Jazz Day: What IS Jazz?

Today is International Jazz Day and I want to revisit an old article I wrote about what jazz is to me. My take on describing jazz is a little different. It’s not a history lesson. I’m not writing today about what jazz WAS. I’m writing about what it has become today, from my perspective.

International Jazz Day

Jazz IS

Jazz is a musical philosophy that welcomes all musicians as they are.

To me, jazz is a unifier, a bringer together of persons of diverse cultural backgrounds. I have jammed with complete strangers all over the world. In every place that I have jammed, the people I played with quickly became something other than strangers. I’m not suggesting that we were best buds or anything like that. But we recognized each other as being members of a world wide community of like minded musicians.

Yet, like minded in what sense?

Like minded in our acceptance of each other regardless of our differences. Jazz is a music that accepts all people for who they are, with no attempts to force you to be someone you are not. This is just as true across cultural and geographic boundaries as it is across age and gender gaps.

I remember reading an article some time ago about why you should never criticize a younger player at the jam sessions. The writer pointed out that we all have to make our way in this art. No one starts off as a great player out of the womb. There is a learning process and the person you mock or make fun of today may be tomorrows Charlie Parker.

Heading out to the jams is a very important part of that learning process. Instead of making fun of the younger players, what I have seen is an unconditional acceptance. The older “cats” welcome the younger players with open arms.


In my life experience, jazz musicians have been the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people in the world (more so than any church I’ve ever been to). When you attend the jam sessions, it no longer matters what your politics are, or your world view, or your religious views, or your race, or ethnicity, you are still one of the “cats”. You are not only accepted for who you are, but encouraged to be yourself and find your own voice.

Jamming at Pita Jungle in Chandler AZ

The Music

I have heard many arguments about what makes a certain kind of music jazz, and none of it holds true. Not in my opinion. Jazz as a musical art form is whatever the musicians bring to the conversation. I believe the music is influenced by the musicians. The more honest and sincere the musician is, the more people will connect to that music! Jazz is one of the only musical art forms that not only allows but encourages this sort of musical honesty. People from all walks of life have the freedom to express themselves as jazz musicians and it will still be jazz. In fact, the more different the better.

When It’s NOT Jazz…

It’s not my place to point fingers at which musicians or which recordings are going against this jazz philosophy. However, it is important to point out that there are commercial entities that wish to manipulate the music in a way that generates massive amounts of income. This, in and of itself, does not make their musical output less honest or sincere. But there is a push in that context for insincerity – for the sake of profits. And once a musician crosses that line, for whatever reason, it is no longer really jazz.

Not in my opinion. It may sound like jazz. It may have all of the technical elements of jazz. But the musician will know, deep down in his soul, that he is being dishonest to gain popularity or to make money. This goes against the jazz tradition. Remember, jazz welcomes all musicians with open arms. There is no real need for musical dishonesty. It is when we realize we have been lied to (figuratively speaking) that we no longer accept that musician’s performances as being “in the spirit of jazz.”

Parallels With Christianity

In that sense, there are a lot of similarities between jazz and Christianity. Jesus died for everyone. The gift of grace through salvation has already been given. But if you try to lie, cheat and steal your way into heaven, it’s not going to go well for you. What could have been yours, as a free gift from God, you will have squandered by thinking that it was yours to take with any means you deem necessary.

That’s how some people approach jazz, and it’s not very jazzy. You are not a true jazz player if your intention is to sound just like Clifford Brown, John Coltrane or any other musician for that matter. The true jazz philosophy is that you find your own voice and learn how to use it fearlessly.

I had the opportunity to perform and hang out with a relatively famous “smooth jazz” musician who told me he had been in a slump for a few years. He told me how much he had come to despise playing the smooth, overly commercial, watered down music some people call jazz. The fact that he wasn’t getting any calls to perform and record music that was a more honest personal expression was giving him a very heavy heart.

I don’t blame people for making a living. And in fact, I am a FIRM believer in things like being obedient (to your record label – if you have a contract), and supporting your family (by making recordings that make money). I am in no way suggesting that these are bad people or that the music industry is evil or anything juvenile like that. But when we look at the question, “What is jazz?” it is necessary to look at those commercial influences as part of the equation.

Dome Jam

Musical Manifestations of Honesty

In the end, REAL JAZZ has nothing to do with how well you play your horn. It has nothing to do with how many gigs you have. It has nothing to do with how many tunes, or licks scales you can play. You are a true jazzer when what you play in your jazz is true to who you are as a person.

That’s what jazz has come to mean to me. A musical art form that welcomes everyone as they are is going to have as many different sounds as there are people. You and I are different people. Musical manifestations of our honesty is going to lead us in two different directions. And the beauty of jazz is that we can take those two directions and interweave them into one collectively honest sound.

