Jim Hall with Bill Evans
Jim Hall with Bill Evans

“Don’t just play something, sit there”… Jim Hall’s Jazz Koan.

Following on from Lennie’s advice re hipness and non-action, thank you to my friend (guitarist) Jason Broadbent for Jim Hall’s counsel “Don’t just play something, sit there”! On further research those close to Jim Hall suggest he actually said “don’t just do something, sit there” but the point is the same.

The more I practice, the more I teach and the older I get, the more I am struck by the parallels implicit in improvisation, expressive and functional use of language and the various approaches to mindfulness (across the traditions, secular or Buddhist mindfulness, Yoga, Martial Arts, Contemplative spiritual practice and so on). How often do improvisors chase and crave a successful outcome, attach to detail or over-identify with musical energy or self-expression? Our projection and desire are so far away from the flow-state that we claim to seek, confusing it for fantasy of technical or musical perfection. Jazz improvisors are so well resourced with the concrete resources of repertoire, musical materials, transcriptions and recordings as well as hundreds of educational courses, but the need now is surely for deeper understanding of the process of improvising and less a fixation on acquisition.

I recall my first day teaching at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama over thirty years ago, hearing a BBC Radio 4 documentary about creativity and the importance of “entertaining opposites”. At that time I was reading “Zen and the Art of Archery” where non-effort is central to presence and practice, attention more valuable that effort. There is much to be considered in this domain and more to follow. In the meantime, “don’t just play something, sit there!” Thank you Jim…

Check out some Jim Hall here:
With Bill Evans… www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp721ibSHqA
With Joe Lovano… www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ToFwkEBXKU

I was surfing the website of David Valdez and came across the tributes to and Ph.D about the American jazz educator Charlie Banacos. This man was a very significant figure and worth investigating if like me, you are unaware of his work (see CasaValdez for more information)… Just for starters some of the saying attributed to him:
“If you play with your fingers, you’re dead”
“The fingers are passive”
“The body doesn’t want to stop”
“The body doesn’t like angles”
“Row the boat”
“You feel like a diver by the side of a pool, ready to jump”
“Play with your arms, not your fingers”
“Of course it’s difficult; that’s why they call it an etude”
“Ear training—it’s Zen, not Aristotelian”
“Gain purchase”
“Don’t measure” (as you practice ear training—hear it all at once)
“Piano technique—it’s Aristotelian, not Zen”
“Each note has its own shape as it goes by, like you’re driving by the planets”
“Keep your fingers near the keys, and don’t be afraid to raise your wrist”
“Don’t change the exercises”
“It’s a coordination problem”
“Just because you don’t speak like MLK doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk”
“Think of the numbers, not hand positions”
“Circles, Squares, Triangles -separate them” i.e. one idea after the next, not on top”
“Plan your practicing, or you will be overwhelmed”
“Use all the tensions on the lines; use all the figurations for each voicing”
“It doesn’t matter what finger you use”
“Think like a drummer, using space and range”
“Close your eyes and sit in the audience watching and listening”
“Re: sight reading—it’s a craft, not an art”
“Oh, and do it in all twelve keys.” Kill!
“Divisive rhythm/additive rhythm”
“Elephant with a stick in his trunk” (using it as a guide as you walk/play).
“He’s [insert name here e.g. Mingus, Jerry B. etc.] whacked, but he can play”
“Deep into the keys” (toward the center of the earth and toward the fallboard)

Apparently, he also would stress the following…
“It’s not technique, its timing” —Oscar Peterson
“Practice without accents” —Oscar Peterson
“The body is a rock; the arms are snakes” —Claudio Arrau
“All notes are ‘up’ notes” —Martha Argerich
“Feel the Ground” —Anton Rubinstein
“It’s all about circles” —Chick Corea
“Think of elephants, giraffes and hippos as you play” —Bill Evans
“C fingerings in all keys” —Franz Liszt
“Giant Steps solo in all keys” —George Coleman
“Music is Technique”—Nadia Boulanger
“Practice for the performance” —Chick Corea
“You must be a good draftsman before you can be a great painter” —Bill Evans
“Practicing is pushing a wall—you wake up the next day the wall has moved” —Bill Evans
“Don’t force the keys” —Art Tatum (to Red Garland)
“Each time is different”—Artur Schnabel, upon practicing the same phrase 200 times
“Three hours before breakfast” —Mike Stern
“Enslavement to the notation” —Craig Taubman
“Nothing difficult about it—just hit the right keys at the right time” —J.S. Bach
“You can’t be unhappy and be learning something new at the same time” —Merlin

Do read this, a touching letter from Sonny Rollins to Coleman Hawkins in 1962 (from the website www.jazzclef.com). The greatest players possess not only self-discipline and powers of concentration, but generally, great humility.

Shock horror – jazz genius recorded “Nardis” 41 times (as far as we know)…
I wonder why? Perhaps he wanted to go deeper.

I have heard many famous jazz musicians advocating the necessity to learn a lot of repertoire. Nameless esteemed artist number one recently encouraged students to know at least 100 tunes, while esteemed artist number two advocated just 20 – and that some musicians are just “tune nerds” (not very helpful).

Number two misses the deeper and more useful point which is about and memory and the challenge to be thorough enough in our practice so that song-forms present as few problems as necessary, while we deal with the principal issues of improvising and expression. Many aspiring jazz musicians struggle with the repetition required in order to internalise, often losing focus and moving their attention to another new tune, the next good idea or something they have heard at a gig or on Spotify. it is worth noting that Bill Evans recorded “Nardis” at least 40 times, and quite possibly played it on most gigs. I encourage you to welcome the sensation of boredom with a form, and see it instead as indication of the right time to go deeper.

Click here for a practice strategy for learning tunes – thoroughly and usefully.