The old saying "seeing is believing" doesn't necessarily apply to jazz. Instead, jazz has an aural tradition of learning by listening. When jazz records became available in the 1920s, musicians would actually slow down the speed of the records so they could hear the exact notes and phrases being played. In essence, the recordings became "text books" that were, in turn, studied by aspiring players. Combining this tradition with improvisation - the hallmark of jazz - players were able to spontaneously create musical compositions and successive generations of musicians have since propelled jazz forward without ever having learned to read music, but rather by simply "having a good ear."
Erroll Garner, the legendary jazz pianist who composed the famous tune, "Misty" never learned to read music. For him, that skill was overrated and he was once quoted as saying, "Man, nobody can hear you read."
Art Tatum, considered by many to be the greatest jazz pianist of all time, was blind in one eye and had only very limited vision in the other. Learning to play "by ear" at the age of three, Tatum was proof positive that playing piano and improvising could be learned by listening. While a system of notating music for the blind (Braille) has been used for more than a century, good ears are essential to becoming a jazz musician. Listening is not only how artists learn to play, but is also an absolute necessity for a player who wants to spontaneously interact with improvising band mates. If you can't hear (or won't listen to) what other players are saying in an improvised "musical conversation," you won't be asked to play again with the band.
At this year's Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day Weekend, we will feature more than two dozen top jazz musicians including pianist Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is an alumnus of the 2003 Vail Jazz Workshop and is now an established professional jazz musician. Justin began playing the violin and piano at a very early age and learned to read music. Blind at the age of 11, Justin switched to jazz piano and began performing professionally by age 15. Justin has since won many honors and has performed at some of the top jazz venues in the country such as the Blue Note, Village Vanguard, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, Jazz Standard and Blues Alley, to name a few.
I hope to see you at the 18th Vail Jazz Party this weekend to celebrate all these great musicians from around the country!
Howard Stone is the rounder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival, taking place now through Monday.