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: Continue reading “Things that aren’t jazz”

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:

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:

C seventh

Continue reading “Jazz chord symbols: a primer for the classically-trained”

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. Continue reading “Review: Bob Hartig’s Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete”

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!

Classical musicians and jazz music

Photo, Andrei Z

I try to be both a classical musician and a jazz musician. This dual pursuit is sometimes detrimental to both sides, but often beneficial, and I enjoy it. I’ve put in serious study, listening, and practice hours with both kinds of music.

Jazz has influenced classical composers enough that classical musicians can’t ignore it—if you’re an orchestral clarinetist, it’s only a matter of time before you have to face Rhapsody in Blue. So it’s not unusual to hear classical musicians, especially in academic situations, address aspects of jazz playing.

It’s disappointing to me to hear classical musicians use pejorative language when describing jazz style, but frequently terms like “sloppy,” “lazy,” “harsh,” or “piercing” are used to characterize its techniques and sounds. In the last few months, some egregious and ill-informed examples of this have appeared in the blogosphere, and I can think of several examples during that same period when I have heard that kind of talk in masterclasses and workshops.

I don’t think that the examples I’ve seen lately were intentionally belittling or snobbish. And, in fact, in some cases the intent seemed to be to express appreciation for jazz music and jazz musicians, but the choice of words betrays some underlying attitudes about the relationship between classical and jazz.

If you’re a classical musician, these are the kinds of things I want you to know about jazz playing: Continue reading “Classical musicians and jazz music”

Jazz opportunities for woodwind players: learn the saxophone

Jazz clarinetist (and saxophonist!) Eddie Daniels. Photo, Professor Bop

I’ve been having a great time directing the university jazz band this year (alas, a temporary assignment). The group performed recently for some talented high school musicians from around the state, the kind of students I would like to recruit. After the performance, I was approached by no less than three of them, each expressing an interest in playing in the group in the future. None of them play instruments typical of jazz big band arrangements.

I’ve had this happen with private students, too. I once met with a very young and enthusiastic clarinetist and her mother. They explained to me that the young clarinetist was being excluded from her middle school jazz band because she didn’t play a “jazz” instrument. Their plan was for her to study clarinet with me, and to get so good that the jazz band director would “just have to” accept her into the group.

The clarinet, of course, does have a noble history in jazz music (even big bands), as does the flute, and, less frequently, the double reeds. And don’t get me wrong here—I love playing and listening to jazz on all those instruments, and would love to see every young woodwind player, regardless of instrument, get the chance to participate. But there are some practical barriers. Continue reading “Jazz opportunities for woodwind players: learn the saxophone”

Farewell: James Moody

Woodwind doubler and jazz great James Moody passed away today. James Moody was known for his saxophone (especially tenor) and flute playing. You can read the obituary from the San Diego Union-Tribune, but, if you’re like me, you might rather just watch this. I love the weirdly humorous but deeply respectful intro by none other than Dizzy Gillespie.

Reader email: multiple woodwinds degree or single-instrument degree?

photo, bobtravis

I get email on a pretty regular basis from people who are considering multiple woodwinds degree programs. They usually have excellent questions for which there are no real answers, but I’m always happy to try to offer whatever perspective I’ve got.

I heard recently from one of my readers who is working on a bachelor’s degree at a very large and well-respected university music department. They are currently enrolled as a double major in jazz studies (playing primarily saxophone) and flute performance, and have some skills in additional woodwinds.

The question was whether this person should continue on that track, or switch to a double major in jazz studies with a 5-instrument multiple woodwinds degree.

I like the idea of getting just a flute degree, because it makes it sound like I’m a REAL flute player. The woodwind degree also makes it sound like I can play any double—but I’m afraid it still kind of sounds like I’m just a “doubler.” (Not really an EXPERT at any of them).

The work I’d like to do after school is anything that utilizes woodwind doublers – playing in shows, playing on cruise ships, playing in big bands, playing in recording studios (dream job!).

What would you suggest I do?

Here’s the best advice I was able to come up with. (All quotes here are somewhat edited.) Continue reading “Reader email: multiple woodwinds degree or single-instrument degree?”

Farewell: Buddy Collette

Notable woodwind doubler Buddy Collette, known for his skill and artistry as a jazz saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist, and composer, passed away on Sunday. Check out the Los Angeles obituary, or, even better, enjoy his flute and tenor:

Tip of the hat to Eric at for bringing this sad news to my attention.