Jazz Piano Lesson #4: Experiential learning and the piano


Experience learning jazz piano

How do we induce experiential learning—the learning that comes from experience? I raise the question because aquiring lessons from learning is an art, an art practiced commonly by students assisted and spurred by teachers.

Does that description stand in contrast to the more common and simpler belief in (simply) learning from lessons. Or maybe a description of experiential learning is what happens normally when one person helps another to learn?

What I’d like to point out is learning isn’t a linear process nor is it uniform. A different way to say that, or perhaps a more evolved description is deep, true learning happens in its own time and how exactly it happens, how it works and how it feels, is different for everyone.

Or, we could say different sorts of learning styles exist. We could ask what they are and how can we, as students and teachers, best tap into them. Meanwhile, I know I’m not qualified to write about learning styles but I  believe strongly that they exist.

I do know that experiential learning exists. My question is how can we describe experiential learning carefully and considerately—so it can be a useful concept, something to which we turn when we’re trying to learn?

For example, how can we describe the experiential learning that leads to the ability improvise at the piano? Can we say, simply, that x amount of experience leads to y amount of learning?

I think not.

Therefore and thus, when it comes down to what it iswhat is experiential learning?—we might say we teach ourselves to acquire our skills. Yes? No? Maybe?

Bandstand examples

It probably needs to be said again? Even thought it’s in the header above. Ok. To say it again: Experience learning jazz piano.

I know I learned a lot about the art of improvisation from teachers, in classrooms with fellow students, and on bandstands. One of my interesting teachers, maybe as the phrase goes a little too interesting, was a gentleman who spent years touring with Ray Charles and then later Jimmy McGriff, the organist.

That gentleman—Coy Shockley was his name—introduced me to Ted Curson, one of the great trumpet players in jazz with whom I later played many gigs.So what does that mean to say one of the great trumpet players in jazz?

Ted had been a member of several of Charles Mingus’ bands and was also featured on two of Cecil Taylor’s early recordings.

So later when I played many gigs with him he too was a mentor on the bandstand. I mean, how could you not take take advice from someone who had played with Cecil Taylor, Charles, Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, to name only a few.

The main thing with Ted and Coy was they expected their band members to take care of business. That meant playing to the best their ability no matter what. That could mean playing on a substandard piano that was better considered as a pile of firewoood! It meant giving your all, even when giving your all didn’t feel like you were giving your all!

Or, as I heard McCoy Tyner say on a radio interview, and here I paraphrase:

Some nights I can only give 59%. But even if I can only give 59% I give 100% of that 59%.

The riff

Say it again? Experience learning jazz piano.

The important lessons Coy Shockley gave me on the bandstand had to do with how many times any one particular phrase could or should be repeated. I still hear, or at least I can imagine, Coy’s high pitched voice as he screamed across the bandstand:

Play it again!

But sometimes he stood over the piano and said that magical phrase quietly. In other words, his advice often was simply to repeat whatever phrase I had just played.

But why the screaming across the bandstand? What was so important that it needed to be hurled, literally, across the bandstand? The importance was in the idea that Coy was teaching me how to set up a riff, a repeated figure. Coy wanted me to understand where and how to use the art of repetition to build tension and direction in an improvised solo. If helping me to figure out how to do that was an animated process on Coy’s part, well,as far as he was concerned, so be it!

As far as I was concerned, whether he said it, yelled it, or he screamed it!—It made no difference. That’s because he had experience. I didn’t. So I took his advice as a gift and followed his it when he gave it!

Yet, a different way to talk about riffs, a way that removes them from Coy’s instruction, is get them right and you make it easy for an audience to follow what you’re improvising. Think not about riffs and you make it harder for an audience to follow your the logic of your solo. Indeed, if there is logic to follow.

The riff, speaking historically

To put this in context, riffing was a technique that was virtually owned by the Count Basie Bancd and Duke Ellington Orchestra. Both ensembles knew how to create short improvised figures and then they knew how to keep on playing them. And they knew how to keep on playing with them while at the same time developing and adding to them.

The larger concept is to really play jazz instead of really playing at jazz, requires knowing something about the traditions upon which it—jazz—was built.

No sine qua non(s)

But that’s not to say say that riffing is the be all and end all in improvisation and jazz. In the 60s, pianists like Paul Bley, among others, experimented with the art of no riffing.

In other words, Paul Bley, when improvising, said something once and only once. Actually, that’s not an idea that’s all that different from what Arnold Schoenberg and manyh others came to in when composing.

Meanwhile, when something is said only once, as we all know from experience, we catch it or we don’t! Paul Bley, who had played with Lester Young and Charlie Parker among others, knew how to riff. So his experiments with no repetition were themselves grounded in repetition.

A teacher and a dispenser of information

Say it! One more time! Experience learning jazz piano.

Floyd “Floogie” Willams, my first and most influential teacher/mentor, was a strong character–and a real CHARACTER. Floyd, like Coy, was old-school and one of a kind. One-of-a- kind as in where to even begin to describe the teacher, the individual, the mentor, who made all the difference? How to thank the teacher who took the time to make sure I had a framework, a context, the bedrock, upon which to put anything else I might learn.

In his typical way, Floyd once said critically and with utter disdain (about a well-known teacher):

He’s not a teacher! He’s a dispenser of information!

That sounds presumptuous, or so I think it does. Especially since Floyd was referring to someone who’s known by many as one of the great teachers in jazz.

But, for Floyd, the point was he believed in doing and getting experience from doing, Then and only then with that experience puttering and sputtering in the background–ONLY then could things come together into knowledge and understanding. Only then did things coalesce.

So with Floyd’s teaching there was no real giving of information. Bu with Floyd’s teaching there was plenty of room to experiment, to make mistakes, to learn from mistakes, and to build upon the interesting things that just sort of came up. They happened.

And Floyd loved those things that just sort of came up, the things that just seemed to happen. Just as Coy loved riffs that just sort of happens. The thing was, Coy never gave me the substance of a riff. He knew only when something I played needed to turn itself into a riff.


I somehow once played a chord that consisted of

RH: F# B Eb

For those who want to put a name to it, it’s a D7 with an added 13th and b9. However, the name of the chord wasn’t important to Floyd. In fact, when I asked him what the chord was he didn’t and wouldn’t tell me! He spurned the name. He was disdainful of it. He refused to engage with it!

The reason he didn’t tell me the name of that chord was because my big discovery was that chord, once played, could move up or down in minor thirds. That was the discovery. What Floyd wanted me to know was: why was that? WHY did that chord move so gracefully up and down in parallel motion in minor thirds?

Again, Floyd wouldn’t tell me. Because what he wanted me to do was, as the saying goes:

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.

Meanwhile, I heard the general sound of that chord on an Oscar Peterson record—of course records were vinyl in those days. Records being viny meant some of those interesting passages I found came at the price of wiping out grooves on a particular record! However that was, Floyd told me was to keep my ears tuned to where I heard those sorts of things.

Now, and for a long time previously, I know what I discovered as regarded this particular chord was a property that comes along with chords built from pitches that jazz musicians call the diminished scale and what’s known in the music of Stravinsky and Debussy as the octatonic scale. As far as the chord named above went, the diminished scale from which it came consisted of

D, Eb, F, F#, G#, A, B, C, D

To have some fun with the scale, take every other note beginning with the Eb. Do that and we have a fully diminished 7th chord:

Eb, F#, A, C

Now take the remaining pitches which are

D, F, G#, B

They spell out another fully diminished 7th chord. For our purposes, let’s skip over the fact that the chords themselves aren’t properly spelled. If they were, we’d have D#, F#, A, C and D, F, Ab, Cb.

Those proper spellings come from aligning the notes so we can see how they’re built by stacking up minor thirds. But regardless, take the first chord and play it in your LH and the second chord and play it in your RH—then play both chords simultaneously—so that you have

LH: Eb, F#, A, C
RH: D, F, G#, B

THAT, is sound with crunch!

