Legendary Jazz Musician Jamey Aebersold Talks Career, Improvising & Giving Back

Writer  /  Angela Partee 

Legendary jazz musician and educator Jamey Aebersold improvises.

He imagines. He creates. He expresses. And he invites everyone, anyone, to play-a-long.

Aebersold, 79, a New Albany, IN native, is an internationally known saxophonist and an authority on jazz education and improvisation.

He was exposed to music early – his father played piano and banjo, his mother played piano and sang. His two brothers played various instruments. He began piano lessons at the age of five but got tired of practicing the piano an hour each day. He said the piano teacher fired him and refunded his money for the lessons, telling him that he would never become a musician because he didn’t want to practice. He then started playing the banjo. His brother started playing the saxophone and when his brother stopped playing, Jamey began. And so did his journey with jazz.

“I kind of stumbled into it,” Aebersold says.

He remembers reading in a music magazine that “jazz was the coming thing.”  He recalls going to the music store and buying his first record.

“It really intrigued me, the music they were playing,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how they did it because they played so fast. It was so consistent, and it seemed like they never made a mistake. And I didn’t realize at the time that they practiced. And they practiced a lot. That didn’t dawn on me. I thought they were born with this gift.”

He wanted to attend the Manhattan School of Music in New York, but they didn’t have a degree in saxophone. He decided to attend Indiana University but discovered that they didn’t offer a degree in saxophone either. He improvised his education program, earning a bachelor’s degree in Woodwinds while learning to play the oboe, bassoon, flute and clarinet. He received a Masters in Saxophone from IU.

During college summer breaks he worked in his father’s florist shop. After he married and graduated from college, he rented an apartment across from the florist shop. He improvised his career. He worked in the florist shop from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., then gave private music lessons after school. He had about four or five students each day.

“In the back of my mind, I thought ‘next year we’ll move to New York. It never happened,” he says.

But what did happen established him as an innovative jazz teacher.

He developed the Play-A-Longs series of book and compact disc sets in 1967 to enhance music practice. Play-A-Longs recordings allow musicians to practice and improvise along with professional and well-known jazz musicians. He has produced 133 volumes of Play-A-Longs jazz records and books over the past 51 years.

“I guess you would say it was organic,” Aebersold says. “It just started. It kind of crawled along. One thing led to another. People bought them because they could put the LP record on their turntables and practice with them.”

He also cultivated the concept of small group classes, combos which focused on jazz improvisation. He has been recognized and celebrated for his musical prowess.

Aebersold and the Summer Jazz Workshop (which he has presented for more than 40 years at the University of Louisville and in seven countries) was featured on the CBS “Sunday Morning” program with Charles Kuralt and Billy Taylor on Oct. 4, 1987. He was inducted into the International Association for Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1992, he received an honorary Doctor of Music from Indiana University. In 2004, he received the Medal of Honor in jazz education from the Jazz Midwest Clinic. In 2007, he was awarded the Indiana Governor’s Art Award by Governor Mitch Daniels. He has produced a best-selling DVD entitled, Anyone Can Improvise. He was also awarded the 2014 A. B. Spellman National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

Aebersold has directed the annual Summer Jazz Workshops since 1977 at the University of Louisville, which draws participants from more than 20 countries. The workshops offer intensive training in jazz improvisation. The workshops have also been presented in eight countries. The 2018 workshop was designated as the final workshop, but it is possible that the workshop may continue. He made the decision to stop presenting the workshops when he was experiencing some health challenges, most notably he had low energy. After various medical tests, he was diagnosed with two blocked arteries and had bypass surgery in April. Now that he has recuperated, he says he would love to do the workshop again. He says he will wait and see what happens.

Is retirement on the horizon?

“I hadn’t really thought about retiring,” Aebersold says. “I like what I am doing. I like music. It’s so creative. I can’t imagine, if I retire, what am I going to do? I don’t think I am the type of person to retire and sit back in a chair. I guess if I felt bad or got to the point where I couldn’t walk, if I was physically unable to do what I have been doing, I guess I would stop. I did modify my schedule when I wasn’t feeling well. It’s amazing how health can change the way you think about life.”

For more than 20 years, Aebersold has been instrumental in promoting healthy choices by presenting school programs about the unhealthy effects of smoking. He has also conducted prison ministry – offering music lessons to prison inmates and providing Play-A-Long CDs for them.

His other interests include listening to jazz music, playing basketball, metaphysics and spiritual pursuits.

He enjoys helping people release the melodies in their heads.

“If we could get everybody to play music when they are about six years old and teach them to improvise on something like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”,  “Row, Row Your Boat” or “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” without music, then they start to realize that they can do things by using their mind and ears that they can create,” Aebersold says. “Most people don’t think they can.”

He noted that the highlight of his career was being awarded the NEA Jazz Master Award for Jazz Advocacy.

“That was a big deal,” he says. “I was really shocked when the guy called me and told me I had been awarded the award. I thought they had made a mistake. That was a big surprise to me.”

He mentions the award during his school performances to inspire students to pursue their goals.

“I tell them I got this prestigious award and I am from New Albany, IN, so you can do whatever you want to do,” he says.

He says the low point was experiencing the loss of energy earlier this year associated with his blocked arteries. Now, he has a new surge of energy.

“I am feeling better now,” Aebersold says. “I am back up and going again. I am just cruising right now, just cruising along. I got various plans, playing concerts here and there. I am delighted to be alive. Life is great.”

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