Jazz or classical? why do we cross that bridge

Jazz or classical? why do we cross that bridge

An increasing number of classically trained string players, both students and professionals, are looking to express themselves outside of the boundaries imposed by the academic world.

Some are looking for a repertoire that will get them to connect with a wider audience, some are just curious or attracted by promises of a more exciting career… all of them, while looking for some more freedom of expression, at one point have to leave the comfort of the written score and the centuries old established conventions and embark into a new adventure…

… And that´s the moment when Jazz comes into play!

Why Jazz?

Let´s be honest here, Jazz is the safest first step for a classically trained musician for two simple reasons:

  1.  because it is still kind of tolerated by the academic world! That means that you can more likely be a jazz player without people thinking you suddenly lost all your classical “chops” (which in time means that you won´t get any classical gigs anymore).
  2. There is a lot of well-established classical musicians that tried it already (Yo-Yo Ma, Gidon Kremer, Frederich Gulda) nobody will burn you at the stake if you try it a little too!


Ok, now that we are safe what kind of Jazz are we going to try?

Of course nothing fancy (we just spent 2 years on a concerto page to prepare for orchestra auditions, there´s no need to complicate our life further) something like “autumn leaves” or some Piazzolla… the first sessions, maybe in a local bar and performed for little more than a plate of nachos, is a wonderful experience!

As a classically trained string player we had almost forgot how wonderful is to play for Non-musicians. To be given sincere and heartily compliments: this audience doesn´t care (or have no idea) if you missed a note. As long as you made them feel something they will be happy!

After a while, after this honey moon is over (mainly because of the realization that surviving on Nachos only is not a great life style) we realize that in order to play Jazz we have to abide to some pretty strict rules (otherwise we will never be even able to sit in a real Jam session with the pros):

We realize there is much to learn: a new language made of chord changes, modes, riffs, chops, vamps… every day the list goes on…


The question at this point becomes:

  1. Did we just trade a narrow cage of traditions for another, maybe bigger but still constraining?
  2. Is it even worth to study forth investing time and energy in a genre of music that hasn´t been popular for at least 50 years (because considered by the large audiences as” too complicated”) and doesn´t even fall into the kind of niche that our society considers “culturally relevant”?[1]


Well, I think this is a real crucial point that can be clarified only if we understand what was that “freedom” we were searching for really is: I am talking of course about Improvisation

Before we continue, let me first debunk a myth:

Improvisation wasn´t born in the smoky bars of New York´s 52 Street nor in the cotton plantation of the south!

its origins are lost in an ancient past were musical expression was regarded as the language of the immaterial world and a way to understand human emotions.

Mythical figures, poets, philosophers even statesmen; from Orpheus to Pythagoras, Boethius, Zarlino, Galilei (Vincenzo)… Before musical notation was even conceived, composers were improvisers using their craft to understand how the geometry of the ineffable world of sounds and emotions capable of influence mankind and the stars in the sky.

Eventually we get to what is widely considered the classical music era and, after some honest research, we have to admit that many masterworks that we thought had always been immutable, were either inspired from or just improvisations written down from some copyist[2].

Improvisation doesn’t mean “do whatever you want!”

it is instead a method, a mental process, that makes the musician being able to perceive an order where others cannot and then act on it through a process that meets half way between creation and tradition and it can be used in Jazz as well as in any other kind of music[3].

It is true: trading a cage for a slightly bigger one doesn´t make sense… And that´s why I believe that jazz (especially for classically trained string players) has to be one more step in the endless quest of the Artist to look for something new and meaningful and definitely the easiest way to awake priceless skills into students and future professionals in whatever musical context they will end up expressing themselves into.

Teaching patterns, leaks, it is of course very useful but it does not prepare the students for the “real life”. They need to understand, through improvisation, that music is a mean of communication and that if you forget the famous Joke “a Pop musician plays three notes in front an audience of thousands while a Jazz (or classical) player plays thousands of notes in front of an audience of three” you will never learn how to search for the important archetypal notes.

Well, here I think it is better to stop and get to a little practical example. Here is a video I took during an improvisation masterclass I was giving this summer…

“Perceive an order where others hear only noises”:

There was an annoying alarm that had been beeping for hours… my students wanted to get out of that room (who could blame them!) until I have asked them, as an experiment, to improvise on that idea: challenge their preconception and perceive that squeaky noise in a new way making it part of the jam session…and that changed everything!

ok, I think that´s it for now.

Just let me thank my students for their wonderful musicianship and hard work:

Dalai , Gemma,Irina and Tu (no website yet for him) you guys rocked!!!


Lucio Franco Amanti

MM Jazz studies and MM in cello

lives in Munich and since 2009 writes for Schott Music Editions


p.s. thanks to Fabio Calvelli for the wondeerful picture, I promise next shooting I will shave 😉





[1] if you have any doubt about Jazz perceived cultural value try to look into the copyright system madness: it seems to be based on the fact that an incomprehensible composition for 200 “prepared” kazoos is worth more than an improvisation on Coltrane´s “Giant Steps”… no idea why!

[2] The six bach´s cello suites just to name one example

[3] It can even be applied to general human interactions, but that´s another story…


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