This article started from combining a number of emails I've written to people in response to their questions about learning Jazz on chromatic harmonica, as well as what songs to learn, and various other opinions I've expressed on and off public forums.
I've only been learning to play in Jazz style since 2001, I do it as a hobby not professionally, so I'm hardly an expert on the subject.
I first took an interest in Jazz around 1999, I was fustrated with the limitations of the forms of music I had learnt to play in. I realised that learning Jazz would help me understand music a lot better, and would force me to become more versatile on my instruments. I have to admit that it took me a year of occassionally listening to the few Jazz albums I bought before I really began to enjoy even the most inside forms of the genre. Over the year of 2000 I began exploring the different artists who helped form and create the style, learning to recognise tunes, different artist's styles, and through listening I gradually began to really understand and comprehend what I was hearing. I also learnt that Jazz as a style incorporates a very broad range of approaches and feels, and from this learnt what I preferred and will work on for my own music.
Learning to play Blues was a means to an end for me. I chose to learn it as a way to learn to play harmonica. I have since learnt how much of a substantial grounding it can give any Western musician in the important components of music: Feeling, Rhythm, Swing, Timing, Phrasing, Expression, Improvising and Communication ... all of that becomes so important in Blues. Its limited form and style forces musicians to explore these components fully. I think a lot of today's Jazz players have started out learning Jazz without the same grounding in Blues the guys who invented and created Jazz had. Because of this they miss these very essential components of music, focusing on more technical aspects borne from the theories that were formed AFTER the music was created. Unfortunately we now have people, "purists" out there trying to tell us how its meant to sound and be, killing off the very creative spirit that it was invented to enable.
Its happened with Blues. Its happened with Classical music. I think this is something to be avoided.
To me music is about communicating emotions from the heart that words cannot possibly express, whatever the form it comes in. And without that music is meaningless and boring.
I usually pick songs because I like the way they feel, sound, and/or because they're popular in the local music scene and therefore I'm more likely to already be familiar with them and
I'm more likely to be able to join in jams and sit in on gigs.
Besides I'm still learning and getting to grips with the instrument and music.
Since I play Chromatic Harmonicas that have altered tunings called diminished tuning, I don't suffer some of the difficulties with more remote keys or playing over certain changes, or executing certain phrases the way stock standard Solo tuning does. The key of the tune is not a consideration. But fast tunes are more than a challenge for me at the moment, whatever the tuning. While I'm learning I pick ballads and slow to moderate tempo songs. I never have liked the way harmonica sounds when played at top speed - its like angry wasps rattling in a glass jar, I think it pushes the instrument against its nature.
I took alto sax up in part after hearing a number of pro Jazz harmonica players say "pick saxophone player's brains" and "listen to good sax players for ideas", even watch some of them PLAY saxophone. They're right!
So I figured what better way to do this than to learn to BE a saxophonist. And its a wonderful instrument and makes the music scene far more accessable than harmonica does.
Miles Davis is one of my biggest role models. His album "Kind of Blue" is a study in Cool. In terms of Jazz anything by Miles before the 70s and after the 80s works for me, his material during the 70s and 80s is really interesting and inventive, and sounds inspired by a lot of different musicians from styles of the period. Other greats I like to listen to are Hank Mobley "Soul Station"; Cannonball Adderly "Something Else" which features my favourite players; Coltrane "Coltrane Plays the Blues" as well as pre 60s material from when he was playing with Miles Quartet and Quintet, I find his later material beyond my comprehension; Dexter Gordon is just great listening in general, "Go!" is a good album; Charles Mingus has orchestrated some really superb works, one of the best Jazz albums ever is "Mingus Ah Um"; I have a lot of Charlie Parker's CDs, "Yard Bird Suite" is a great double album , I use it for lyrical inspiration along with Aebersold's "Charlie Parker Omnibook (Eb version)" so I can pick out phrases and learn from them. Yard Bird played Alto sax so the Eb Omnibook book shows you his approach to fingering on the sax which is useful for any sax player. For me he's too intense for extended listening, so I use his material more as a reference and occassional inspirational listening. Theloneous Monk was really inventive in his own style, he always knew what he wanted to hear regardless of whether it was popular or not. I find his album "Monk Apart. The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions, 1962-1968" a really good study of his style, and its all slow to moderate material making it accessable to harmonica. Herbie Hancock created some really wonderful funky tunes and makes for good practise albums to blow along with, eg. "Canteloupe Island", a lot of his songs are good pieces for beginners to start out on.
