I have to admit that when I was in college, studying classical trombone, I looked down my nose at the jazzers. Maybe college has changed these days, but back in the dark ages, when I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois (1984-1988), there were clear factions in the music school. We classical musicians tended to dismiss jazzers as an inferior species, and I'm sure the jazzers held some similar notion of us. I had a small taste of the jazz world, playing bass trombone in some of the jazz bands, but I was never a full fledged member. Although I held myself in higher regard than those mere jazz mortals, I was secretly jealous of their ability to improvise.
It took living in the real world to figure out that neither kind of music is "better." It's all a matter of taste and preference. As Ellington said, there are only two types of music: good and bad.
In my experience, the biggest difference between classical and jazz is improvisation. There can be a certain amount of improvisation in classical music, but nothing like what you'll find in jazz. In small instrumental settings, the improvisation is often more important than the original melody. The emphasis is on the process of making music. The classical composer sits down and writes out the music in detail. When you listen to a live jazz performance, you're witnessing the musicians make it up as they go along. Sometimes they bomb, and sometimes it's pure magic. To me, playing jazz is often like stepping off a cliff and trusting that a bridge will appear.
There is less emphasis on music reading for jazz players. This can be a detriment. I've heard some jazz players joke that they read just enough so that it doesn't get in the way. Frankly, this sounds like an excuse for not learning to read as well as you could. I've never heard a good sight-reader complain that they read too well. Classical musicians, on the other hand, read extremely well. Their job is to stick to the script, playing the music note for note, with all the correct rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and anything else that's written. If you're a jazzer, you can get away with not being a good reader if you only play in small group settings, where you're expected to play around with the melody and make up your own accompaniment, but if you're going to play in a big band, you're going to need to be able to read, and that goes for guitar players, too. Even though I haven't been playing guitar very long, I'm the first call sub for a couple big bands in Atlanta, simply because I can read down the parts.
Although I'm a jazz guitar player now, I still draw on my experience as a classical trombonist. Sight-reading is probably the best example. Guitar players tend not to be very good readers, but this is my greatest strength. There are plenty of guitar players in town who can play faster, know more licks, and have a bigger repertoire, but I'd wager there are very few who can sight-read like I can. I've only been playing guitar for six years. Eventually, my technique is going to catch up with my reading ability. When it does, watch out!
Ironically, even though I reached a much higher level of playing on the trombone than I have reached thus far on the guitar, I'm a better improviser on the guitar than I ever was as a trombone player. Maybe I was too uptight as a trombonist. I was afraid of sounding bad, and when you're learning to improvise, you're going to sound plenty bad for a while. When I first started learning how to improvise on the guitar, I already knew I was going to sound bad at first, so it didn't matter. My self-consciousness was gone, and I simply allowed myself to sound bad until I started sounding better!
Whatever differences there may be in the music, I've found both classical and jazz musicians to be the same in one respect. For the most part, the musicians I've met are friendly and generous of spirit. It doesn't matter if you're donning a tux or a beret, reading note for note or playing it loose. What matters is that you play to the best of your ability, be supportive of whoever is playing the melody, and sing out with all your heart when it's your turn to lead. Classical or jazz, if it sounds good, it is good.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.