Those That Can, Teach – Honoring the Practice of Mentoring and Apprenticeship in Jazz

As a youngster trying to learn to play jazz music, some things about the journey were clear to me even then: 1) I pursued music from a place of love, 2) The musicians I heard on records played the way that I hoped I would one day be able to play, and 3) I could always refer to musicians (via recordings or face to face) as teachers, for guidance, inspiration and/or explanations when I needed them.

In addition to a healthy, innate humility, there also were my ego-driven projections of becoming a great musician, but these visions only lasted until the next time I actually picked up the instrument and heard myself play. There was a fine balance between persevering because of a belief in the possibility that my notes were, or could possibly be, as beautiful as Wes Montgomery’s, and of quitting because my notes sounded “funny” and not really like the ones played by those who I admired. What kept me going was and always has been the joy that I get from the sound of the music, and the encouragement from other musicians whom I trust and admire.

The practice of mentoring and apprenticeship between jazz veteran practitioners and fledgling jazz musicians remains a cornerstone of the art form. And though, to some degree apprenticeship and mentoring are being replaced by the institutions of jazz education, it nonetheless remains the most authentic way that jazz performance information is passed along from one generation to the next. Often, there is no more genuine and honest a voice of direction for a young musician than that of a mentor and/ or an elder jazz musician. I’ll never forget one of my mentors coaching me during a performance while I struggled to come up with the right guitar part to fit the music… “Bobby! That’s not happening, play something else,” he shouted. He yelled at me several more times, and each time I changed my part until finally he said, “Bobby, that’s happening!” I understood that this man knew more than I did and that his employing me (yes, I was actually paid for that rehearsal!) entailed his imparting knowledge and experience to me. In turn, I was willing to accept the instruction and, in fact, welcomed it.

The mentor usually doesn’t receive nor does he expect a paycheck for giving of himself musically. Most often there is some characteristic in the younger musician that attracts the older one and compels him to help. Mentors often lead by deeds not necessarily by words. During my early tenure with Sonny Rollins in the eighties, I can count on one hand the number of times he ever said anything to me about what I should or shouldn’t do musically. He did, however, teach me through performing the music. There was a time, for instance, during a concert performance of a ballad… He was playing the melody and I was supposed to be accompanying him with chords. I found myself playing the “chord-melody” behind him, and thought it sounded good, until he decided to change a note in the melody at one of the most climactic points of resolution in the tune! That certainly got my attention and put me in my place. Sometimes the lessons taught by mentors aren’t easily or immediately understood by youngsters. The student or novice performer should realize that the mentor has a vested interest in jazz performance. Because they cherish it and have worked so hard at it, they are particular about, and protective of, its details. In working with a young musician the mentor should attempt to build upon the student’s positive qualities, enhancing what a youngster offers and naturally brings to the music.

Jazz mentoring via the apprenticeship relationship is the primary source for learning the codes of conduct in jazz performance. Although it remains the most authentic method, it is being simulated in various ways by jazz education in return for profit. We can find examples of more art-driven and altruistic forms of mentoring in the history of many of the most famous musicians in jazz, as well as in every local community where jazz flourishes. There is the well-known story of Miles Davis, who upon his arrival in New York City sought out Charlie Parker for tutelage. Davis went on to play in Parker’s band and also to record with him. In the life of a jazz musician, an opportunity such as this—to learn from and perform with a master—is the ultimate honor and learning experience. In past interviews Sonny Rollins often referred to Thelonius Monk (with whom he had a similar relationship as Miles did with Parker) as his guru. It is written that Eddie Durham, trombonist, guitarist and arranger involved with such classics as “In The Mood” and “Moten Swing,” was also a teacher and mentor of Charlie Christian. Durham, who is noted by some as the first important electric guitar soloist, was also the first to record on the instrument in 1938, a year prior to Christian. In a recent interview, Freddie Hubbard cited the Montgomery brothers of his native Indianapolis, and particularly guitarist Wes, as a major influence on his jazz musicianship. Not surprisingly, Hubbard’s first recording session was on a Wes record.

