An Interview with Michael Gold
by Michael F. Shaughnessy, Eastern New Mexico University
“Pedagogical Problems in Teaching Jazz”
Michael Gold is the founder and president of Jazz Impact, where he develops and conducts interactive seminars that bring together the two seemingly disparate worlds of jazz and business. Gold’s expertise is in creating customized training sessions that reinforce teambuilding, problem solving, and other management skills by drawing upon the lessons of jazz.
He has been a sought-after keynote speaker for top Fortune 500 companies and other organizations worldwide since 2000.
Gold’s extensive background in music, academia, and business was essential in developing Jazz Impact. He held senior management positions in the real estate and financial services industries, holds a Ph. D. in jazz performance and created and ran Vassar College’s first jazz program. He has spent nearly two decades as a jazz bassist in New York having performed with such greats as Lee Konitz, Al Cohn, Tal Farlow, Sheila Jordan, and Warne Marsh.
Gold is an ongoing lecturer for The Executive MBA and Leadership Development Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Loyola University in New Orleans.
He was The Paul D. Fleck Fellow for 2008 at The Banff Centre for Leadership for his outstanding work in the field of Arts Based Learning for Business. He currently lives in Minneapolis. Michael teaches improvisation to individuals on all instruments through Skype. He can be reached at Michael@jazz-impact.com.
Michael, could you first tell us a bit about your background in music and in teaching jazz?
I started “improvising” music at about the age of 13 when the rock band I’d been playing in since the age of 9 discovered the blues. We became aware of what it meant to play a shared language that had a very specific history…. Later in high school I started playing bass in a bluegrass band. Bluegrass was very popular in The Hudson Valley in New York State in the early ’70s. Bluegrass and the blues are both based in the same harmonic structures: the I-IV-V progression and variations on that. I think of bluegrass as sort of kindergarten jazz because it’s based on playing the tune and then passing around the role of soloing while the others comp. The harmonic progressions are very similar to blues.
I got bored playing the half note bass patterns on 1 and 3 and so I started to play like the bass player I was hearing in the western swing band music I was listening to—Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. The band Asleep At The Wheel became popular at that time as did Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Swing music really grabbed me as a bassist and that’s where I went next.
Then I heard a Charlie Parker record…I think I was 16. Totally spun my head around. I started taking alto sax lessons and practicing sax. Needless to say that really messed with the traditional aspects of my bluegrass bass playing, and I got booted out of the band. So I started seeing a bigger picture in jazz. Bird led me to Miles, Trane, Duke, Bud Powell…I wandered into the world of jazz and discovered that everything I’d loved in all of the other forms I’d played came from this source.
What do you see as the most salient problems in teaching jazz?
THE most salient problem is getting people to understand that learning to improvise is not a goal but a never-ending process.
To improvise jazz you have to be the composer, the instrumentalist, the historian, and the conductor—all fused into one. That takes a lot of time and patience—not something that our technoculture particularly values or encourages. To teach jazz means to find students who understand the value of time and patience and to find academic and artistic communities that do as well. That’s getting harder and harder.
Another is getting young players to listen to history without thinking of it as history. For example, certain Louis Armstrong recordings from the late ’20s with the Hot 5’s and 7’s are as new today as they were then. Sure the notes and harmonies have become more sophisticated, but the FEELING and economy and clarity and intentionality—the self-understanding behind Louis’s sound and playing IS the whole point.
I was fortunate enough to study with one of the truly great improvisers—the pianist Sal Mosca. The most important aspect of learning to improvise jazz is singing with specific recordings of the great improvisers—Louis, Pres, Billie, Bud, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge are a few that come to mind. To really learn their solos and get the feeling deep inside. This is how jazz evolved up through the ’50s. You’d go out and get the latest recording and learn to sing it note for note.
How much music theory does a good jazz musician need?
Lots of theory—a never ending understanding of theory. But again, that is a process and not a goal. If we listen to Coltrane we can hear the growth vector in his understanding of theory from his emergence in the ’40s until his death in the ’60s. You can begin to improvise with a relatively basic understanding of theory. The art becomes your vehicle for an ever-deepening learning process. Charlie Parker wanted to begin classical studies with Eric Satie shortly before his death. He wanted to start composing contemporary music. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s earlier recordings—he’s just tearing up the world of contemporary music theory. With the great improvisers there really is no differentiation between the world of jazz and the world of great composed music—just that jazz musicians are doing it in real time. Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart—all great improvisers. They HAD to write it down because otherwise it would be lost.
