Playlist For A Jazz Student’s JourneyPosted on October 10, 2012
As some of you may know, I have taken the past couple of years to *really* work on the swing / be-bop jazz area of my drumming. I have been playing jazz music actively, both for fun and for pay, for about 20 years now. However, I have always considered myself to be a very poor jazz drummer. When it comes to things like corporate events and wedding bands, my abilities in regard to a sort of vanilla, “wallpaper jazz” have served me well. But, if we're grading my skills and musicality in this style of music using the barometer of great jazz drummers like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Jimmy Cobb, then the drumming of Brian Stephens pales in comparison to those guys.
Since my late teens, I have learned hundreds of jazz standards and played them on scores of gigs, but I can't think of a time in my life when I truly studied the artform that is swing / be-bop drumming with a qualified, seasoned professional drummer who is both skilled in and revered by others in this style of music. Most of my training and study has either come from textbooks on independence (like the works of Jim Chapin and John Riley), casual hangouts with other drummers, or from simple osmosis of music, both from attending jazz concerts and in listening to jazz recordings. The rest of my education has actually come on the gig… not really the best place to learn something for the first time. As in learning any language, whether spoken or musical, this method of study is fine for short phrases and sound bytes, but it never gives the student any sort of deep, masterful understanding of the art found inside of the “conversation”.
So, in March 2010, I began taking regular lessons with an Atlanta-based drummer named Justin Varnes. Justin is currently the jazz drumset studies instructor at Georgia State University, and he plays around town with some great Atlanta jazz musicians including Kevin Bales, Mace Hibbard, Joe Gransden and Gary Motley. In the past, Justin has also worked with marquee jazz artists like Mose Allison, Kenny Baron, and Earl Klugh. To say that Justin *knows* this genre of music and plays it with a high level of musical mastery would be a gross understatement. The fact that his name was given to me by some great pro musicians that I regularly work with AND through glowing recommedations from several of his students (who are also working pros around town) just made this educational decision an easy one to make.
So, almost two years ago, I walked into Justin's office at Georgia State and did what any great musician *has* to do to improve and grow on their instrument. I put my track record and accomplishments aside, humbled myself, and became The Student to a very capable Teacher. Now, I have always considered myself to be an eternal student of the drums and of music in general. I have always had a regular, structured drum practice routine consisting of the content from method books, DVD's / videos, musical recordings & transcriptions of recordings, and material from past lessons I have taken both privately and in settings of more institutional-style education. The reason I am a better drummer now than I was a year ago (and light years beyond the drummer I was when I moved to Atlanta in 1995), is because of this ever-continuing education on my instrument of choice.
All that being said, becoming a blank slate to another drummer who is almost my same age was no small feat. I have done a few cool things and made a few dollars in music over the past 2 decades. So, I know a *little* bit about playing drums. Also, to say that I've been burned by other people's ego or personal agendas while inside the experience of private instruction would be a bit of an understatement. I do come with a little bit of baggage, both good AND bad. Long story short, I considered this to be a completely fresh start for both my drumming and my musical education.
That first 10 month-long period of private instruction and the subsequent 10 months of incubation, where I've been “shedding” this material and absorbing this music, have been nothing short of amazing. I feel like my personal, musical growth has been exponential. As I write this, I am preparing to undertake another long stretch of regular lessons and intensified, focused practice in hopes of taking things to some sort of “Next Level”. I am looking forward to the pressure cooker that is studying one-on-one with and being accountable to a great Teacher.
With Justin's help, I began compiling a playlist of jazz music “standards”. Along with adding mp3 versions to my iTunes library (and various digital music devices), I have also now started compiling them in a handy playlist on my YouTube channel. Many of them are songs I have played live in the course of my work as a working class, professional drummer. Most of them are considered to be the seminal versions of these historical songs. Several of them are live versions of tunes played by some of jazz music's great innovators. For others like me who are students of music, I hope it provides you with a great educational resource. If you're new to jazz music and don't know where to begin, this playlist can serve as a great “jumping off point”. If you are a long-time fan of jazz music or a musician who is stuck in an educational rut with regard to this style of music, I hope it serves as an entertaining, inspiring tool that leads you to your own “Next Level”.
[**NOTE: I will be updating and constantly adding to this playlist as I continue on my journey. So, keep checking back there for new songs and great performances by some of jazz's greatest musicians]
Enjoy! And feel free to share this playlist with your friends, fellow musicians, and any students that you may teach.