Monday, July 26, 2010

My Lesson with Eddie Henderson

Finally, my first lesson for the blog!

I've long been a fan of trumpeter Eddie Henderson. In addition to being a creative improviser, I've always admired his crisp, clean attack and dark, centered trumpet sound. Henderson's notes really pop, giving him a rhythmic intensity that reminds me quite a bit of Freddie Hubbard. This clean, controlled approach to jazz trumpet playing gives him the ability to play fast, fluid passages with a high degree of clarity. 
I recently ran into Eddie at a gig I was playing at Smoke and asked him for a lesson. He was very gracious and we set up a time. A couple of weeks later, I jumped on the Metro North to visit his apartment in Mamaraneck. Before I talk about what I learned, I should talk a little about his career for those of you who aren't familiar with his playing.

Born here in New York City in 1940, Eddie Henderson came up in a family connected to the jazz world. His mother was one of the dancers in the original Cotton Club and his father sang with the popular vocal act, Bill Williams and the Charioteers. On top of that, his stepfather was a doctor to jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. If that's not enough of a head start in jazz, Eddie got to take his very first trumpet lesson at age 9 from none other than Louis Armstrong!

u would think with a background like that, Eddie would be destined for a life in jazz. But like a lot of young people in the arts, he went in pursuit of a "real job" and ended up in the Air Force for three years. Then he enrolled at U.C. Berkeley, graduating with a B.S. in zoology in 1964. He followed this with med school at Howard University in Washington, DC, but his passion for playing jazz never left him. In fact, he regularly drove up to New York on the weekends during med school to hang at Freddie Hubbard's house and practice with him. He'd tag along with Hubbard to his gigs on Saturday night and then get up and and go to Lee Morgan's house to practice with him on Sunday. It's one thing to know these great trumpeters and to hear them play, but to actually practice with them must have been incredible. In my eyes, this makes Eddie Henderson an invaluable resource pedagogically speaking. Fortunately, Eddie showed me some of the things he saw these guys shedding (more on that later).
After med school, Eddie moved back to the west coast to do his medical internship and residency, all the while continuing to practice and gig. It was then that he landed a gig with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band that lasted for three years. The experience changed his life and opened doors to gigs with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner. At this point, he realized he had built a significant career as a jazz musician. While he kept practicing medicine part time for a while, he has now devoted himself solely to music and continues to play in New York and all over the world.

Although Eddie came up playing straight-ahead jazz, he made his first splash on the jazz scene as a sideman on Herbie Hancock's Sextant recordings. Therefore, it was natural that he would continue along this trajectory in his early solo recordings. 
These days, he's playing mostly straight-ahead and sounding as great as ever:

Now on to the lesson! As I mentioned, I've always loved Eddie's attack on the trumpet, so that was the first thing I asked him about. I thought maybe he has some special way of tonguing that gives him that pop I mentioned. As it turns out, he just uses a regular classical attack behind the front teeth. He practices this articulation with tonguing exercises, all the while thinking of the syllable "tah." Of course, this is straight out of trumpet fundamentals 101. But in an effort to vary our attacks or to play fast, a lot of jazz players lose site of proper tonguing technique and end up articulating everything a "da" sound, which can make your playing sound a little wimpy and rhythmically bland. This idea of sticking to fundamentals ended up being the main theme of my lesson with Eddie. He reinforced the idea that there are no tricks or shortcuts to trumpet playing.

We started off by talking about trumpet playing in general. Pretty much all of Eddie's philosophies on trumpet playing fall right in line with mine. Here are some bits of knowledge he discussed that might help you with your own practicing:

  • Practice every variation of tonguing imaginable from single to double to triple to doodle-tonguing. While we obviously don't use double or triple tonguing that much in jazz, it's great for technique because it helps with tongue coordination as well as embouchure control.
  • The key to practicing effectively is to play softly. In order for your embouchure to work correctly, the aperture must be in a position so that the slightest bit of air will create a buzz. If you have to blow hard to get a sound, your embouchure isn't working efficiently. Playing soft is the ultimate cure for this problem.
  • Practice in 20 to 25-minute increments. You always want to approach the trumpet feeling fresh. If you practice for too long, you'll become fatigued and start to make subtle adjustments to compensate. That will eventually lead you down the path to playing with bad habits. Eddie reminded me that the Orbicularis Oris muscles that we use to play the trumpet are paper thin and abusing those muscles can have serious consequences later in your career. (The man is a medical doctor, so you have to take that advice seriously.)
Like the trumpeter that I am, I had to ask Eddie about how he approaches range and endurance. Again, he emphasized practicing at a soft volume. This was something he learned directly from the master of the stratosphere himself, Jon Faddis. Faddis recommended practicing long tones, tonguing exercises and eventually lip slurs at a whisper volume, and moving them up chromatically to the limit of your range. Slowly but surely, you will increase the your range by pushing yourself to higher and higher notes, never going on until you've mastered the note before. It's no different than a body builder who has to work up from low weights to huge barbells. Eddie claimed he dramatically improved his range in a relatively short amount of time using this method. Once these notes began to come easily at a soft volume, it was just a matter of adding more air to give them more volume. But the key, he said, is to relax, not tense up over high C and to be stingy with your air.

