Originally published in Earshot Jazz August 1997
One of the ways I have learned to hear, play, write, and love jazz is through transcription. A teacher gave me an assignment to write down a solo from a record and share it with an improvisation class. I figured the blues was a good starting place so I picked Lou Donaldson playing "Wee Dot" with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The hours of repeated listening, scribbling notation - a bar or some-times a note at a time - was a humbling "private lesson" with Lou's tone, melodic creativity, swing, and expressive energy. The more I worked on the solo, the more fun I had.
After more hours of re-copying the music for legibility, then hours of playing along with the record to proof-read and pretend to be on the stand with the Messengers, I brought the transcription to my teacher. In return, he gave me Coleman Hawkins' solo on "Body and Soul." I was hooked.
I haven't been fortunate enough to study face-to-face with Miles, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Steve Lacy, David Murray, and many other great improvisers. But I have been able to learn from them, across time and space, by putting my curious ear right where the microphone was, then echoing their creative thoughts through the bell of my horn.
While transcribing is not spontaneous composition, it provides another way to glimpse the magic of jazz expression by a master. Jay Thomas is a consummate musician and it's a great pleasure to hear him in person and on a recording. As with most transcriptions, my depth of appreciation grew immensely throughout this project, from picking the solo to the final proof-reading (see accompanying Jay Thomas solo from "Seiji and Hiroshi" on Visiting Dignitaries, by Milo Petersen and The Jazz Disciples, Passage Records).
For those who can read music and play an instrument, here's one more way to dig the artistry of Jay Thomas. I can hear bits of Woody Shaw in measures 14-15 and 29-32, Art Farmer in measures 20-24, and a whole lot of original Jay Thomas through-out the solo. Notice how smoothly Jay moves from one chord to the next, plays such beautiful rising and falling phrases, and varies the rhythmic content to keep things interesting.
The practice of transcribing is not new and not everyone agrees that it is the best way to learn the jazz vocabulary, so I've included some interesting excerpts from other improvisers on the subject.
Jerry Coker in Improvising Jazz (Prentice-Hall, 1964)
[Transcribing] will benefit you in two important areas: (1) it will develop your ear and pitch memory to the extent that you will eventually be able to transcribe your own ideas while you are improvising; and (2) by studying the solos and styles of already proficient improvisers, you will gain a deeper understanding of the improvised solo and will discover various methods and ideas for the handling of improvised material.
Miles Davis in The Autobiography (with Quincy Troupe, Simon and Schuster, 1989)
I couldn't believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez, Bean, all them cats wouldn't go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores so they could check out what was happening. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn't believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it.
Bird would play the melody he wanted. The other musicians had to remember what he had played. He was real spontaneous, went on his instinct. He didn't conform to Western ways of musical group interplay by organizing everything. Bird was a great improviser and that's where he thought great music came from and what great musicians were about.
Freddie Hubbard in Notes and Tones (interviewed by Art Taylor, Perigee Books, 1977)
What did you do to develop yourself as a trumpeter? Listened to other musicians. By hearing what they play, I can judge what I would like to play or not to play. It's kind of weird. Like when I listen to Clifford Brown, I say wow, he does some beautiful things, and I get so many ideas which I can take and formulate into my own. I listen to all kinds of cats, like Eddie Gales, Don Cherry, Miles, Dizzy, Kenny Dorham, Bill Hardman. My whole thing is listening to music. I don't practice as much as I listen. I found out that practicing is not what jazz is all about.
Eddie Harris in Jazz Cliche Capers (Wardo Enterprises, Inc. 1973)
After about twelve years of copying the top twenty guys on your particular instrument, you should be able to construct your own ideas of a constructive solo. A musician who solos who has not copied from recordings of other artists may find himself soloing just like a certain recording artist without knowing it. The funny thing about it is the copier thinks he's the original player of this style. I think you should copy the solos from each record - note for note; by this I mean the "so-called mistakes" also. The "so-called mistakes" the artist made on the record are things I think you should do also - reason being that many times a soloist meant to do something that you thought might have been a mistake.