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Thread: jazz musicians who can't read music

  1. #1
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    jazz musicians who can't read music

    I am interested in researching jazz musicians who cannot read music - who they are, how not reading music affects interaction with other musicians in group who do, compensatory mechanisms, seen as advantage or disadvantage by self and others. Any help appreciated!

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    AAJ's Big Nose jkelman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by nonottes
    I am interested in researching jazz musicians who cannot read music - who they are, how not reading music affects interaction with other musicians in group who do, compensatory mechanisms, seen as advantage or disadvantage by self and others. Any help appreciated!
    I know drummer Dennis Chambers can't read - and it certainly hasn't stopped him from being able to recall complex arrangements or interaction.

    I guess the question is what is reading? In my opinion it's a tool - a valuable one, of course - but not necessarily a predicator in a musician's ability to become great. I think being able to read gives you an advantage, as you have a means of articulating your ideas in a clear and concise way. But there are definitely players who get around that.

    An interesting notable example is a young blind Ottawa guitarist who won the two scholarship awards at this year's Jazz Festival. Speaking with John Geggie, who worked with him as part of the Galaxie educational programme the week of the festival, it's clear that the kid has plenty of knowledge, and an incredibly big set of ears. He has to learn arrangements by memory, but seems to work just fine with that. He sounds almost like a young Terje Rypdal (surprising, since when I mentioned that he didn't know who Rypdal was!), with a broad harmonic sense and strong rock edge.

    Anyway, all this in a rambling way to say that I think reading is a good skill to have, but it doesn't make you a better or more intuitive musician. There are other ways to acquire the skills - albeit a little (sometimes a lot) more awkwardly.

    Best!
    John

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    trumpet tpt1's Avatar
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    I have been told that Joe Pass couldn't read music. Don't know for sure if that's true.

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    Registered User Jim R's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tpt1
    I have been told that Joe Pass couldn't read music. Don't know for sure if that's true.
    I think there are many. Erroll Garner and Chet Baker are two favorites who come to mind. I come from a family of ear players, so the idea has never been all that difficult for me to accept and understand (I only say this because I've encountered people who don't want to believe that it's a common thing).

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    Registered! bvy's Avatar
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    Buddy Rich. I thought I read somewhere that another musician would have to sit with him while he drummed a few choruses of whatever new piece he was learning. Something like that...

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    Registered User Valerie's Avatar
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    my ex-husband, walter bishop jr., didn't learn to read music until he was in his 40's after playing piano professionally for over 20 years. prior to learning, he played with lots of the greats (blakey, miles, sonny rollins, etc., etc.) and was bird's pianist for the last four years of bird's life. as successful as walter was without being able to read, i know he was greatly relieved and very proud when he learned and learned well. i remember him saying how insecure and nervous he was during recording sessions when he was handed music. most people never knew that he didn't read! he ended up teaching lots of great/famous musicians after studying with hall overton and spud murphy and others. he was a great proponent of the "study of fourths" for which he wrote a book.

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    Compose /Arranger / Jazz Prod. Phil Kelly's Avatar
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    Acquiring mastery of your instrument(s) and developing a flawless ear for music are necessities to becoming a great jazz player.

    these skills are de facto essential.

    Learning to read music is a tool that will greatly broaden the number of situations you will be able to perform in, as well as enable you to share your own music with others in a convenient musical language.

    Many great players fall into a category where they CAN read "a little" ( or slowly ) and thus rely on a combination of this abridged reading ability and great ears to absorb new material.

    However, if one aspires to doing studio work, theatrical shows, and the like ( which DO pay well although not of a pure jazz nature. ), the ability to sight read fluently becomes a necessity.

    Interestingly though, both George Shearing and Stevie Wonder ( and I think the late Ray Charles as well ) CAN read music through a Braille system developed for that purpose.
    Swing ..or I'll kill you ( Bill Potts )
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    Not sure about Joe Pass... I know that he did originally learn to play by ear as a child, but he could have learned to read (maybe just chord charts - which brings this into the picture: some musicians can not read notes on a staff but can read chord or "number" charts).

    Wes Montgomery did not read music.

