When the jazz bug bites

I used to laugh when I heard “the jazz bug bit” (name of famous musician) and their life wasn’t the same afterwards. I didn’t understand it at all, and moreover, I thought it was an exaggeration of someone who really loved to play music and did it well.

But lately, I’m beginning to understand that the “jazz bug” is something real. It’s obsessive. And I have been ‘infected’ with the jazz bug (some would suggest I call Dr. Jazz, but I don’t think that would cure me!)

When I started my journey, WAY back in the Summer of 2014, I had a very simple goal. I wanted to be able to get up at a local jazz jam in my neighborhood and sing a few songs with the band. I knew that the musicians playing at the jam were professionals, and so I felt that since I hadn’t been a singer previously, that it was important that I take a few lessons to make me competent enough to get up in front of others and sing. (And no, I had never done – and still haven’t done – karaoke.)

After half a dozen lessons or so, my excellent jazz vocal teacher wisely suggested that I begin taking vocal technique lessons. I was so enthusiastic about my progress to date, and still very excited about the prospect of singing in front of an audience, I jumped at the chance to study with my most excellent vocal technique coach.

In retrospect, this was one of a few turning points for me, because it moved me from wanting to “just get up and sing a few” to really understand the mechanics behind what I needed to do to sing properly. I didn’t realize it at the time.

Eventually I had my public debut, and had to conquer my absolute terror of singing in front of a live audience. (Something which I have conquered to a great degree, although I still get a bit fluttery from time to time.) The debut went well, and there were so many people around me who were incredibly supportive. They offered advice, lots of applause and praise for each baby step forward, which was undeniably motivating to keep me going when things were tough.

Soon I was getting feedback (correctly) that my repertoire was limited as a beginner, and I needed to work on expanding my song list. And so began a period of more intensive study of various singers and material.

This led me to periods of frustration, entirely of my own doing, because I liked songs that no one else knows. Of course, this led me to a new teacher, who could work with me to help me learn these lesser known songs and write charts for me. He also was helpful in giving me introductions to basic theory, and blues and gospel scales too.

As all of this was going on, I began increasing the amount of time I invested in getting out in public to sing. And the more I sang in public, the easier it became to sing in front of live audiences.

Along the way, I learned more and more about how to interact with musicians, including knowing that I had to tell them the key for my song, explaining what tempo I wanted, and eventually when I learned more, giving them information they needed to help play the song before and during the performance (the bridge goes to Bb Minor; or, let’s do this as a bossa; or, touching the top of my head when I was supposed to come back in, indicating I wanted to sing the song from the top.)

And again, there were times I was frustrated. For example, when I was learning how to sing behind the beat, I realized I needed more help on my sense of timing. So I decided to take lessons with a drummer to help me internalize this sense of timing. His help was so invaluable, I know I took a leap forward in my ability to “swing” jazz songs due to his instruction and help.

I sometimes think that maybe, if I had started as a kid, maybe I would have picked this stuff up over many years of practice. I would have had lots of time to internalize many lessons and evolve my skills.

As an adult though, I feel a sense of intense urgency to learn things as quickly as I can… and frankly, to work hard when I have internal resistance to doing things that will help me up my game.

I regularly re-organize my practice routine to help me maximize what I get out of my practice time. And I just stumbled upon a helpful (and free!) handbook that I’ve been reading that is pushing me forward yet again.

Jamey Aebersold Jazz Handbook: http://www.jazzbooks.com/mm5/download/FQBK-handbook.pdf

Perhaps my biggest weakness right now is my ability to improvise during a song, in the way I’d like to be able to do it. I’m not trying to be Ella Fitzgerald, but I would like to feel a sense of freedom when improvising that I don’t feel today. I have plenty of other things I’m still working on, and I strongly suspect it’s a lifelong path I’m on, but for right now, improvisation is a critical jazz skill that I need to nurture along more forcefully than what I’ve been doing to date.

When I go back and listen to all of the recorded lessons I have had, with EVERY SINGLE TEACHER who has given me their valuable time, advice, guidance and mentorship… they have all told me that I needed to do stuff that I refused to do. Like, memorize scales. Like, sit down at a keyboard (every  day) and tap out notes and sing them. Like, start improvising everyday when I sing in practice. (This seems so obvious.) Like, take the two most common jazz blues keys of Bb and F, and improvise to them. (This last piece of advice is spelled out directly in the Jazz Handbook referenced above.)

I am obsessed with getting to the next level. And many days I wish I was 20 years old so I had a few extra decades to play with in order to get to many next levels. But I don’t. The clock is ticking. Hell, Charlie Parker was dead at 34, and I passed that mark long ago. Oh well. I’m too fanatic at this point to stop anyway.

The jazz bug is real. I’ve been bitten, and I can’t wait to scratch my itch.