Examples of tunes I have learnt or am learning:
Take the A Train
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
How High is the Moon
The Girl from Ipanema
Jazz Blues progressions
I've got Rhythm - since its one of the most popular forms that so many standards are based on.
Abersold Volume 54 "Maiden Voyage" is a really good starting point, thats why some of these tunes are on my list.
I have a list of about 25 songs that I intend to learn, but I think the main thing is to get used to improvising over the more popular forms like AABA, Rhythm Changes, Jazz Blues progressions, and playing over all keys/scales/chords. Then as I get further with this it'll be a matter of building up a repetoire of tunes which will come easier since I'll have the chops already sussed, and it'll be easier to get around the tune and practise and remember it.
Jazz is about improvising after all. The key thing I strive to get better at is playing by ear. If I can play what I hear, then I can learn by ear, I can copy or trade with other musicians, and I can create and invent on the spot by simply playing what I hear in my head and heart.
I use Band In A Box with MEGAPAK (for PCs or Apple Mac). It's a very powerful music practise tool and strongly suggest anyone wanting to do serious shedding time get it. Band In A Box is a good way to learn music since just about ANY tune, chord progression or form you could wish to learn is available on the internet for free either in BIAB file format or in MIDI format which can be imported into BIAB. You can slow it down, speed it up, transpose it to any key, pick and choose the instruments, the style, have different well known musician's styles used to improvise over anything you enter in, you can follow the changes by sight, you can read the music score, it has visual piano & guitar windows if it helps watching either of those, not to mention several other features such as recording your solo and saving it with the song, various ear training exercises, cutting play along CDs.... its a profoundly useful tool. You can even have it invent a solo with "Trade 4s" and practise exchanging lines with it, maybe try to copy what its playing or work in with what its playing. Nearly as good as playing with an incredibly patient and reliable band that are ready to go when you are.
I have Aebersold play alongs:
vol 2 "Nothin' But the Blues";
vol 3 "The II/V7/I Progression";
vol 16 "Turaround Cycles & II/V7's";
vol 21 "Gettin' It Together";
vol 42 "'Blues' in All Keys";
vol 47 "I Got Rhythm";
vol 54 "Maiden Voyage";
vol 76 "How to Learn Tunes".
and the Aebersold FREE Jazz Handbook can be downloaded from their site, or you can order it for FREE. It doesn't matter where in the world you live, it simply turns up a month later on your doorstep free! It is a very useful book in its own right as it contains just about everything that you will find in the front sections of their entire collection combined .... take my word for it: Get It Now!
Beginner and intermediate players may also find other
Aebersold play alongs helpful and educational:
Vol 1 "Jazz: How to Play and Improvise";
Vol 24 "Major and Minor";
Vol 26 "Scale Syllabus";
Vol 57 "Minor Blues in All Keys";
Vol 84 "Dominant Seventh Workout".
But I think with the volumes I have combined with Band In A Box, I've got enough material to cover what are in these book/CD sets and to become a proficient player. For all the tune and artist play along books they offer, why not get Fake Books and buy albums by top musicians playing the music you want to learn and use them together. Not to mention Band In a Box provides almost any song and melody in written and play along form for free. Did I mention that Band In A Box is a very powerful music practise tool?
If you want more ideas for good songs to learn on harmonica check out albums by:
Toots Thielemans, "East Coast West Coast" just excellent;
Jens Bunge, "Meet You in Chicago" an excellent musician following in Toots' footsteps;
Antonio Serrano, "En El Central" great music while remaining accessable;
Mike Turk, "A little Taste of Cannonball" very different approach to Jazz chromatic harmonica;
Damien Masterson, "Cubacambio" is really fresh Cuban & Latin style Jazz;
Laurent Maur, "Mano a Mano"; an inspirational modern approach to Jazz.
