My former self speaks to me…….
It sometimes laments not committing more effort into improving my piano skills over the years. Not that I am gifted, but I am teachable. Not that I even had the time to pursue more intense lessons being involved my entire adult life in a publishing career that was all consuming. But I still have regrets about not developing what talent I do have into a higher degree of proficiency at the piano.
I am most envious of those gifted musicians, who can hear a song and then play it, improvise it, embellish it, all without reading a musical score. It is an extraordinary gift and most of the prominent musicians have that ability.
Irving Berlin’s story is intriguing. He couldn’t write or read music. He never had a lesson although Victor Herbert briefly instructed Berlin, who was already established as a major composer of popular songs. In fact, he abandoned the effort knowing he didn’t really need those lessons to further his career.
As a youngster Berlin taught himself to play the tunes he heard in his head using the F# scale, thus playing mostly on the black keys. He found it simpler to just learn them to express his musical ideas (why bother with the white keys : - ). Remarkable. As any musician will tell you, it’s a heck of lot easier to compose and play in C Major.
As he never studied music, and wasn’t a great pianist, he couldn’t transpose. Most gifted musicians can transpose to another key “on the fly.” I can’t. I have to work it out. Berlin couldn’t so when he wanted to change keys in a song he relied on a mechanical instrument that changed keys for him. He would write that section of the song in F# and the mechanical transposer changed it to whatever key he wanted. He also asked musicians to transcribe his music.
Even professional musicians are confounded by Berlin’s abilities and lack of ability. But the point is he could play without music, music he couldn’t read. In that regard, he played strictly by ear.
Classical performance completely relies on the ability to read musical notation. Of course there is still room for a performer’s interpretation of the composer’s score. Many concert performances by pianists, with or without the orchestra will be performed without the pianist consulting the musical notation, or just having it there for a passing glance to be in synch with the orchestra. These are remarkable pianists being able to internally assimilate large and complicated works. It’s really the ability to “see” the score or to sight-read “silently.” They simply hear it in their heads.
There are also jazz pianists who can not only play by ear, but have been trained classically, and can thus sight read such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. They were double threats at the keyboard, using their incredible knowledge of musical theory, voicing, and virtuoso technical training to interpret a song. Both Evans and Peterson were comfortable playing solo or with a jazz group, without having to read music for any performance. To them, playing was like speaking a language they were born with and then studied to know the entire vocabulary and usage. A gift few have.
Hearing it in one’s head is the most salient characteristic of a jazz performer, particularly one performing in a “jazz jam” with other jazz performers without any rehearsal, maybe never having played with the other. Jazz performers who are playing a piece they are not familiar with use a lead sheet and/or a chord chart. Lead sheets consist of the melody line in the treble clef and the accompanying chord for the bass and for “filling in.” I can read a lead sheet or “fake book” music, they’re usually synonymous.
I have “fake books” for most of the Great American Songbook, a favorite repository from which jazz artists take their pieces. But just having the melody line and the chords does not make one “jazz jam worthy.” Jazz artists can take a chord chart which corresponds to the lead sheet and improvise using the song structure, usually returning to the melody itself at the end of the jam.
In order to do so, the jazz artist must be able to follow the melody in his or her head, as well as follow the rhythm. Jazz jam artists “hand off” solos to one another. The music can become very abstract, but all participants in a jam are speaking the same language.
I have put to rest the fantasy of jamming, although I could do some. It would just be too anxiety producing for me. I now accept the fact that I’m an inveterate soloist; just enjoy playing as I do, not at a professional level, but simply for the joy of revisiting the classics of the Great American songbook and play them for myself or for others as part of a structured program. My playing adheres mostly to the melody, improvising mostly for the bass based on the chords.
I started this entry about my distant self talking to me in the present. Rick Moore, the very gifted jazz keyboardist who is the founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society (an “organization committed to presenting ’live’ improvised music and promoting Jazz education throughout the Palm Beaches”), wrote a piece he calls “Song for Cherie,” a song for his wife. She is really the organizer of the Jupiter Jazz Society. I was struck by the piece as it reminded me in some ways of Bill Evans’ original work, my favorite jazz artist. Rick’s work has clockwork simplicity to it, and although a waltz (Evans wrote many), a beautiful jazz feel to it, particularly the B section.
I asked him whether he would share the lead sheet with me which he was kind enough to do, so I could have the enjoyment of playing it. You can hear the composer himself play the piece at this link.
He’s composed many pieces over the years and will be issuing a CD of them in the future. It is something to look forward to.
It made me think of my nascent songwriting efforts from decades before. They are mostly uncompleted pieces, simply because I’ve never had any training either in theory or in composition. Also, there was the time factor.
One of my finished pieces was called Annie’s Waltz. Ironically, both Rick and I wrote songs to the women in our lives in 3 / 4 time. I wrote a brief blog entry about my piece ten years ago but Google Pages pulled the link to my recorded version. That entry makes reference to it being written the year we were married, 1970. But I’ve found the original and it was written in Jan. 1969, just about the time we started dating seriously. In a few months, that piece will be 50 years old. 50 years!!! Here is a photo of what I wrote, warts and all given the passage of time and the worn edges of the music. It’s a simple piece, but heartfelt for this mere amateur.
As I’ve had difficulty posting what I recorded, I have simply posted a You Tube version. I’ve learned to accept less than perfection with my little digital camera and even reluctantly and nostalgically to accept the fact that I’m a soloist, not destined to be a jazz performer and I’m ok with that. I just enjoy playing. All the videos I’ve posted can be found here.