Learning Jazz

At 13 I learned to play the drums. My mom is a piano player but I couldn’t get into the keyboard. It just never appealed to me. In art, like in life, I need to be able to see the bigger picture to put the pieces together. I couldn’t “see” past the next note with the piano.

Drums were different. They were raw and had a range that I could control from angry and fierce to soft and subtle. Besides, all I really wanted was to emulate Neil Peart from Rush and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin.

I vividly recall my first drumming lesson. I strode into the room with confidence proclaiming “I want to learn to play Rush’s YYZ and Tom Sawyer. I also want to play Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll and Moby Dick.”

My instructor smiled and said, “OK. But most of rock is based on a simple 4/4 time signature. If you really want to learn to play the drums, we should focus on Jazz.” I’ll never forget this statement. Jazz? Why would I want to learn Jazz? At 13 I just wanted to build a band and get my air drumming skills on par with my actual playing.

They asked if they could play some different examples. I agreed but didn’t see the point. Mind you, at 13 years old my perspective was much like my patience – narrow and limited.

Within ten minutes I nailed down the basic beat for rock. When trying to implement basic jazz structures I was completely out of sync. I’ve always loved challenges so agreed to take up jazz as a foundation for learning.

The lessons that followed were technically complex and incredibly challenging. Yet after a few months any traditional rock and roll song was easy, by comparison. I started listening to Buddy Rich. This in turn brought me to learn about other greats in jazz such as Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, and Ahmad Jamal to name but a few.

Drums became the medium that opened my world to time signatures, and rhythms I hadn’t considered. This opportunity to look at sources of inspiration outside of my own focus, at a young age, would inspire every other aspect of my life.

As jazz pianist Bill Evans notes, learning jazz is something that is rarely presented in its true state to the average public; much in the same way a concentrated effort in learning anything takes time and focus that is rarely revealed when great outcomes are achieved.

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outter level-in, one by one, and stay with it at a very intense, conscious level until that process becomes secondary and sub-conscious. Now, when they become subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical – and in a way – that forced me to build something.

It is true of any subject that the person who succeeds in anything has the realistic point at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it one step at a time. He has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure.

Jazz legend Bill Evans on the creative process, self-teaching, and balancing clarity with spontaneity in problem solving.