A "Key Ingredients" Perspective
Jazz, It's All In The Ear
By Renowned Gospel Producer Steven Ford © 2009

All of my life I've had a wonderful musical journey. Being raised in the African American church brought both a unique cultural awareness of God, and a rich understanding of the expression of music. When I say raised in the church, I really mean that. My family's home in west Philadelphia was a duplex building and my family lived on the second and third floor, and our church was located on the first floor. So, I practically lived at church. I didn't have the opportunity to listen to Jazz musicians as a child, and I never formally studied Jazz music. Jazz records were not allowed in our home, and I remind you that I literally lived in the church.

My musical diet early on was unbalanced in regard to exposure because I didn't hear styles, as we call it. I just heard music. At 6 years old, I began playing the piano, and by the age of 9, I was placed as the head musician at church. When the church purchased a Hammond B3 Organ, I played it day and night, and soon I became the principle church organist. I learned to play by ear, and didn't learn to read music until I was 14 years old.

However, being the principle musician I had to know all of the songs and play for what we called "testimony service." That's the part of the service where someone would start singing a song in the congregation and I would have to hear it, immediately find the key and play the song on the spot, with no rehearsal, no sheet music, no chord charts, just improvise, and "Play It By Ear."

[The connection between the different genres, Jazz Music, Church Music, Classical Music, always amazed me...]

My love for the Hammond B3 Organ and passion for all types of music sometimes put me in quite a position growing up as a pastor's kid. First, the instrument that I loved was not embraced at first by the B lack church and certainly frowned upon by those who loved Classical music. Soon the Hammond B3 was dubbed as the club organ used by Jazz musicians such as Jimmy McG riff, Jack McDuff and Shirley Scott to name a few. I remember being called on stage to play with Shirley Scott years ago at the Robin Hood Dell in Philadelphia.

So Sunday mornings would be an improvisational smorgasbord, a little Jazz on this song, a little Classical on that song and a little "church" on the last song. I define Jazz as the application of Chord Substitutions, Reharmonization, Improvisation, Syncopated rhythms, key transpositions and voicing s.

But, studying theory and composition, reading the notes, learning the licks, studying the Jazz scales, and researching the history of the greatest Jazz musicians is fruitless if you can't hear it.

In the history of musicians and musical families, many of the songs of their culture were never documented; they were handed down from generation to generation. I learned that, just as with playing Gospel music, many elements and inflections of playing Jazz are handed down from ear to ear.

So what is music, what is really Jazz, what is Gospel Jazz? It's God's music, because music comes from God, with unique harmonies, chord progressions, and improvisation, as an expression to glorify Him. I must study to strive for excellence as a musician, but harmonies, the voicing, the improvisation; I have to hear it first with my ear. In learning to play, I had to listen first.

"The Most Important Part of the Lesson Is "The Listen."

"It's all In the Ear."

- Steven Ford


By Terrence Richburg © 2009
Feature Objective and Overview: This new JGC feature, Key Ingredients, offers varied insight and perspectives from accomplished Jazz and Gospel Jazz keyboard artists and musicians on what works for them in performance and recording situations. Our main objective is to inspire keyboardists on any level of proficiency to develop and pursue excellence in their craft, and strive towards attaining their professional career goals.

Some Early Insight...Although the bass tends to be my instrument of preference, as a Gospel Jazz artist and performer, from an early age my other "key" instrument (pardon the pun) has always been piano. In fact, I work just as much or more now as a pianist as I do as a bassist. I remember as a child during my first lessons from my parents they were absolutely right when they said "the piano is the primary instrument from which you can learn about the fundamental elements of music" (and music theory)--melody, harmony, rhythm, form, dynamics, timing, intonation, voicing, technique, tonality, style, etc. Therefore, in addition to its innate qualities, learning to play the piano can be used as a foundation or springboard to learn other instruments, as well as learn about music in general. This was in fact the case for me.

Accepting the Challenge...As I grew up and expanded my knowledge of the instrument I realized what a profound responsibility someone playing piano or keyboard has--whether or not you're a solo musician, accompanist, or a member of an ensemble, band or group. Moreover, the nuances required for each one of these performance roles demands a thorough education built on career experience, coupled with technical and natural talent, to make things work. Pianists and keyboardists (especially as Jazz performers) need to know the difference between those two instrumental roles. Adding to the mix the role of an "organist" further emphasizes the importance of this point. They also need to be amply prepared in what to bring to the table in terms of style, technique, approach, maturity, innovation, motivation and attitude.

Counting the Costs...Keyboard players spend a large amount of time learning much more music (in terms of actual volume of notes played) than any other members of an instrumental unit, including the drummer. (Even though drummers play a lot of notes, keyboardists have a possible selection of 88 keys to play with 10 fingers (individually or together), as opposed to 8 to 10 percussion surfaces in a basic drum set scenario (to be played with 4 limbs at any given time.) Nevertheless, if you have a real gift for playing keys your ear coupled with a good chart or two will surely help you to move quickly beyond the threshold of pain and get to the joy of playing good music.

Making the Music Musical...Musicians who play keys in Jazz, Gospel Jazz or any other style of music tend to serve in leadership roles in performance situations because of what they play and how it tends to guide the direction and dynamic journey of the music--it really holds everything together. Yet, many times the keyboard takes a backseat to the drums and bass, which also serve frequently as lead instruments, depending on the style of the song and the instrumental arrangement. But regardless of how it plays out, those who play keys on a gig must always keep their focus on knowing the music thoroughly--somewhat like memorizing a route on a road map leading to a specific destination. Then, they should always carry with them their tool bag of technical skills and musical ideas to insert into the song (like a variety of chords, harmonies or melodic motifs) to make things special and exciting along the way. No one likes to take a long road trip and not seize the opportunity for a detour every once and a while to experience something new. This is what makes the music "musical" for both the player and the audience, especially when as a musician you can help an audience feel what you feel emotionally as you play what you play physically.

TIPS: 1. Practice piano/on a weighted 88-key keyboard daily to build up technical precision and endurance (utilizing scales, arpeggios, and other technical exercises. Use correct fingering while doing so or it will cost you later).

2. Practice often with other musicians, group members and full ensembles to prepare for "real-life" performance situations.

3. Develop chart and sheet music reading skills.

4. Study and analyze music/recordings of prominent Jazz, Gospel and Classical pianists (soloists as well as accompanists) to further understand both dominant and support musician roles and techniques while playing in ensembles and serving in accompanying band unit settings.

5. Experiment with fresh ideas for voicing chords and alternative progressions to use in songs you already know.

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