Review of Jazzmaster Cookbook

"JazzEd" by Scotty Wright of JAZZ NOW magazine

I remember reading an article about jazz in which the writer compared the music to food. As I recall, the challenge of improvisation was likened to conceiving, preparing, cooking and serving a gourmet meal instantly at the dinner table with the guests assembled and waiting.

It should come as no surprise, then, that someone came up with a Jazz Cookbook. No, I don’t mean a cookbook featuring food recipes of jazz artists, like the one from Concord Jazz. And we all remember the “Jazz Cooks” dinner concert series, cleverly produced by Herb Wong (reviewed in our Sept. 94 issue).

No, this, my friends, is a Jazz cookbook, designed to create more master chefs like Rollins, Marsalis, Vaughn, and Flanagan who are capable of handling the seemingly simple campfire-dinner-for-one of solo performance, or creating banquets in large bustling kitchens like those of Ellington, Basie, and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.

Jim Grantham, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, has developed this course, combining jazz theory and improvisation with a practice regimen called the “Jazzmaster Workout” into one volume and named it the Jazzmaster Cookbook. It is quite possibly the finest do-it-yourself jazz course I’ve ever seen. In my opinion, the Cookbook succeeds at every course of the meal, but I must point out a few things that separate it from similar efforts:

Basics: One of the first textbooks on Jazz improvisation was the Jazz Improvisation series, by John Mehegan, written during his tenure at Juilliard school of music (1947-1956). Mehegan’s series in terms of its detail, its thoroughness, and its longevity, has been the standard for jazz improvisation for years, but it has one major flaw. Mehegan, since he was teaching at one of most prestigious music schools in the country, assumed all his students read music fluently. His job, therefore, was to introduce the philosophies, concepts and techniques peculiar to jazz, prodding his students to rethink their approach to musical performance.

Grantham, however, knows full well that many of his benighted students using the Cookbook don’t read music well, if at all. Consequently, he has started his course with elementary concepts of music reading, assuming nothing about the training of the reader, yet building upon those concepts in such a fashion that even an intermediate student will not skip Chapter I, but will reconfirm his present knowledge of those concepts, applying them to what follows.

Vocabulary: Ever notice that in textbooks (and in classrooms) things are never what they’re called in the real world? Computers, cars, social work, dance and fashion all have their own languages. So does music, especially jazz, whose lingo has entered the language of mainstream culture as early as the 1940’s.

Grantham has addressed this language barrier with copious definitions and synonyms, so a student can understand the terms and phrases she hears faster than those of us who hung out in clubs for years feeling like Alice trying to decipher the codes of this Jazz Wonderland. (Hey you veterans, how many jam sessions did it take to learn what ”around the horn” or “Trane it” mean?)

At first, I was disappointed that there was no actual glossary for reference. In retrospect, I see that the author has forced the student to learn these terms in context, gaining explicit, not implicit knowledge. Thanks Mr. Grantham, for not giving Jazz another horde of under-prepared neophytes who can’t walk their talk.

Melody: More than anything else, the jazz improviser is challenged to create a musically logical, emotionally valid melody spontaneously. Grantham respects this tenet as the cornerstone of good jazz. He never gives the student the easy out of memorizing licks, practicing quotes from recordings of masters, or running scales over a set of changes and calling it a solo. Instead, Grantham, constantly stresses thought, not reflex: listening, not pre-conception; design, not cliches.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect: Something I always emphasize in my school assemblies and clinics is that this fallacy must be abolished and replaced with a slightly altered, infinitely truer version; Perfect Practice makes perfect. Doing something incorrectly over and over won’t make it better. Only a system of graduated exercises and drills with careful attention to progress will yield positive results.

I believe that the Cookbook would still have been very good with just Section I. But rather than leaving his students to develop their own practice system, Grantham has devised the “Jazzmaster Workout,” and what a workout it is!

Chords, scales, guide tones, tonal centers all have detailed study exercises. Better yet, all the exercises in the book are in the key of C; the student must transpose them to the other eleven keys. We’re talkin’ serious time in the shed!

These are but a few of the reasons why I highly recommend the Jazzmaster Cookbook. As with the best of jazz (and life), the little things mean so much: song forms, chord shorthand, a basic list of standards, arrangement devices such as turnarounds and vamps, big use of the page’s margins to summarize adjacent paragraphs. So many little things add up to one great book, a great tool for teachers and students, a great triumph for Jim Grantham, and a great asset to Jazz Education.

Scotty Wright, Jazz Now   Jan. 1995