George Colligan wrote a nice post about sight-reading. He name checks me as a good reader: Compared to some I don't think I'm so great (and I doubt George's claim that I'm better than him) but it's true the printed page has never been one of my big challenges. I can even play from a tonal orchestral score if I can look at it for a few minutes first.
It's just doing a certain kind of math fast. As far as I'm concerned it is not intelligence-related, it is just a random skill like most humans have some example of. I don't have perfect pitch; some that do can't read that well. I don't have a natural flexible technique; many pianists that do wouldn't know what to do with a full score. (Honestly, I'd rather have perfect pitch or a natural flexible technique!)
George is dead on when he suggests that sight-reading can be misunderstood, and that written music can be a crutch. I went even further in my analysis of Ornette Coleman:
The list of my favorite instrumentalists who couldn't read music well includes not just many jazz artists but apparently piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann. Traditionally many opera and jazz singers can't really read (although that has changed over the years) and of course much of the great music made elsewhere on the globe has nothing to do with Western notation.
Indeed, I firmly believe that jazz today is overly committed to the printed page. I miss the days of musicians like Thelonious Monk. Monk had no problem reading or writing music but hardly ever gave his sidemen charts. They had to learn his music by ear. Monk thought it made for better art, and of course he was right. When I see young musicians playing Monk with a chart I am appalled. The Thelonious Monk Quartet never used sheet music.
Dewey Redman told me that Ed Blackwell once recommended him to Monk. But when Dewey called Monk and asked to get together to go over the tunes, Monk merely said, "Do you know my music or don't you?" If Dewey had said yes, he could have had the gig: in other words, show up and play the book perfectly from memory, done and done. However, Dewey was used to a situation like Ornette Coleman, where you rehearsed everything over and over in advance, and so therefore unfortunately never played with Monk.
It is extraordinary how little paper seems to exist from small group jazz of the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. Does anybody have handwritten Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane etc., etc., etc., charts? There are bits and pieces around but really very little compared to how many songs and records there were.
The best music of Ornette Coleman needs to be considered in that tradition. Like all those other composers, it never really existed on the page in the first place.
In the George Schuller commentary there are two Coleman charts probably prepared by Don Cherry. (I can easily believe that Cherry penned them since they don't have Coleman's unmistakable accidentals.) I'm especially fascinated by "Bird Food." This Cherry scribble has almost nothing to do with what is on the record! The Schuller transcription right below it is closer but also misses the mark, especially with the chord symbols. Since Schuller's "Bird Food" was (probably) copped by one of those fastidious and omnipresent Chuck Sher fakebooks, it has become pretty common currency. But I assure you: if you have a chart in front of you when playing "Bird Food" in public, you have already failed. I don't need to hear a note of your performance: I know it is not good enough for Ornette Coleman. There is simply no way to learn "Bird Food" except by playing along with Ornette and Don's recording.
On the other hand, if there is the printed page to be dealt with, I like it to be correct. I have never written a B-natural over an A-Flat minor chord, and never will. It must be C-flat. Some jazz cats say that B-natural is easier to read. Really? If you can read a chart with chord symbols, a C-flat is going to slow you down? (I'm currently transcribing some McCoy Tyner -- talk about George Colligan's wheelhouse! -- and there's a lot of A-flat minor. The thought of changing all those C-flats to B-naturals makes my blood run cold.)
You need C-flats because they are in the correct key. Bach would have been astonished if you tried out some B-naturals when using IV minor in E-Flat.
McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson, you name the canonical jazz pianist: They all learned from playing traditional repertoire at the piano. They didn't deal with chord symbols and chord scales, they dealt with the major-minor system of Western music. They all could make sense of a Bach chorale. Sometimes I run across a fluent student jazz pianist that has never read a chorale and have never written a melody with a key signature. For what it's worth, thinking in terms of "key" has really helped my own development.
From another DTM essay, where I react to an anti-intellectual outburst by David Byrne:
But there is no good reason to reject Mozart even if he seems imposing or not culturally relevant. Perhaps the name is the problem. In place of the overly-specific and awe-inspiring “Mozart,” I’m going to use the phrase “The major-minor system of common practice classical music.” That’s the twelve notes of the piano keyboard moving in vocal-based counterpoint. Understanding that may sound hard but it isn’t. It’s certainly not harder than making a good groove on a beat machine. For about 400 years every Western musician used it whether they were naturally talented or not.
But in our American culture, knowing “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” seems to get awfully short shrift these days. It certainly gets short shrift in our current popular, culturally relevant music.
If you charted the course of harmonic progressions in the biggest radio hits from say, Elvis to now you’d watch a steady shrinking of tonal movement. There are good musical reasons for this! I hasten to add. But at this point, we can’t take any more harmonic information away. Harmony that moves through keys is nonexistent in most current indie rock, radio pop, and hip-hop.
What I’m talking about is quite obvious in Byrne’s 2004 solo disc, Grown Backwards. The pleasantly surreal versions of two 19th-century opera arias use the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. His original pieces mostly use the 8 notes of the diatonic scale except when there’s a few blue notes borrowed from funk.
Indeed, as far as I know, all of Byrne’s songs from any period of his career stay in one key. They work -- and the best of them are, of course, immortal -- because he is a master of lyrics, beats, juxtaposition, and was born with one of the great singing voices.
But there’s no reason for Byrne or anyone else involved in music, from beginners to professionals, to automatically dismiss the “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” as uncool, forbidden, or even very difficult.
Not too long ago I was listening to some indie rock radio while driving around in the Midwest. Some of it was good (it's one of the strongest genres right now), but almost none of it related to the major-minor tonal system. Unless the track was really great, I ended up feeling like much of the harmony was pretty bland. Eventually, when The Who came on, they sounded like Schubert or Cole Porter in comparison.