, and more… By the end you’ve entered the harmonic world of jazz.
More recently I brought out ‘Beginning Jazz Piano (Pts 1 & 2)’, a pair of books designed to lead the beginner into good jazz practice from early on, with easy-to-play pieces in a range of styles including Swing, Blues, Funk and Latin. Also included are bass lines for your teacher (or a friend) to accompany you with, ‘Sing & Play’ pieces that explore improvisation with pentatonic scales, downloadable backing tracks, and free access to online interactive sheet music.
Beginning Jazz Piano
This book is aimed at players with some piano experience who wish to develop a grasp of the basic tools required to play and improvise in a jazz style. It includes many unique features and resources to kick start your journey
If you're wanting to learn more about jazz, or to start playing it, perhaps the most important thing of all is to start listening as much as possible. Jazz is like a language with many dialects – there’s an overwhelming amount of variety out there and it’s important to find out which players you most enjoy and which styles attract you the most.
All my books have extensive ‘Suggested Listening’ sections, which I consider an important part of the learning process. I’ve also made a series of ‘Jazz Piano Library’ podcasts for Morley Radio, exploring recordings by some of the most important jazz and blues pianists. The most recent is ‘The 21 Best Piano Trio Albums’ which features tracks by 21 different pianists.
Is Jazz focused on enough within music education?
Unfortunately jazz is in danger of becoming a little marginalised, and many young people grow up without getting exposed to it, because you don’t hear it much on mainstream TV or radio. I was lucky to have parents who owned a few jazz records and so I grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt, as well as classical music. This was a huge formative influence on me.