Attending the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar for the first time: day 2

42nd Pitt Jazz Seminar poster

Yesterday, I attended some morning sessions of the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar. I went back for more today.

A tribute to Miles

Randy Brecker, trumpet

I liked how Randy Brecker talked about how he got into music. He listened to a lot of records as a kid, and at some point he started improvising during piano solos, by ear. He started with ballads (by Miles, Chet, etc.) and played with his brother Michael (who sadly died some years ago).

Lew Soloff, trumpet

Lew Soloff came from a very different world. He stopped piano lessons at ten because his teachers did not emphasize music, but “holding the hand a certain way”. He wanted trumpet because it was shiny. Ha! Reminded me that it doesn’t matter why you start doing something; often you have a perhaps superficial reason, and find deeper reasons later.

His uncle emphasized the importance of practice and admonished him for being interested in too many things. Some tips on mental attitudes: never say “I can’t”, and also drop your ego: learn from your peers. So in one summer, he went from last chair to first chair, practicing one and a half hours each day!

Lew had a classical music training and therefore at first was scared to improvise. He had to overcome that fear. He also had to learn to articulate in “doodle tongue” rather than in the classical way.

He said he eventually became open to all kinds of music, where in the past he was closed. He has a different take than Duke Ellington’s famous quote, “There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind”: instead, Lew likes to think that the two kinds are the honest and dishonest. I like this formulation.

(Randy piped in saying that he became musically open because that was just the way things were in Philadelphia, where there are so many styles.)

Advice: when learning ballads, first play them without improvisation, focusing on purity and honesty, and expressing emotion as though singing. Learn the lyrics and understand them.

Artistry in rhythm: Winard Harper, drums

Winard Harper spoke of coming from a musical family and playing at clubs by the time he was five years old. He emphasized the importance of relationships in making music come together.

He’s really into an African instrument that I never heard of before called a “balafon”. More generally, he is interested in all kinds of world music, whether from Africa, Australia, Japan. He urged everyone to honor tradition, learn history, and do a lot of playing and listening. “The more you know, the more you can use”. He summed up with the message that as a drummer, when jamming, you have to face all kinds of situations, drums that are not yours, etc., and you have to learn to deal, because it’s not about you but about music. Sounds wise no matter what instrument we play!

The piano in jazz: George Cables

George Cables emphasized that jazz is living music, through which everyone can become a “co-composer” through arranging and improvising.

As a pianist, he didn’t want to be a soloist so much as a good side man. He was most inspired by Wynton Kelly.

Musically, he emphasized that the piano is a percussion instrument. He also gave a history lesson on the piano in jazz, starting from Scott Joplin and moving forward from there. He said the progression was toward “freeing the bass”, allowing the left hand to do a lot more.

(I had to leave this session a little early because I wanted to make it to a special recorder concert elsewhere in town.)


I found it very interesting and useful attending Pitt Jazz Seminar sessions these past two days, featuring very different musicians on different instruments, getting a broad perspective on how they operate and what they value and what they have to teach. I hope to continue attending this annual event!

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