Jazz Professional               



The School


Oscar Peterson talking in 1963
The School
Happy with success
Oscar Peterson talking in 1976
Talking to Les Tomkins and Arthur Johnson in 1963

Of course, another important thing that has happened in your life since we last talked together is your school. This has now been underway several years, I believe.

Yes, it has. And it’s been very gratifying. I don’t know if we can completely continue this because it takes so much of our time. I’ve had all kinds of students at the school. They come and lay themselves bare in front of you and say: “Well, help me.” And you go to help them musically and, in my case, pianistically. Of course, I start back in the areas that I think they’re lacking in. Then like a doctor I do a sort of a musical diagnosis of their playing, what they’re missing and so forth—the things that they don’t have.

And I set out certain things for them to do. Often they’re very impatient with these things. They’ll do them, but they’ll do them with a sort of crass attitude—you know: “Well, he says to do it.” Eventually they reach a certain plateau where they can finally grasp a hold on the instrument and can actually see improvement. Until then they’re pretty hard to live with. They come through the halls crying; they don’t want to hear it; they’re going home, some of them; others are ready to commit suicide or become salesmen. You know, this is all part of growing. I’m sure there would be no kick in this if everyone could suddenly say: “Well, I think I’m going to be a jazz musician” and the next day could be the best jazz musician in the world.

Speaking for myself, some nights I become very analytical—not too much on concerts, but in night clubs where we have a chance of playing four or five sets a night. From set to set I become very analytical about my playing. At various times I’ve felt that I was in a chasm, so to speak and I started wondering: “Gee, when am I going to move out of this ; when am I going to step up?” I don’t know whether I hear repetition or I just don’t like the flow of ideas or the direction the ideas are going in. We may be off for two days, or a week, or six weeks, or two months or whatever it is. Then I come back and all of a sudden, for no reason at all, I’ll suddenly look up and there’ll be a different direction to my playing. And there it is—it’s part of growth. You can’t hurry it. It takes place when it’s ready to take place. You can enhance it in some ways by being ready for it technically and harmonically, but you can’t hurry it in other ways.

Some musicians I’ve spoken to have mentioned a sort of a feeling when they’re playing of a power outside of themselves, compelling them to play the way they play. Do you ever have any sense of that?

The only sense I have of that is of two powers outside myself—Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. And when the power is there—when I ask for it, and they come up with it—it’s up to me to be able to handle the car as I shift. And if I don’t—if I can’t handle it—then I get run over. It’s that simple.

Any musical power that I may or may not have comes from within. It’s a directional thing with me. I can sometimes walk in a hall and look at a piano and say: “I think I’ve got a mate tonight.” Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. Of course, as I said, Ray and Ed have a great bearing on this —because of what they do and when they do it and how they do it.

About five nights ago, I went into a tune and played the first introductory chorus to it, deciding to take a reflective approach to it. But somebody stepped down on the advance button and this overwhelmed me. I didn’t really intend to play that way, that particular chorus. I was going to build up to it. So I had to shift my whole feeling.

Ray calls this “being forced down into deep playing.” Sometimes it’s good —because with them playing the way they decided to play, if I’d continued my trend of thought it wouldn’t have meant anything with what they were doing, and vice versa. So I changed—and with changing that quickly I played completely different to the way I had intended to play.

So to that extent your music can be totally unpredictable as far as you’re concerned?

Well, I always say that when it becomes predictable it’s time to be a listener. I am not talking about arrangements now, but what we call at the school “instant composition”—or improvisation. When you start pre–setting everything, then you’re playing it the safe way. This is one point where this former argument of technique comes up. This is one thing that technical capability gives you. You’re not hamstrung with going a set way. In other words, if in the middle of a bar on the third beat I decide to turn the idea round, technically I don’t usually have to worry.

