For this piece I was teaching two of my favorite young students, Ginayah and Jacob, and I decided that I wanted to introduce them to a basic 12 bar standard blues format that is more or less universal in jazz. I started off with step one which is extremely basic, and frankly quite boring, then I started to add steps to make it more interesting, and this is step five.
When you see “G&J Blues”, the name came from Giniyah and Jacob. I told them that I would record this last step to give them an idea of what blues improvisation can develop to when we let loose a little bit.
As I have told all of my students many times, at the age of around 24 my best friend, Mike Dzoba, asked me to join a dance band, and although he had suggested this many times in the past I had always said “no”. This time I said “yes. I needed money to pay my rent and for other basic expenses, and I wasn’t making enough money from teaching to pay all my bills.
So I agreed to try this new thing.
Suddenly for the first time I was with a group of people who all had experience improvising, and they all read fake sheets. I don’t think I even knew at that time what a fake sheet was. For the first time I had this different kind of notation in front of me where you only have a melody and chord symbols to suggest what kind of chords you need to play, and slash marks to show the bass line.
What I felt was somewhere between feeling uncomfortable and feeling pure terror because I didn’t know what I was doing. If I had something to read I was in my element, so if we had to play very complicated and sophisticated arrangements I was 100% comfortable.
The guys that I played with actually enjoyed having me for a keyboard player because I always played the right chords, often called the “right changes”. If a piece of music needed just that particular unique cord that made it come alive, I always found that chord. I knew about voicings and I understood immediately how not to play the parts that other players were covering, so I was never accused of walking all over the other players or playing in an egotistical way to try to make me sound cool at their expense.
But the one thing that absolutely defeated me was a simple improvisational blues tune. We would be on a job and one of the guys in the band would say that we just needed to play blues to get things going, maybe to get people clapping and participating. So as the keyboard player I had to put in the basic chords for blues, which I could do, but at some point it was time for me to solo, and I heard the words, “Take it!”.
When you hear “take it”, it means it’s your time to improv, to cut loose, and in the break between sets I’d always yell at the guy that called that out, saying: “For God’s sake don’t do that. You know that I suck at improvisation.”
It got to be such a joke that if I heard the words “take it” during a blues improv, I yelled, “Take it back”.
My improvisation was just about the worst playing in the whole universe, and for years just thinking about that awful experience would make me feel sick to my stomach reliving the humiliation.
For this reason I don’t want any of my students to have that fear. I don’t want them to be so tied to written notation that they can’t cut loose and make something up on the spot. At this point am I a wonderful improviser after trying to improve? Absolutely not! It is still by far my greatest weakness. But at least I eventually learned what it is, something about how to do it, and how to teach the basics to other people. That at least is a final victory for me.