Why everybody cannot play jazz

I love Jazz. It is a unique genre for several reasons.

Most popular music is too boring for my liking. Despacito, the world’s most popular song, has the same four chords throughout, with a token bass in the background and a drummer who could be replaced by a recorded track on loop. As I listened to more music, my taste shifted from mainstream genres to classical and jazz music.

With jazz, there is variation throughout the song. There are surprises everywhere – the guitarist departing from the scale, the pianist varying the rhythm and the bass and drums having a mind of their own midway through the song. Jazz artists are experts at breaking rules and convention while still sounding terrific. It is inspiring.

I tried learning to play jazz on my guitar. As a guitarist without any formal training, my learning was haphazard. Rather than grasping music theory fundamentals, I played whatever I liked to without structure, continuity or purpose. I’d pick up the next shiny object I find – the intro to one song and the chords from another only to forget both of them in six months.

Given this background, I enrolled for a couple of online jazz courses. However, every jazz course included music theory fundamentals as a prerequisite. They also assumed that their students could read musical notation – those funny symbols scrawled on parallel lines. I couldn’t make it past the first two lessons.

Jazz wasn’t simply breaking the rules. There was a method to this madness.

It is hard to depart from convention while sounding good. If I string together random notes and chords, I’d only create cacophony. But a jazz musician does it in an informed manner. This is as true of other art forms. Abstract artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali learnt how to paint perfect landscapes like the classical masters before they discovered their own abstract styles.

The Japanese concept of Shu ra hi, with its origins in martial arts, is a framework for learning something new.

Shu: In the beginning, the student follows the instruction of a master, without departing from theory. If there are multiple approaches, the disciple sticks to the one her master teaches her.

Ra: The student begins to branch out, and learn the underlying principles behind her technique. She learns from other masters and integrates their teaching into her form.

Hi: The student learns almost exclusively from her own practice – departing from the rules and creating her own style. She is on the road to mastering her unique approach to a craft.

Jazz occupies the Hi level within this framework. It combines the elements of several styles – blues, ragtime and European military band music into a loosely defined genre.

Breaking the rules cannot be done on a whim. One has to master them before departing from them.

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