A jazz improvisation curriculum: Junior high through college

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.

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Ideas for directing student jazz bands

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.

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Multi-instrument method in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Creole Love Call”

The artist1

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.

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Sidney Bechet’s “Summertime”

View the transcription

Sidney Bechet may be jazz’s most unfairly forgotten genius.

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.

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Dvorák’s “New World” and jazz music: Heirs to a common heritage

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.

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