Kings of cool

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Hugh John rhapsodises about a multimedia guide to jazz piano

There's a lot of prejudice towards jazz piano because people think you just sit at the piano and make it up, but there is a lot of study, a lot of contemplation, a lot of listening that goes in. If you don't listen, you can't do it."

So says Julian Joseph, acclaimed British jazz pianist and broadcaster who provides comment and technical analysis on Cool Keys, a multimedia guide to jazz, improvisation and, more specifically, the jazz piano. There's no guarantee that anyone who buys Cool Keys will end up playing jazz piano as well as Joseph but, young or old, they will certainly enjoy learning and, possibly, develop a real understanding of the jazz tradition.

Cool Keys is the result of collaboration between the Music Entertainment of the BBC, BBC Education, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Yamaha-Kemble, the Arts Council, and Jazz Services.

The resource pack comprises a 60-minute video presented by musician Jools Holland, and a booklet with a precis of the video and suggestions for its use in class. There are seven projects of varying difficulty and 13 photocopiable worksheets prepared by pianist, composer and teacher Will Michael. Finally, there is also a CD with almost an hour's worth of musical illustrations of bebop, 12-bar blues, reggae, walking bass, chord sequences and "grooves" or backing tracks that students can use to support their improvisations.

Producer and project manager Kate Walker, of BBC Education, says: "As a former music teacher I quickly learned that jazz is not an easy thing to teach. Jazz and improvisation don't sit neatly in educational boxes."

It's to the credit of Kate Walker and educational advisers Professor Charlie Beale of the Associated Board and Tony Knight of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that the learning material is stimulating and pertinent. And while most of the talking heads may not be known to many children there are clips of younger musicians at work, notably Tomorrow's Warriors and Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra.

The material is intended mainly for key stage 3 and 4 students but, as Michael points out, some of the later projects are quite advanced and will take students into AS and A-level territory. The CD, for example, progresses from straightforward rock and swing grooves to right-hand improvisation over a walking bass line and bebop chord changes.

Jazz fans will certainly find the video riveting and are likely to view it at one sitting. It includes footage from the BBC archives that illustrate the development of jazz, as well as techniques employed by pianists such as Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. The latter is also featured in performance, along with Willie "The Lion" Smith, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, George Shearing and Herbie Hancock. There are interviews with a range of popular music figures, including one with Paul McCartney where he explains the joy of discovering new chord developments.

It borders on the curmudgeonly to criticise such a praiseworthy venture but - even given the constraints on time and space - one wonders at the omission of a number of hugely influential pianists: Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, for example. Given Holland's love of stride and boogie - and the emphasis on blues-derived chord sequences is understandable - mention could still have been made of popular song and the way in which artists such as Evans and, later, Keith Jarrett have reworked many of the Broadway standards. One might also have expected at least a passing nod in the direction of the avant-garde and more extreme interpreters of the jazz tradition such as Cecil Taylor.

Overall though, these are piffling complaints. Cool Keys deserves a place in every music department. It's also coming to a venue near you. Yamaha-Kemble has announced plans to hold 40 roadshows around the country, each one supported by two accomplished jazz pianists and offering students the opportunity to try out some of the material on the keyboards provided.

It's tempting to suggest that the roadshow should be introduced with the observation - which can be seen on the video - made by the great Ray Charles: "If you're gonna deal with music, it's the same as sports or any other endeavour for that matter, you must practise. That's the hard part to get young people to do. They wanna do it, but they don't realise there's a price to pay."

Now that's a wisdom that will reverberate long and hard with music teachers everywhere.

Cool Keys costs pound;24.99 (including VAT and pamp;p) from Cool Keys, PO Box 50, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 7EZTel: 01937 840206For information about the Associated Board Cool Keys workshops contact the marketing departmentTel: 020 7467 8254Email: Learning Zone Board of the Royal Schools of Music Arts Council of England

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