Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let's Wish This Iconic Jazz Educator a Happy Birthday, Starting in "1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4"

It started around forty years ago: A saxophonist, pianist and jazz educator realized that one important thing about learning to improvise was having access to a rhythm section. But he also realized that it's not always practical to get the rhythm section together at your house whenever you want to practice (as I always say, the drummer alone would eat you out of house and home). So Jamey Aebersold created the very first "play-a-long," which consisted of a record (again, this was 40 years ago) and accompanying book; what's now called Volume I has sold millions of copies worldwide and been translated into many foreign languages.

And it didn't stop there, of course. Aebersold now has over 125 volumes of play-a-longs (dealing with everything from the tunes in a single style, to the compositions of a single artist, to a specific chord progression, such as the blues or ii-V-I's), so much so that, even though other companies make similar products, the name Aebersold has become synonymous with play-a-longs in the same way that many people refer to all facial tissues as Kleenex, all sticky notes as Post-Its, or all large metal trash receptacles as Dumpsters (I've been known to refer to the other companies' play-a-longs as "Fakebersolds"). They're all sold not only in many retail music stores, but also at his own website, which he kindly named jazzbooks.com for the benefit of people who can't spell Aebersold.

(A lot of people can't pronounce it either--it's EH [rhymes with "pay"]-brr-sold--as I've found out from years of teaching, where students have called them Ambersolds (like the cold sore remedy?) and even Ambersofts [what was that guy thinking?]. But when I related this to Jamey when I ran into him at IAJE a few years ago, he trumped all those with the story of a club owner at a gig who had introduced him as "Jimmy Applesauce.")

Jamey is also known for his distinctive vocal cadence when counting off tunes on the play-a-longs: ONE, TWO, ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR. People have been known to ask him to do the famous incantation on demand, and it can even accidentally slip out as he checks a microphone before a clinic ("TESTING, ONE, TWO..."). Even those who have forgotten the name are likely to remember the voice.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Jamey has changed the face of jazz education. Seeing as how he's been a member of my fraternity for fifty years now, the national organization decided to honor him with its prestigious American Man of Music award (past winners of which include Clark Terry, Van Cliburn and Maynard Ferguson) at our convention last week. In return, Jamey did a clinic on "Anyone Can Improvise" (his pet subject since the first play-a--long came out), played as a guest artist at the convention's big band concert and hosted a jam session at the hotel afterwards. It was at his clinic that we found out he would be celebrating his 70th birthday today, and we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him during the concert.

Even though I didn't get to jam (It would have been hard to bring a horn since I was also toting the walker around), I still came home with a souvenir:

Me and Jamey

(Incidentally, the jam session was fun to watch, with lots of different instruments taking part--in addition to the usual menagerie of saxophones, I saw bassoon, bluegrass violin and two tubas go up there at different times. It was one time I really wish I had a horn with me--or even a mouthpiece, so I could beg my way onto someone else's.)

So happy birthday, Jamey! May your contribution to jazz education continue to grow--but for today, just kick back and bask in the glory of all you've done thus far.

Blowing out some more candles: I'll never forget Jamey's birthday now, since I figured out that he shares it with my brother-in-law. Happy birthday, Justin (and his twin Jef; what is it about today's birthday boys all having names that start with J?), and may you enjoy your upcoming vacation and the chance to get away from sun-scorched Central Texas for a while.

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