Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jamey Aebersold Teaches the World to Swing

This is the first thing I wrote for Midwest Jazz after my semi-traumatic move from Minneapolis to Buffalo.

After the editor encouraged me to keep my ears open for worthy stories to tell, I pitched a piece on Jamey Aebersold. While Jamey is recognized today as a pioneer and titan of jazz education — indeed, 20 years after this was published the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title of Jazz Master, its highest award in the field — back then the mainstream jazz publications more or less ignored him. This would be the first published in-depth treatment of him I’m aware of.

We had an interesting and wide-ranging conversation for this piece: he had surprising things to say about the state of jazz education (comments still entirely relevant today) and how he’d changed things for better and for worse, along with tidbits about how he came up with his groundbreaking play-along concept, what his expectations were at the beginning, and the behind-the-scenes process that goes into his sets.

Reprinted with permission from
Midwest Jazz Fall 1994 (Vol. 1, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.

Jamey Aebersold is not a jazz vocalist. Not really. And yet in a “blindfold test” literally thousands of jazz musicians would call out his name upon hearing him intone, in his no-nonsense Indiana twang, “One. Two. One, two, three....”

That’s because “Jamey Aebersold” is a household name — if your household happens to harbor an aspiring jazz musician.

He is heard counting off the tempos on more than 60 volumes comprising his trailblazing play-along series, A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation. These recordings form the cornerstone of many serious jazz musicians’ practice regimens.

Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP) recording of a rhythm section (usually piano-bass-drums, although guitar or Hammond B3 organ are featured on some) and a coordinated booklet with transposed parts for all instruments (the piano’s in the right channel of the stereo recording, with the bass in the left, so players of those instruments can turn down the appropriate channel).

Thanks to the series, even the most isolated would-be jazzer has the opportunity to play with such luminaries as pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Patrice Rushen, Richie Beirach, Hal Galper, Ronnie Mathews, Harold Mabern, James Williams, and Jim McNeely; bassists Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Bob Cranshaw, and Ray Drummond; and drummers Ben Riley, Al Foster, Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, Grady Tate, Adam Nussbaum, Mickey Roker, and Marvin Smitty Smith. Among others.

The approach is simple and effective for developing fluency in the hundreds of tunes that make up the lingua franca of the jazz musician. In addition to numerous sets featuring all manner of standards in various styles, there are also sets devoted to the compositions of notable jazz innovators and composers: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton — the list goes on and on. Other sets cover the building blocks of the jazz vocabulary, including the blues and the ii-V-I chord progression.

Jamey Aebersold started out as a saxophonist, earning his Masters Degree from the University of Indiana in the early ’60s. Since then, thanks to his stellar work in the field, he was voted into the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Jazz Educators, and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Indiana University in 1992. He’s even been seen on the CBS television program “Sunday Morning,” on a segment about jazz education that featured his Summer Jazz Workshops, which bring players of all levels together with a heavy faculty of recording musicians and educators. The workshops have been held not only in the U.S. and Canada, but in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, Scotland, and Denmark as well.

When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator.Aebersold got into the play-along business more or less by accident. “Back in the ’60s, I was at a big band camp in Connecticut. At the end of the week, I had a private lesson with a couple of saxophonists — I was playing piano, walking a bass line with the left hand and playing chords with the right. When we were finished, they asked me if I would make a tape for them of blues and standards, things like There Will Never Be Another You and Green Dolphin Street, a few choruses of each. Well, I never got around to making the tape for them, but I did come out with Volume One a year or so later.”

Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese. It contains chapters on melody, scales and modes, articulation, ear training, and other aspects of jazz improvisation, with play-along tracks featuring the blues (in F and Bb), dorian minor progressions, and jazz formulae including cycles, cadences, and ii/V7s.

At first Aebersold didn’t expect much, and wasn’t even planning to go beyond the first volume. “I really thought the Berklee School of Music would take it over, if they considered it a good idea. I could imagine a series: a Duke Ellington set, a Count Basie set, and so on. They never did take it on, so a couple of years later I added a few more sets, and before long people were saying ‘hey, why don’t you do this,’ and we were off and running. At the time, I still considered it a sideline rather than my main thing. But then it got out of hand!”

He’s currently working on Volumes 62, 63, and 64, which will focus on trumpeter Tom Harrell, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and salsa & latin jazz. “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!”

Aebersold’s business, which not only sells his own materials but also hundreds of other jazz instruction books and videos, is based in his home in New Albany, Indiana. Nowadays the typical play-along recording session takes place right in his basement. “I put the drummer in one room, the bass player in the next, each one with headphones and their own little amplifier for volume control, and I’m in the office here with the piano and the tape recorder.

“I sit at my desk, and I fix the tempo with a metronome, letting them hear it through the mic. Then I count it off and let them go. After four, five, or five and a half minutes, I say ‘OK, last chorus, take it out,’ very softly into the mic.”

In the early days of the series, Aebersold played sax along with the rhythm section, in a separate booth, to keep things tight (the sax track, of course, was not included in the final mix). “Now, from time to time, if the piano player worries about getting too repetitive, or feels like he’s starting to solo rather than accompany, I’ll scat-sing softly into the mic. That levels everything out again.”

