Received Wisdom (Jeff Goldblum, chord scales, the iReal Book, and Kamasi Washington)

(Another technical missive for my students at NEC.)

(Update: two months later: I doubled down with a follow-up post, “Theory of Harmony.”)

It’s very important to get information from the source. From the masters. From those who truly understand the aesthetics of the genre at hand.

There was no such thing as institutional jazz education until the late 1950s, a time when modern jazz was comparatively popular in American society.

Most jazz educators decided that the chord scale was the answer.  Bill Mathieu’s DownBeat article from September 1961 gives a flavor of the era, which begins, “When a student improvisor reads a sheet of chord symbols, he is faced with the problem of which scale to play against which chord.”


Mathieu’s opening comment is received wisdom. Received wisdom is, “Common knowledge that is held to be true, but may not be.” In all the disciplines that require esoteric knowledge, teachers dumb down the process in order to get a student started. They teach not what the master does, but shortcuts to a simulacrum.

There’s nothing wrong with this at first, but after a time it is dangerous for students to keep using short cuts rather than consult the source material. When auditing superficial student performances in jazz schools over the years, time and again I ask myself, “Have these kids heard any classic jazz records?”

Mathieu writes a bit about the familiar standard “Out of Nowhere” in his article. Ok, lets ignore his received wisdom and go to the source. Who plays “Out of Nowhere” really well?

Who is a master of “Out of Nowhere?”

One version of “Out of Nowhere” that comes to mind is Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell at Birdland. If you transcribe what these three consecrated masters actually play (I did a lite lift of Bird and Bud at “High Bebop“), it becomes apparent that the notes are connected to the associated scales only by happenstance. It’s folk music first, any technical information about scales exists only as an afterthought. Their notes are blues licks and bebop melodies. Bebop melodies are rarely purely scalar. Indeed, the very sound of bebop requires constant little snakes and chromatic reversals of direction. During the solos, when the phrasing is verging on becoming too intellectual, Fats, Bird, and Bud all play blues licks to keep it in the right place, to keep it jazz. Blues licks do not fit a chord scale.

Scales came into the performance of the masters in the 1950s, after bebop. Miles Davis may have had the most to do with it, although George Russell was the one who wrote the theory book. “So What” on Kind of Blue was the sounding bell. Everyone knows the form of “So What” is on two scales, D dorian and E-flat dorian. However: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans — four consecrated masters — do four different things with those two scales. Miles plays abstract songful melodies. Coltrane fills in every corner with a primeval roar. Cannonball deals out some blues. Bill dances like a swinging Ravel.

Chord scale theory is not hard for somebody who already knows how to play jazz. Those four masters didn’t need to go practice D minor and E-flat minor scales before tracking “So What.” They all simply played their best version of what they already had but in a new context. “So What” is so great because all the musicians were already so great.

If you apply the “So What” chord scale idea to every other kind of song, the details can become fuzzy. “Out of Nowhere” is a perfect example. At student jam sessions, I’ve heard G lydian on the first chord of “Out of Nowhere” many times. People play G lydian because in many jazz textbooks, a major chord has an associated lydian scale. Received wisdom! Bird and Bud rarely play lydian on the tonic. It’s not “cooler” or more “jazzy” to have sharp four on the tonic. Indeed, there are no blues licks or bebop melodies that are lydian.

One way to play really well on “Out of Nowhere” at a beginner level is by quoting from Lester Young and Louis Armstrong plus a couple of bluesy afterthoughts. You don’t even need to play those quotes in the “right” key! If you play them in the “wrong” key, you sound like Ornette Coleman or Paul Bley, which is great too. Even lydian can work on the first bar of “Out of Nowhere” if the raised fourth is bought and paid for by a melodic line imbued with folkloric integrity.

After all these years of jazz education, the sound of chord scales disconnected from bebop and the blues has inexorably crept into the fabric of common-practice jazz. The best players always manage to generate their own melodic folklore (my main man Mark Turner is a perfect example, he knows scales better than anybody, yet his style is resolutely fresh), but a whole swath of medium-level players have a certain sound that  seems connected to treating scales and scale patterns as if they were the automatic answer to every situation.

Not every jazz record can be equally great, of course. But I think if you listened a bunch of slightly lesser jazz from the 40s and 50s and compared it to slightly lesser jazz from recent times, the earlier jazz would win, partially because the 40s and 50s musicians curated their pitches from the perspective of melody and blues, never thinking of the scale first.

Jeff Goldblum has a new jazz piano record out that swept the jazz charts and impressed many casual music fans. I prefer Goldblum’s role as “The Pianist” in the hilarious movie The Favor, the Watch, and the Very Big Fish to his keyboard work in The Capitol Studios Sessions. For me this jazz pianism sounds just like a product of the received wisdom of jazz education, someone who started with a text like Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book and never went further back to the masters.

I took down Goldblum’s first chorus on “Cantaloupe Island.” (Yes, I’m transcribing Jeff Goldblum, I guess this must be the blessed year of our lord 2018.)

Goldblum 1.jpg


It’s all pretty scalar, especially the sequence of wandering D minor leaps. Goldblum knows that all the white notes are “okay” at this moment — Jamey Aebersold says so, after all:


— so it “doesn’t matter” what white notes he puts down.

Goldblum 2

The masters don’t do this. Indeed, on the canonical first recording of “Cantaloupe Island,” neither Freddie Hubbard or Herbie Hancock play any D dorian passage work. When D is in the bass, both Hubbard and Hancock are often still investigating blues quotes in the home key of F minor, a much more “raw” effect.