Next we talked about improvising. Eddie gave me a packet of information he had put together called "Trumpet Jazz Techniques" that covered most of the basic information required to be a fluent improviser. Again, Eddie emphasized the fundamentals. First and foremost an improviser must know the following scales in all keys: Major, relative, harmonic and melodic minors, chromatic, diminished, whole tone and pentatonic.

Of course, scales alone are just the first step. They are merely building blocks for ideas, much in the same way that the alphabet alone will not help someone speak a language. The next step is to learn how the letters in the alphabet (or notes in a scale) can assembled to form musical ideas. The most important way to do this is to transcribe licks from recorded solos. Another way is to learn some patterns based on these scales. Eddie showed me some really great patterns that he hear players like Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan practicing in their down time. For instance, here is a pattern Eddie used to hear Freddie practicing:

This pattern is based on the simplest of scales, the major scale. However, it's made up of seven-note groupings, which sounds really cool over 4/4 time. According to Eddie, Freddie used to walk around his living room playing this lick in all twelve keys.

Lee Morgan, on the other hand, was really fond of the whole tone scale. Much like the diminished scale, this is a symmetrical scale, which means it has it's own built-in tonality and can be used almost anywhere. Here's one of the licks Lee used to practice and put in his solos:

Finally, here's a lick based on the chromatic scale that he learned from Donald Byrd, one of the most fluid players of the 1960s:

I would be remiss if I didn't insert a quick caveat of my own here. Patterns should be used in solos sparingly as they are only a tiny piece of the vast musical language of jazz. Think of them instead as useful exercises to gain more fluency with scales, not as a crutch to fall back on to get through the changes. Too many players become obsessed with patterns and their solos end up sounding like practice routines. Of course, when you practice patterns, they naturally come out every once in a while in your solos. But too many of them will actually make your solo sound bland and sterile. Just something to bear in mind...

Next, Eddie talked about the diminished scale. He said John Coltrane emphasized to him the importance of exploring this scale. Because it is a symmetrical scale, it offers soloists limitless possibilities harmonically and melodically. Eddie spent some time talking about how the scale could be used in solos as well as how it can be used as a means of superimposing new chord changes, but that's a topic for another post.

I ended the lesson by asking Eddie the ten questions I ask all jazz trumpeters I take lessons from. Here they are along with Eddie's answers:

When did you begin to play trumpet and when did you begin learning jazz?

I took lessons in New York from 1950-1954. My first lesson was actually with Louis Armstrong and by the age of 13, I had gone through whole Arbans book. Then my family moved to San Francisco where I studied trumpet and music theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and performed with the San Francisco Conservatory Symphony Orchestra until 1958. Miles was staying at my parents house at one point and I remember going to one of his gigs and becoming fascinated with jazz. I knew about jazz, but that was the first time I had heard anything on that level.

What is your practice routine?

My practice routine focuses on basic trumpet technique and includes things like long tones, scales and lip slurs. I feel it is important to always reinforce correct practice habits.

What traits of the great jazz trumpet players of the past do you value the most, and what have you done to address those aspects in your playing?

In my estimation, the greatest musicians practiced their fundamentals to an extent that they were in complete control of their instrument. This control was reflected in their personalities and confidence on stage. When they walked onto the bandstand, musicians like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis exuded a confidence in their playing that drew the listener in immediately. You knew something serious was about to happen.

What have you tried to do to make your playing unique?

Players who are able to find their own voice display the highest level of maturity in their playing. I strive to play in a way that conveys a connection to the tradition of the music, but with a sound and harmonic approach that is my own.

What equipment do you play and how much does equipment play a factor in your approach?

I own two Selmer Paris 80J’s, and two Selmer Paris Concept TTs. The horn is certainly important in that it needs to fit the unique needs of the player. For instance, I used to have Conn Constellation because I saw Freddie play one but it didn’t work for me. However, I do play the very same Couesnon flugel that Freddie used on his amazing solo on "Here's That Rainy Day" from his album “Straight Life.”

Do you subscribe to any particular systems of trumpet technique (Caruso, Reinhardt, etc.)?


Do you practice classical music, and if so, why?

I do practice some classical music for technique, but my focus is primarily on jazz.

Do you play any other instruments? If so, how do you think that impacts your conception of jazz trumpet playing?

I am familiar with the piano, although I am not fluent enough to play gigs on it. However, it's vital for a jazz musician to be able to play chords on the piano in order to have a deeper understanding of jazz harmony.

Do you have any particular advice for aspiring jazz trumpet players?

It's a difficult time to learn jazz in that the era of apprenticeship is over. Players like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and myself earned their stripes by playing with Art Blakey. However, institutions like that are no longer available, and a lot of players lack a level of maturity because of it. Jazz has also become institutionalized by the schools and now a lot of kids come out of school and become instant headliners. However, they haven't had the time yet to develop and find their own voice. You used to be able to tell who was playing by listening to one note. These days, a lot of the players today sound like carbon copies of each other.

What do you think of the jazz scene today?

The jazz audience in the states is pretty small. I earn my living now playing in Japan and Europe. Over there, they come out to listen to the music and they respect the musicians more than the general public here in the states.
I recently discovered that my electric albums are really popular in Europe, and I'm thinking about doing something in that vein again.

Well, that's it. I hope you've gotten something out of this. I know I did. And if you want more information, I encourage you to take a lesson from Eddie personally, or just go and see him play the next time he's in your neighborhood. Eddie's site can be found here.

Until next time...