How Can Learning Jazz Improve a Classical Musician’s

“…Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt all excelled in improvisation, which was then referred to as extemporization…”

Classical music is a sophisticated art form where talking during performances (much less to the musicians) is frowned upon. Yet in jazz, it is very common for the audience to speak to musicians during performances as a way of complimenting their improvisational skills.

Elements of jazz can be found in gospel, country, pop, R&B, movie soundtracks, and other musical forms. However, when the average person uses the word “jazz,” they may not understand the culture or the language.

Many people associate improvisation with jazz and vice-versa. However, improvisation has been an integral part of classical music history, stemming back to the medieval period in Gregorian chants. These chants used additional melodies above the Cantus Firmus (fixed melody in Latin), which were improvised by Medieval musicians to glorify God. In the later periods, improvisation was used in performances outside of churches. J.S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt all excelled in improvisation, which was then referred to as extemporization. Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” were originally improvised as were Beethoven’s famous sketch books (which he later used in formal works).

Near the beginning of the 20th Century, improvisation disappeared in the Romantic Period as performers began mastering composers’ works note for note; the art of improvisation was eventually lost. Schubert’s impromptus, contrary to their title, were not improvised but written out methodically. Playing classical music well is a skill requiring great discipline and talent, but the same can be said for jazz. Both disciplines use the same musical alphabet, yet have somehow managed to create different nomenclatures for each respectively.

Historically, jazz music has not been associated with higher education. However, the great Scott Joplin, an African-American jazz composer of the late 19th to early 20th century, took formal lessons with a classical German-born piano teacher and the Creole performers of New Orleans were often Conservatory-trained in Paris.

Both classical and jazz music are disciplines requiring creativity. The classical musician, after mastering the techniques must interpret the score and bring the written notes to life in a performance. The challenge of a jazz musician is to use, simultaneously, both improvisational talent and the technique required to perform unplanned music for a live audience. To draw an analogy, a classical musician is like an actor with a full script – having to memorize and master it, then bringing the character to life. A jazz musician is like an actor with no script, only a few guidelines to follow, yet charged with creating dialogue and instantly performing in character. In its purest essence, technicality must be mastered. One would argue that the task of learning and memorizing a sonata (15-60 pages) or concerto (often exceeding 100 pages) is a phenomenal task! The best classical and jazz musicians must both be proficient in technique, but the more challenging task is for them to able to augment their technical skills in a performance to move their audience emotionally. All musicians need to play from their hearts to truly affect their audience in a meaningful way.

Recently, Conservatory Canada has implemented a new examination category implementing jazz idioms, nomenclature and styles. The Royal Conservatory has for several years used a popular syllabus for their studies selection. In addition to the previously mentioned Jazz Studies program offered at Juilliard, Ivy League schools have also shown their support; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Berkley currently offer or are implementing jazz programs. These institutions have embraced an original approach in combining classical and jazz instruction.

We cannot claim that one art form is more or less sophisticated than another. Classical musicians may not fully comprehend jazz culture, just as jazz musicians may not fully interpret classical culture. However, because music is a universal language, the understanding of its different forms and dialects are beneficial. These new “bilingual” musicians are able to better communicate with their audience in various ways. Following the same “early education” concept used for spoken languages, we need to educate children in both classical and jazz music. Children who study classical and jazz at the same time will be able to understand both cultures and fully realize their musical potential.