Jul 24, 2011

Lessons with Joe

Back in 1977-79, I had the good fortune to take some saxophone and improvisation lessons from Joe Henderson. Here’s the story of how I stumbled into the opportunity, and my recollections of Joe’s teaching method.

I had been teaching private lessons and a few combo classes at a small community music school for a couple of years. Two friends who had just graduated from Berklee had started teaching there also, and in the spring of 1977 we decided to offer a summer jazz program, a sort of local version of an Aebersold clinic, or a National Stage Band Camp (I’d been to one of each, and of course the other guys had been to Berklee). At the time, there wasn’t much like that in our area.

Our school’s office staff (two volunteers) put together some publicity, including some public service announcements. Since we were a non-profit organization, radio and TV stations would run our PSA’s free of charge.

One day a few weeks later, the receptionist asked if I could take a phone call from a guy who wanted some information about the Summer Jazz Program. The conversation went something like this:

Caller: “Hello, I wonder if you could tell me more about your Summer Jazz Program.”
Peter: (proceeds with the spiel for a prospective student)
Caller: “Well, actually I was interested more in teaching.”
Peter: “Oh - sure. What’s your name?”
Caller: “Henderson.”
Peter: “Is this Joe?”
Caller: “Yes.”

Incredible. Joe was one of my musical heroes; I knew his work with Horace Silver, his Blue Note recordings, and his more recent work for CTI with Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, etc. And here he was, on the telephone. He had heard one of the PSA’s on TV, late at night. I said that we didn’t have any budget to bring him to the school, but that I would really like to take some lessons. Joe gave me directions to his house in San Francisco, and we set a date.

Joe had a big old house on a hill in the southern part of SF, on Los Palmos Drive. For the first lesson, we set up in a sun room upstairs. The first thing was to make sure I could play all my major scales, and a chromatic scale into the altissimo register. I could sort of do that, but I had been using some fingerings I had picked up partly from my old teacher Eddy, and partly from..somewhere. Joe had me learn the Sigurd Rascher fingerings. Joe told me he had studied with Larry Teal in Detroit; he was proud of that. Perhaps Teal had taught him those fingerings.

After a couple of weeks, our lessons were relocated to a small room downstairs, where he had a keyboard plugged into a little “Pignose” amp. From then on, lessons consisted of dictation and memorization of solo lines. Joe would play a couple of measures at the keyboard, and I was supposed to play it back to him. Then he would extend the solo line by another few measures. I was supposed to add that and play it back - and so forth. The first lesson, I got maybe 4 measures. Then I was supposed to practice it for a week; at the next lesson he would extend it further. No recording or notating was allowed; it was all about memorization. A couple of times at the beginning, he wrote down just a few notes on staff paper, from the middle of the solo, so that I could use it to jog my memory later.

Often, by the time I had driven home to Palo Alto (45 minutes), I had forgotten most of the solo. But then, it would come back to me later that night, or the next morning. As time went on, I got better at retaining the music, and could get maybe 8-12 measures in a lesson.

Each solo was constructed on the spot, specifically for that student. Joe always remembered what he had given me the previous week. I don’t know how many students he did that with. He had an amazing musical memory.

This teaching method was unique, and perfect for most of Joe’s students. I figured it like this: People went to Joe because they dug his playing style, and wanted pick up some of it. This way, students not only got his musical ideas, but got licks tailored to their capabilities. In addition, most of his students probably came in with a pretty good reading background - so they didn’t need that. What they needed was to develop their ear, their musical vocabulary, their sense of solo construction, and their connection between brain and fingers. Joe’s method did all of that, and included some technique too.

He never talked about theory or about how a given lick would fit the harmony. That part of the lesson was implicit in the solo line, and the student was supposed to just internalize it.

One day I came in for a lesson, and was introduced to the student who was just leaving. He was a very well-known funk tenor player. I saw the music on the stand; Joe had him working on a classical etude.

I came for a lesson every week that Joe was in town, for about a year and a half. Those were some of the best lessons I’ve ever had. Sometimes I kick myself for not sticking around longer. But then, I’m still learning from the material Joe gave me. I have to admit that a lot of it has faded from memory, but I still run through the 6 choruses of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” about once a week as a warmup, and I never did write that down.

By the way, Joe was very clear about his belief that improvised solos were the property of the performer, and that this applied to the solos he created for our lessons. So - my apologies - I won't be posting a transcription.

Here are a couple of interesting items about Joe Henderson’s teaching style:

A recording of a masterclass that Joe gave at North Texas State University;

Mel Martin interviews Joe 

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