This is one of the things I teach at the school—that if you have the equipment ready, sharpened and honed, and you suddenly come up with an idea that you figure is the epitome of that whole chorus—and if it happens to be going in another direction or it has a different harmonic shape or a different technical shape—then if you have the equipment technically to cope with it, you can pull it off. If you haven’t, you just let it go by and walk off stage and say: “Boy, there’s something I thought of that if I could have played it . . . .”

How do you get your pupils at the school to start building their technique?

You know, so young is this jazz medium is, as yet there isn’t enough comprehensive material around for us to give students particular jazz exercises. I have a set that I use, of my own, which will be published at some given date. But there aren’t enough of them. Not enough musicians of our times have written these things, in the way that we’ve had past—masters sit down and write piano studies “ The Welltempered Klavier” and so forth. The art form is too young. It’s coming.

I always approach it from the aspect that you are basically still playing the piano. And if you can play the piano, then there is no major problem of shifting the diatonic system of technical comprehension around to suit your own selfish needs, coupled with whatever modern–day exercises I use. So consequently I have to refer back to the well–tried and true Czemy, Hanon, Dohnanyi and so forth.

You favour those Hanon exercises, do you?

I favour Czemy, actually. I go along with the Czemy for the simple reason that I think it’s a very linear type of exercise, which is the way that most pianists today play. And it’s a school of velocity. It gives you a certain amount of controlled power. You’re taught through learning these exercises to build a reserve which you can use at any given time. Because you start these exercises at a death–march pace and, even when you know them, take them from the death–march pace up to the highest possible velocity you can play them. And then back down, but evenly—somewhat as you do usually when you play “The Well—tempered Klavier.”

Do you have your pupils practising with a metronome?

Not all the time. I don’t always recommend a metronome because I like pupils to build their own sense of time, as opposed to listening for the tick–tack. If they have a time problem then I usually work with a metronome and make them spend some of their practice time with a metronome and a certain amount away from it. Then they can take from it and finally become independent of it altogether. You can’t always play with a metronome.

Could you give us an example of one of your favourite voicings?

We have a certain method of teaching a type of harmony at the school. Mind you, harmony and theory as such, theoretically speaking, is taught by Phil Nimmons in his class. However, the practical end of it—the application of this—is what I handle when they come to me for piano.

I find most pianists use too many notes in a chord. They double an awful lot. And the first voicing that I teach them is what I consider the most useful and the most moveable voicing. For instance, in a C major 7th you’re using C E G B. I make them delete the G from the right hand—say the right hand is playing those notes—and use it in the left hand, figuring that the bass player would be playing the C on the bottom to give you the C major 7th. Now, the idea also in that type of voicing is that most pianists, when they start, step all over the bass line.

How can one avoid conflicting with what the bass player is playing?

Well, you know, there’s one belief I have about playing piano—contrary to the way that many pianists think. They think we play from right to left. I don’t think we do. We play from left to right. We play off of the left hand.

In other words, the left hand usually sets the harmonic cluster which the right hand fulfils in a linear sense. Consequently, if you’re voicing chords, you voice them in the same way. If you are playing with a bass player he becomes the lowest part of any harmonic clusters or formations that you’re going to play. Therefore, if I’m voicing a C chord, I automatically voice it from the G—not from the root.

But, coupled with this in the school, the bass players are taught to play the necessary or the fundamental notes—what we call “the notes of importance.” Ray teaches them this. And this is one of Ray’s strongest points. There isn’t anything more annoying for a pianist than to arrive at what we call “a point of importance” which demands a root note from the bass player, C—and he’s wandering up around a B or an A or a G.

So this is how the studies are coupled. Ray teaches the bass players to play the important notes at the strongest points and I try to teach the pianists to voice from that note. So that when they come together the bass player, say, at the fourth bar automatically plays the C, if it calls for a C chord, and the pianist voices from the G upwards. This way there’s no clash. But the important thing first of all is to delete. Most pianists play too many notes in a cluster. You can only move that many notes around laboriously There are many arrangements where I have parts with Ray, for instance, just to give it a little more depth, or expand the sound a little. Because even though we’re both playing, say, Fs—the same F in the same register—there are two different instruments playing, with two different sounds—so it gives it a different resonance.