I have listed these Jazz Chromatic Harmonica Musicians and many other's websites on Harp On! Chromatic Harmonica Reference.
I've purchased a wide collection of CDs, and not just Jazz, but also historical Classical music, "Lounge Jazz", 60s/70s Rock, Blues, Electronica, lots of different styles, forms, instrumentals and excellent musicians. I bought a portable MiniDisk Walkman recorder sometime ago and have found it invaluable in building up a personal library of minidisks of my CD collection and compilations of songs I'm learning so I can listen when I'm out of the house making use of my time waiting for buses, walking around town or whatever. Listening to music is so important to building up your own musical language, and learning to express yourself musically.
At home I play along with my CDs, an entire album at a time, stopping to practise playing phrases that catch my ear and later working them over different keys. Other times transposing a phrase over different keys and changes. Playing a phrase revoiced over different chords, keeping the same root note, and shifting the intervals to fit the chords I'm playing over and things like that. Theres plenty of different things you can invent to push yourself like this. Using my worst mistakes on the open mic stage as motivation and inspiration for new things to improve on and become familar with.
I bought Jerry Coker's "Improvising Jazz" (Aebersold) which is a good reference to refer to for inspiration and practise ideas. I find Jerry's suggested approach to learning Jazz arduous and counter productive to my way of learning. That said he has a lot of very useful and insightful things to say about learning Jazz, so I take what I can from what he has written. People have suggested some other good books he's written which I will look into later for further insights.
music theory and reading music: I have come to learn that for any person,
the right amount of theory is enough. Learn what you need to learn to
be able to do what you want to be able to do. When you hit a limitation, or
are stuck in a rut maybe its time to extend your knowledge. There are many
unqualified musicians out there who know very little about music theory but
play very well and many famous musicians are musically illiterate. I was in
an unenviable position of knowing a lot of music theory but being unable to
use it, I recommend avoiding this even though it makes teaching myself to
play a lot easier.
I think learning to read music is an important skill to learn and encourage musicians to make the effort. Being able to learn tunes and progressions from charts and music score can definitely speed up your learning process. From a professional standpoint, if you can read music, better still sight read familiar music, or even better "hawk" (play from totally unfamiliar sheet music first time) you will be opening opportunities and landing gigs that may otherwise be unavailable to you.
I highly recommend "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner
(Aebersold) as an approach to
music. One of the biggest lessons I learnt from Kenny was the
relevance of familiarity: Either you are familiar with a
technique, phrase, tune, form, style, rhythm, or you are not.
If you are having trouble in any area of your music, it is simply
because you are unfamiliar with that aspect.
The solution is to become familiar with it by practising the problem
area regularly until familiar. That may involve breaking it down
into simpler components and working on them independantly.
Another big lesson I learnt from him is improvising music comes from your heart. Making music is simply externalising what you already have inside you. What stops you letting that out right now is your attitude towards your ability to do so (IE. Learn to relax and be comfortable with yourself when playing your instrument) AND your familiarity with your instrument.
In a similar vein to Kenny's book is "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green, but it tends to be a "Do As I Say, Not What I Do" sort of book - whilst the principals it teaches are good, I found the way they're presented are not a good demonstration of the principles in question. Where as Kenny Werner's book demonstrates what its imparting by its presentation. Whether you like Kenny Werner's music or not I think his principals work well. I also see theres a CD set by Harry Pickens "Guided Imagery For Jazz Mastery" (Aebersold) which looks like useful creative imagary along similar lines, could be worth checking out.
I also found the principals of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tse and writings of Chuang Tse are in synch with my approach to life and music as well as Benjamin Hoff's two Pooh Bear related books introducing Tao Te Ching philisophy. I have gained more insight having found these time worn teachings & principals. I fully believe your experience of learning and playing music is a very good reflection of your approach to life and vice versa.
Practise more than you read about music.
Listen to music more than you practise.
Practise playing music often and regularly.