Successful trumpet players are busy people. I first spoke to Ron McCurdy during this year's International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) conference in Long Beach, California. As Ron was serving as President of the IAJE, and a conference of 7,000 jazz delegates was in full, er, swing, his duties left him little time to chat. Much of Ron McCurdy's contribution to this piece was completed by email and telephone.
Randy Brecker I met in London, after we had gone patiently through a saga of cancellation and rescheduling that could fill this page.
Even more challenging, the business of catching up with Wynton Marsalis furnished a tale sufficient to fill this magazine. I was in Manhattan during the recent JVC Jazz Festival, in which Wynton appeared. I spoke briefly to him and his support staff on several occasions. Twice I visited his Jazz at Lincoln Center offices on W 60th Street. Even in those few days, Wynton made appearances in New York, Boston and Vermont. A biographer was constantly accompanying him. Our chat eventually took place during the moments available between completing a late-afternoon recording session and departing for a world tour, hours later.
All three musicians displayed patience, kindness and willingness to help, tolerating this tenacious Englishman with his cassette recorder and telephone-bugging equipment. Their graciousness and willingness to share their professional insights were deeply impressive. For this, I thank them.
Ron McCurdy is Professor of Music in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC). He is Past President of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). Prior to his professorship he served as Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at USC. He has worked with Joe Williams, Rosemary Clooney, Arturo Sandoval, Diane Schuur, Ramsey Lewis, Mercer Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, and Dianne Reeves, and served as a member of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp faculty.
"My high school didn't have a formal jazz programme. I didn't attempt to play jazz until I arrived at college. My focus all through high school was to become an orchestral trumpet player," he admits. "By the time I arrived in college, I had developed an appreciation for jazz, but not a desire to play it. It wasn't until I began playing jazz - because the school band needed another trumpet player - that I really began to enjoy it. I was able to draw from having heard the music for the first eighteen years of my life. I knew just enough to be dangerous. I didn't know my jazz theory. I didn't know many jazz tunes.
"Around that time I met Jamey Aebersold and David Baker. They changed my life. I began to have a complete overhaul in my thinking regarding career options. I wanted to teach. I wanted to play. David Baker became my mentor. He remains so today.
"The difference in tone between a jazz trumpeter and an orchestral trumpeter is more of a conceptual issue between two separate cultures, two different ways to approach music. The mechanics of playing the horn are very similar, but an orchestral trumpet sound in a jazz setting would not fit. The same is true with a jazz sound in an orchestral setting. One is not better or worse than the other; they are simply different.
"Transcribing jazz solos is a must for all jazz students. This is where you learn and internalize the jazz vocabulary, where you will gain a better understanding of harmony, how a particular artist creates and develops ideas. The least important step is notating a solo. Transcribing does not necessarily mean writing it down. It means being able to imitate what the artist has done."
Randy Brecker has worked with Horace Silver, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Charles Mingus, Clark Terry, Joe Henderson and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He has performed as a studio player with James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Parliament/Funkadelic, David Sanborn, Jaco Pastorious and Frank Zappa. In jazz-rock fusion, Brecker has been a major contributor to Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Larry Coryell's Eleventh House. With brother Mike, he fronts the celebrated Brecker Brothers band. Achieving great popular and critical acclaim in the mid-1970s, the Brothers won a pair of Grammies for their mid-nineties Out of The Loop. Randy won his first Grammy as a soloist in 1998.
"I started to play the trumpet when I was eight. Shortly thereafter I studied with Sigmund Herring, who played trumpet in the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the same time I took lessons unofficially from my father. After I finished practising my classical studies he would take me down to the piano and teach me songs. So I learned songs like Lullaby of Birdland and Our Love Is Here to Stay. He would lecture me, unofficially, on the art of improvisation. How I should keep the melody in the back of my head and play around with the melody.
"The harmony came later, after years of playing by ear. I developed quite an extraordinary ear. I utilised playing along with records before there were play-along records. Even starting with an advanced jazz teacher, this is one kind of music where you must listen. It has to be internalised so that it becomes second nature. To this day I spend hours listening. If I don't, somehow the whole thing seems to go away.
"I play with records a lot. I play with everything. I'll play with radio, TV commercials, soundtracks. I kind of watch TV, but it's all ear training. I play with a radio station. I even put on an avant-garde hip-hop station, or play with classical music. Just see where my ear takes me.
"I went to the Stan Kenton Band Camp in 1962. John LaPorta took me aside.
He said, 'Young man, what scales are those you are playing? Explain it to me.'