    I know that some artists can both play by ear and read music proficiently and this helps them out tremendously in their careers.

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    Off the top of my head:

    Wes Montgomery
    Erroll Garner
    Buddy Rich
    Dave Brubeck

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    Registered User Valerie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amy_N
    some musicians can not read notes on a staff but can read chord or "number" charts).
    combined with my very early classical piano studies, i learned the chords via the schillinger method from the institution which is now known as berklee but was schillinger house back then.

  11. #11
    Compose /Arranger / Jazz Prod. Phil Kelly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jazz_man
    Off the top of my head:

    Wes Montgomery
    Erroll Garner
    Buddy Rich
    Dave Brubeck

    Dave BRUBECK ??????

    sorry ..wrongo there ..Dave has written Masses for full chorus and orchestra as well as his early octet stuff.

    He also studied with Darius Mihaud ..
    Swing ..or I'll kill you ( Bill Potts )
    RIP

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    Well, my sight-reading "skills" are terrible and I need a total refresher -- any suggestions?

    I've had trouble reading music for a long, long time, and am an ear player, partly because a lot of what i do can't be notated and/or it's improvised anyway. But I *would* like to be able to get up to speed on something beyond rudimentary reading - and I don't have access to a keyboard, unfortunately.

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    www.jakehanlon.com Jakeweiser's Avatar
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    Wes Montgomery for the majority of his career did not read music, nor have any theory background. However he eventually learned the basics of reading music for guitar near the end of his life/career.

    I have read where Joe Pass said that he did not have sight reading skills but was familiar with the grand staff thus could notate things but was not a good sight reader. You can go through a long list of guitarists with poor or negligable reading skills (Wes, Charlie Christian to name some of the founding fathers). They were not an acception to the rule, a lot of musicians back in the 'good old days' did not read at the level that is needed today.

    A lot of guitarists in general were not and still aren't good readers, it's a bit of an unfortunately true sterotype. The average guitarist can't read nearly as good as the average pianist or saxphone player. That is a pedagoical inaccuracy with the instrument.

    I'm sure that if you went through the early years of Jazz you could find a lot of swing players on any instrument that could not read a note since a great number of them were not 'trained musicians' a lot of Basie's band members did not read and the band used riffs and headcharts for Blues and I got Rhythm tunes to create their repetior for a while in the beginning. Not to say that cats in Basie's band didn't read, but there were a good number of swing guys who did not read.

    Anyway Phil hit it on the head as per norm
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  14. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil Kelly
    Interestingly though, both George Shearing and Stevie Wonder ( and I think the late Ray Charles as well ) CAN read music through a Braille system developed for that purpose.
    Yep, Ray Charles read Braille music -- in fact, I recently found out that Louis Braille invented Braille music notation very early on:

    By 1828, he had found a way to copy music in his new code and eliminated the dashes.

    In 1829, at age 20, he published Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, his first complete book about his new system.
    (From How Braille Began.)

    But I wonder how many people can read Braille notation today, as a lot of younger blind people (who've grown up in the era of "talking books" and such) can neither read nor punch Braille.

  15. #15
    Player to be named later duaneiac's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil Kelly
    Dave BRUBECK ??????

    sorry ..wrongo there ..Dave has written Masses for full chorus and orchestra as well as his early octet stuff.

    He also studied with Darius Mihaud ..
    Well, this may sound like something from "Ripley's Believe It or Not", but yes Brubeck couldn't read music even while he was a music student at the College of the Pacific. "Brubeck advanced through the curriculum with mainly raw talent, and could not, in fact, read music when he graduated." (http://www.duke.edu/~smt3/brubeck2.htm)
    And people complain about America's poor education system today! Here you had a music major graduating from college in 1942 who couldn't even read music! I guess that explains why this Brubeck feller has been toiling in obscurity all these years!

    Some one will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe he learned to read music by the time he returned from the war to study with Milhaud at Mills College.

    Obviously the ability to read music is not an overwhelming obstacle in jazz (or probably in most other popular musics). Are there any notable classical musicians who could not read music? That would be truly remarkable. Sort of like an actor who cannot read learning to perform Shakespeare's works by ear.

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