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I see alot of websites and blogs that claim that the key to becoming a successful jazz musician is to load up on licks. Now while this may be useful to create mood in some contexts, it's not possible that licks alone can make a jazz musician. If this were so, jazz would be easy, and everyone would be great, given that they were on the same page for technical proficiency.

However there are some great pianists who sound undeniably "licky" to me. One of them is Oscar Peterson. I'm sure that he improvised many beautiful melodies, but (please correct me if I'm wrong) a substantial part of his playing seems to be running up and down the scales, and playing bluesy licks.

In contrast, Bill Evans seems like the pianist who barely uses "standard" licks. And if he uses licks, he has so many that he only rarely uses one more than a couple of times. In my opinion Bill Evans' playing is melodically "fresh" i.e he really puts new ideas on the keys every time he plays.


Now don't get me wrong, I love Peterson's playing, but I have this aching thought that his glory lies solely in his technical proficiency. I would love an answer that could prove this wrong, with examples, maybe explaining Peterson's style and why his playing sounds "licky".

In a similar vein, how useful are licks in becoming an individual and innovator in jazz piano? Are licks irrelevant if one's goal is to sound unique, and put his/her ideas on the piano?

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My response might be more abstract than what you are looking for, but I think it's ultimately a healthier mentality. I've included a more concrete example of its implementation at the end.

In my opinion, approaching music with a 'lick'-based mentality tends to limit your ability to be open and interactive with yourself and the ensemble/band. I find if more effective to remain open, perceptive and vulnerable during performance. I use the practice room to enhance technique and knowledge, and live my life as honestly and genuinely to bring as much humanity to myself and thus the music. Over time, and with dedication, it comes together.

Using licks tends to force the direction of the music, both for the person employing them and for the people they are playing with (or in the case of someone playing licks, playing at). This dampens creativity and takes you away from the exploration of the music - which is its lifeblood!

It doesn't have to be improvised (in the context of jazz) either. Chamber music needs to have its interpretation freed as well to avoid the things I have listed above -- but this is another discussion, sadly.

More concretely in the application of the above, you might find yourself leaning towards familiar ideas and be tempted to do the opposite in response in order to avoid playing 'licks'. This is, in my opinion, ironically the exact same problem, and leads down the same dangerous rabbit hole. In this case, it's more effective to let yourself go where you think you want to go and instead build awareness around it. The next time you presented with the same issue, you'll be more aware as a person and eventually grow enough (as a person and musician) for it to be a non-issue eventually. Beware the swing of the pendulum! (pun not intended.)

In short - be you, learn as much as you can, be awesome and authentic, have fun, and in time this won't be a question for you anymore.

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Once more I think we can compare music language with our spoken language. And as there are different mother languages and also personal styles of speaking and phrasing (idioms or “language quirks” - I don’t know whether this translation for “marotten” is adequate here) each musician has his own language of speaking, his licks and quirks. Of course you can always be surprised with a new expression, planned and meant or just happening, even an accident or a mistake - like other inventions resulted randomly - and can be assimilated to the repertoire of a musician.

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I haven't used licks in my practice routine in the past but I am starting to do so. I think the real thing to guard against is playing with habit, or playing kind of the same things you always do, this could be licks you've learned from others or it could be the way you personally hear and communicate (basically licks). I've gotten back lash for saying this before, but I definitely hear licks in Bill Evans playing. I don't think that he learned licks, but he has a certain way of thinking about the keyboard and his approach to a song, if you listen to multiple versions of a particular song that he plays, you'll hear very similar things that he plays. It's just his style, his approach to music and his approach to the song. It's really hard to get away from because in order to get to really high levels there needs to be a plan and many many hours of training and repetition on certain aspects of music, so that results in things that are ingrained in the way you play. Certain ways your fingers move and the way your mind works. I definitely think that part of a jazz musicians work should be to get away from these habits, or to be aware of them and try to approach your playing situation in a fresh way each time, that is part of the work of improvisation. That being said, it would be next to impossible to come up with a brand new idea every time you play. For me, jazz vocabulary becomes very important at some point, and licks are a great way to get a snap shot into the sentence structure of another musician, a glimpse into how they think and use their vocabulary. Jazz and other forms of music are a tradition, so picking up on what others were doing or are doing is important for coming up with what you want to say. Coming up with a deep and rich vocabulary is the goal, so that you have a lot to say when the time comes. I also think that licks help me in the technical department, training my fingers to work through certain passages. I think the analysis of the licks becomes equally as important as the lick itself. If you tear it apart and say, ok he's using this bluesy riff right here then working an enclosure, then doing an arpeggio to end on the 9. Then you understand the thinking behind it, and that in turn helps your mind to grasp those ideas so that you can start to work your own lines in a similar way, or if not in a similar way, in an intelligent way.

