For young musicians interested in jazz, musical mentors can be hard to come by. The problem, according to jazz pianist Marshall Griffith, is that many serious jazz performers aren’t particularly interested in teaching — and are often not very good at it. However, this long-time professional musician and teacher is doing his best to remedy the situation.

Most jazz players he works with as a performer have been educated “on the street,” so to speak. “They don’t really have teachers and coaches,” he explained. “They often didn’t go to music school. But they’re excellent musicians and are gifted at their art.” Unfortunately, many never developed the skills necessary to convey what they’ve learned in incremental stages, which tends to make them wonderful to work with in a master class but difficult for students in general.

“Our art is in trouble because of the pedagogical aspects of it,” Griffith said during a recent interview from his home in Cleveland.

While it’s not possible to teach someone to be a truly great musician, “pedagogy makes brilliance possible to appear,” Griffith said. Add a knowledge of music — and a fundamental intuition — to good ears and anything becomes possible. “Many jazz players are good at playing by ear — learning their music without music,” he said. “That’s true for me. Probably 50 percent of the music I play I’ve never seen.” As long as the piano player and the bass player know the tune, everyone else can pretty much wing it until they figure out what’s going on. Then they can fly.

If it isn’t Baroque ...

“That’s the way that Baroque and Renaissance music started, but the improvisational part has gotten lost,” Griffith explained. “When Mozart’s piano concertos were first performed, he pla-yed the piano part himself — and didn’t write it down until he was forced to do so by his publisher. He was quite amazed that anyone else would want to play it.”

In violin concertos of Moz-art’s time (1756-91), the cadenza — the part near the end of a movement where solo performers strut their stuff — was reserv-ed for individual displays of im-provisational ability. “Up until about 1870, if you got up on stage and said you were going to play a certain concerto, you were expected to present an improvis-ational aspect, too,” Griffith said.

Although improvisation rei-gns supreme today in most kingdoms of the jazz realm — Ragtime being a notable exception — it has vanished from classical music. Today’s cadenza is expected to be performed as written.

Drawing a parallel between the note and the word, Griffith explained that creative writing isn’t possible if both the reader and the writer have never been taught both the alphabet and how to read. However, if the writer uses those skills to simply put down on paper the exact words spoken by someone else, “that would be like a contemporary high-level classical musician.”

Most people are very creative with words every day, he continued. “You write an e-mail to a friend. You talk to people on the phone. What happens to classical musicians often today is that they don’t know how to do (the musical equivalent of) any of that. They can read and play music excellently. They can recreate someone else’s event beautifully. They may add their own self-expression to it, but they haven’t added any new notes or any new rhythms. They just read it.

And some people read better than others.

“When you teach jazz musicians the alphabet, they think of new ways to make words,” he added. “The improvisational aspect has vanished from classical music, but jazz players are still there to take up the cause — to give music a spontaneous quality.”

Up, up and away

For some of even the most accomplished classical musicians, the improvisational glory of jazz remains a complete unknown. Griffith recalled a performance by legendary jazz pianist Marian McPartland. “Marshall, do you mean to say she doesn’t play that the same way every night?” a colleague who also attended the performance asked.

Fortunately, he added, during the past 20 years, the concept of the cross-over artist has come into its own.

Wynton Marsalis, for example, is comfortable performing both bee-bop and classical. “It’s important to see people like that come along, but they’re still few and far between,” Griffith said. “That kind of character — like myself, who does a bit of everything — was the norm in the 19th century.”

However, with the advent of the 20th century, the age of science brought with it the concept of specialization. “Everybody’s got a niche, and if it doesn’t involve improvisation, so what,” Griffith said. “It used to be in music that if you were going to be involved with it, you had to be creative, but those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time.”

The trade-off, he explained, is that the current level of performance ability “has got to be five times better than when I was a kid. The things our student orchestra at Cleveland Institute of Music plays were once considered approachable by only the finest orchestras. It has some pluses, but the negative is that students aren’t particularly involved with creating music.”

Creativity, however, still has a place. “There are more musicians working now than ever before on the face of the planet,” Griffith said. “There’s music for everything. You can make a living, which I find unbelievable, writing music for video games. That’s not a choice Beethoven had.”

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at

React to this story:


Recommended for you