Do Jazz Players Hear Everything They Play?

A reader sent me a thoughtful series of questions:

I’ve been reading through The Living Jazz Tradition and thinking about what you and many jazz educators write about: the importance of being able to play what you hear. I understand that in terms of playing jazz heads, simple melodies, tunes etc…. But I was listening to this interview with Lee Konitz and he raises a good point that the interviewer in turn seems to struggle with the answer:

What are you really hearing when you are pumping your fingers at fast tempos. Did Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Sonny Stitt, and Rollins really hear all the notes that they played? Or is something else going on? I think the interviewer acknowledges you can’t really consciously hear all those notes. Is it just stream of consciousness going on where you are sort of allowing your brain and fingers spontaneously work intelligently over the changes?

I did read a book by Pianist Hal Galper where he talks about a young piano prodigy (I think he was a servant or slave) who was able to play whatever he heard on the piano simply by sitting outside the house listening to what the person inside was playing, retain it and duplicate it. That sort of talent seems like an outlier. Much different than listening to a solo a 100 times and singing it.

So I’m trying to get a handle on what exactly somebody means when they say, hear what you play. If jazz is truly a spontaneous art form than it seems what that it implies that Coltrane heard all the notes in his Giant Steps solo before he played it. Hopefully, you can deal with this question in one of your blog entries.

David, NYC

Here is my response:

Hi David, Thanks for reaching outthis is a deep topic! I don’t claim to know what went on in the minds of Coltrane and Brecker, but I have a few thoughts:

1. Playing what you hear is more than pitches

My teaching emphasizes a deep connection between your inner hearing, voice, instrument, and mind. But this goes beyond the pitches. In the interview, Kontiz touches on imagining timbre (tone color). Burning players might not pre-hear every pitch, but they can imagine the contour of the lines, shapes, phrasing, intensity, and overall arc of the improvisation. This is all part of “playing what you hear.”

2. Intellect can train our ears

We can use knowledge and technique to train our ears and imagination over time.

Jerry Bergonzi told me that he had a hard time internalizing John Coltrane’s chord substitutions over standards. He thought his attempts to play them sounded terriblebut he kept trying. After what Jerry thought was was a failed attempt at playing these chord substitutions on a gig, someone ran up to him and said, “Wow, that was amazing! what changes were you playing?!”

Over time, he began to internalize, hear, and sing this harmony. In this case, Jerry’s intellect and technique informed his inner hearing.

3. Stream of conscious improvisation comes from mastery.

Steam of consciousnesses improvisation is an elusive concept. When master jazz musicians are in a “flow state” or “in the zone,” I believe their ears, technique, emotional state, and knowledge are unified. In these moments, they can play in an effortless meditative state.

But we need to mastery of tools and language to achieve this. In Harmonic Experience, W.A. Mathieu notes, “transcending knowledge is different from not having any.” Lee Konitz has said that he doesn’t remember the changes to the standards he plays. Of course, he still plays the changes, but Konitz has achieved a mastery that transcends the page.

But you don’t need to be a master like Lee Kontiz to play a stream of consciousness improvisation. You can tap into a stream of consciousness flow with any technique you have a mastery of. For example, a stream of consciousness improvisation using black keys on the piano is more accessible than playing tricky chord changes at a blazing tempo.

Thanks for your questions David.

If any other folks have questions, please send them to

– ST

Subscribe to my email newsletter for free downloads

Subscribe to the Creative Music Blog to receive new posts by email