I’ve Tried Everything. . .

“I’ve tried everything short of practice and study, and I just can’t get it!”

This line was hidden within my last blog, Improvisational Musings. I thought I should write a little more on this half-joking thought. The question is “how does one improvise jazz on the banjo?”

The answers I get are interesting (with apologies to my many well-meaning friends over the years who have given me variations of this advice; I do appreciate your good intent!), so I need to ask a slightly different question, but first the interesting answers.

“Just play what’s in your heart.”

“No matter what you do, make sure you tell a story.”

“Just let it happen, man!”

Okay, that’s the gist of it; there have been other answers, but they are just variations on these. Let me tell you what these answers have meant for me (and I imagine there are a few others like me out there):

These answers tell me that apparently there is no practice required, and no prerequisite skills or knowledge necessary for jazz improvisation; “just let what’s in your heart happen, and make sure you tell a story!” That’s it? That’s the answer to the question? You may as well tell me the answer is 42 (“thanks for the fish!”)! 

Would you tell me these things if I was a raw beginner, touching the banjo for the first time? Well, I am a raw beginner when it comes to jazz improv! I’ve been practicing a lot these last several years (with the goal of “just letting it happen”), so I probably have all the tools necessary, but what are they, and how do I use them?

The maddening thing for me is, for decades I let this false hope keep me from learning and practicing (or even knowing what to practice) the skills necessary to play jazz—at the level of what I hear in my head, anyway. I figured since I could hear it, I should be able to play it. I was led to believe it would just happen for me with no effort (if it was meant to be); I thought I was pretty good, but no matter how hard I’ve tried to “let it happen” (there’s a Zen paradox for you), nothing happens! Tell a story? What does that even mean? Can this storytelling be learned, or do you just have it or not?

So, here’s the new question:

Before you started improvising jazz (because you surely didn’t do it the first time you picked up an instrument), what things did you learn? What skills did you have (naturally or learned) that made jazz possible for you? Did you learn and practice scales and arpeggios (because I sure hear a lot of them in jazz improvisation)? Which came first for you: The scale, or jazz improv? Did you study any theory? Did you have a mentor showing you how to do it (without any explanation other than ‘do it like this’)?”

As I said, I’m sure there are many others like me out there—frustrated wannabe jazzers who play well and understand a lot but just can’t quite seem to “let it happen.” I’ve got a good handle on some of the possible answers now—and will soon start posting what I think is some pretty good stuff—but still. . . Please, if you have the ability, throw us a bone! Give us a hint as to what particular physical techniques you used to achieve this esoteric dream of telling a story. Feel free to use this blog as a forum for some real answers to our burning question:

Just how do you improvise jazz on the banjo?

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