I said, 'I don't know. It's just stuff I hear.'
"By then I knew my major and minor scales, but I didn't know how they applied to jazz harmony. I knew nothing about modes or altered scales.
"Now, when I play, it's a combination. If I have the music in front of me, I'll consciously figure out what scales go with what chords, and figure out maybe a second choice of a scale. At the same time I use my ear. So I might vary from the scale. It also depends upon whom I'm interacting with, in the rhythm section. That's when the magic happens, when you find musicians that you are empathetic with. Then you can all play something that's completely off the page.
"The younger players use more of a classical approach when they play jazz. That was not true in the 40s or even the 50s, when jazz trumpet players utilised individualistic approaches to tone and technique. That was part of the reason why so many of the great older jazz players had such a distinct sound.
"So there are pluses and minuses. Many answers I haven't quite figured out, but it's been quite a phenomenon with jazz trumpet, the way classical music has worked its way into the technique of a jazz trumpet player. Many of the younger players can play lead. They can play jazz. They can play classical. They are really excellent trumpet players in the classical sense of the word, besides being great jazz players.
"One has somehow to find a voice. That can be done by practice, utilising and expanding your own vocabulary, itemising what in your sound or vocabulary makes you different. Work on original licks - or whatever you want to call them - to add to your vocabulary. That should be an important part. But it is true that sonically it's harder to differentiate between younger players. That's the part of the equation I don't have an answer to yet.
"I avidly use the Jamey Aebersold Play Along method. There are three or four books that are invaluable. Volume Two, which is the II-V-I book, and Volume Fifteen or Sixteen, called Turnrounds, Turnbacks. There's also a newer one, which concentrates on dominant seventh chords and all the millions of scales you can utilise with that chord.
"When I learn a new tune, I see how much I can get under my fingers and figure out without looking at the music. Then I look at the music and see where my ear was weak. It's invariably weak in certain tonalities. For instance, Ab minor and Db minor, for some reason I have difficulty.
"I'm not an amazingly proficient piano player, but I can get through a tune harmonically. Dizzy Gillespie was the first one I read who recommended any musician play the piano, because you can close your eyes and visualize the keyboard. That sometimes helps."
Wynton Marsalis is the most acclaimed jazz musician of his generation, and a distinguished classical performer. Born in 1961, he began studying the trumpet seriously when he was twelve. In the summer of 1980 he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. That same year he signed with Columbia Records.
Wynton Marsalis has recorded more than 30 jazz and classical albums for Columbia and for Sony Classical. He is Artistic Director of the internationally recognized Jazz at Lincoln Center programme, which he cofounded in 1987. It includes the Essentially Ellington competition. Last year this involved 1,240 high school jazz bands.
"First, the attack of jazz is different," he says. "Jazz has to have more weight and variety. The way the note is struck, the mechanisms of breathing and all that, are the same. The variety of tones and the heaviness of the attack are different. Most of the jazz work is in coordination. Being able to hear and to execute something in the moment that you hear. It's the connection between ear and fingers, to do with reflexes. To find the right shadings and the different things that are appropriate to the moments that are unfolding.
"To begin I would have a young player learn rudimentary form in jazz, the blues and various simple songs. I would have him sing the songs, sing the bass line. I would have him begin learning some vocabulary off of recordings. That would be recordings of different eras, not one particular era. He will find somebody whose playing he likes more than other people. Then I'd encourage the student to investigate that musician, then learn some of the songs.
"I encourage always learning things by ear. Then, after you know the solos, if you want to write them down - to study them from a technical standpoint - then it's okay. But I believe that the first arbiter of taste should be the ear. Exactly like you learn a language. You don't write down a language - you learn how to speak long before you learn how to write.
"Your tone is your identity. Developing a personal tone requires another type of concentration - on the characteristics in your sound, in making your sound exactly how you want it to be.
"Many times the students of jazz work on licks and phrases and harmonic extensions. They try to find things to play. They believe that if they find some unique things to play, that will make them sound unique. Or they think that a unique approach will bring out the fact that they have their own conception. This may be true. But the new thing is always inside of your sound. To work on your sound requires a lot of concentration and dedication. It takes a long long time.
"A respect for the tradition is a matter of developing your taste. Part of artistry is the development of taste. The entire art form is your playing field. If you don't know the majority of the art because it wasn't done yesterday, you're cheating yourself out of a lot of listening and enjoyment, and a lot of education. I never try to make people learn if they don't want to learn."
Watch a clip of Wynton Marsalis on YouTube