MonthlyMusings – June 13, 2017

My last blog

I have been writing these blogs for about ten months and I think I have said just about everything I have to say about music and a few other things. I have always been a pretty organized person and don’t like to leave unfinished business. So, at some point, if I am no longer able to write a closing column, I want it to be already written.

As I approach 80, I sometimes wonder if I should subscribe to any magazines. Hah! I’m not really serious. I am generally healthy and I look forward to every new day with enthusiasm. I wrote a senior blues though. The lyrics begin, “Woke up this morning, so what do I have to be blue about?”

I recommend trying to live in the moment so as not to miss things that are happening every minute of every hour of every day. Sure, it’s good to look ahead and anticipate certain things and it’s also natural to reflect on our memories. But life unfolds in some amazing ways that are best experienced as they go by. If I could foresee the future and tell you where and what you will be doing even five years from now, you might be skeptical and not believe it. My career has been a series of opportunities that I chose to take a chance on. Each one was gratifying in certain ways and a learning experience that helped strengthen my conviction about what I ultimately wanted to do. Even though I taught at North Texas for 35 years, while there, I continued to pursue new possibilities in relation to my job and continued to learn more about the music I love called jazz. I have also continued to listen to and learn from the classical repertoire for a broader perspective and balance..

Here’s a thought about problems. Though they can be difficult, problems that arise in our lives are often opportunities for growth. They may require patience and tolerance of other points of view but they ultimately lead to increased understanding of yourself and others. I think we can all stand to improve in our ability to get along with others.

Most tunes that we like to play as musicians contain problem areas that require solving before we can sound good improvising on the harmony. The standard repertoire of songs from the Great American Songbook and compositions by great jazz composers have shown that, as we identify and solve problems in a tune, we improve our understanding of music in general and that tune specifically. We start with easy tunes in familiar keys and not many chords and gradually work through more challenging material. This growth process is the work of a lifetime and, if we are applying ourselves, we can realize a great deal of improvement. We’ll never be perfect but we can aspire to perfection. Gradually we gain more control and ease in our playing and it becomes even more satisfying to make music.

Remember, music is a language and if we are to be able to speak eloquently we must have vocabulary. Study melodies of great composers, classical and jazz, and use their ideas to construct your own melodies. When we improvise, we are basically making new melodies to the harmony which already exists. Study improvised jazz solos and try to glean motives or “licks” from them. Many of the clichés that are used frequently help identify the music as being jazz. Also study classical sonatas and symphonies and observe the development of thematic material. Try to apply some of that thinking in developing your own ideas. Use a combination of repetition, variation and transposition.

I especially want to thank all of those musical souls with whom I have had contact. We are all part of a sub culture dedicated to creating art and bringing beauty to people’s lives. I hope you will all continue to be a positive force in the universe and not allow yourself to be involved in petty bickering. Rather, do good deeds personally and musically. Share your music freely but don’t let yourself be exploited by club managers who want you to play an audition or perform for a couple pitchers of beer. Believe in the inherent worth of what you produce. It deserves hearing and financial support.

I want to thank my wife, Jill, for editing not only this book but four others. She is a very skilled journalist. I continue to learn about writing from her as well as many life lessons. She is the best person I know and I am very fortunate to have spent thirty two years with her. I love her deeply!

It has always been my opinion that we should all be both student and teacher our whole lives. You never finish learning everything about any subject and, at the same time, you have something to share with others that may be helpful to them. We have all received help from others and should give back when there is an opportunity. Pay it forward! Life is fascinating and always full of potential. It is an amazing opportunity to be given the chance to live, grow, learn, share, and hopefully realize our full potential as human beings. It has been quite a ride so far and I am loving every minute of it. I wish you all a fulfilling, positive life experience and many hours of great music!

Monthly Musings – May 21, 2017

Melodies and Pickup Notes

Have you ever written a melody and had it played by someone else? Did you cringe when any wrong notes were played? Of course you did. So it hit me at some point that, if I want my music played correctly, I need to show that same consideration when I play music written by someone else. My way of stating that is “Play the melody as though the composer were listening.” Many composers of standards we love are no longer alive but they still deserve to have their music played correctly. We would never consider playing the melody wrong in a classical sonata or concerto. Are not contemporary composers of non-classical styles entitled to the same respect?