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Whenever you come across a question about how to play jazz or what to practice, ask yourself this: What did the jazz masters do?

Q: Did jazz masters memorize licks off the internet and 'plug it in' their solos?

A: No, they INVENTED the lines and practiced it in all keys and found every possible place to play it. This helped them internalize and really HEAR the line. So when it came time to solo, they just expressed themselves from all the LANGUAGE they knew. The great Charlie Parker once said "...you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

Q: Did jazz masters play lines they never played before in their solos?

A: Absolutely, and that is the beauty of improvisation. You play what you are feeling at that moment and invent new lines. Playing jazz is not just memorizing a bunch of licks or even inventing licks and just playing them. The very definition of improvising is the spontaneous creation of something without preparation.

Q: Can you still learn licks from the internet or other people?

A: Of course! However, do not make it your main source of music. It should mainly come from you. But if you really like something, learn it! Even John Coltrane's famous Giant Steps was most probably based on this song. (written in 1941.)

If you want to learn more of what jazz masters practiced check this thread out.

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"I see alot of websites and blogs that claim that the key to becoming a successful jazz musician is to load up on licks. Now while this may be useful to create mood in some contexts, it's not possible that licks alone can make a jazz musician. If this were so, jazz would be easy, and everyone would be great, given that they were on the same page for technical proficiency."

I disagree with your premise wholeheartedly. A lick based approach to any kind of music does NOT make it easy. How can you back this up with data.

If you want the question to provoke serious thoughtful response can you define a "lick". One could say that a 4 octave run fit into one beat is a "lick". One could also say that the first 16 bars of Paganini's 5th caprice is a "lick".

Knowing a lick, or a library of licks doesn't translate to using them intelligently every time. It still takes skill and effort to make a solo out of them. Also, using standard licks does not mean you are not improvising. I am improvising this answer using words and phrases common in the English language. I will not make up new vocabulary as I go, nor will I redefine grammar or introduce uncommon slang. I will not attempt to express this as William Burroughs might in Naked Lunch. Yet this will be uniquely mine. As some other answers have pointed out music is a language and the deepest understanding and use of that language is improvisation (IMO).

There are many schools of thought on what it takes to improvise and even what it really means. Make no mistake, improv involves using what you know in a unique way in the moment. But you have to know something! In it's simplest form variation on a theme is improv and for many that is all you need. People get into heated arguments about originality on this point but if you really analyze a player's work you will see patterns emerge, no matter how unique you think they are, they are drawing from rehearsed lines to some extent. If you transcribe enough music you will see common melodic themes, memes in the Dawkins sense of the term, replicate and propagate through the generations. The originality in many cases is in the phrasing and other subtle nuances and not in the note stream itself. In a very real way improv is more about how you say it rather than what you say. 1000 players can say the same thing but perhaps one or two stand out as sounding original.

I cannot speak to Bill Evans. I have several CDs of his work and love it but have not committed to transcribing it. I have arranged Oscar Peterson piano "licks" for guitar. I wouldn't say he's entirely "licky" and all bluesy. But he is famous for the opinion that a blues phrase is essential for playing jazz. I will say that I have embarked on the journey of transcribing solos of players I though were more "original" than others only to discover when I was deep into it that some of the classic 50 year old memes were being used prolifically.

"In contrast, Bill Evans seems like the pianist who barely uses "standard" licks. And if he uses licks, he has so many that he only rarely uses one more than a couple of times. In my opinion Bill Evans' playing is melodically "fresh" i.e he really puts new ideas on the keys every time he plays."

There seems to be a little bit of a contradiction here (correct me if I'm wrong). If you think that Bill Evans "has so many (licks) that he only rarely uses one more than a couple of times" doesn't that support the idea that the key to great jazz is learning as many licks as possible? As I said people get into heated debates about this but in the end it's and art form so trying to reduce it to a formula will always fail and people will gravitate to approaches that make sense to them, perhaps for personal and subjective reasons. But every form of music I have heard in my life uses "repetition" of melodic ideas and rhythms to create a pattern. People like patterns. So if you don't apply some repetition to the work it will likely be perceived as non-musical. Whether that repeated piece is a blues idea or not is material.

One of the best jazz improv lessons I have learned in my life came from reading Jerry Coker (and having this reinforced by my teachers) that one should keep a diary of melodic ideas, as short as 3 notes and as long as a whole section of a tune. These don't need to be lifted from other but ones you have written your self. Then over time you are using a lick based approach but the licks are yours. Perhaps Bill Evans had done this early in his career.

Based on the meaning of the term "Lick" as it was taught to me, Licks alone make up everything.

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