Occasionally Goldblum plays a note that is not in the scale and it sounds kind of cool. But those chromatic notes also have a weird, “Look at me, I’m ‘out!'” quality that is aligned with self-conscious glamor and not with jazz naturalism.

My point, obviously, is that if you are a jazz student, you want to sound more like Freddie Hubbard or Herbie Hancock than Jeff Goldblum.

One of the ways chord scales currently propagate is via the app iReal Book, which has chord symbols but no melodies or lyrics. This app is a repository of received wisdom.

The problem is that no master ever played any changes of any song without consulting the melody first. The melody is the song. The song dictates the aesthetic. Once in a while even the lyrics can be helpful. The iReal Book leaves out the most relevant pieces of information a jazz master uses when forming an opinion about a standard. Instead, the app just gives a banal table of chords, frequently not even connected to a key, always with the implication that knowing the right scales that go with the chords is enough to get by.

In this case, Jeff Goldblum is actually way ahead of college jazz students reading off an app. Goldblum’s not a jazz master, but he is a profoundly gifted entertainer, and his jazz album is full of songs that are presented as “songs,” not as just “stuff for blowing.”

A lot of people think Goldblum isn’t doing any harm, but I see Goldblum’s success as a jazz artist as falling right in line with the recent Damien Chazelle movies Whiplash and La La Land. Essentially it is all a big message from Hollywood about how white people love and play trivial white jazz, isn’t it all great?

No single white person or even small group of white people need take responsibility for trying to fix race relations in jazz, but once it goes to a macro and financially successful level I think questions need to be asked. Basically, if you are making big money in jazz without honoring the primacy of the African-American aesthetic, you are angering the ancestors. (When the Bad Plus had our surprise breakthrough on a major label playing jazz deeply influenced by indie rock, I turned to blogging about my heroes to pay down some dues. Whiplash infuriated me so much that I wrote 6000 words in stern rebuttal against it.)

Historically, jazz education is definitely part of the problem. Stan Kenton and Gary Burton were two of the many great musicians and educators who seemed to fight tooth and nail to make the music, “for everybody,” not, “black people made this under unimaginable pressures, so, enjoy yourself, but also, watch your step.”

Anyway, I worry the presence of someone like Goldblum is another “go get some jazz” sign for amateurs and celeb-seekers who don’t ever stop to hand some money and respect to the nearest consecrated black jazz musician. The Goldblum supporters on my Twitter feed say he is a gateway drug to get more fans into the music, but trickle-down economics never seems to really work. It feels like I’m contributing to another new GoFundMe for an ailing legend every month these days.

Of course I don’t know, maybe some people do start digging serious jazz masters after checking out Goldblum. It’s also entirely possible that Goldblum himself sends checks out to George Cables, Barry Harris, Kenny Barron, Harold Mabern, Bertha Hope, Richard Wyands etc., and I hope he does.

Anyway, it’s up to him. The ancestors are watching. It takes a lot for them to get riled up but it isn’t pretty if they decide to take down your karma. Reportedly Goldblum treats his band well, which is a very important detail that the ancestors will keep in mind.

And if Goldblum wants to take his blowing on “Cantaloupe Island” to another level, he should spend some time with Freddie Hubbard on the original recording. Goldblum should listen for not just the notes, but the intention, the story, the emotional rhythm, and even the politics of Hubbard’s magnificent performance.

There are always checks and balances. As Chazelle’s pale cinematic vision of jazz has swept into the hearts and minds of Americans through cinema, another L.A. artist, Kamasi Washington, arrived with an Afro-centric approach to the music and has proven to be one of the top jazz breakout stories in recent memory.

I’m not entirely sold on the whole deal. The problem is that The Epic sounds quite a bit like Afro-centric jazz records from the 1970s by people like Billy Harper and Pharoah Sanders but not executed on such a high level. Still, if you don’t know those groovy 70’s discs, I can understand being excited about Washington. If our art form needs gateway drugs to snare new listeners,  I would take The Epic over Goldblum or Whiplash any damn day.

One of the most striking things about Washington’s hit album was revealed to me in a conversation with Hyland Harris, who said, “Those guys have something the kids in the jazz schools don’t have.”

It’s true. There is a refreshing absence of received wisdom on The Epic. The genre exhibited on the disc isn’t hip-hop, but the base skill set of the players is deeply informed by superb hip-hop professionalism. Those players then imitate Coltrane records while Washington adds string and choral arrangements borrowed from Motown and R’nB.  The whole thing has much less to do with the iReal Book or any other modern way of cutting corners to find wisdom.  While the pure jazz elements are rather undigested — on “Cherokee,” the band sounds better when they are in a Archie Bell & the Drells “Tighten Up” vibe then when taking jazz solos — the rest of the source material in Washington is fresh and correct, and the audience responds in kind.

It’s embarrassing to talk about myself, but I think The Bad Plus shared some of that non-jazz school mentality when we had our success in 2003. Reid and Dave never went to jazz school or paid any attention to jazz academia, and I started making fun of books trying to explain jazz primarily through scales when I was a teenage smart-ass.

So, dear NEC students of mine, if you are looking to have a career in this music that goes beyond the academy, it might be relevant to keep checking out the source material, not the textbooks.

Update: Some on social media are taking this post to mean I’m saying all scalar theory is bad. That’s not what I’m trying to say! A lot of my favorite music requires scalar theory, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner for starters. Joe Henderson’s masterpiece “Inner Urge” couldn’t exist without scalar theory. However I think Coltrane, Tyner, and Henderson only use scalar theory for a certain kind of effect. All three were superb blues players, all three adored the American Songbook, all three had an intimate relationship to the grammar of Thelonious Monk. The blues, the American Songbook, and the grammar of Monk are three things that might get erased by student-level scale theory.

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