In Conversation with Michael Gauthier, Part I

Organically Honing the Art of Jazz

“One of the things I like about Jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”
– Bix Beiderbecke

“Ahhh, those Jazz guys are just makin? that stuff up!”
– Homer Simpson

Michael Gauthier is a Montreal-based musician who teaches jazz guitar at the University of Montreal and at McGill University. A fixture of the Montreal jazz scene, his memory houses a vast and irreplaceable knowledge of the history of jazz in Montreal since the sixties. Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about improvisation, reading music, and jazz and blues as folk genres.

How is teaching guitar at McGill different from teaching at the University of Montreal?

McGill is a little narrower than the University of Montreal when it comes to playing strictly jazz. It’s like, if you don’t love traditional jazz, all of jazz up until today, what are you doing at McGill? The University of Montreal has a bit more latitude.

The students who apply to McGill come from all over; Americans, all of English Canada?including all of English Quebec?and every country in the world will apply to McGill. They have a much bigger applicant base so they can afford to be selective, whereas the University of Montreal gets applicants from French-speaking Quebec, and then maybe France, Haiti, Vietnam, Algeria, and That’s about it. Their applicant base is much more limited because there are a lot fewer French speakers in the world than English speakers.

Where are you most comfortable?with traditional jazz or with music that admits multiple genres?

I’d have to say I’m more comfortable with more tradtional, history-oriented jazz. That’s not to say that I’m more comfortable at McGill; at any university there’s more than one guitar teacher, so at the University of Montreal those who want to learn the more conventional thing will opt to study with me, but those who want to go slightly out of the jazz box would opt to study with somebody else.

There are teachers here in Montreal who’ve done work with Cirque du Soleil and are very good readers. They’d never hire me to do something like that because when they’d put a chart in front of me I’d look at it and say, “Let me take that home for a while.” In my system of jazz teaching you learn by ear, above and beyond anything else. A lot of the great jazz players, then, and now, could not?and cannot?read music.

Really? can’t most jazz players at least read a melody well enough to play around with it?

Most, yes. But many of the really great players couldn’t read. Think of it this way?if you can’t read music you can really hone your retention abilities.

You see this among illiterate people, too. Many of them have an amazing ability to quote things they’ve heard, verbatim.

Most people here in Quebec today have to go through the CEGEP system to get into university, so they all learn how to read fairly young, but It’s amazing how they’re book and sheet dependent and how difficult it is for them to learn a tune by heart. From the internet you can download sheet music and tablature, and That’s been available for a couple of generations now.

I’ve always tried to avoid that. My music reading ability is limited, but I don’t have a complex about it; I want to look at blues and jazz as folklore music, which I think, ultimately, they are.

Jazz has become an academic music. Before the forties it wasn’t in the schools at all, and in Quebec it wasn’t in the schools before the seventies. So before then you had to learn it in the clubs, on the streets, by hanging around with other musicians, and by listening to records and trying to figure it out by yourself.

So it was like play, even though you worked hard at it.

Yeah. And you know It’s been amazingly fun. It’s like learning a language by going and living in that land instead of downloading Rosetta Stone. On the other side of the mirror, I wish I could read better. I guess some people?the extremely gifted ones?have it all, but if I have to make a choice? I choose my ears and better retention over high reading skills.

For a classical musician It’s the opposite. He or she needs reading desperately. If you have a concert tomorrow You’re not going to try to memorize the score tonight?you have to have the sheets. And for them It’s not about improvising anyway.

Jan Wouter Oostenrijk, a jazz guitarist from the Netherlands, pointed out that most music in world history has been improvised?the Western classical tradition of performing from reading sheet music is actually the anomaly.

Improvising makes it personal. It might be a bit of a negative view, but no matter how great you are as a classical musician, You’re just proving how great the composer is. You’re not saying much about you.

You hear a lot about musicians who grow up playing jazz and yet who later in life have no problem picking up Bach and Beethoven. But It’s rare for a classically trained musician to be able to pick up jazz later in life. Why is that?

They just can’t cross over. Jazz musicians have honed their skills in a more organic way.

(to be continued)

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

(Author’s Note: In the last issue, in the article “In Conversation With Luc Déry of micro_scope,” we would like to apologize for a couple of errors. At one point in the text, the name is written as “Luke” when it should be “Luc.” In another paragraph we call it “micro_scope Films;” the name is simply “micro_scope.”)

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