In the eighties and nineties the marketing of a new generation of jazz stars dubbed the “young lions”, began the over-emphasis on youth as being important in determining who would be chosen to represent jazz at its forefront. After the successful marketing of Wynton and Branford Marsalis and subsequently, the duo of Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, the floodgates seemed to open for baby-boomer jazz musicians. During the early stages of this trend, however, record company executives seemed to still be following the cues sent by elder jazz musicians about who would be deemed stars. Art Blakey, in particular, had a knack for associating with and mentoring young jazz “messengers.” Blakey offered apprenticeship positions to the Marsalises, Blanchard and Harrison, and pianist Benny Green, among many, many others. In the nineties, record executives continued to shift the focus away from tenured musicians. No longer was it necessary for a young musician to go through the ranks by apprenticing in the bands of experienced veterans in order to establish their worth and viability as an artist.

There was a time when established jazz musicians were consulted with and ultimately respected when it came to acceptance and acknowledgement of a newcomer’s musicianship. Miles Davis alumnus, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, was apparently so enamored upon hearing Wes that he immediately called Riverside Records producer, Orrin Keepnews. Orrin called Wes and expressed his desire to offer him a contract based soley on Cannonball’s recommendation. The ever-humble Wes suggested that Orrin hear him first before signing him, and the rest is history. Founder of the famed Prestige Records, Bob Weinstock spoke of his respect for Kenny Clarke, the drummer who helped launch the bebop movement in the 1940s: ”He introduced me to musicians like Thelonious Monk and told me that if I started a record company he would get all the jazz greats to record for me.” Today national jazz competitions, jazz studies programs and record company executives, as well as eager young musicians, are trying to recreate the conditions that were once made possible almost exclusively by the endorsements of elder musicians.

The university jazz departments began doling out performance degrees in the eighties like Starbuck’s does coffee. Similarly in the nineties, record labels did their best to exaggerate the youth culture’s place in jazz by introducing nascent, young jazz musicians with very limited experience beyond playing with their peers. Add to this mix, technological developments that have made it possible for any musician of any caliber to present a highly polished album of songs to the public in much the same way (at least on the surface) as the masters who came before them did. What we’re left with is a jazz market that is saturated with mediocre product that, by and large, is produced by musicians themselves. Based on their level of musicianship, many of these musicians would never have been considered as potential recording artists by jazz producers such as Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, Blue Note Records’Alfred Lion, or Prestige Records’ Bob Weinstock.

As we move into the second century of jazz it is important that our standards remain high. We must encourage and allow for the natural occurrence of the evolution of jazz, which involves simple, not-for-profit human interaction for art’s sake, including the inherent relationship between master and student. This simple and humbling relationship needs to be recognized as the principal model for jazz education and, whenever possible, heralded as such. When profit and the advantage of those who control it become the most important factors in arts development, the art runs the risk of becoming a caricature. Today, we are allowing record labels, agents, eager young musicians, parents, relatives, neighbors, high school band directors and university jazz professors to determine and/or dictate the criteria for the jazz status quo—a right and privilege which should remain exclusive to jazz musicians and their delegates who earn it based on a respectable body of work in the field of music making. Can the purpose of money-making truly align with jazz in order to bolster and fuel it, yet allow it to serve its purpose as America’s great art – which is to lead people to new heights of awareness, imagination and inspiration?

What’s the result of an art form no longer governed by its artists? Perhaps it will be a transformation, hardening jazz into a cold and codified set of rules akin to classroom curricula taught in other fields of academic study. Maybe there will be a shift to a scientific focus relying on data and technique more, feeling less and leading to musicians’ false sense of accomplishment. Knowledge rooted in theory may replace the awe inspired by the beauty of the nebulous, organic feeling of making great jazz music – a feeling that for the artists and many of their fans borders on the spiritual and unattainable. Students may feel themselves entitled to the fruits of years of work, dedication and empirical rewards, simply because they have completed a four year program of jazz study. Furthermore, listeners and fans could be misquided by the marketing of the plethora of mediocre to sub-par jazz in the marketplace. In this age of political correctness, we may all be expected to behave as if all that is called jazz, created by any and everyone, is worthy of being supported and regarded as having the same merit as the work of jazz’s greatest artists. By allowing a preponderance of sub-par jazz to be treated as acceptable, jazz’ artistic standards set by the great musicians of the past and present will continue to be lowered , while the justification is made that each listener is entitled to their opinion.

© Bobby Broom, 2006