Kenny Graham...
the bandsthe musicianshome pagethe clubsthe recordstime linegallerydiscographiesodds + endslinks
Kenny Graham - improvisation...
In January 1952 Kenny Graham wrote an article for the Melody Maker in which he set out his ideas on how a young musician wanting to play jazz should set about teaching himself to improvise. Improvisation has always been fundamental to jazz and is a topic surrounded in mystique. Kenny suggests that no amount of hard work will make you an improvisor unless you have a spark of creative talent...

" Quite a lot must have been written on the subject of improvisation since jazz began and there seems to be no end to the subject. This is not surprising since every musician who indulges in the art has his own ideas.
But among them it is possible to discover various points of agreement. For instance it is acknowledged that extemporisation is tied up with certain mental processes and this being so, it is not possible to learn it by rote. It is, in fact, as hard to teach somebody to improvise as it would be to tell them how to discover a new chemical. It is only possible to put students on the right track and their progress after that depends on aptitude and initiative".

"Now, just what is required from the would be improviser? The answer is so short and simple that the student might be inclined to wonder what all the fuss is about. It Is this. The ability to play an original melody on a given chord sequence. The catch is in that word "original". Originality presupposes creative ability in some degree, and this quality is impossible to impart to others.
However, slight inherent creative talent can be developed, and my aim in this article is to show the beginner how this might be done".
"I am often embarrassed on sessions when asked what chords I played on in such and such bars. Almost always I just don't know, or rather I don't know the names of the chords".
"When I play, chords become sounds instead of names and I think that this is advantageous. One obvious advantage is that my mind is less restricted than it would be if I'd learned the chords parrot fashion. If I had done this, my playing would be much more likely to be mechanical and might consist of an endless series of arpeggios".
"The chief drawback of playing from chord symbols is that unless one has a thorough of theory and harmony, each chord will be conceived in it's root position, with the tonic note in the bass. But if the sound of the progressions is in the mind, natural harmonic sense will insist on the correct inversion being played".
"How should the beginner set about establishing the sound of chord sequences in his mind? Well, one very good way is to listen to piano and bass parts on records. This may seem obvious, but I wonder how many musicians who play saxes and brass ever hear the rhythm section. I suppose it is only natural for them to listen to the solo instruments letting the piano and bass go by practically unheard".

"If you happen to be one of those people, spend a few hours with your records, but this time really listen to the piano and bass. you will soon find that you have the sound of the progression firmly fixed in your mind".
"Another good method is to think of a melody and try to conjure up in your mind the chords that go with it. This is an exercise that can be carried out at odd times - when travelling even".
"Next comes the task of playing the sounds that you hear. It won't be much use doing this until you can think up choruses, and, this is what you must try to do all the time".

Continued top right...

Kenny Graham biography and discography...
the early classic records...
The Afro-Cubists...

(The photo below is of Kenny Graham and Afro-cubist's bass player Cliff Ball. It is part of the personal collection of William Morrison, nephew of Cliff Ball)

Kenny Graham with Cliff Ball Exercise
"This mental excercise is an absolute essential if you are to develop any ideas at all, and if you are not prepared to take it seriously, then I suggest that you should give up trying to invent choruses.
The aim is to be able to play anything that comes into your head, and you must spend at a least a half-hour every day thinking phrases and then trying to play them on your instrument. If this is done conscientiously co-ordination between the mind and the fingers will be gradually developed until it is possible to play phrases as easily as you can whistle or sing them".
"If you are lucky enough to have the co-operation of a pianist you could ask him to play a series of related chords and cadenzas allowing you to play on them. As your sense of relative pitch improves you will be able to play freely on any chord sound that you hear."
"Another fine method to exercise your sense of pitch is to spend a few minutes before a gig starts with another member of the band, taking turns to play phrases for the other to play back faithfully. you will find this can be very amusing, but don't let that fool you. It is also very instructive".

Summing up
"Well, there you have it - a sequence of practice, and to make it perfectly clear in your mind I'll run over the points. First "hear" the chord sequence in your mind. Follow this by composing choruses in your mind in your spare time. Next, try to play any and every phrase that you can think up on your instrument without fumbling".
"When you can do all of these things, you stand a very good chance of playing jazz choruses and by jazz I mean both traditional and modern and the music in-between. I trust that this will help you, but remember it all depends on you possessing a small amount of creativeness. Let's hope that you do".

Kenny was also asked whether it would help somebody learning jazz improvisation to try and play like a well known star jazz musician. Kenny's reply follows...

"I went through the phase of trying to play like someone else. My idol was Coleman Hawkins and for a while I copied his tone, his phrases and bought all his records. I am convinced that this was mostly wasted effort".
"It must be realised that that each player has an individual tone to a certain extent - a tone dictated largely by lip formation, jaw structure, and physique, plus his instrument mouthpiece and reed".
"If a student spends the next ten years striving to play like somebody else, he might conceivably get fairly close to the goal. But my bet is that he will have changed his ideas long before that. My advice is to carry on with his ordinary practice, endeavouring to turn himself into a good instrumentalist. In time he might well find that he develops his own distinctive sound".

The Afro-Cubists and the Melody Maker...
Kenny Graham the composer...

This page was last updated during December, 2010.
Any comments welcomed, please click on email below...