JT Notes: In Pursuit of Learning

November's issue of JazzTimes looks at percussion and education

Art Blakey's Drum Cases
Art Blakey’s drum cases in the basement of Keystone Korner, San Francisco, November 10, 1982. © Brian McMillen www.brianmcmillenphotography.com

November is traditionally the month when JazzTimes focuses on percussion, and that’s one reason why Brian Blade is on the front cover. Another reason: The last time he was on our cover, it was November 2000. Having been a fan of his drumming ever since I first saw him in Daniel Lanois’ band back in 1993, I find this 18-year gap—during which he’s played on close to 100 albums, many of them superb—close to unfathomable. Under the circumstances, it only seemed right to have him tackle a Bright Moments feature. Usually, we reserve these catalog-surveying pieces for older players, but given Blade’s track record over the past quarter-century, there was way more than enough to talk about.

Elsewhere in the issue, Geoffrey Himes contributes a perceptive story on the Nigerian skinsman Tony Allen, a panel of experts give the drum solo some due respect, and we check in with kitmasters like Adam Nussbaum, Eliot Zigmund, and Allison Miller. Acknowledging that there’s more to percussion than just drums, we also got four of jazz’s leading vibraphonists together for an in-depth chat.

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Looking through these pages, though, I see another theme that goes beyond the musical striking of objects (as profound as that can be). The not-so-hidden leitmotif here is the value of learning. You can sense it in the way Chris Dave talks about Craig Green, his beloved middle-school drum instructor; or in how Nate Smith identifies his time in Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program as having changed his whole outlook; or in Joe Locke’s words about the greater responsibility that he feels his more gifted students need to embrace. The concentrated acquisition of knowledge, we are reminded again and again, is of vital importance. And so it’s appropriate that November is also the month when we publish our annual Jazz Education Guide—the second half of this issue.

When I think of music education, I immediately flash back to the jazz ensemble I played guitar in when I was 12. We had some knowledge, but only a little, and that, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing. We thoroughly enjoyed running through tunes by Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, and McCoy Tyner, but most of us had only the vaguest idea of how to play solos. That sure didn’t keep us from taking them, though. The result was cacophony.

One day, our teacher finally had enough. He sat us down in front of a blackboard and instructed us to take notes. On the board, he wrote out all the different modes for major and minor scales, plus a few extras like the altered mode. He told us which degrees of each mode were flat or sharp in comparison to a standard major scale, and which modes matched up best with particular chords. It was a mini-course in improvisational music theory, given to us in about an hour.

That one hour changed everything—bolstered, of course, by years of subsequent practice. Suddenly I could understand what I was doing, and what other players were doing. And that, as anyone quoted in this issue could tell you, is the value of learning. Kudos to all who pass it on, in the classroom, on the bandstand, and even on the magazine page.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.