The following is a suggested curriculum for teaching jazz style and improvisation to students from junior high school through college. The materials listed are geared toward the developing saxophonist, but may be substituted or adapted to meet needs of other instrumentalists. The curriculum assumes the student has a basic command of the instrument, and should be used in conjunction with classical study. The layout of the curriculum suggests materials for junior high, high school, and college, but will of course need to be altered to fit each individual student’s needs.
The following is a summary of lessons learned from observing rehearsals of jazz big bands. A great debt is owed here to Dr. Ray Smith of Brigham Young University, director of the Synthesis big band.
A picture is worth a thousand words
The student jazz group should be exposed to recordings (or, when possible, live performances), especially of the arrangements they are learning. This benefits the band in several ways:
First, the band members further absorb general concepts, such as swing feel, sense of time, and concept of tone, as well as bits of jazz “vocabulary” (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, for example). These concepts, no matter how clearly explained, can only really be learned by listening and imitating—like learning the correct accent for a foreign language.
Roland Kirk was born in 1935. As an infant, he was blinded, possibly by negligent medical care. He attended the Ohio State School for the blind, where he played in the school band. At the age of sixteen, he led a dance band that performed around the Midwest. It was also at age sixteen that he got the idea to play more than one instrument at once, an innovation he claimed to have received in a dream. He acquired a battery of instruments, including such oddities as the stritch and manzello (obsolete cousins of the saxophone), and set about mastering them individually and in combination.
Kirk recorded as early as 1956, but got little attention until 1960, when critics began to accuse him of gimmickry. Kirk maintained that his unorthodox techniques were born of musical expression rather than cheap showmanship, and his following began to increase.
In 1970, he added “Rahsaan” to his name, having been prompted to do so by another dream.
Once the favorite son of his native New Orleans, as well as his many adopted European hometowns, Bechet’s recordings are now too often overlooked. Bechet, born in 1897, was a true virtuoso of the clarinet, and played a major part in establishing the instrument’s role in Dixieland and early jazz. His pioneering use of the soprano saxophone set a precedent that would come to fruition in a later generation of saxophonists. Bechet’s penchant for unusual instruments is documented in a few surviving recordings on the bass saxophone and the sarrusophone, instruments as nearly obsolete in Bechet’s day as in our own.
But Bechet’s genius transcended his choice of instrument. His abilities may even have rivaled his contemporary, and sometime bandmate, Louis Armstrong. The eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet upheld Bechet as “the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.” Ansermet would no doubt be disappointed to find his prediction has been disproved.
Seminal Early Concert Soloists
Marcel Mule: Le Patron of the Saxophone (Clarinet Classics, compilation 1996)
Marcel Mule: Le Patron of the Saxophone: Encore! (Clarinet Classics, compilation 2000)
These compilations also feature recordings by the Mule Saxophone Quartet.
Kreisler of the Saxophone (Clarinet Classics, compilation [year?])
Regrettably, recorded performances by Sigurd Rascher and Cecil Leeson are not currently in print. Important out-of-print recordings include Sigurd Rascher Plays the Saxophone, volumes I and II, formerly published by Grand Award, and The Art of Cecil Leeson, volumes I-VII, formerly available on the Enchante label.
In 1892, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák came to the United States. He came at the invitation of a Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy music lover who wanted him to head up her latest pet project—a conservatory of music meant to rival the famous conservatories of Europe.
Dr. Dvorák, already known for his use of traditional Czech musical elements in his compositions, arrived in the New World to find it rich with ethnic music. He was particularly impressed with the spirituals of the black slaves:
I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. . . . In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.
The neglected saxophone
Despite the saxophone’s widespread acceptance in jazz and popular music styles, its acknowledgment as a viable solo instrument in classical music has been slow. Few composers have included it in orchestral scores. Only in recent years have conservatories and university music departments begun to recognize the saxophone on a somewhat equal footing with, say, the flute, the piano, or the violin.
Perhaps this neglect was a lingering byproduct of the instrument’s chronology. After all, by the time of its invention by Adolphe Sax in the 1840’s, the instrumentation of the modern orchestra was already becoming somewhat standardized. Maybe the inattention had something to do with the saxophone’s longstanding reputation as a “jazzy horn” and association with burlesque1. Or maybe the upsurge in amateur interest since the 1920’s had spawned too many inferior saxophonists for anyone to take the instrument seriously2.
What is vibrato?
Carl Seashore, in his In Search of Beauty in Music, defines “good” vibrato as “a pulsation of pitch usually accompanied by synchronous pulsations of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give a pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone.”
Debate over saxophone vibrato
Saxophone vibrato is a controversial topic for several reasons. In fact, some have questioned whether vibrato should be used at all. Paul Berler, in a 1996 Saxophone Journal article, notes that wind instrumentalists have only made serious study of vibrato in the last century. Robert Luckey points out in a 1983 article in Woodwind, Brass, & Percussion that “prominent saxophone teachers have equated their instrument with the human voice,” and that, since vibrato is accepted as a natural embellishment of the human voice, it should be accepted as a natural part of the saxophone tone.
Importance of appropriate materials
Choosing the right method books and materials—or choosing not to use them—can be a deciding factor in a beginning saxophone student’s success. A student assigned page after page of boring finger exercises will lose interest quickly, but a student given only “fun” assignments may fall behind in development of sound technique.
During the month of October 2001, I observed the private teaching methods of music professors at Brigham Young University. Though each professor’s methods differed in some details, the underlying principles of effective teaching were very similar: first, provide an environment in which the student is comfortable and undistracted; second, provide clear objectives, including honest evaluations of progress; and third, provide needed motivation.
1. Provide a comfortable learning environment
A comfortable learning environment includes a trusting and secure student-teacher relationship, proper facilities and equipment, and a distraction-free environment. These allow student and teacher to concentrate on the lesson, prevent unnecessary stress, and promote optimal performance.