Aebersold takes care to ensure that the arrangements and changes for the tunes on the sets are definitive. “We talk about the beginnings and endings before we start. Some of the fake books that I’ve seen don’t have very good changes, so I’m always careful about our changes, and want them to be correct. When you’re dealing with people of the caliber of (jazz educator) Dan Haerle or Hal Galper, well, they don’t want to play changes that aren’t the way jazz players play them, so they’ll speak up — ‘Jamey, you don’t want a dominant 7th chord there, shouldn’t that be minor’ — that sort of thing. We make those adjustments, but I tell you, sometimes it’s a toss-up, and I’ll have to run and pull out the classic recordings, and we’ll strain to hear what those guys are playing, and all the while the clock’s ticking away....”

The old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears & really listen.The way jazz knowledge is passed on has changed considerably over the years. Novice jazz musicians used to advance through what amounted to an apprenticeship system, learning the music by sitting in with accomplished mentors. Jam sessions were the classrooms in the music’s previous periods.

Today jam sessions of that sort are hard to come by, and the apprenticeship system has largely been supplanted by academic approaches. Most of the musicians currently rising through the ranks typically go through high school and college jazz programs, referring to numerous jazz improvisation texts along the way. Aebersold, a key figure in today’s jazz education scene, laments some aspects of how that scene has changed.

We oftentimes have players who don’t get lost & play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.“I think the old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears and really listen. Jazz education has changed, and of course I’m a part of that too. Now people use books, a visual medium — people using their eyes instead of their ears. They’re taking the information in on the left side of the brain, while the right side, the creative side, isn’t being used the way it used to. When I was coming up, the eyes weren’t important, the ears were — listening was key. The right side took in the information, while the left side, the analytical side, tried to figure out what was going on. Now, it’s almost reversed, and I think we oftentimes have players who don’t get lost and play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.

“I’m sorry that things have changed in that respect. We have many people today attempting to learn how to improvise, which I think is marvelous, but in my opinion the importance of listening isn’t stressed enough.”

Aebersold believes that improvisation should be a core value in school music curriculums, as a key to developing the students’ creativity, and that music contests have hurt rather than helped the cause. In an article entitled “Music Is For Life” he writes:

We’ve taken the students’ freedom to play music and forced them into a competitive mode. They play a few songs, over and over, to be performed at a competition, festival, or contest in hopes of winning a trophy... What if math or English were taught that way?... I can’t picture a high school History teacher working his students over and over on the Gettysburg address for three months to bring home a first place at contest.

Aebersold favors creativity over competition. “I think that if everyone were given a chance to develop their creative side, the world would be a lot more peaceful. Having a creative outlet is very important, and music is a tremendous stress reliever.”

His sets have helped thousands develop their own creative resources. Yet Jamey Aebersold downplays his status as one of our premier jazz educators. “When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator. When I got started with the series, I took it step by step, not pushing myself into it at all. In fact, all along the way I was thinking, ‘tomorrow, instead of worrying about all this play-along stuff, I’m going to practice three hours. Tomorrow’s the day.’ Now, that day hasn’t come yet, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”

UPDATE: As you might expect, a few things have changed in the nearly 2 decades since this piece first came out...
  • “more than 60 volumes” — as I write this, Jamey has more than doubled that number!
  • “Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP)”: a few cassettes or LPs are still available, as signed collector’s items...
  • “Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese.” — add Spanish and Portuguese to the list...
  • “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!” — It took a little longer than that: the first volume of Christmas tunes was Volume 78.


  1. Kelly thanks so much for posting this interview article about one of the Greats of our time in the Jazz Education field. I had the opportunity to attend one of JAMEY'S workshops in '72 or '73 at Bellarmine College (now, University) in Louisville, Ky. Of course, Dave Baker was also there and others, but it was a "meeting of the minds" for musicians that has always been a part of me since. It was an outpouring of practice techniques, exercises, how to dissect song structures, and on and on and on!

    Did I mention the fact of the thrill of being able to play along with these guys and to hear them play. Dave Baker’s daughter, April (on Violin) was also in attendance and played in the assigned jazz combo with me for the class concert.

    I just want to say, Thanks to Jamey for his untiring dedication and inspiration to the many musicians he has helped in the world of music and the Jazz Educational field. Also, kudos to you Kelly for your fantastic work too!

  2. Thanks for your comments, woodiedouglas! I've heard great things about his workshops -- yours is another testimonial...

  3. Hi Kelly, Thanks for posting your Jamey Aebersold article. Your attention to Jamey's real dilema of- being way ahead of his time-as put so well by Jamey "I thought Berklee School of Music would take it over" and his (Jamey's)work would be over was spot on. In 1976 I did lots of substitution work in the pulbic schools (all grades). As you know subs are not alway a welcome sight to a middle school chorus. After 10 minutes of dutiful attention to the lesson plan I promised the students a demo on my saxophone (playing a cut from vol 6 'Bird'). This experience became a great performance event for the students and especialy for me as a young jazz player searching for an audience. I have attended Jamey's clinics and hosted Jamey (1998) for a day at GSU while playing in the Army Band in Atlanta. Jamey Aebersold has always been such a sharing and gracious Jazz Educator. Thanks for your fine article. Yours, Bob Boyce (Bopalot Music)