That’s why people have struggled for so long to create a definition for jazz. What jazz is, in any given room on any given day, is going to be different from what we call jazz in another room, somewhere else on the planet, on that very same day.


Now you know what jazz is to me. What does it mean to you? What is jazz in your world? How has it affected your life?

A picture of me at a jam session in Austin, TX.

A picture of me at a jam session in Austin, TX.

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Happy Easter

 happy easter

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Career Update

I see it has been a while since I let everyone know what I’ve been up to. I don’t always have the time to write, and when I do write, I normally feel a sense of pressure to write important education or uplifting stuff. I forget that this doesn’t make for good blog writing. I do believe it’s important to stay in touch, so to speak.

A Not So Distant Pass

There has been a lot of activity on the career front since the turn of the year. The first major event happened on January first, when I had the opportunity to record with some friends in El Paso. We had a reunion of sorts, recording some of my original jazz tunes and spending some of that time recording free improvisations.

The recording was at a studio called Sonic Ranch where they specialize in what I think is called “location recording.” I think the concept is that you book the place for a couple of weeks and live there with your band while you work on your next big project. Sonic Ranch is a fully equipped, state of the art studio located about an hour’s drive south east of El Paso, in the middle of a pecan orchard.

The CD is double themed. On the one hand, this is the first CD of what I hope becomes a series of recordings that I do on location at different places around the world. So the fact that it is in El Paso is part of the theme. Then the other theme is that this was a reunion. Ruben Gutierrez was the pianist in my very first jazz combo and Ricky Malichi was the leader of the band that hosted most of the jam sessions I attended when I was first starting out in jazz.

Phoenix 433

Here is a shot of the guys who recorded with me in El Paso:
Ricky Malichi, Ruben Gutierrez, Erik Unsworth and myself.

At this point, the recording is done, it has been mixed and we are in the final stages of getting it ready for release. We still need to have it mastered, finish the cover design and layout and have it duplicated.

The music on the recording ranges from dreamy to wild. The original intention was to use duo improvisations as a way to “warm-up” at the beginning of the session, but all of those free improvisation takes were keepers and we are using them as meditative interludes between each of the tunes.

It is a bit on the more modern side. Those of you who already know my music know that I do not like music that repulses. I feel like the music on this CD is free and creative but in a way that does not repulse. It’s NOT the kind of music that sends a message that says “We are so good that you won’t understand a note of our music.” It is free and modern, but it still connects on a musical and emotional plane.

I’ll definitely write more about the project as it nears the release date. I am considering using KickStarter to generate funds to take the project to completion. If you think this is a good idea, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ve never done KickStarter before.

Oh, by the way, the name of the CD is A Not So Distant Pass… meant to sound like “not so distant past.” “El Paso” is Spanish for “the pass.” This CD reflects both of those statements. El Paso and my friends who live there will never be far from my heart, and meeting with them this way reconnects me in a way that makes my early years as a jazz musician seem not so long ago.

Mardi Gras Legends
Jazz Forever Vol. 3

Immediately upon returning home, I had to get busy writing more music for Jazz Forever. This time I was preparing music for our fourth CD (labeled “Vol. 3” because the third CD was our Christmas CD).

This project was a bit different for me to the others. For reasons I won’t get into here, I had a little more freedom to write slightly more creative arrangements. For two of the tunes we recorded, When the Saints Go Marching In and Jambalaya at the Bayou, the arrangements I wrote were completely original. The rest of the new charts were something of a hybrid between lifts and creative arrangements.

For our previous arrangements, I would say the ratio was about 30% creativity and 70% transcription. For Saints and Jambalaya, that was flipped, 80% creativity and 20% transcription. Then for the rest of the list, I did about 60/40, 60% creativity.

In some ways, this makes the writing work a bit more enjoyable. Don’t misunderstand, I LOVE doing lifts. I love learning new music that way and exploring what other musicians have done in the past. But that’s a different kind of pleasure from what I enjoy about the creative work. That’s more of a love of learning kind of thing. These new charts have a piece of my heart and soul in them. I hope that makes sense.

Photo by Jeff Grass at http://jeffgrassphotography.com/

Photo by Jeff Grass at http://jeffgrassphotography.com/

If you haven’t heard Jazz Forever yet, I encourage you to take a trip with us back about a hundred years when jazz was a little different from what I recorded in El Paso with my friends.

