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Jessica Valiente, Flutist
A classical flutist branches out
By Jessica Valiente; Drawing courtesy Elaine Kazimierczuk
I don’t think of myself as a jazz musician. I consider myself to be a classical musician with a broad skill set that includes jazz improvisation. But I have sometimes overheard colleagues describe me as “a jazz flutist,” and a lot of my performance work is in the local jazz scene, so maybe it’s time to embrace that identity. More importantly, the journey from strictly-classical to classicaland-jazz-and-more flutist taught me many useful lessons about life and music. I would like to share some of these lessons with all of you aspiring young flutists who are considering the road that lies before you.
The Journey Begins
My story begins in the early 1990’s, just a few years after finishing my Master of Arts in Music Performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College (City University of New York). I reconsidered my life plan: rather than taking symphony auditions and pursuing a full-time symphony position, I was going to assemble a career that combined freelancing, travel, and teaching. I realized that to have a rewarding freelance career in New York City, I would need a larger skill set than my classical training had provided. I decided the first thing I needed to do was to study jazz. Whenever I met musicians working in jazz, theater, or commercial styles, they had all had jazz studies as part of their musical training. Jazz skills were what I needed. At the time, I didn’t realize what a Pandora’s Box I had opened, but I began.
I was very fortunate to have grown up in a household where jazz had been on the family stereo most of the time. My parents were huge jazz fans, and they both grew up in New York City during the heyday of bebop. My father had amassed a large collection of jazz records that rivaled the collections of most libraries. This was a good foundation. And yet, even though I had been saturated with the sounds of jazz since childhood, my father began to copy some “mix tapes” for me (that’s a 90s thing; millennials, ask your parents). He selected classic tunes and artists from among the vinyl records in his collection. He thought I should listen to the major repertoire in a more focused way. He gave me a great start.
Living in New York City, I was surrounded by jazz venues; from humble Harlem neighborhood watering holes to elite Greenwich Village jazz clubs, I could hear live jazz every night of the week, if I wanted to. I began to go out to listen to music, and this inspired me to ask questions about what I was hearing. I was fortunate in that a lot of the musicians out there—even some world-class players—already knew me as a classical freelancer. We shared mutual, professional respect. They were happy to talk to me. Little by little, I learned scales, chords, and songs, most of them scribbled on cocktail napkins. A few musicians were nice enough to tell me about community-based jazz education programs where I could study improvisation and find people to play with me. Financially, returning to school to enter a formal degree program in jazz performance was not an option for me, so these community-based programs were a lifeline.
These workshops and programs gave me insight into what I should be practicing at home, and it was mostly scales, scales, scales. There were also patterns (arpeggios for playing through chords), and “licks” (short, commonly-used musical phrases). Jazz musicians are fluent in many more scale types than the typical classical musician; these are necessary to navigate jazz harmonies during improvisation. The scales and patterns create a technical foundation for developing improvisation ideas. Jazz musicians often refer to improvisation and performance as a kind of conversation. The scales, patterns, and licks give you the vocabulary you need to join in that conversation.
Becoming an Insider
As I continued my studies, attended performances, and went to jam sessions, more and more of my social life was centered around New York City’s jazz scene in the 90s. There I made my closest friends and I met my husband, jazz trombonist Rick Faulkner. These close friends gave me the most valuable inside information: learn some piano voicings and play through songs at the piano; take a jazz ear-training workshop; write out solos to work out your concepts and ideas; transcribe the solos of great performers to learn how jazz works.; play with play-along CDs for practice; listen, listen, listen…
And then, about two years into this process, the owner of a small jazz club in my neighborhood gave me a gig. I did not deserve that gig. I was not ready for that gig. Let me tell you, that would never happen today. The scene is so much smaller and so much more competitive now; the most accomplished artists battle each other every day for terrible, unworthy jobs. But in those days, it was enough to be young, cute, and a good flutist. I had managed to talk my way into a steady gig at a recognized jazz venue. I assembled a quartet of young jazz musicians from the conservatory up the street, and we played there two nights a week for four years. That was the best jazz education I could have ever hoped for; most of my best learning was on the job. I was very lucky.
What did I achieve with all this? First, I want to make sure you know that I did not abandon classical music. Far from it. I continued to freelance in both chamber music and local orchestras, and take musical theater tours. But my new skills in jazz led me to other mu-
sical styles that interested me and that are now part of my career: Latin jazz, Latin dance music, and Brazilian music. In a practical sense, studying jazz opened work opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. But even better, it introduced me to a world of fascinating, accomplished performers whose backgrounds were very different from mine. It presented me with countless possibilities for artistic creativity and exciting collaboration. I met some really cool musicians!
You Can Do It, Too!
So, maybe you’re interested in studying jazz; maybe for some of the same reasons, or maybe for your own reasons. You’re immersed in classical music study, either with a private teacher or in a college music program. How can you make this transition or add it to your musical development?
As I said before, start by listening. We are living in a great time for anyone who wants to find music to listen to. YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify are all your friends. Begin with the classics: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Benny
Goodman, Oscar Peterson… and great flutists like Yusef Lateef, Frank Wess, and Hubert Laws. This is only a short, select list, there are so many more great jazz musicians. If you have friends who are jazz musicians or jazz students, ask them for listening recommendations. Maybe some will even make you a playlist (we had our mix tapes, you have your playlists!). If you live in or around Chicago, your city also has a thriving jazz scene. You should take advantage. If you live in a more suburban or rural area of Illinois, Michigan, or Wisconsin, check the local colleges and universities. They may present jazz concerts. Get on their mailing lists, and go out to hear some live music.
If you are young and in high school or college, you’re lucky. You have access to many more options than I did, given my own late start. For high school students, check out your school jazz band. While most take big band instruments only (saxes, trumpets, trombones, rhythm section), some classes are open to all instrumentalists. If that’s the case, then sign up! You can also look for a private teacher who teaches jazz improvisation. It’s best if your current private flute teacher can do this, but if not, you may be able to find a local jazz teacher. They may be willing to let you study with them every other week or once a month, if a weekly improvisation lesson is too much to add to your weekly flute lessons.
If you are in conservatory or in a college music performance program, check out what your department offers. Many music departments offer an introductory improvisation course for non-jazz majors. If your school doesn’t offer anything like that, you may be able to add a supplementary private lesson studio in jazz improvisation, or you might even be able to work out something with one of your classmates. Saxophone players are a great resource. They are usually required to learn to play the flute reasonably well. You may be able to work out a deal to trade flute lessons for improvisation lessons.
If music school is not part of your current plan, there are other opportunities. Chicago and the surrounding areas have community-based music schools, and some include jazz programs and jazz teachers. You can search for your own private teacher, or you can even work on your own. Begin with the jazz studies books of David Baker and Mike Longo. Begin practicing the scales and patterns to get them in your fingers. Then invest in some playalong CDs or tracks. The most popular play-along series is published by Jamie Aebersold Jazz. These are available as hard-copy books and CDs, or as download PDFs and MP3s from a variety of online retailers. There are dozens and dozens of volumes, one for virtually every major jazz composer and style. The first five volumes address the basics of improvisation; they are a great place to start.
When you’ve been listening and practicing for a while, and you’re feeling confident improvising on the blues and some essential repertoire, try attending a jam session. The first few times you attend, you may want to just listen. While you are listening, make a list of the songs that they play. This is your homework list. Those are the next songs you want to study at home. Memorize them. When you feel confident improvising on those, you are ready to ask to play the next time you go.
Earlier, I mentioned some other valuable activities that will help you develop as a jazz musician: transcribe solos (write them out on manuscript paper as you listen to them) by great jazz musicians and great jazz flutists. You can also write out some solos of your own, to the songs that you are studying. These two activities will help you understand the traditional vocabulary and to work out your own concepts.
These steps are just the beginning of the journey. There is a long way to go before you reach your destination. Take these steps, and I promise you that along the way, you will meet others who will point you in the right direction, and will show you the next steps to take. Jazz is a lifetime of study. Jazz is a life. It is a rich, rewarding life, immersed in America’s most enduring art form.