Sep 252009

As a player and jazz lover for more than 35 years I’ve observed with interest the current online discussion regarding the future of jazz, and I have some thoughts. Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, but it does bring perspective. They say that the jazz audience is getting older. I’ve been around long enough to have seen a lot of this before.

My jazz listening began in earnest in 1970. A curious young guitarist got turned on to Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sonny Rollins,Weather Report, Gary Burton… – there was no looking back.

 WP 01 The jazz audience was older then too. There was so much creativity in the new rock and roll, it was so exciting and fresh that it captured most of the younger listeners. And then the new breed of jazz players went out and bought really big amplifiers and blew peoples minds and for a minute, fusion jazz (nobody liked the term) was some of the most popular music around – and the audience was young. I was a fan. The vibe was  creative and magic (Check out my story for an in-depth look at an amazing time in Miami in the early 1970’s). 

Musicality, mastery of the language of jazz, instrumental technique, and compositional depth were important. I don’t hear as much attention paid to these fundamentals today. Jam bands, funk-jazz, worldbeat influences – these are not new. I don’t think that there’s a young band today comparable to Weather Report (or Return To Forever or Mahavishnu or The Pat Metheny Group or…) in terms of collective ability and accomplishment. What has changed? What needs to be fixed?

I am not advocating a new wave of fusion jazz or copycat bands.   

“There is not enough education about what jazz really is – the young players think it’s an imitative art.”

– Keith Jarrett


 There is no easy or quick fix. here are a few suggestions for players, promoters and listeners: 

  1. Professional jazz players in every city need to perform in schools – at all grade levels. This can often be a paying gig for the players because states/cities/schools have budgets. Players – make it edutainment, explain something about improvised music and get the kids and teachers involved.
  2. Players – don’t stop studying. Music is communication. What are you trying to communicate? Write music always. Make it better.
  3. All artists must become savvy internet marketers. This new music business that everyone talks about is full of opportunities.
  4. Our culture has become weak in the support of all the arts. Promoters need to get creative in bringing jazz to the public. Baby boomer jazz fans should be hiring their favorite local bands to play at parties and festivals should be everywhere.
  5. There is less playing of musical instruments in families, and kids aren’t exposed to enough variety in their musical diets. Everyone should own several instruments. These don’t have to be pro quality, there are many playable, fun, theraputic instruments available for under $100. I like to keep a guitar, kalimba, and some percussion always at the ready. Video game instruments don’t count. A little musical skill is a peace inducer.

To insure the existence of the jazz continuum perhaps there should be a SJT – Standard Jazz Test. A test for self-proclaimed jazz musicians:

Negotiate the changes to All The Things You Are (or any standard tune). Use correct voice leading and construct a solo with tension and release, dynamics, and an arc. Don’t just run scales that you think will work.  Listeners should be able to hear the changes in your solo. Have a look at this Pat Metheny clinic:


You may not be interested in playing standards. You might not want to swing. But if you don’t understand these changes and concepts – you’re not a jazz player. Period. Let’s discuss.

Sep 252009

Pat Metheny in flight

By Tom Gates

Jazz guitar instructor Stan Samole had just come from a small practice room on the second floor of the building that housed the jazz department at the University of Miami. “I just met the future of jazz guitar” he said. He was right. It was an eighteen year-old kid from Missouri named Pat Metheny.

It was 1972, and Stan had the job of playing for a few minutes with each of the incoming jazz guitar students to check  their skills.  Just two guitars, face to face, in a tiny room – “blues in B flat” he’d say and off you’d go.

There were very few colleges that offered jazz guitar studies in 1972, and the number of young guitarists that showed up in Miami was impressive. We had been inspired and motivated by the amazing and wonderful rock and roll of the late 1960’s and the new breed of guitarists fusing rock with the jazz tradition.

Pat Metheny had it. He got it. He had listened and studied and practiced and researched and loved it so much that when I met him at age 18 he was stunning. Deep musicality combined with genuine personal presence is a powerful combination. Pat can weave a musical melody over any chord changes. Not just a line that is correct and logical, but a creation with meaning. How? How do you create real feeling and an important moment with an improvised  creation?

I was fortunate to spend some time with Pat both in lessons and socially in 1972-73 before his move to Boston and beyond. It was a joy and his musicality has inspired me ever since.

Pat Metheny has discussed his search for an original voice. Whatever instrument you play do not try to emulate your favorite player. Look at the entire spectrum of players of your instrument. Look in the cracks between styles. What hasn’t been done? That’s what you should do.

Here is a beautiful solo guitar medley from Pat Metheny:

And a soaring band track: