Jazz swing notation

Sometimes a well-meaning composer or arranger will try to approximate a jazz swing style notationally in this way:

dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythmThis is wrong.

Sometimes he or she will take this approach:

12/8 rhythmAlso wrong. So is this one:

eighth notes with indication to tripletizeThe idea of “tripletizing” eighth-note rhythms is especially pervasive, and misleading if taught without nuance. Composers are sometimes guilty of this; so are conductors, arrangers, and educators.

The issue with each of these bad notational approaches is that they try to approximate characteristic jazz rhythms with symbols that are rooted in the rather different rhythms of classical music. But real jazz swing rhythms aren’t necessarily dotted or 12/8 or triplets. This leads to problems both for composers and performers.

For composers, using a 12/8 time signature or eighth-note triplets in 4/4 too easily drags the work into a compound-meter feel. And jazz swing is decidedly not in a compound meter: the rhythms are very much duple in nature. Authentic swing almost always has an underlying feel of two notes per beat, even though those notes are not equal in length. Extended or frequent passages with a compound-meter feel (three notes per beat) are dead giveaways of a failure to really absorb swing style.

For jazz-untrained performers, seeing dotted or compound-type rhythms on a page simply doesn’t provide fine enough information to accurately reproduce authentic swing style. It’s perhaps a bit like baking a cake from a recipe with each ingredient rounded off to the nearest tablespoon; the result will approximate a cake but likely won’t be especially successful. And even for the jazz-trained performer, sometimes the dotted or triplety notation can obscure the intended sound, something like typing a sentence into Google Translate, translating it into some other language, and then translating it back into English. (The result definitely loses fidelity.) Or, the poor notation can simply dull or distract from the jazz musician’s more authentic approach.

All of this, of course, begs the question of what precisely is the correct downbeat-upbeat length ratio for a true swing style, if not the 2:1 ratio of the triplety approach or the 3:1 ratio of the dotted approach. That question is larger in scope than I intend to fully tackle here, but I think it suffices to summarize with a few brief points:

  • Firstly, there’s no reason for it to be a mystery or a matter of “opinion;” using very simple technology we can measure exactly what jazz musicians are doing.
  • The ratios, if we measure them, are very, very far from consistent, even taken independently of factors like tempo. (There’s a popular but not-uniformly-supportable idea that the notes swing “harder” [greater ratio] at slower tempi and less hard [ratio nearer to 1:1] at faster tempi.) The precise ratios are an expressive, interpretive matter, and ultimately up to the performers.
  • The rhythms themselves are not the only factors that make swing sound like swing; articulation, phrasing, and other elements are also important, and also beyond the scope of my intended topic here.

What, then, is the best way to notate swing rhythms? I sort of like this one, though it’s not the one I ultimately recommend:

grace notesWhat I do like about the weird grace note approach is that it makes fairly clear the idea that the exact “downbeat” (quarter note) to “upbeat” (grace note) ratio is an interpretive matter. It also evokes what I find to be the most successful method of executing swing rhythms: think in quarter note pulses, and let the upbeats lead to the following downbeats. What I don’t like about this method is that it’s a hassle to write and to read.

My best recommendation is this:

eighth notes with "Swing" indicationNote the absence of the “two eighths equal triplet quarter-eighth” indication. This way is simple to read and write, reinforces the duple nature of swing rhythm, and doesn’t prescribe a specific ratio. One might hope that a jazz-untrained musician encountering this would seek out some good training or at least listen to some good swing recordings.

Happy swinging.

Improvisation and doubling

An important factor in improvising fluently (such as in a jazz context) is a collection of vocabulary. Broadly defined, this could include rote-memorized “licks” plus all kinds of other material: scale- or arpeggio-oriented patterns, for example. With improvisation, you don’t have the luxury of practicing your solo note-for-note; instead you have to develop a large pool of available material, and learn it so well that you can mix and match it on the fly.

Photo, fantail media
Photo, fantail media

If you double on multiple instruments, the vocabulary pool isn’t really portable. You can bring your improvisational ideas with you from instrument to instrument, but you won’t be able to execute them smoothly unless you have put in the practice hours on each instrument separately. If you are doubling, say, saxophone and flute, you might find that the fingerings are similar enough that you can make a few things work, but it’s too easy to paint yourself into a corner, or to catch yourself using “close enough” fingerings that really aren’t, or to play with unsatisfactory tone or intonation. To do it right, and have the colors of multiple instrumental voices available to you as an improviser, treat each instrument like it’s your only one.

Creativity, hard work, and beginning jazz improvisation

I occasionally teach a university course in jazz improvisation, geared toward beginning improvisers. Sometimes I think prospective students are afraid to sign up because they don’t consider themselves already to be musically creative. On the other hand, I have some students enroll in the class with unrealistic expectations about the results, thinking that they will learn all the tricks and secrets and be ready for some fantasy gig.

It doesn’t make sense to avoid taking French 101 because “I don’t speak any French”—you’re missing the point of an introductory course. But it also isn’t likely that by the end of the semester you’ll be ready to wow everyone at the smartest dinner parties in Paris.

Photo, alphadesigner
Photo, alphadesigner

The good-news/bad-news is that most of what happens in a beginning improvisation class doesn’t feel creative or spontaneous at all. In my course, we do a lot of drilling of scales, arpeggios, patterns, and “licks,” and then trying to execute them successfully in a pre-planned way over a set of chord changes. The same happens in your first-semester French class: you memorize some basic phrases by rote, and try to use them in the right order in very structured “conversations.” At some point you get some very restricted freedom: you have to say what color le chat is, but you get to pick if he is noir or blanc. Similarly, in my class you might get to decide which of your two memorized “two-five-one” licks to use over the first four bars of the bridge, or whether to start that digital pattern on the root of the chord or the fifth, but that’s about it. Limited options don’t mean you aren’t really improvising (or speaking French), it just means you don’t have a lot of vocabulary to work with yet.

I know that this rubs some improvisers the wrong way: I shouldn’t be regurgitating pre-packaged licks! I should be developing my own “thing!” For those people, I suggest you read a biography of any great improvising musician and find out what they did in the early stages of developing their thing. Or just try speaking some French: no need for grammar study or vocabulary lists! Do your thing!

For those who consider themselves creativity-deficient: you can learn to improvise in a systematic way—it’s not something you’re born with (or without). I’ll teach you some existing vocabulary and some techniques for making your own, and then you can start putting them together in ways that make sense to you. You’re being creative!

For those hoping to learn some “tricks:” the only useful trick I can teach you is to take the techniques from the class and hit the practice rooms. There aren’t any shortcuts to improvising well. It will require hard work over the course of many years. But the process can be a lot of fun!

Farewell: Yusef Lateef

Earlier this week jazz musician Yusef Lateef passed away at age 93. Lateef was known for his adventurous woodwind doubling, playing saxophone and flute, plus the oboe and a number of woodwinds from non-Western cultures. Here he is playing some tasty flute:

I’ve seen oboists look a bit uncomfortable when the topic of Yusef Lateef comes up, no doubt because his sound on that instrument was so different from the preferred American-school classical oboe sound. If you have been too quick to dismiss Lateef’s contributions as a jazz oboist in the past, I suggest you listen again with fresh ears, bearing in mind that his music was informed by jazz as well as the music of many other cultures, and that the “classical” oboe tradition was not necessarily relevant to his goals. Here’s some bluesy oboe playing:

Check out Yusef Lateef’s official website for more information about his life and music and about his passing.

Farewell: Frank Wess

Last week Frank Wess, one of the great woodwind doublers in jazz, passed away at age 91. He was best known for his years with the Count Basie band, and for being an influential figure in bringing the flute into its own as a jazz instrument.

If you’re not familiar with his playing, definitely check out “Midgets” from the Basie April in Paris album. Sometimes classically-trained flutists are quick to dismiss jazz-playing doublers, in some cases justifiably so, for failing to pay proper dues on the instrument. While Wess’s tone doesn’t fit current ideas about a “correct” classical sound, there is evidence here that he is in control of the instrument: certainly good command of finger technique (and remember, classically-trained folks, that Wess is improvising here), plus some double-tonguing, a technique common in classical flute technique but relatively rare among reed players.

Photo, Tom Marcello
Photo, Tom Marcello

There is a nice tribute (with a YouTube video) at the NPR jazz blog.

Things that aren’t jazz

Photo, frawemedia

Okay, first of all: what I’m talking about here is the “mainstream” jazz tradition, insofar as such a thing exists (you can make a good argument that it doesn’t, really). “Jazz” is a wide net to cast. To flip it around, if I were going to list things that aren’t “classical” music, I might say “use of the electric bass guitar” or even “microtonality.” Are those things really mutually exclusive with classical music? No. But they are not part of the tradition of the Viennese masters, not what your local community orchestra would play, not what most people think of when they think of classical music.

One misconception that many classical musicians seem to have about jazz is that since it has strong improvisatory elements, it must be very free and unstructured. I think the opposite is true: improvisation, at least in the mainstream-bebop/hard-bop-influenced style, requires fairly strict structural underpinnings. None of the following works well when someone is trying to improvise:

  • Free forms. Form in jazz is much stricter than in classical music. Most common jazz tunes have one of two forms. The first is precisely 32 bars in 4/4 time, with four eight-bar sections: AABA. The second is precisely twelve 4/4 bars, a “blues” form. Anything that doesn’t fit exactly into one of these categories is most likely very closely related to one of them.
  • Free harmony. Bebop and hard-bop jazz are extremely tonal. While improvisers may play pitches that fall “outside” the chords, it is almost always within a tonal framework: the notes function as upper extensions of the chords, or at least they are used in a sort of polychordal way that has reference to the underlying harmony and will ultimately resolve back to it. The idea that “there are no wrong notes” isn’t exactly true; notes can definitely sound very wrong if they aren’t properly contextualized with regard to the harmony.
  • Free or changing meter. Jazz makes frequent use of polymeter and syncopation, which can give the impression of shifting meter, but most jazz doesn’t actually change meters, especially in improvisatory sections. The polyrhythms and syncopations work because they are overlaid on an unchanging metric pulse, and resolve to it.
  • Rubato. Tempi also tend to quite strict in jazz playing. A musician might “lay back” in the beat or stretch a rhythm, but the underlying pulse doesn’t change. (In my experience, jazz players generally have much steadier internal metronomes than classical musicians.)
The freedom that improvisers do have is to create melodies over these fairly rigid structures. The rigidity gives the improviser a predictable framework to work with (or perhaps against). At a more detailed level, there are certain melodic characteristics that classical musicians tend to associate with jazz, that I don’t hear when I listen to jazz or play with fine jazz musicians:

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Which instrument should I learn next?

Photo, Jon Delorey

One of the questions I get most frequently from aspiring woodwind doublers is “Which instrument should I learn next?”

The short answer is “Whichever you want.” Woodwind doublers’ motivations (career, artistic, or personal) are varied, and your interests and goals should override any advice I (or anyone) can offer. If you really want to learn to play a certain instrument, then no need to read further—that’s the one you should tackle next. And if you don’t feel motivated about a certain instrument, then your chances of success aren’t good.

But many of the doublers I hear from have designs on picking up several instruments over the long term, and are just looking for advice to maximize some aspect of their current careers:


If your goal is to get as many doubling gigs as possible, then there are some relatively common combinations of instruments that are used for musical theater, jazz big bands, and other commercial-type live-performance situations. (If you play another combination, then there are probably still opportunities out there if you find them or make them yourself.) Some of the common ones are:

  • Flute, clarinet, and saxophone. For jazz situations, you need good saxophone chops coupled with a good grasp of jazz style and possibly improvisation. If doubling is required, it will almost always be C flute, B-flat clarinet, or both, and often the bar isn’t terribly high on these. For theater, you will find that the weighting depends on the show and the book; often the Reed 1 and Reed 2 books both call for flute, clarinet, and saxophone, but Reed 1 might have the lead flute parts and solos, and Reed 2 is the lead/solo clarinet part. If it’s a jazz-heavy musical, then either part might call for orchestral-type soloing on flute or clarinet, plus demand convincing lead alto saxophone playing. Theater books are also likely to call for doubling on “secondary” instruments like piccolo, E-flat clarinet, and soprano saxophone.
  • Low reeds. In a jazz big band, this means primarily baritone saxophone with some bass clarinet (and occasionally B-flat clarinet and/or flute). For theater, a more “classical” show will likely be bassoon-heavy, with bass clarinet and baritone saxophone doubles; a jazzy show will lean toward baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with less (or no) bassoon. Bass saxophone and contrabass clarinets occasionally appear as well; most smart arrangers will provide ossia lines to enable covering these on more standard instruments.
  • Oboe specialist. This surprising combination shows up in many musicals: oboe, sometimes with English horn, plus B-flat clarinet and tenor saxophone. Generally the oboe and English horn parts call for a soloist-level player, with little more than inner harmonies on the single reed instruments.

Jazz chord symbols: a primer for the classically-trained

Printed jazz music often uses chord symbols to indicate the music’s underlying harmony. As with the Roman numeral system used in classical music theory, jazz chord symbols may be used as a tool for analysis. But they are also used for performance, like Baroque figured bass notation, with the musicians using the symbols as a framework for improvising melodies and/or accompaniments. In jazz, the symbols are  generally non-specific with respect to inversion, and players of chord-capable instruments (such as piano or guitar) in jazz are accustomed to making independent choices about inversion and voicing. Depending on the situation, printed jazz music may include written notes only, or notes plus chord symbols, or even chord symbols alone.

Simple major triads aren’t common in most “modern” (post-1940) jazz. But in the rare cases that they do appear, they are indicated with a single note name:

jazz chord symbol: simple triad
C major

The letter “C” above the staff is the chord symbol. The notes shown on the staff here are the corresponding pitch classes, stacked in root position in the thirds familiar to students of classical theory, though a jazz musician, composer, or arranger would rarely voice a chord in this way.

Almost always, there should some variety of seventh specified, using the numeral 7 (and when it isn’t specified, it is often implied). By convention, using the 7 alone with a note name indicates the lowered seventh:

jazz chord symbol:  seventh
C seventh

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Review: Bob Hartig’s Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of jazz musician bloggers opining about the evils of memorizing patterns and “licks,” and calling for original and creative improvisation. While I don’t think anybody will argue about the importance of individuality and creativity, I do think it’s a big mistake to ignore the value of memorizing, practicing, and internalizing established jazz vocabulary.

When a person learns a foreign language, they learn first to repeat some standard useful phrases. Then they learn to rearrange the vocabulary and syntax of those phrases to create new ones. Over a lifetime of study and practice, they may learn the language well enough to speak or write with their own distinctive creative voice. But if a student tries on the first day of French class to be creative and original, they aren’t likely to make much sense. To speak the language, you need to hear it, imitate it, and then repeat over and over. Genuine individual originality comes much, much later.

So I was pleased to read an excellent blog post by saxophonist Bob Hartig:

If you listen to a lot of Kenny Garrett, and if you take it upon yourself to transcribe a bunch of Kenny Garrett solos, and if you steep yourself in those Kenny Garrett solos, then chances are you will come out sounding an awful lot like Kenny Garrett.

Now, if that’s all you aspire to, then that’s where you’ll end up: as a Kenny Garrett clone. But if you desire to forge your own voice, then Kenny will simply become a part of your vocabulary, a vocabulary that includes other influences besides Kenny and increasingly reflects your personal explorations with melody, harmony, timbre, and nuance. You are an individual, after all, and the sheer force of your individuality will direct you toward your own sound and approach.

Bob expands on this in the comments section:

A good writer doesn’t become one by attempting to create a different dictionary. He or she develops expertise by becoming conversant with the existing language, and that happens largely through reading the works of great writers who have gone before. Through careful scrutiny and application of how others have handled the English language, the individual’s personal writing style emerges.

Shakespeare is noted for adding a huge number of words and phrases to the English language—undoubtedly one of the most creative minds working in that medium. But how many of the words and phrases in his works were really brand new inventions? Surely less than 1%. And how much did Charlie Parker or John Coltrane add to the jazz language, that wasn’t already there? Their contributions are staggeringly significant, but what they actually created out of thin air was a drop in the bucket among all the notes they played in their careers. For most of us mortals, our truly original contributions to the language (be it English or jazz) are few and far between; most of our creativity happens when we shuffle and remix the materials that are already before us.

Bob backs up  his ideas about the importance of jazz vocabulary with his Giant Steps Scratch Pad project. The Scratch Pad provides a wealth of tasty and useful vocabulary for playing over the chord changes to John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps,” a tune that has challenged the best of jazz players for decades because of its unusual and elegantly symmetrical chord progression. Bob was kind enough to send me a review copy of the Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete, a new PDF-only (at least for now) edition that contains the same material as the Scratch Pad, transposed into all twelve keys. The transposed material makes this especially good for those who aspire to play Giant Steps in all twelve keys, or who double on instruments of different transpositions.

I took the Scratch Pad Complete for a test drive today.

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The Doublers Collective: progressive jazz saxophone quintet

The Doublers Collective is a new quintet of accomplished jazz saxophonists with strong doubling abilities, based in Phoenix, Arizona. The group is the brainchild of Monica Shriver, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the NASA conference last year.

Check them out in this video:

For more about the Doublers Collective:

Dibs on first review of their forthcoming CD!