It’s hard this jazz business, no wonder so many of the greats self-destructed in their prime. And no that doesn’t include me. No, siree. Take Charlie Parker here, dead at 34, as just one example. Obviously, in my case, there were going to be peaks and troughs (although not as deep as being dead) in my learning how to play jazz after 40 years of playing basically 3 chord C&W but the troughs are rather deeper and more frequent that I anticipated. The peaks are fleeting and elusive. It’s quite causing me to question the sense of the enterprise. This is a feeling promoted by last Monday night’s class. It went something like this.
One of the good guitarists, there are two of them and they are the star pupils of the rhythm section, was playing his solo. They’re pleasant and helpful people of course (he gave me a, laminated no less, version of his chord chart), which makes the whole thing worse. Anyway he was playing his solo and the tutor grimaced at a note he played. The guitarist said, “Sorry that was wrong, not very wrong, but wrong.” The tutor, and, let’s call him Steve, can’t keep calling him ‘the guitarist’, shared a little joke (how I’ve come to hate the in-jokes of the talented, if ever one’s outsider status was highlighted, it is in these small jokey asides that I do not understand) about the ‘wrongness’ of the note. Needless to say it all sounded great to me, as their solos always do. But the key word, as will become clear, was in the word ‘wrong’.
Sometimes I think my solos sound OK and I’m definitely getting better following the chords when playing rhythm but my solos are very limited and, almost always, based on the blues scale – back to those three C&W and blues chords. Sometimes I feel OK about this but sometimes I don’t. The thing is they’re not ‘right’. In fact they are ‘wrong’. Our tutor spends a lot of time talking about the scales (the ‘correct’ notes) that go with a particular chord, bearing in mind that there can be many chords particularly in jazz tunes based on American standards as they are called. He explains all this- what the ‘right’ notes of the scale or mode are – to us and then I completely ignore what he’s said (too terrified to try out loud) and play the blues. As my other tutor, come to him in a moment, says this tutor teaches jazz – by implication, the right way. I have, thus far, convinced myself that the way forward for me is to first learn the correct way before moving on to the more creative, free-form approach. But now I’m not sure. Monday night dashed the fragile self-esteem that I built up from the preceding week. That little voice of self-doubt in my head started to shout. I realised, not for the first time, how far I was from knowing the right way. Mixolydian, Dorian, Ionian, Doric – Devonian, All too much, way too much, to learn the right way.
So the tutor for this workshop, let’s call him Matt, another nice guy except for those weeks when he seems to pick on me, he doesn’t of course, but it feels that way. I feel like a naughty schoolboy and, in some ways, I’m too old for that. Play quieter when the others (the brainy ones) are playing their solos; he says; is that you humming Peter? (no, it’s not actually, it’s one of your pets whose amp is humming, steady Peter, you’re getting childish); play that chord for me, no, you’ve missed the flattened third. OMG. Trying clapping the rhythm, like this, anxiety kicks in and I freeze. He calls it, not unreasonably teaching, I call it undermining. Sounds great doesn’t it. This was last Monday night, not a good night. I might really be too old for all this humiliation.
The great irony of all this is that my ‘other’ tutor runs a workshop that I used to attend as well as giving me the occasional individual lesson. These ‘other’ workshops I have already written about and in no glowing terms, in the end they were just too well attended, i.e. too many people, draw from that what conclusion you will. But the point is, for the purpose of this blog, my other tutor, call him Dom (can’t keep calling him the ‘other’ tutor) , is a passionate believer in the ‘fact’ that jazz doesn’t have any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play. I think he thinks the ‘right’ way is boring and predictable. In this sense, he’s perfect for me except in that I cling to this, possibly mistaken, belief that I need to know the right way before being ‘allowed’ (my word) to play the wrong way. I told him so. After last night I’m beginning to wonder if I am indeed mistaken.
Dom’s a positive guy and provides the feedback I so desperately need if I am to continue. He sent me a text after the last workshop of his I attended (just to confuse things a Tuesday night session not a Saturday), he said I really enjoyed your playing last night, how straight forward a compliment is that? Except in my head it could have meant he enjoyed hearing jazz played the wrong way. And that wasn’t what I wanted just then but now maybe I feel differently. I need a period of somebody telling me I’m doing it fine, even doing it ‘right’ by one criteria, even if some people would say it’s the ‘wrong’ criteria. Hope you’re following this. Simply put there is no learning without thoughtful (not simply positive), feedback and generally this is what is lacking, Dom’s email apart.
In the end, as in the title of this blog, it all comes down to ‘challenge’. How important is it to a retired person to set yourself challenges? How much discomfort is acceptable? And back to that old chestnut, self-esteem. To what degree are you willing to put your self-esteem at risk when attempting and, to an inevitable degree, (depending on how high you set the bar of challenge) failing, to rise to a challenge? Buggered if I know. Tricky business, retirement.