Now, what about transposition—how much skill and expertise is needed in terms of transposition?
When you say transposition I believe you mean moving an idea from one key to another. That’s something I do a lot when play with singers. The range of the human voice is limited so we frequently have to move the key on the spot. Like taking a ballad like “Body and Soul” and move it from its original key of D-flat to say B-flat. That is a very valuable skill and one that we should be working on all the time. It’s great for ear training most importantly the democratization of our comfort with the keys. Again, [it is] a process that never ends.
In terms of really teaching jazz—who are the key musicians that your students should be exposed to—give us a broad spectrum with your rationale as to why these individuals are important?
There were certain key improvisers between the early ’20s and mid-’60s who are considered to be the key influences in the extremely rapid and fluid evolution of the language of jazz. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Warne Marsh…these are a few.
Not everything or even close to everything these folks recorded is seminal material. With each of these artists there is a sweetspot—a time when the muse poured through them with such clarity and life that the music they mad transcends time, style and even the instrument they were playing.
For example: Lester Young’s recordings from 1936 with the Kansas City 6 and 7 are so powerful—his solo on “Lady Be Good” is like a lesson in everything that had happened and everything that will happen in jazz—and it is all based in feeling, tone and intentionality. Those recordings wigged Charlie Parker out so bad that he went into a room and started practicing 16 hours a day for a couple of years. That’s why “Pres”—Lester Young is credited as the father of modern jazz.
In reference to some of what I said above it’s critical that students learn these very specific solos—the ones where these artists were streaming the bigger musical consciousness. And they need to learn them off the recordings—not through transcriptions. That misses the whole point. Learning a solo by singing with Pres is like studying with Pres—you have to internalize his feeling.
Now, improvisation—what are the difficulties YOU face in teaching this important aspect of jazz?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Getting people to find their sound and develop their sound is daunting. Lots of students really want to sound “like” someone else. But that isn’t improvising- that’s imitation. But wait a minute- you just got through telling me how important it was to learn the solos of the great players. Isn’t this a contradiction? No it isn’t. Here’s why. Jazz is a language and like spoken language, which is totally improvised, we have to learn to speak it through a process of imitation. But as with spoken language we quickly integrate what we learn through imitation into our own way of speaking.
Learning to embody the feeling of the greats actually lets you feel some degree of that same freedom they achieved. And the magic of this way of learning jazz is that learning their feeling from those specific recordings opens you to your own depth of feeling and your own true voice.
The purpose of jazz in the bigger musical universe is to give voice to all the unique musical beings in the world. Jazz is an evolutionary step in the world of music- after 2000 years of codifying the language of music we are now moving to a place where the language of music can become spontaneous and conversational.
On the spot creativity, and on the spot fluidity seem to be important- how do you help your students and colleagues in this realm?
Creativity is always on the spot in a certain way. It means discovering a new way of combining different elements to get something new. It’s more a question of recognizing what keeps us from being able to do this- the non musical psychological and emotional barriers.
What sounds like on the spot creativity is a reflection of process, practice, self-understanding – all the things we’ve been talking about. Anyone can develop enough proficiency with an instrument to do some unusual spontaneous things in the moment. But that type of playing will quickly become redundant in terms of content and feeling. To really be able to blow in the moment- to engage whatever situation and musical intelligence you are encountering…and to bring a true sense of yourself to the experience…. This will always be a reflection of your own ongoing learning and practice process.
Michael, you have worked for years with Larry Ham, a brilliant jazz pianist. What have you learned from him and what has he taught you, and on the other hand, what has he indicated that he has learned from you?
Well, you’d need to ask Larry what he’s learned from me…probably something about what it means to practice patience with other people. In terms of what I’ve learned from Larry—everything I just talked about—how important it is to enjoy the experience of the now—to simplify and swing your ass off. And then to have a great hang together and just do it again.
Michael, you often do clinics and workshops on the road. What are the main things that you try to instill in young jazz musicians?
#1 patience, #2 listening, and that, as musicians, we only have a couple things of real value in life.
Time and feeling, and that we need to use time very carefully to build our capacity to feel and speak the language of jazz.