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Mirroring Jazz History in Your Own Music

Jazz musicians are, by our very nature, historians.  You pretty much have to dig deep into the history of jazz in order to play the music at a high level.  It’s a great thing when jazz musicians go back and check out the music all the way from the beginning, to Louis Armstrong and even further back.  A lot of younger musicians I’ve noticed don’t want to do that.  The history of the music is really more than 100 years by now! That’s a lot of music to take in, and it’s understandable that some musicians wouldn’t want to go back to the beginning.

However, it’s to the detriment of our art form when it’s practitioners don’t want to check out the music.  I suggest going all the way back to Louis Armstrong.  It’s DEFINITELY important to hit bebop and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and all the beboppers from the 1940s, and the more modern jazz that has happened since the 1950s.  Bebop is STILL the common language, but I’ve noticed that a lot of younger jazz musicians haven’t really dealt with bebop yet.  And it shows in their playing.  You have to have an understanding of the common language to understand where the more modern improvisation language came from!

Miles is a great person to study.  He started off playing bebop with Bird.  Then he pioneered several other styles:  Cool, Modal, Fusion.  Miles even got into Free Jazz (though it’s debatable whether he was really a pioneer in the free jazz movement).

What if you spend time really diving into to all the different traditions of jazz, as a listener and as a player?  What could you learn?

Miles didn’t let his music get stale, but continued to develop his music through 5 decades of his career.  He always kept his signature sound, and it was always unquestionably Miles.  However, no other musician embodies the development of jazz history more than Miles Davis because his music transformed so many times.  He was unquestionably a pioneer.

But with all of his reputation for being a pioneer, don’t forget that Miles started with Bebop.  It’s the common language, and it’s pretty much a necessity for jazz musicians to deal with bop.  You can stay there, go modern, innovate, or just dive deep into the tradition.  You have lots of artistic choices!

What if you let your own music develop like the history of jazz, moving from the common language of Bebop, or even diving into the pre-bop eras of Swing or Dixieland, and letting things unfold from there?  Where would you start and how would you allow your music to grow?  Just some food for thought!

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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