Now I do believe that you should form an idea of how you want to interpret a melody and how you want to treat it rhythmically. Often, in lead sheets, melodies are written in straight quarter notes and eighth notes but would sound very stiff if performed literally as written. A good vocalist, for example, often sings a melody very freely almost as though in rubato. He or she may also fall behind the time in getting all the lyrics out. This makes the lyrics sound more conversational. After all, we don’t speak in straight quarter notes and eighth notes!

There is a lot or freedom in the interpretation of a melody but I believe we should be faithful to the notes which contribute heavily to the aura of the piece. Often, the melody may include notes that are obviously altered or sometime unaltered and should remain so. Take, for example, the bridge of “All The Things You Are.”

Allthethings - bridge

The melody goes: D, G, D, D, C, C, E b, E, C, B. The E b is a b9 that moves to a natural 9 and then up to the 7th of the D7 chord. But in the second half of the bridge, the melody goes: D, G, B, B, A, A, A#, B, A, G#. The A# is a chromatic pickup that moves to the root and then up to the 7th of the B7 chord. So those three pickups are different from the first phrase. In the first half of the bridge they are b9, 9, 7 and in the second half of the bridge they are #7, 1, 7. Jerome Kern had a reason for writing it that way so we should play it that way. Relatively few musicians ever play the melody on the bridge correctly!

One of my biggest pet peeves about this tune is the last four measures. Most people play the melody on the Bb-7 chord Db, F, Ab, Db, F, G, Ab, just an arpeggio of the chord. But it should be Db, Db, F, Ab, F, G, Ab. The result is beautiful melodic motion up a major 6th and then down a minor 7th.

Allthe things bridge

“On Green Dolphin Street” is an excellent example of a tune that requires close attention to the melody. In the second eight measure phrase, the melody emphasizes a flat 9 and a sharp 9 on the V chord in two different keys.

GreenDolphin

So the melody has sent a clear message that, if we are to make it sound like we are playing this tune, we need to use a sound with altered 9ths when we improvise over those 7th chords. Basically, this implies either a diminished scale or the altered scale (melodic minor a ½ step above the root). Some musicians would say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, they are V chords and we can do whatever we want.” I say, “If you don’t want to make Green Dolphin sound like the composer intended, write your own tune!” Let’s think about “All The Things You Are” again for a second. In the first two A sections, the melody doesn’t imply any alterations, and so when improvising, one could play very diatonically in the keys and get a perfectly good sound. Of course, the dominant 7th chords could be altered but that wouldn’t necessarily improve the sound. Remember, making music more complicated doesn’t necessarily make it better, it just makes it more complicated.

There is still freedom to improvise fills in between phrases of a melody and to embellish the melody chromatically. But this should be done carefully so that the original melody is still intact. The great Jobim tune “Once I Loved” starts off on the 6th of the key (D in the key of F). The first chord is G-7 and it moves to C7+5 with the D still in the melody. Now, in jazz, we like alterations and commonly add extras that are not specified. So, if I played an altered scale (C# melodic minor) on the C7, it would add all of the alterations, b5, +5, b9, +9. But the D in the melody of the C7 is a natural 9 and that should be reflected in the improvisation. The chord calls for a +5 so the appropriate choice here is a whole tone scale which includes the +5 but also a natural 9. To me, ignoring these kinds of signals when soloing shows either ignorance or a lack of respect for the melody and thus the composer.

It is important to observe even simple single pickup notes. In the key of F, does a pickup to an F chord go C to F, or D to F, or maybe even Db to F? It is an important detail. As someone once said, “The beauty lies in the details!” I recommend learning melodies in a functional way that makes you aware of the motion through the chord or in the key. So, if I were learning the melody to Tenderly in Eb, I wouldn’t just learn the pickups at the beginning as Bb, C, Eb, D. I would learn them as 5, 6, 8, 7 and then I could play that melody in any key, assuming I was comfortable in the key. If you want to see if you understand how a melody moves, just try playing it in one other familiar key. For practice, play Happy Birthday starting on any note to see if you really know how the melody moves. This is also true of the chord progression which should be thought of functionally in the key of X!

