A couple of years ago Connie Crothers’s name came up constantly in all kinds of random conversations. Everybody described this woman as a guru, known for helping her students to develop their own sound and personality. Having been a student of Sophia Rosoff, I imagined that Connie could be someone similar in the jazz world. I believe in signals and I was looking for some inspiration. At the very least, I would be in contact with one of the most famous students of Lennie Tristano, and would learn from her first hand a little bit about that school.
The first time I met Connie was after a long day, one of the first really cold ones during a New York winter. Tired and hungry, I questioned my decision a little bit on the long walk in Williamsburg that separates the subway station from Connie’s loft. But then, Connie opened the door with a wide smile. She had two chairs placed one in front of the other in the middle of her apartment and invited me to sit down in one of them.
She started talking with enthusiasm about music, spirituality, her own teaching philosophy (of course, based on the years of association with Lennie Tristano) and her teaching system. Her teaching system was not really a system, but a personalized plan for each of her students in an attempt to strengthen the individual creative process. For her, working with a student was kind of a journey to discover what exercises would open up their creative mind. She spent one hour of her time (free of charge) with me. By the time she asked me if I wanted to start taking lessons with her, she had already won me over.
She always asked me how I wanted to start. She was an incredible listener, and she owned a really beautiful Steinway piano, so I was always looking forward to playing it for her. Normally, I would play a tune. She would listen and sometimes celebrate some phrases, an unexpected chord, or a line she liked. Without exception, she always described what she had heard. She liked to use the term “describe” since she said, “It is not my duty to criticize or to praise the music.”
However, she pointed out things that she liked, that she thought were musical, or powerful, or swinging. Her main premise was, “Instead of working on your weakness, I like working on your strengths.” She liked to see herself as an observer that identifies the elements that she thinks resonate with you. She would say, “Suddenly you played that bass line in the low register and it was something else,” or, “You started with a pianissimo and then, when you played that loud chord it was so meaningful.”
Right after the tune she would always ask me to play a free improvisation, “Only if you feel it,” she would say. Sometimes she would ask me to use some of the elements she observed. For example, “I would like to hear a stretch in the lower register.” She would get up and walk to the end of the room, around the piano, always analyzing the projection of the sound and how I was producing it, my body posture, my face, my breath. She would describe everything that she heard and saw right afterwards. If she liked the stretch she would sigh once it was done. Many times, as a way to liberate standards, she would ask me to start playing free and let the tune develop from my free improvisation. She loved the surprise. Recently I saw her saying in an interview, “I know I am doing right with a student when he or she surprises me.”
One of the first things I remember working on with her was scales with different fingerings. She said that when the idea comes to you, you have to be ready to play it with any fingering. We played scales slowly, separate hands, giving meaning to every note played. We worked on major, minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales. I played all of them using only fingers 1 and 2; then 1, 2, and 3; then 4 and 5 and 3, 4, 5. Eventually that evolved to play scales in contrary motion and using polyrhythms (3 against 2 and vice versa, 4 against 5, etc.) This way of working on scales was meant not only to learn different fingerings, but to open up the energy in every finger and I believe it made my fingers stronger.
Singing along with recordings was always an important part of the lesson. I started by singing along with Billie Holiday. Connie considered singing along with Billie really helpful for developing phrasing. She would say that eighth notes don’t have to always be played in the same place, and cited Billie as the master of choosing exactly where to place each and every note that she sung. I remember with special affection one lesson in which, after singing the melody of “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” she asked me to do it again, and started singing the lines that Lester Young plays behind Billie along with me; enjoying our duet as if she was a kid and breaking into laughter as soon as we finished. Connie also recommended singing along with Lester Young during his period with Count Basie as an example of rhythmic originality.
I think that one of the things I worked on with Connie that was the most helpful for me was to improvise at a really slow tempo. “Not so slow that you can’t feel the music,” she used to say, “but at the slowest tempo at which you still can still feel it.” I would improvise just with my right hand at first, trying to be aware of every note and focusing on sound, accents, and the place of each note in relation to the beat. I would do the same thing with my left hand. Eventually, she told me to start really slow and play two choruses, then put the metronome four points faster, play another two choruses, etc. until I would find myself playing at a fast tempo. (It would take a long time to complete this exercise!) We would trade choruses often and she always played meaningful lines that gave me a lot of inspiration. We normally did this in different keys, more to discover new paths or to promote new ideas than just to practice in different keys per se.
We worked for a while on voicings. For every chord quality she gave me a list of 20 or 30 voicings to practice that she took from Lennie and extended herself. She named them from the bottom to the top, saying for example, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 for a close position six chord with 9th. She loved the most unusual voicings. For example, for a major chord, she liked the sonority of 3, 5, 7, 1, +2; or 5, 1,+4 in a low register. I remember one of the the first days we were doing that, she was sitting down far away from the piano with her eyes closed. After playing the list from memory, she opened her eyes and said: “did you play 5, 6, 2, 3?” I was impressed, she knew her list perfectly and had an outstanding ear.
She recommended that I play along with recordings. She didn’t want me to imitate the solos or even the style, but just to absorb the energy of the ensemble I was playing with. Sometimes she played some music for me and talked a little about jazz history. She would play a couple of tunes from the “Hot Seven” and talk about Lil Hardin–the educated and polished pianist that renounced her better career in order to help her husband. (Obviously she had a special predilection for jazz women and they would appear often in her speeches.) Sometimes she would tell stories about Max Roach, a good friend of hers and with whom she recorded a duo CD. Other times she told stories about Billie Holiday and Lester Young, or about Roy Eldridge coming to see her play and telling her that he used to do free improvisations back in the 30’s.
Her way of working on harmony was really free. Sometimes she would use some well known re-harmonizations or resources (for example, as a substitute for a D-7 dorian chord she would use it’s tritone, Ab-7), but sometimes she would ask me to reharmonize an entire tune with new chords, without thinking or relating to the original harmony or even the original key.
Spirituality was really important for her. She believed that studying music was a matter of connecting with your feelings and streaming whatever was inside of you at the moment. Everything she asked you to do was to open up the energy and creative channels. We would do breathing exercises and other kinds of activities (placing hands close to each other without touching, or massaging softly between the fingers). Randomly she would say, “I was enjoying the coda that you were playing so much, and I thought I would like to hear some other harmonies and you just caught that thought and started doing it…”
Connie was full of light, beauty, and strength, but she also had a bit of bitterness about the jazz scene. Maybe she took it from Lennie, who knows. She would have liked to play more often and she complained that major venues don’t take any risks anymore. She told me that in the past, mixing free improvisations with standards was a common practice, and that she once played an almost free set at a gig at the Blue Note and the audience was thrilled about it.
She was not happy with the educational system, at least as it relates to jazz. She hated that students were taught to play triplets, that Charlie Parker’s eighth notes were totally straight. She also didn’t like the way that schools analyze harmony. Calling some chords, for example, bIII instead of explaining the function of the chord as it relates to the key in which we are in the moment. She also did not much like it when students would play a minor 7th chord for a minor tonic chord.
Connie wanted to create a community. Before each lesson, she would always list all the performances by her students, and would take notes of my own performances to share them with her other students. She wanted to connect the musicians and the people she loved. She was immensely generous, as was her music.