As you will probably know from my past writing, one of my most longed-for goals is to be able to improvise jazz on the banjo. That dream has commanded my attention for 30 years now (since I first heard Buddy Wachter play, and realized what could be done on the instrument), yet until only recently, it has pretty much evaded me. I thought it would be interesting and instructive (and mind organizing/clearing) to try to put into words some of my random thoughts on the subject, or should I call them “musings.”
As with everything I do, I put way too much thought into it (the antithesis of jazz), and am often guilty of “paralysis through analysis.” Maybe my very way of being prevents me from breaking through? I recognize that some personality types are more suited to the free-flowing, “let it happen” nature of jazz than others. I have been able to break through the restrictions of my self-controlling personality in many areas of life, and I choose to believe that jazz is next in line.
On the other hand, I also believe that achieving success in spite of those restrictions will lead me to a more honest-for-me ability. I have been operating on the “overpower my self” method/mentality for a while now; seems to be working. Somewhere, somehow, I will break through.
I am able to improvise on the saxophone (within the limits of my knowledge and practice dedication anyway), so why not the banjo? The sax is a very simple instrument though, while the banjo—with it’s four strings in a non-symmetrical tuning—is certainly more complex, at least in single-string logic terms. Many folks see the banjo as being too simple for jazz; I see it as too complex!
On the sax, since you can only play one note at a time, you can only worry about one note at a time; on the banjo, you have to think about 4 strings at a time. Knowing where to find the notes you need without having to jump around excessively is the trick. That’s why scales and arpeggios are so important; they pave the pathways necessary for efficient single-note playing. Efficiency = speed; speed = being physically able to play jazz!
On the clarinet (my most-studied instrument), you are expected to play lots of notes (the clarinet taking the place of the violin in wind bands); 16th notes are quite common. Not so much on the banjo. The plectrum banjo is mostly known as a chord instrument, and for good reason; it is exceedingly easy to play chords on it!
But “lots of notes” are no harder on the banjo than on any other instrument; it just takes learning the mechanics. Those mechanics are called scales and arpeggios. Perhaps harder to achieve though is the mentality of playing lots of notes. You have to “hear” those notes, and believe that the instrument and you are capable of them.
“New to the world?”
All “improv” should be truly “new,” as in “never been done before,” right? The question is, “new to the world,” or just “new to you?” If it was new to the world, well, have you heard cutting-edge, avant garde jazz? Do you understand it? Do you really think any of us mere mortals will ever produce anything truly new, and make the history books?
“New to you” I think would be an admirable goal; to be so relaxed and in command that you could just let your fingers go where they’ve never gone before, regardless of true originality. That is my goal; we’ll see where it leads me.
A common misconception is that jazz improv should be entirely spontaneous, without prior thought—and most definitely not informed (encumbered?) by “education.” Maybe there have been a few savants for whom this is true (and maybe you know someone who at least seems to be spontaneous, without admitting to knowing any of that boring theory stuff), but I would bet my banjo that for the vast majority of us, this is absolutely untrue! Even the savants know this stuff; they may not know what to call it, but they sure have a natural, intuitive grasp of what takes most of us a lot of study to learn.
I spent many years mistakenly believing that if I was meant to play jazz, it would just “happen”; not having it happen led me to believe that I “just didn’t have it inside me.” “I’ve tried everything short of practice and study, and I just can’t get it!” Well, I have discovered that as with everything else, you have to put it into yourself, by lots of practice and study. You can’t just build a robot and expect it to do things; you have to program it to do those things. Most of us humans are the same way. I can’t believe how blind and lazy I was, but then again, I was listening to the “just let it happen” crowd, hoping I was a savant and didn’t need to work hard.
Many great musicians are famous for not knowing how to read music; maybe there’s a reason they were so great? Maybe they had such a natural gift that they could function without knowledge? Then again, it doesn’t take great music reading skill to learn theory and hear music in your head (it just helps); look at blind musicians. Do you have that gift? Then don’t tell me I should be like that! Don’t hold savants out as role models for those of us (the vast majority) who aren’t so gifted. It is not encouraging. And the few of you who do have that gift need to know that most of us don’t, so we would appreciate some help and understanding, other than telling us to “just let it happen.” Let what happen?
Ask any accomplished jazz musician how important scales are. . . go ahead, I’ll wait.
Here’s how I look at that: When I listen to the kind of free-flowing jazz that I like, I hear. . .well. . .scales and arpeggios, “jazzed up” and used and combined in ways that make them interesting and exciting. At its heart, that’s all any kind of music is! Wouldn’t knowing and understanding your scales and arpeggios ahead of time make being able to use them in jazz improv more likely? And more able to just trust in your skills and let go? I don’t know about you, but my single-string technique—which before would not have supported (and did not support) what I hear in my head—has improved dramatically since figuring out how to practice it. The key to that? Scales and arpeggios.
If jazz improv is all about single-string technique, then that time proven method of learning/improving it will be my focus. I’m hedging my bets; rather than continuing to listen to those who say “ah, you don’t need that stuff; just play what’s in your heart,” and continuing to wait for “inspiration” to hit (and continuing to not learn and practice my scales), I’m mastering them at real-life tempos. Even if I never find my jazz voice, my musical voice has already benefitted greatly.
I have—and always have had—the jazz language in my head; I just never took the necessary time and effort to give my fingers the pre-learned skills to release it. As you can imagine, that’s pretty frustrating. Well, now I am! I am counting down the days—now approaching faster than ever—to that happy moment when my head and my fingers (and my heart) finally meet up and say “let’s play!” It will happen—it is happening!
I have observed that there are two basic types of jazz improvisers: Those who just let it all hang out, warts and all (often at the cost of coherency), and those who put a lot of thought and precision into every note they play (often at the cost of emotion). I definitely fit into the second category; that’s just my nature (I am Bix, not Louis!). I intellectualize everything in life, even the things I shouldn’t! I have learned to loosen up a lot with age; over-thinking is just the hand I was dealt, and I have in turn dealt with it the best I can. I didn’t start talking until the age of 4; I’m pretty sure that was because I had to think about and be careful with my first words! My family will tell you that I haven’t stopped talking since.
Time has proven that for me at least, just “letting go” is not as easy as it sounds. Not finding a way to let it happen on its own (for the last 30 years), again I am now hedging my bets by working hard to maximize every technique I can think of. I want, no. . .need, my fragile ego—ever afraid of making mistakes and appearing a fool—to know that it has a strong and disciplined framework to support it; my ego and I are in frequent negotiation (not always in a nice way), and are currently hashing out a new cooperation agreement. It would have helped if I had started that process 30 years ago, but I had to find myself first (which took many years). Then again, I suppose “finding myself” was the most important part of the overall process.