To Lick or Not to Lick…

You should taste the things I taste, when I’m cleanin’ windows

So everyone’s agreed, right? The way to learn jazz is to learn loads of licks taken from recordings of our favourite players and take them round all the keys.

Hmm (a big hmm). While I do agree that you can learn a lot from transcribing (licks are nothing more than mini-transcriptions that have become part of the culture), I think you need to approach this in the right spirit.

Jazz is idiomatic music and a tradition, to be sure, and you really need to build a voice of your own from studying your own favourite players from the music’s history (although your tastes and idols will change over time – have your preferences by all means, but don’t ever get stuck!) There’s no doubt that you can also benefit technically from being able to finger “ba-ba-doo-bee-da-dap” round all the keys. (That’s R n7 b7 9 6 5 over a dominant chord by the way.)

Jazz was originally a verb, and only became a noun later on when the marketing guys weighed in. It’s primarily a way of playing, not a what of playing.


A lot of players I’ve met came up in the “jazz is a way of being me” ’70s and sadly a lot of them have become ossified in that attitude. They were inspired by the freedom of expression and approximate the little bits of the tradition they like.

Another bunch of players are “keepers of the flame”. They’ve swallowed a whole load of musical vocabulary and sound like a tribute band all the time. They know the tradition inside out, but can only express themselves within those jigsaw confines.

Neither extreme is ultimately right. As so often in life, the answer lies in the middle.

The great illusionist David Devant with a woman on a plank...

The great illusionist David Devant with a woman pretending not to lie on a plank… Because you’re supposed to pretend you believe she’s floating in mid-air… Actually, you’re supposed to enjoy the fact that you’re pretending she’s floating in mid-air…


The great British illusionist David Devant was once approached by an adoring fan (and amateur magician) who asked him how many tricks he knew. He thought for a bit, then replied: “oh, maybe six…”

Point is, the fan (who probably had a cupboard overflowing with stuff) was focusing on the “how many” bit and the pro was focusing on the “know” bit.

Magic tricks are based on either a clever gimmick or a deceptive way of manipulating ungimmicked material (or stooges and camera tricks). The “trick” part is usually very simple, but at least 90% of the effect is in the way you handle the spectators. How you make them want to believe the tale. They’re witnessing something that should be impossible, but your job is to draw them in, play with their assumptions and expectations.

Make them not only want to believe that you can pull an elephant with their chosen card painted on its arse out of their wine glass, but play with them so that they’ll be delighted when you do. Or think you’ve failed when you don’t, and then be amazed that their girlfriend has turned from blonde to brunette.

Did I sound a little disparaging about stooges earlier? Well everyone watching is ultimately a stooge, it’s up to the performer to play them along the sliding scale of willing-unwitting, and most importantly of all to entertain them.

There is a classic card magic move called the pass – it’s basically a way of reversing a cut that’s just been made “freely” and there are many variations on it. In the hands of a dedicated obsessive this can be so slick it’s virtually unnoticeable (though never totally, if you know what you’re looking for).

But most great magicians really aren’t that dexterous. They are however very good at distracting you so you don’t notice the move and making you believe later that you never took your eyes off the cards. They’re entertainers.


What has this got to do with jazz, I hear you cry? Just this. Don’t learn fifty licks and not know how to use them properly. Know and understand six licks so thoroughly that they cease to be licks to you and become a natural part of the way you feel and play. I guarantee that if you fully understand as few as half a dozen licks your playing will be transformed.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, c) Musicianship
One comment on “To Lick or Not to Lick…
  1. D says:

    The last paragraph has to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve read. Learning a handful of licks inside out is more beneficial than skimming through a book of 1001 licks.

    Good advice


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