This CD is called Mardi Gras Legends and takes you back to the days when Joe Oliver reigned as “King.” It takes you back to New Orleans during a time when jazz was happy music and didn’t take itself too seriously. The tracks on the CD include:

  • Dipper Mouth Blues
  • While We Danced at the Mardi Gras
  • Sweet Baby Doll
  • Willie the Weeper
  • Basin Street Blues
  • If You Knew
  • When My Baby Smiles at Me
  • Jambalaya on the Bayou
  • Climax Rag
  • When the Saint Go Marching In
  • Wang Wang Blues

This CD should be available much sooner than the El Paso one, and I will be certain to let you know when it is available.

Beginner Jazz Trumpet Book

On the publishing front, we are in the final stages, after literally twenty years of trial and error, of releasing the first jazz book in our jazz trumpet series. I’ve been using this method and the materials with my students for over ten years, refining and modifying it as we progressed. Now I believe that the method is “tried and true” and is ready for public consumption.

The musical content and exercises are completed, all that’s needed at this point is to write the text, record the accompanying CD and make it look pretty.

What makes this series of books unique is that the student can sound good NOW. I have used this method with students who could barely play the trumpet, and still they sounded good improvising, even on their first try.

I call this the “foot in the door approach” as opposed to the more traditional “sink or swim” approach to teaching jazz trumpet. People are less likely to give up and quit if they can enjoy smaller successes along the way. This book series makes an effort to expose the students to all of the materials they need to be great jazz trumpet players but in a way that doesn’t make them feel like quitting at every step of the process.

We are very excited about this book and just like the other two projects I already wrote about here, I will let you know more as we near the release date.

As always, there are a lot of other irons in the fire, but these are the three I feel comfortable sharing with you at this point.

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Student Discount Code for Tiger Music

Tiger Music LogoWe have finally gotten around to creating a discount code for our current and past students. That was one of the reasons why we switched to a dynamic shopping cart instead of the old “static” store we had over two years ago. We wanted to be able to offer discount coupons and vouchers and other opportunities of that nature. We wanted this mostly for our students.

If you are currently a student of mine, or if you ever took lessons with me in the past, please contact me if you are interested in getting that code. The voucher gives students and ex-students 50% off of any e-Product (eBooks and digital download sheet music) and 20% off of our physical books.

If you are interested, please let me know and I will send you the code.

Oh, and we are also making this code available to students of students. So, if your teacher was ever one of my students, you are eligible for this code.


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Working for Donuts: Very Good Article

There is a very nice article by Linda Essig about something I’ve written about here a few times. What I like about her article is that she quotes rules from the US Department of Labour. This new slant on an old issue gives “our side” a bit more strength in the ongoing argument.

mmmm.... donuts!!!In my experience as a professional musician (a career spanning three decades) is that nothing good comes from playing for free. People think you can gain exposure and/or experience from donating your services for free. It’s funny, I remember a quote from a music business book that said “All you expose by playing for free is that you will play for free.” My career experiences concur. I will also add that the way I am treated on a gig is directly proportionate to how much I am paid. The worst I have ever been treated has been on gigs that I volunteered (very, very early in my career) to do for free.

The other excuse people give for playing for free is that they want experience. Unfortunately, not all experience is equal. And the worst kind of experience you can gain is from playing for free. This goes hand in hand with the way you are treated. The only experience you gain from playing for free is just how bad things can get when you play for free.

Anyway, I invite you to read her article. I agree with her 100%


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Musical Honesty

I believe in musical honesty. Don’t try to do deep if you are not a deep person. Don’t try to do anger and bitterness if you are not an angry, bitter person. Don’t try to be funny or cute if you are not that way inclined. Strive to express through your music the very same qualities that God gave you when he made you.

You cannot get pecans from a walnut tree.

You cannot get pecans from a walnut tree.

In the music world, we are constantly pushed, from many different directions at once, to conform to a standard. Ironically, most music business people know that conforming to other people’s success formulas only leads to musical mediocrity. I am not suggesting that we should all rebel and jump off the proverbial deep end. However, just as it is in other creative fields, even when we do the same thing as others have done in the past, we must invest a bit of our own personalities and life experience if we want our music to connect with an audience.

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Thinking Is Good

I remember a composition lesson I had one time with Dr. Joseph Packales when he asked me, “What do you have for me today?” I sheepishly told him that I hadn’t done any writing all week, but had been doing a lot of thinking about the next project. I was expecting a good tongue lashing for not doing anything all week, but that never happened. His response stuck with me all these years. He said, “Thinking is good!” Then he asked me to share my thoughts. And I did. And we spent the rest of the lesson time discussing how to make them happen.

Sheet MusicI thought about this last week as I prepared to work on another arrangement for Jazz Forever. I spend as much as an hour or more researching and planning each arrangement before I begin. Last week I was thinking to myself how different my work would be if I hadn’t learned to approach composing and arranging this way.

Thinking Is Good!

This is just one of the many different ways that Dr. Packales contributed to my life.

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