The New NEA Jazz Masters: Jamey Aebersold

With a 1962 Indiana University master’s degree in saxophone, Jamey Aebersold might have carved out a career as a performer. He has never stopped playing, but a casual request set him on a course that led to success as the best-known third-party teacher in jazz. In 1966, a student at a workshop asked AebersoldAebersold, who is also a pianist, to record accompaniments that would help him practice. That recording and a companion book morphed into How to Play Jazz and Improvise, the first volume of 133 Aebersold play-along albums designed to help musicians at all levels teach themselves. Most of the CDs or downloads have a several standard songs or jazz originals, books of lead sheets and professional accompaniment on the CDs. Using them, a fledgling horn player can work out with, in this example, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Grady Tate. That may be a higher-quality rhythm section than the student would find in his hometown and one that never complains about going over a tune ten times in a row.

When the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters awards are presented tomorrow at Lincoln Center in New York, Aebersold will receive one for jazz advocacy. The National Endowment for the Arts says that the award goes to, “an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the art form of jazz.” Previous winners in the category have included critics and authors Nat Hentoff and Dan Morgenstern, personal manager (and bassist) John Levy, producer Orrin Keepnews, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and club owner Lorraine Gordon.

In addition to his play-along business, Aebersold has continued as a jazz educator, conducting summer workshop sessions at the University of Louisville. When he is teaching, he keeps his alto saxophone handy to illustrate points——and work in a little blowing time. The rhythm section is Steve Crews, piano; Tyrone Brown, bass; and Jonathon Higgins, drums.

Aebersold will collect his Jazz Masters Award tomorrow evening. If you are not on the guest list or can’t make it to New York, you can watch the ceremony streamed live on the internet at 7:30 p.m. on the and Jazz at Lincoln Center websites.

When they practice with Aebersold albums, musicians the world over eagerly anticipate his tempo countoffs and sometimes imitate them on the job. If you’ve never heard one, you’re in for a treat as he sets the time for the accompaniment to “Ornithology.” The rhythm section is again Barron, Carter and Tate. Feel free to play, or scat, along.

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  1. says

    J.A.’s play-alongs are pervasive and have been so for decades. Imagine how many budding improvisers he has helped. Case in point, check out this sparse video of saxophonist STACY DILLARD practicing to a J.A. play-along in a Chicago basement twelve years ago. Dillard was already a monster at that point and I’d be curious to know to what extent his virtuosity resulted from practice sessions such as this.

  2. Bruce Armstrong says

    I was already a working professional musician when the “All Bird” LP came on the market back in the 1970s. After buying it and playing along with it, I was hooked on the Aebersold Play-Alongs for life! Over the years I have used so many of the products offered through Jamey Aebersold’s catalogue in teaching and of course in my own lifetime quest to improve as an improvisor. I have often joked with fellow musicians over the years that we should do something about building a statue of Jamey with the inscription “The Man Who Saved Jazz Improvisation” and put it somewhere on West 52nd Street in NYC. Now that the NEA has officially honored Jamey as a “Jazz Master” the statue is no longer necessary–but it would still be nice! Thank you again, Jamey, and I enjoyed hearing you cooking on “Bittersweet!”

  3. says

    At this point, I’m afraid I have to spoil your fun. — Playing all the “correct” notes in a row doesn’t make a good jazz performance. As a teacher I’m actually proud to declare that I’m never working with Aebersold’s stuff.

    I’m rather hooked on Bird’s recordings and use them as “play-alongs.” One can learn so much more, playing along with a real master. — Or, as Red Rodney put it in a famous interview (quoted from memory): “Standing next to this colossal giant was like going to graduate school.”