Your Assumptions About What To Transcribe

People have been writing in a lot lately asking us what’s okay and what’s not okay to transcribe. With all the different styles of jazz and genres of music, people are entirely confused as to what’s acceptable to transcribe. I have to admit, upon receiving these questions, I was a bit confused. I thought to myself, “How can somebody not know what to transcribe?” We talk constantly about how to pick solos to transcribe. It all boils down to¬† this: you need to love what you’re transcribing.

But as the questions continued to pour in, I began to realize that people arrive to transcribing with a handful of assumptions which keep them shackled upon their quest as an improvisor.

The first assumption: I’m only allowed to transcribe Bebop

Jazz is made up of a span of about 5 or 10 years, right? So wrong. There’s a whole history of this music before and after the so-called “Bebop” era. And while were at it, let’s talk about all these jazz “periods.” Jazz is commonly split into all these neat little boxes with nice little names. Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Modal, Free…and the nice little names go on…

And then each musician is then stuffed neatly into each one of these categories. Charlie Parker goes here, Cannonball there, we’ll put Trane there, and let’s throw Miles here. Okay, done! That’s jazz!

Hindsight is 20/20

Looking back, we seem to think that jazz happened in this neat orderly fashion. It did not. So-called beboppers played with hard-boppers, hard-boppers played with modalers, and many were all of the above at the same time.

There’s nothing wrong with this classification system. Believe as much or as little of it as you like. Just understand that it’s merely one classification-system of how the music unfolded and how to classify the various styles you’re hearing.

This system becomes problematic when learning jazz. Why? Because the second we begin to get into this music, we encounter a billion different people all part of some mutually exclusive branch of the largest tree that ever existed. I just want to learn jazz, and now instead of practicing, I’m trying to grasp the difference between Bebop and Hard-bop.

Instead of focusing on periods, focus on players. Study the history of your instrument through a player’s eyes, not a jazz historian’s. You are not an academic, you’re a player. Learn like one.

There’s no unwritten rule that says you have to stick to whenever the jazz historians deemed the bebop era began and finished. Of course you don’t want to ignore it either, but why would you? You love jazz. So it only makes sense that you will surely find a Charlie Parker solo, or a Sonny Rollins solo, or a Clifford Brown solo that makes your hair stand on end. You shouldn’t have to try too hard to learn from this “Bebop era” because I guarantee some of your favorite players are from this time. Otherwise you wouldn’t be captivated by this music and desire to play it so badly.

Teachers, books, and articles emphasize learning from this time-period because all the fundamentals of the jazz language can be grasped from these players. It cannot be ignored. There’s no way around it.

Because of it’s essential role in becoming a fluent improvisor, every other time-period on the nifty jazz-historian-timeline is ignored. This brings me to another common question: how to play modern? If I had a dollar for every person that asks this question, I’d be set for quite some time. What’s the secret to being modern? How do I get that modern sound?

Listen to this:

So how do you get that modern sound? Easy. Stop believing that there’s only a small period that you’re allowed to transcribe from. I guarantee every modern player today would agree that their own playing doesn’t compare in terms of “modernness” to much of the music that came before them.

There’s a whole lot to learn from the music that came before and after the ten year stint that most people exclusively transcribe from.

The second assumption: I can only transcribe my instrument

Who have you transcribed lately? Do they all play your instrument? For the most part, they probably do. That’s okay, just know that you don’t have to stick to folks who play your instrument.

We tend to stick to transcribing our own instrument for several reasons. One, it’s simply easier. Hearing your own instrument with all it’s idiosyncrasies and typical range, it’s much more straightforward to hear what’s going on.

Take a saxophone, add a few octaves, change the tone, and completely alter the mechanism…well, if your a saxophonist, things just got a whole lot harder to hear.

You already listen to plenty of musicians who don’t play your instrument, so pick one and dive in. Michael Brecker loved the way guitarists played, so naturally he started to figure out what they played. Why do you think that sometimes he sounds like he’s shredding a guitar when he plays? Influences from other instruments can dramatically change your concept.

Of course, study players on your instrument, but don’t stop there. You can always transcribe another Cannonball solo, so how bout learning something from Bill Evans or Freddie Hubbard?

The third assumption: I’m only allowed to transcribe jazz

This is possibly the most wide-spread assumption. I have an idea of why this is.

Jazz is a language. We say it. You say it. Your teachers say it. Everyone says it. Because of this statement, perhaps we think that the language is completely defined and done evolving. Therefore, we must learn the language from the people who spoke it and that’s that.

This isn’t Latin. Jazz isn’t a dead language. We’re not trying to preserve exactly what was created.

Jazz is a living, breathing, dynamic language that constantly expands, while retaining it’s essence of the past. A mere look into the history of jazz reveals this. Parker listened to Bartok and Hindemith and Stravinsky. Trane learned from them music of Ravi Shankar, took a few lesson from him, and even named his son after him! Miles studied the scores of all the great classical composers.

You can and should learn from all music. This doesn’t mean you ignore the jazz language. It means you’re constantly searching for new exciting sounds outside of jazz that capture you and learn from them. Here’s some examples from classical music:

Listen to this version of Stravinsky conducting Firebird in 1965. Just beautiful.

And Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

And listen to how “modern” Schoenberg already was in 1942

I leave you with these thoughts from Schoenberg himself…

“Alexander von Zemlinsky told me that Brahms had said that every time he faced difficult problems he would consult a significant work of Bach and one of Beethoven, both of which he always used to keep near his standing-desk. How did they handle a similar problem? Of course the model was not copied mechanically, but its mental essence was applied accordingly. In the same manner I learned, from the Eroica, solutions to my problems: how to avoid monotony and emptiness; how to create variety out of unity; how to create new forms out of basic material; how much can be achieved by slight modifications if not by developing variation out of often rather insignificant little formulations. From this masterpiece I learned also much of the creation of harmonic contrasts and their application. Brahms’ advice was excellent and I wish this story would persuade young composers that they must not forget what our musical forefathers have done for us.”

Don’t just learn from the “bebop era,” or people on your instrument, or just the jazz idiom. When it comes to transcribing, get rid of all your assumptions. As Schoenberg stresses, your musical forefathers have dealt with similar problems and all their work is right there for you. You don’t even have to ask.