In any case and notwithstanding this example, it’s easy enough to find the octatonic scale in pieces where Debussy moves triads in parallel motion up or down in minor thirds. Or, with Stravinsky,  the so-called Petroushka chord—two major triads a tritone apart played together at the same time—that’s a chord that derives from the octatonic scale.

Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Oscar Peterson. Three different sources, three different styles. In each of them the octatonic, or diminished scale as jazz musicians call it, figure prominently.

Personal style

What Floyd sought in our discussions was the idea that similarities in source materials often existed despite the fact that three different musicians used those same source materials. That went to a larger point in jazz, something that players from older generations knew, which was

Personal style was everything and copying someone else’s style was nothing!

I felt lucky! From Floyd I learned it wasn’t enough to just to learn scales and chords and how to use them. Indeed, that was the bare bones of the beginning. Much more important was learning to use source materials in my own way to project my own style.

I’d say now, in retrospect, whether or not I’ve done that—that’s besides the point. Much more important is just knowing how and why so many great jazz musicians on virutally every instrument had a signature sound, sounds that set them apart stylistically from everyone else.

Mysticism and knowing where we’re going?

Yet again, the riff: Experience learning jazz piano.

If Floyd was a mystical teacher, so is Michael in Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson. What Floyd and mystical Michael had or have in common, was they preferred the learning process, the process of learning, to be key, core, and central. They wanted the lesson to emerge from observations about the doing of something.

In other words, Floyd and Michael—as I’ve already said about Floyd—preferred the experience first and the lesson later. But throughout that process as it pertained to my learning, Floyd was there and ready to discuss overall concepts into which specific pieces of information fit.

Unspoken in that dynamic is in a context in whic one neither student nor teacher knew or know in advance much less in the present what the lesson is or where it’ll go or where it’s going. That’s because those larger concepts often take on a life of their own. They’re exploratory, they can be messy.

Some might even say larger contexts choose us but we don’t get to choose them! Right or wrong, so I’ve been told.

In any case, lessons—lessons meaning learning in general—may sometimes be other than what we thought. My experience is it’s the surprise, that special moment, when learning comes through so clearly. I think that’s the surprise of epiphany, or the “Ah Ha” moment as some call it. It is a special time because it’s a time when all things become clear.

It’s exactly that sort of feeling about which Whitney Balliet, a critic who wrote for the New Yorker, said jazz is:

The sound of surprise.

His writings and critiques on jazz from the New Yorker have since been published in book, appropriately called The Sound of Surprise. Or as many have said, the sound of surprise is a phrase that goes directly to the magic of improvisation.

The Music Lesson

Backtracking to the The Music Lesson, and it’s a book I highly recommend as do many others–read the blurbs on the back of the book to view names of the many. In The Music Lesson, Michael, as teacher and mentor, knew exactly how to raise the right questions at the right times. None of his questions, being the right questions, were easy. All were questions of surprise.

Actually, may of of his questions are jarring—even though they make perfect sense! They’re questions that depend first on inducing a sense of uncertainty—a source of uncertainty as Don Buchla might have said—a source of uncertainty being something Don Buchla purposely built into his famous line of synthesisers.

In fact, his synthesisers often came without manuals because DB didn’t want to prescribe how they, the synthesisers, were to be used. The lack of a manual, in turn, led to an experiential cycles of learning—first the experience then the lesson—for those who used Buchla synthesisers.

Maybe that same sort of thing is why Victor Wooten wrote with irony and wry humour about a concept raised by Michael. VW’s pithy comnment was:

I had to think about that one for a while.

Meanwhile, here’s  Victor Wooten on Youtube in a Ted Talk. Look his name up on Youtube to hear him play.

How to improvise?

Definitely: Experience learning jazz piano.

So, yes, this is a post on how to improvise and yes, it’s the fourth post in an ongoing series of who-knows-how-many-will-follow and, yes, there probably will be mysticism—is that really the right word?—still yet to come if it hasn’t arrived already. But, mysticism aside, and maybe there’s been none so far, two big ideas are:

1. Learn to improvise by improvising.
2. Conversely learning how to improvise is improvisation.

My opinion: Learning how to improvise is not a neat, exact process. It doesn’t go from A through to Z. It can’t be captured, it’s not sequential, but it can be practiced. For sure, it can be done.

The non-linearity of the improvisation learning process means knowing all the scales that go with all the chords and vice versa and then understanding how one chord follows another is besides the point. That’s because those are defined but constrained bits of knowledge. Defined and constrained because they work perfectly in one context and not at all in another.

The thing is: we’re not going to improvise with a scale if we don’t know the scale. Or maybe we will improvise with a scale if we don’t know it. That’s because there’s a subtle point midway between the extremes of knowing and not knowing. That subtle point is we might just hear and we might just play the scale that’s needed if it’s needed. And that’s the key to it all:

Hear, listen, imagine.

Of course, that’s a key that arrives only after we play a scale many times. Thousands of times?

Punching and kicking

Bruce Lee famously said:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation. Jeet Kune-Do is basically a sophisticated fighting style stripped to its essentials.

In other words, we may not need to know every small detail, such as what scale are we playing, but we do need to connect major concepts, such as the overall line, the flow of what we’re doing. Another way to say that may be knowing what we want to do may be the most important thing of all.

Along with that is what we can always do is improvise with the knowledge we have today and not with the skill and understanding we hope to have next month. In other words, improvise now by making things up in the moment—of now—with whatever tools and ideas and techniques are available—now. Right now.

Bill Evans

Bill Evans, the great jazz pianist discusses that idea—working with the knowledge and skill we have now—in videos we can find easily on Youtube. Here’s a webpage that links to a few of them and, as well, the web page gives extra pointers about learning to improvise.

What’s next?

It probably needs to be said again? Experience learning jazz piano. Because those words capture what this post is about. I hope! I think!

Thererefore, in terrms of what’s next, we’re going to discuss how and why some well known musicians used tones and rhythms as they did. We’ll introduce the wonderful idea of a magic scale, a construct that’s everywhere even though it hides itself in plain sight!

The thing is, a story’s being told, a practice is developing, and all depends on staying with it, having fun, and remaining curious. I suggest returning to the first blog post in this series where assorted resources for learning were listed.

Pick the one that interests you and work with it. Get the experience and the lesson will come.

The Joy of Boogie and Blues

But, one that may not have been listed in that first post is The Joy of Boogie and Blues, a collection curated by Denes Agay. It may not seem like the obvious place to start and it’s true, it may be a collection that’s been published for about half a century. For some it may seem simplistic to the point of why bother with this? What can I possibly learn from it?

Those are good questions. And the answers are one and the same: It’s the experience we want. Then with some thought aftwards, we can generate lessons and learning. Therefore, I suggest: go through The Joy of Boogie and Blues in two ways.

  1. Play the music exactly as notated on the page with the exact rhythms that are given.
  2. Play the music with the exact notes given on the page except take liberties with the rhythms as they’re written. Play the rhythms such that they feel more like, well, the boogies and the blues.

And what do boogie and blues sound like? THAT is the question for sure and what follows answers very partially and in no way completely. So, that said: Here’s one very generic example of what that feel might sound like.

It’s true, it’s not the best nor the most accurate rendition of blues or boogies styles. Listen to it and you’ll probably see and hear that.. However, as an example, it’s played sufficiently well enough to give the general idea. Perhaps the proof of that is a young Red Rodney, who played for a while with with Charlie Parker, is in the band. It follows that:

If Red Rodney was in the band, he got the experience and then the lesson.

So, the big idea:

There are lessons to be learned in places and in books where we might least expect to find them. And it’s the experience of experiential learning that counts. Or, as the riff goes: Experience learning jazz piano.

Can we say?

After listening to the last two video links, as regards the learning process in jazz and the idea of experience followed by the lesson, Red Rodney is an exemplar.

My opinion: YES.