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Is it harmful or helpful to study "jazz theory" if you want to play jazz?

Pibroch

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As an example, I've quoted the blurb from the Berklee Press book entitled "Modern Jazz Theory and Practice: the post-bop era."

Did Coltrane, Shorter, Hancock and other such jazz luminaries consciously think in terms of the principles of non-functional pattern development and the rest of the concepts listed. Or did they just improvise creatively and naturally, and the academics analysed what they did later? I suspect the latter.

"Learn to use and understand advanced jazz harmony! This book reveals the post-bop jazz innovations established by such iconic jazz artists as John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Clare Fischer, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, as taught at Berklee College of Music. You will learn techniques such as multitonic systems, the principles of non-functional pattern development, unusual use of deceptive motion and resolution of dominants, frequent modulation, use of specialized voicing techniques, and tension-driven melody/harmony relationships.

"You will learn to: construct advanced jazz sonorities and contexts; build sophisticated, expressive melodies based on advanced chord progressions; understand how chord progressions relate to the psychology of musical expectation; articulate nuanced musical sensibilities for harmonic obscurity, surprise, and ambiguity; use characteristic post-bop conceptual approaches to harmonic progressions, such as multitonic systems and the Axis System; create non-functional chord patterns, with depth and clear contour; and more!"
 

Pibroch

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it goes hand in hand; mind with body and ah. vice versa
Do you really think the major post bop musicians thought in those analytical terms/concepts in the blurb, as part of their practice frameworks, when they were creating?
 

JDA

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oh yes... Yes. You take a Wayne Shorter or a Sonny Rollins, a Dexter Gordon an Ahmad Jamal.. Oh yes...Highly educated dudes in all planes; Spiritual. Theory....it's the mind and body thing.


Ignorance is bliss may not alone have created the John Coltranes, the McCoy Tyners..
Duke Ellingtons and Billy Strayhorns..
 

Pibroch

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oh yes... Yes. You take a Wayne Shorter or a Sonny Rollins, a Dexter Gordon an Ahmad Jamal.. Oh yes...Highly educated dudes in all planes; Spiritual. Theory....it's the mind and body thing.


Ignorance is bliss may not alone have created the John Coltranes, the McCoy Tyners..
Duke Ellingtons and Billy Strayhorns..
Absolutely. At the very least most knew theory.
Well that's disheartening!
 

JDA

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there's stories you can find where John Coltrane would practice (scales and such) from morning noon till a gig at night.
 

JDA

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you know why don't change subject
probably the least educated were the blues men and I'm not sure about that The Blind Lemon..
which more was a matter of access to education.
Duke Elling and Bill Strayhorn went to Universities
John Coltrane I think knew every scale known to man East or West north or South.
 

Ian S

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Well that's disheartening!

Studying music theory is necessary if you wish to gain a technical understanding of music as a language/ecosystem.

However, one can still play good music without such an understanding. (just don't expect to play like John Coltrane)
 
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Pat A Flafla

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Usually when players contemplate this, it's because on the one hand they want to be really good, but on the other hand they know it is a massive amount of work.


One could boil it down to: "Well, how badly do you want to be a good player?", but it's not as simple as that. If you don't see the value in it, your heart will not be in it. You will not immerse yourself in it and that door will remain locked to you. It's like how knowing how a car works makes you a better driver and owner. The more you know, the better you are at those two things.

Or you can just know, right pedal: go; left pedal: stop; magic screen tells me where to go.

Learning a tune teaches you how to play that one tune, that's it. One tune. Great. Now you start from scratch on another one.
Studying music theory helps you understand how everything in music works, which obviously applies to everything you will ever play. You'll play the tunes you know better. You'll learn songs faster and more accurately. You'll be able to just wing it better on last minute fill in gigs. Writing music will be easier. Taking a tune "way out" will not be scary.

It's a life-long journey and a deeper way of knowing.
 

RIDDIM

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The more we know about what makes up the music, the better we can serve it.

This came from Ralph Peterson, who repeated to me over several years (I have a thick skull, but most of you have probably already figured that out) that we can't play any more music than we know. That meant knowing the melody, the changes, being able to sing everyone's parts, and knowing why they did what they did - including knowing who they listened to and who their heroes listened to. A bit of a tall order, but if we're going to be the best we can be at this, this is some of what it takes.
 
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Tornado

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The jazz greats knew what they were doing. Same goes for other genres as well, although in some its not cool to admit it.
 

hawker

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OP are you a drummer? There is nothing wrong (and a lot right) about knowing more about the music you are playing and what the players around you are thinking, playing and responding to. But I don't think you have to be a real student of "Modern Jazz Theory" to be a fine jazz drummer. But again, don't limit your knowledge purposely. You'll be surprised how much more music makes sense when you have some education that goes beyond high school.

However, be sure you know how to read and read well. Without that you will miss a lot of fine gigs and and really limit your long term progression as a drummer. This assumes you are not just limiting yourself to wedding gigs at the VFW and Elks club. I'm an older member here and while I did attend college...I took some short cuts because "I just wanted to play". In retrospect it wasn't to my benefit.
 

dcrigger

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The jazz greats knew what they were doing. Same goes for other genres as well, although in some its not cool to admit it.

Agreed - they may not have always used the same jargon or organized things in the same way. Music academics (who generally write the books about these subjects) will sometimes "tie themselves in knots" trying to make sense of it all. But again that's more about the form of the topic rather its function.

Basically there's no way that such advanced music just happens... naturally. There is a magic to all of this... but it is not magic. Like most musically expression - it is a learned skill. And the more complex the music, the more study required in order master its fundamentals.

Every great jazz musician/soloist I've ever known has been deeply committed to mastering their craft... to a degree miles beyond understanding the theory. Understanding just gets one started - being a masterful soloist requires have all of it not just in one's fingertips, but in their ears - able to be fully utilized in real time.

But as Hawker points out... I don't have a jazz pianists knowledge of theory is a requirement to be an excellent jazz drummer at all. Sure some understanding is great - but mastering that stuff will be extremely difficult without playing an instrument where you can apply it and practice it. Because again, it is both knowledge and doing thing... speaking as someone that strives to be a jazz composer/arranger, being a drummer has always put me way behind my piano player friends with all of this. Drumming offers no way to apply it - so I work to apply it occasional (when I'm writing) while they put that theoretical knowledge to work every time they sit down at their instrument.
 

JimmyM

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Oh and harmful??? There's nothing one can learn about anything that is harmful to becoming a better player. IMO
100%! Musicians who don’t know theory always seem to think that it’s all about boxing in their creativity, when in fact theory exists to explain creativity, not the other way around, and to open up the mind to things that they may not have considered.
 


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