Turning to jazz piano effects—you can buy albums of various people’s solos, but there aren’t many examples of jazz piano effects actually printed and pianists want to know these things. Would it be possible to give some words of explanation on these—like the chord that sounds like a bloyp—you know, it’s not a straight chord—it seems to go bloyp?

A slur, you mean. Well, this is a pianist’s way of trying to enter the horn medium. Years ago I used to play trumpet—and this is one of the things I primarily missed when I first started back to the piano. And it’s our way of getting around it. The best way, I find, to accomplish this is—if you want to play, say, a Bb chord with an A on the bottom and an A on top. A Bb major 7th with the A doubled, so you have A Bb D F A. If you wanted to play that (this is the thing that Erroll Garner does in most of his playing), you would slur from the Ab down into the A, retaining the Bb, D and the F, you would slur the upper and the bottom notes. Actually, your first striking chord would be Ab Bb D F and Ab . The thumb and the fifth finger would slide down to the As.

So that’s the starting chord and it ends up on A natural?

With the Bb triad retained in the middle. There are a lot of effects like that pianists use. As their methods are printed, as we go along in this medium, more of these things will be put out.

Another interesting effect is the ‘fall’—not just a single—note fall, but a chord and the sound of the chord carried on.

That’s accomplished with the pedal. One of the things I teach is musical deception. It sounds as if the whole chord has been slurred down the keyboard. As the chord is struck, you lightly depress the sustaining pedal, then slur down with the thumb and restrike the chord on the bottom. That way the pedal sustains not only the slur but the original chord. Then if you want to get that quick an effect you can let up immediately on reaching the bottom.

So would you start with the thumb at the bottom of the first chord?

No. For instance, on an F chord, using A C D F A coming up—two hands. If I wanted to slur down to a Bb chord—A Bb D F A—say, from the treble, down an octave, I would strike this, my thumb would retain the C. The thumb is used where the point ofglissando begins. So you strike, drag the thumb, leaving the other fingers in position by dragging the thumb. And when you arrive you merely assume the next position.

It’s quite a simple thing, yet it must take some practice to make it sound as it should.

Well, at any kind of tempo, it’s the point of arrival that’s important. This one has to be struck almost as a sforzando—right? Then there’s the effect where you take a diminished chord going up in sequence, using the voicing that I was talking about. Let’s say you have B D F Ab going up in the right hand. Under my system you would take the F out to revoice it and put it in the left hand. This is the system that I spoke of with the major 7/th—the moveable voicing.

Now, by removing that F, you have a single line in the left hand. You’ve created a single line as opposed to one hand trying to play this way. If you move this to the next inversion it becomes D F B, with Ab in the left hand.

As a point of deviation harmonically, if you were to change one of those notes —say, raise the D a tone. That now gives you B E and Ab, retaining the F down below. Then in your next position going up you would have B G D in the right hand coming down, and Ab in the left hand. And you can do that all the way up the diminished scale. It just creates an altered tone within that progression. You’ve heard many pianists go up the diminished scale with that voicing, without knowing that this is what they’re doing. But then if you alter the middle tone and raise it one whole tone in every cluster as you move up, the second voice in the right hand goes up a tone every time. This is a very interesting thing to play, by the way, in sequence.

Anything that goes up by minor thirds sounds nice, doesn’t it? So the second voice in the right hand. . .

After it’s been voiced—you’ve taken it from the cluster and revoiced it. The rest of the chord retains its same shape. And to tie this together—you were talking about the gliss. The left hand remains the same—F Ab B, etc. If you run chromatically in between those, then it all ties together—using the right amount of pedal. The left hand is now a single line as opposed to being part of a cluster, so there you have a linear phrase in the left hand.

Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved