Do Jazz Musicians Practice?

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A common question that jazz musicians get asked is: do you still practice? And if so, then what do you practice? In jazz, don’t you just make stuff up anyway? In an art form that can seem mysterious to the uninitiated, allow me to put this issue to rest once and for all.

So do we practice? Of course we don’t. Practicing is a myth propagated by “jazz educators” to justify their wages, and also by the jazz community so that you, the listener, will treat us with disproportionate respect.

I mean, think about it: jazz is a spontaneous music, where the magic exists in the moment. What is it that jazz musicians do? We improvise! It’s no secret that we make it all up as we go along. So why bother practicing?

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Now, if we do a school workshop, you’ll definitely hear us say how hard we work and practice. That’s because when those kids grow up and get real jobs as doctors and lawyers, they’ll respect us and give us free consultations.

You’re probably asking: but you have to practice your instrument to be able to play, right? Sure…when you’re a kid. Of course you need someone to show you which end to pluck/blow/hit etc. But after that you’re on your own.

Don’t believe me? Then let me ask you this: have you ever seen a jazz musician practice? Exactly. A practicing jazz musician is a myth; like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or the clitoris: something we’ve all heard rumors of, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my time looking for one.

Yes, it’s true that the early masters like Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong practiced constantly. But that’s only because they didn’t have TV back then, let alone the wonders of the internet. I ask you: why would I practice when I can jump on YouTube and watch a video of a dog surfing? A dog. Surfing. And it’s not just dogs. Go deep enough on YouTube, and you’ll find a veritable Noah’s ark of animals hanging ten. What a truly golden age we live in.

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And YouTube is just one of many pursuits that can swallow up one’s practice time. Have you ever tried writing cynical yet hilarious articles about jazz every month? It’s exhausting.

Charlie Parker is quoted as saying, “Practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” I say: if you’re going to go on stage and forget it all, why bother learning it in the first place? Maybe if he didn’t spend all that time practicing, he could have come up with some better sayings.
But for those sticklers of tradition out there who feel they should practice something to feel some useless sense of purpose, here’s what you do:

1. Put on a recording of your favorite musician.
2. Buy a full length mirror.
3. Hold your instrument in a cool way and pretend to play along.

Sax players: play the sax with just one hand and run the other slowly through your hair.

Drummers: just practice juggling your sticks. (Then watch a video of Lionel Hampton and get depressed.)

Bass players: don’t bother practicing. Use the time to catch up on sleep from working three gigs a day. (Or if you’re really studious: try playing those top two strings to hear what they sound like.)

Trumpet players: repeatedly bang your head against a wall. This won’t improve your playing, but it will give you some idea of how the audience feels when you point your trumpet at them.

Piano players: get on YouTube and watch videos of adorable cats playing the piano. They’ll get more online views that you ever will, so don’t even bother trying to get better.

Vocalists: practice making smoochie faces while holding a hairbrush like a microphone, and spend the rest of your practice time shopping for pants.
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I hope this has helped dispel this long propagated myth of jazz musicians and practice. The early masters did all the hard work already. Relax and enjoy it. Why bother practicing for hours just to sound like Benny Goodman? Benny already did all the hard work to sound like Benny. Wait…you want to sound like yourself? Well, that’s a whole other story…


Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. Adrian Cunningham was voted in a 2017 Hot House Jazz Magazine readers’ poll the Best Alto Sax Player in New York. His most recent album is Duologue, issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit him on the world wide web: www.adriancunningham.com.

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