By Matt Savage
While these three musicians are all from before my time (Miles Davis passed away one year before I was born), they all share a common thread beyond that of being famous jazz instrumentalists. They are some of Black music’s greatest innovators. They never stopped developing their styles and they would always find a way to keep their sound fresh. And, they would frequently collaborate with other major artists of the 20th century – some of whom might have seemed like unusual choices at the time.
For example, you may think of Duke Ellington as a Swing Era big band leader and pianist (the peak of Swing was in the 1930s), but he also came out with solo piano albums and small group releases as well. Take his 1962 album Money Jungle, which is a trio LP (piano, bass, drums) and feels much closer to his bassist Charles Mingus’ free-jazz experiments than any previous album by Ellington would. That same decade, Duke Ellington would carry his experimentalism to a new level with his Sacred Concerts, which are very classically influenced, but also made the bold move of taking modern jazz to the church.
Miles Davis was active as a bandleader for six decades (from bebop in the 1940s to his brief 1991 hip-hop experiment), and his music was the hardest to fit into one short masterclass. Davis frequently made forays into jazz-rock fusion in the second half of his career, provoking many arguments about how to even define the term “jazz.”
Then there is John Coltrane, who played with Davis frequently in the early days. Coltrane’s life was sadly cut short at 40, so he never got to hear Miles Davis’ fusion period – however, he managed to fit a large discography into his 10-year recording career. He was a major developer of the free-jazz style that was popular in the 1960s, when political activism and communal living were a major part of many people’s lifestyles.
It was very hard creating a list of tunes to play on the speakers for each of these classes. There is so much material to choose from for each artist. And a lot of these jazz compositions (especially Coltrane’s) are so long that there’s no way that I would have time to play the entirety of each recording in class! But the frequent collaboration-based and adaptable nature of jazz music means that it is important to study each musician’s career from beginning to end.
At each class, I also did an improvised jazz jam session with the Note-worthy students who had come to attend. Most of Duke Ellington’s tunes were written within a standard 32-bar form or 12-bar blues form, but Miles Davis introduced a jazz tune with only two chords, and John Coltrane wrote some tunes in three keys at once. It’s always important as a jazz musician to be able to play flexibly through different tempos and chord changes.
In short, this was a wonderful experience and I hope to do more of these classes in the future!
Matt Savage is a piano instructor at Note-worthy Experiences Music Studio. Matt is also an Adjunct Instructor at at Bunker Hill Community College and teaches at the Community Music Center of Boston and at Applied Behavioral Learning Services (an organization near Boston for children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities). Matt gives masterclasses and workshops domestically and internationally (in English and Spanish) as well as private piano lessons. For more information about Matt, please visit Matt's teacher page.