“Will I Ever Become a Good Jazz Improviser?”

What does it take to become proficient at improvising jazz? Will I ever become a decent player?

Have such thoughts ever nagged at you? Perhaps you’re at the stage where you’ve acquired a decent technique, but you’re uncertain how turn it into flowing, musically cohesive improvisations. Will you ever be able to make the leap between mere good chops and great jazz solos?

Or maybe you’ve been playing the sax for a while and you think you’re making strides. Then you come across a YouTube video of some young firebrand who’s blowing circles around anything you ever dreamed of playing, and your heart sags. At that point, you think one of two things: What am I wasting my time for? or I can be that good too if I work at it.

Depression or determination. I’ve felt both emotions at different times. When I was 26 years old, I took a year of music at Wayne State University in Detroit. During my time there, living on campus, I made arrangements to practice after hours in the music building, where I normally woodshedded from 9:00 p.m. to as late as 3:00 in the morning. I worked hard, doing scale exercises, running patterns, and memorizing solos from the famous Charlie Parker Omnibook.

One evening I walked into the building early and heard sounds of music drifting from the auditorium, where one of Detroit’s high school jazz bands was playing a concert. I listened for a bit. They sounded pretty good! But I had work to do, so I broke away and headed for one of the empty classrooms, which I preferred over the smaller practice rooms. Then I assembled my horn and began to work on one of the Omnibook transcriptions I was memorizing.

A few minutes later, several of the high school band members walked into the room. The concert had ended, and they had heard me playing down the hall and decided to get an earful. Cool. I didn’t mind if they hung out and listened. I chatted with them a bit, and then the bass player said, “Hey, we gotta get James.” The other guys agreed that James definitely needed to be gotten, and one of them left to look for him.

I continued to work on my Bird transcription. Pretty soon, in walked a fourteen-year-old kid with a tenor sax tucked under his arm. He listened to me for a minute, then said, “Oh, ‘Ornithology.'” He put his horn to his mouth and started to rip through the Parker solo from memory as flawlessly as if his genetic makeup included an ‘Ornithology’ chromosome. Then, having demonstrated his mastery of a solo that I was only beginning to get my arms around, the kid proceeded to double-tongue a chromatic scale up into his horn’s altissimo register, high enough to sterilize the flies in the room.

I wanted to slap him.

The kid went on to tell me how he planned to master not just the saxophone, but all of the woodwind instruments. Whether he has entirely fulfilled that lofty ambition in the years since, I can’t say, but I do know that today, jazz virtuoso James Carter plays a large number of the woodwind family in addition to the tenor sax.

Fellow saxophonist Tom Stansell, whose family owns and operates the celebrated Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Muskegon, where Carter spent a summer as a student years ago, once commented, “No one ever told the kid that it’s hard to play fast.”

As for me, I just kept plugging away at my saxophone. My journey as a musician hasn’t taken me to New York at age 21 or on international tours. Rather, it has placed me in Caledonia playing for cows in the pasture at the west edge of town and taking gigs as they come, which they seem to be doing more and more of lately.

And they should be. Because while I’m no James Carter, I’m a good sax player. I’ve been told on different occasions that I don’t realize how good I really am, and maybe that’s true. I hope so. Coming from capable musicians, compliments like that certainly encourage me, because I’ve worked hard to bring together all the technical stuff–the scales, arpeggios, patterns, solo transcriptions, and everything else I’ve labored at over many years–into something that sounds interesting, original, personal, passionate, and…well, musical.

I hadn’t initially planned to share the above anecdote, but there’s a point to it: discouragement and inspiration often come from the same source, and they’re just a matter of how you look at things. Maybe you’re not playing the way you wish you could play today. But if you stick with it, one day you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come. The technique that you’re presently unsure what to do with will have become your servant, the building material of ideas which you spin with confidence and ease out of your horn. You may not be the next Michael Brecker–or maybe you will be–but that’s not what it’s about. Do what you do for the love of what you do, and everything else will follow in its time.

Not all of us have the same advantages. Not all of us grew up in musical families or were steeped in jazz at an early age. Not all of us have the same natural aptitude, the same educational opportunities, or the same life circumstances that permit us to practice as much as we’d like. But all of us have the ability to choose whether to persevere or give up. So…

“Will I ever become a good jazz improviser?”

If you quit, the answer is no.

If you keep at it, studying the music, listening to great players, and practicing diligently and consistently, the answer is yes.

Don’t rob yourself of the joy of playing music worth hearing. Don’t deprive the world around you of the pleasure of hearing you. And don’t belittle the talent God gave you, because into that talent is woven a purpose that is higher than you may imagine.

Stay with it. You’ll be glad you did.

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