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A Secret to Playing Jazz that People Don’t Talk About Enough

As musicians, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for an easy fix, a shortcut to greatness.  If I just knew… (fill in the blank for shortcut designed to turn you into Sonny Rollins).

Sonny didn’t have any shortcuts because there aren’t any.    There is not an easy shortcut that is going to instantaneously transform you.  It’s a long, slow process.  You just have to put in a ton of time.  A.  TON.  OF.  TIME.  Doing the right things.  Practicing isn’t a secret.  Everyone talks about it.

According to legend, Bird put in 11-16 hour days practicing.

Trane practiced 11-15 hours a day, according to jazz lore.

So what was the secret to the genius of Bird?  Trane?

Was it the practicing?  Sure.  We ALL know that!

But beyond the practicing, is there more to it?  Certainly.

Think about the phenomenal, unprecedented scene that these guys were a part of in New York during the 1940s-60s.  There was a thriving jazz SCENE.  The musicians were going out to hear other musicians, and there was a ton of music happening all the time.  They were constantly, relentlessly making each other better.  After the gig, they’d go out to the late-night jam.

Unfortunately, a real jazz “scene” seems to be getting harder to find.  The musical, social, and economic conditions of New York City in the 1940s-60s ignited a powerful, unique scene that the world will never see again.

That being said, there can be new scenes.  New York still has a great jazz scene, it’s just different than it was.  There are other cities with good scenes as well.

Some smaller towns can even develop thriving jazz scenes.  If there isn’t a jazz scene that has organically developed in your city, sometimes all it takes is just a few key people who care.   I’ve heard great things about the jazz scene in Tucson, AZ, for instance.  Tucson is a substantial city, but it’s way smaller than some other thriving jazz scenes.  From everything I’ve heard, Tucson has people who care and just do their best to create a scene where they live.

Being a part of a jazz scene is one of the single most helpful things for progressing as a jazz musician.  Jazz is an apprenticeship.  If you are truly serious about the music, you need to find a time in your life when you are hanging around a thriving jazz scene.  A scene with different kinds of players participating and all helping each other: some seasoned, great players; some journeyman determined to improve and looking to make their way; and also some serious but inexperienced players who still have a lot of work to do.  You don’t need to be the best player to learn something, and in many regards the best thing you can do is be the worst musician on stage.

There is an approximation of a jazz scene in many educational institutions of higher learning (read:  Who Hijacked the Jazz Economy?) but being cloistered in a school is a far cry from having a multi-generational jazz scene based around jazz clubs.  There is nothing wrong with jazz schools, but a scene is at its best when it is connected to the clubs.  If there isn’t a club scene, then approximate it somehow.  Make your own opportunities if you have to.

If there isn’t already a jazz scene in your area, you have two options to becoming part of a scene.  You can move, or you can work to create one.  If you don’t want to move, then ask what you can do to create a scene where you are.   Not everyone needs to move to New York.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is to contribute to your local jazz scene.  If moving to New York is your goal and that’s what you want to do to grow as a musician, why not?  There’s definitely an established scene there. But not everyone wants that.  Jazz is community music though, and the music thrives when there is a community of players and listeners.


Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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