When Traditions Collide

Have you ever heard classical players swing?  They can’t do it.

Have you ever heard jazz players play Beethoven?  They can’t do it.

At least, they can’t do it as far as the other tradition is concerned.  I can play Beethoven, convincingly for most listeners, but when it comes to the tradition, and listeners familiar with the tradition, I can’t do it.

When it comes to discussing genre, I used to tell myself: “music is music, is music; let’s not think of music in terms of genre; let’s bridge the divide; we should focus on similarities, not differences!” Charming isn’t it?   But no matter how tolerant I am, classical players still can’t swing.  Something must be missing; something fundamental.

I’m convinced that when discussing the jazz tradition and the classical tradition, you have to recognize differences on a cultural level.  It’s pleasant to compare and focus on similarities, but at the end of the day, they still swing with an accent and I still play Beethoven with an accent.  Our minds and bodies have been trained to reflect different priorities in making music.

A considerable amount of re-wiring would be necessary for anybody wanting to  “switch genres.”  Of course, jazz is more than notes; it’s a lifestyle!  The difficulty in switching would be comparable to switching languages (when you’re not bilingual).  It’s more than vocabulary building; it’s about expressing and living every thought through that language!

Is switching possible?  What does it take to become fluent in jazz?  Switching is possible, but if you want to play convincingly for listeners familiar with the tradition, it would require nothing less than total immersion.  Otherwise, you’ll never quite “get it.”  Your swing feel will stand out like a sore thumb!

Keep in mind that this isn’t exclusive to music-makers; it’s for music teachers too.  Have you ever heard classical teachers teach students how to swing?  They can’t do it.  How do you teach someone to swing if you haven’t lived it yourself?  Know what you know, and teach only what you know.

A student’s ability to communicate (through music) depends on it!


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