Don't Cheat Yourself
A friend of mine who chairs a college jazz studies department in New York State has been visiting for a few days. Last night, over a thought-provoking glass of Islay malt, we got to discussing the importance of transcribing in developing as a jazz musician. Along with playing with other musicians, learning shared repertoire from jazz composers and the American Songbook, and technical mastery of one’s instrument, transcription is and has historically been a cornerstone of the jazz learning process. Yet we both encounter students on a regular basis who rarely, if ever, engage with this practice. Many of them attempt to substitute playing through transcriptions that have been published by others for actually doing the work themselves. This is like walking into a CVS, handing a prescription from your doctor to the pharmacist, paying for it, and then asking the pharmacist to take one tablet twice a day for you. The prescription might be right, but good luck seeing any health benefits.
Here are some of the benefits you are giving up by not transcribing for yourself:
Immersion in the musical voices of great performers and ensembles
Ear training through repeated deep listening and identification of pitch, rhythm, timbre, and other musical elements
Growing comprehension of how music is put together and cultivation of a more keen analytical mind
Development of a concept of sound, phrasing, etc. that leads to artistic and technical advancements
Authentic participation within a long and proud musical tradition
Depending on where you live and who else is around you, the closest thing to a bandstand aural tradition in the 21st century
I can trace the majority of weaknesses in my own jazz playing to a failure to transcribe enough, and it really is painfully obvious when a student has not spent enough time transcribing or at least listening on a deep level, because they play like they quite simply don’t know what jazz sounds like. Sometimes our modern conveniences are an advantage, but the ability to access almost anything at any time on the Internet seems to lead a lot of students not to do anything at all. Pick a few players and dig in. For obvious reasons, Charlie Parker did not hop on Youtube and transcribe a little bit of fifty saxophonists in his early development. He collected every recording of Lester Young with Basie, and learned to play every one of his solos. There is no risk of losing one’s identity by copying one’s heroes. Charlie Parker sounds only like himself - an informed, musically educated, authentic self.
Do not feel limited to transcribing players of your own instrument. I spent many hours with recordings of Parker, Young, and Dexter Gordon for research purposes in graduate school, and it did my trumpet playing a world of good by opening up timbral possibilities and leading me to embrace approaches to playing unfettered by trumpet-specific technical considerations.
If the whole solo is not worth transcribing, then don’t bother (as a general rule) because that signals lack of compositional integrity, a trait of the best jazz improvisors. If only a few passages or “licks” seem interesting enough to learn or write down, consider the possibility that the player, or at least this example of the player, is not coherent enough to be a good model. There is no point wasting time in emulating mediocre or novice playing. If you want to be the best you can be, model yourself after the best of all time. Don’t cheat yourself.