One morning, arriving at my wonderful music room – complete with piano, desk, a very comfortable couch and a nice view over Ulaanbaatar's snow white frozen streets – a student was waiting outside in the hall. He had his saxophone around the neck and the earphones from his mp3-player plugged in, silently playing on the horn. I asked him what he was playing along with: he was trying to learn a Charlie Parker solo. With a student like that I couldn't imagine a better way to begin my jazz saxophone teaching day!
My most enjoyable surprise after one week of teaching in Ulaanbaatar was to discover the students' fabulous ears and ability to quickly learn little phrases and licks just by listening, and their impressive talent of being able to follow the solo section of a tune without getting lost in the chord structures, even though it was the first time they heard the tune – or improvised jazz solos. Their fine ears kept them going steady chorus after chorus of soloing. I have been wondering where this faculty comes from – either from the quality of their general music studies or a long tradition of learning music by the ears. Whatever the reason is it undoubtedly gives these students a great advantage, since jazz is so much about listening and less about reading music.
Traditional Mongolian music as well as 20th century Mongolian music is to a great extent based on minor pentatonic scales. Add one note – the raised 4th – and you have the so-called "blues scale". When improvising on jazz blues tunes or minor tunes, where minor pentatonic or blues scales are useful, the saxophone students seemed very familiar with the sound and use of these.
Jazz teaching in the land of Genghis Khan has just begun, but I believe that jazz has a bright future in Mongolia. I also think that Mongolia will benefit from being close to two jazz loving countries: Japan and South Korea. Upcoming young players in Mongolia are in fact near numerous professional jazz artists, jazz clubs and festivals in these two countries, which can give them opportunities to hook up with inspiring international and established jazz scenes, study, play at jam sessions – and in the future take part of it all themselves as professional jazz musicians.
Paris, January 2013