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The Supremacy of "Making the Changes" (a digression) - 8/26/2012

After reading Ethan Iverson's latest blog (and the comments that followed it) regarding jazz competitions, I started to examine my own thoughts and experiences relating to the idea of those who can play and those who can't. Or relating directly to the competitions, the validity of those who judge and those who are judged as the winners. The phrase "X can play" or "X can't play" is something that most musicians will hear and even say at some point. Questioning the idea of what it means to be able to "play" was first brought to my awareness in a class with pianist/composer Michael Cain when I was at the Eastman School of Music from 1995-1997. It was in the context of jazz education and in particular to the use and meaning of the word "technique". Often times when someone is labeled as being able to "play", it's also said that they have good technique. In our classroom discussion, we came to the conclusion that what "technique" means in the jazz education context is basically someone who can play fast and clean and "make the changes". So what about other types of techniques beyond this? Techniques of sound, phrasing, free improvising, playing slow, rhythm, time feel, swinging, sight-reading notes and chords. Why is good technique most often only associated with moving one's fingers quickly and precisely? Could Paul Desmond or Cecil Taylor have good technique? Don Cherry or Johnny Dodds? Does Michael Brecker have better technique than Ben Webster?

I feel this relates to the "X can play" phenomenon in that both playing fast and playing melodies that very clearly outline the chord changes are skills that are easy to judge. This is important in any sort of academic setting and also in any type of competition. It makes sense to me. How could you judge someone on sound or imagination? If you have to grade or judge a person then you need some fairly cut and dry criteria on which to do this. This also goes along with the idea that to be a legitimate player, you must be able to play in the style of all of the music that has come before. I've heard people trying to justify Ornette Coleman by saying that he could play just like Charlie Parker if he chose to. Like that would somehow give his music validity.

So, some questions related to this that I have are:

What does it mean to make the changes?

Is someone like Sidney Bechet's approach to changes more or less valid than someone like David Murray's?

Does someone need to be able to play changes to be considered a real player?

Could someone be a virtuoso free player?

Can all people that play changes well also play free well?

If a person can only play changes up to a medium tempo, can they still play?

One last thought related to this is about a phenomenon that I've experienced with musicians who validate the ability to play with the "make the changes" criteria. If you're listening to some music that is very abstract with orchestral instruments that is composed by someone famous like Webern or Schoenberg, the music is taken seriously and often enjoyed. If something equally abstract is played by a group like the Art Ensemble, it is not taken seriously. I must admit that when I was in my late teens, I often was guilty of this type of thinking. In some twisted way, I almost assumed musicians like the Art Ensemble really wanted to make music like Duke Ellington, but they either couldn't or were not serious enough to put in the work to be able to do it. I've often wished I could take a time machine back to my high school days and give myself a few whacks on the head to shake this crazy idea from me. Fortunately for me, a decade and a half in the lovely NYC music scene has freed me from this way of thinking.

I will end this by saying that my intent is not to downplay the inspiring and magical sound of someone like Charlie Parker weaving through the chord changes at a breakneck tempo, but to question why this is often the primary aspect of music making that is used to judge whether someone can "play" or not. That being said, I'm still driven in each practice session to want to play Countdown like John Coltrane, Skippy like Steve Lacy, Cherokee like Charlie Parker and Body and Soul like Coleman Hawkins. For me, all of those players take my imagination well beyond the limits of playing the correct notes over a chord change and to something magical and mysterious that I've been pursuing since I first heard Charlie Parker's "Live at Storyville" version of Moose The Moose in my early teens.

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