Finally, guitar, piano and vibes players should pay careful attention to the melody when comping, either for someone playing the melody or solos. First of all, the job is to support the sound and make the solo voice or instrument comfortable. If someone is singing or playing the melody and your chord voicing contradicts the sound, it is not good! Good accompanists always enhance the sound rather than conflicting with it. So it is critical that you know the melodies and what notes to emphasize or avoid. Basically, if you don’t like to accompany, a rhythm section instrument is not for you! Good luck!

 

Monthly Musings – May 15, 2017

Windows of Opportunity

As I rapidly approach the age of 80, I think about my personal window of opportunity. We are alive for what seems like a long time and usually is a period of several decades. But now and then I think about how my life has coincided with other lives and what that has meant to me. In my lifetime, I have had the chance to experience the presence of people like Bud Powell, John Coltrane. Clark Terry, Bill Evans and other great musicians, seeing them perform in person. Though I had the chance, I didn’t get to hear Charlie Parker because I didn’t yet realize how important it would have been to me. I missed hearing Vladimir Horowitz because I didn’t know about the performance until it was over. I never pursued hearing Glenn Gould even though I was very impressed by his playing of Bach.

If my window had occurred 50 years earlier, I could have experienced Art Tatum and Fats Waller in person. I could have heard Stravinsky conduct the premier of the Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. I might have heard Rachmaninoff perform one of his concertos. If the window was shifted 100 years earlier, I could have heard Brahms perform. I could have heard Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. Shift the window another 50 years earlier and I could have been there to hear Beethoven conduct one of his symphonies. We think the repetitive V-I cadences sound funny now but I think it would have been powerful to be there to hear them for the first time! If my window had started 250 years ago, I might have heard Bach play his music in St Thomas church in Liepzig.

Meanwhile, we experience hundreds of little windows in our lifetimes. If my father’s window had been a couple of seconds earlier or later, he might not have been killed by a drunk driver. If my window had been just a few minutes later, I might not have met my wife of 30 years. During my window, numerous opportunities presented themselves. I seized some and ignored others. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been had I chosen different opportunities. That’s why I think situations involving a choice deserve our careful consideration.

In no particular order, here are some of the people who have been influences in my window and for whom I am grateful: John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, John Williams, Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, Gabriel Faure, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Paul Hindemith, Giacomo Puccini, James Brown, Sting, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, Robert De Niro, Kathryn Hepburn, Alan Sorkin, Georgia O’Keefe, Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin, Robin Williams, George Carlin, Bill Maher, John Cleese, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Horowitz, Alvin Ailey, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Luciano Pavarotti, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Clark Terry, John Coltrane, Oscar Petersen, Art Tatum, Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, and many more whom I’m sure I will continue to think of after this is printed!

I love the particular time I am alive now with all of its unique opportunities. But I think back to my youth when we would have milk delivered to our house in glass bottles. On winter mornings, the cream on top would freeze and push up out of the bottle. I also remember how we would pick up the only phone in the house and hear an operator say, “Number please?” We hung laundry out on a clothesline to dry and, in the winter, the sheets would become frozen tents. As kids, even though there was bus service, we would ride everywhere on our bikes. We also spent a lot of time on roller skates which had four wheels, not in line. We had no TV or other electronic devices so we spent all of our time outdoors playing baseball, riding bikes and climbing trees. When we came inside, we listened to The Lone Ranger on the radio. On Saturdays, our mothers would drop us at the local movie theater for a day of triple feature movies, some cartoons, and short films that always ended with “cliff hangers” that guaranteed we would be back next week to see what happened. It was a great childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

In the current part of my window, I can send an email message to someone and receive an answer almost immediately. What a boon to communication! Of course, it is a double edged sword because immediate response is often expected! But the ability to communicate with others anywhere in the world within a few minutes is fabulous! Now we can not only record performances but we can record both audio and video. This presents the most complete, realistic documentation we could possibly ask for.

Of course i am grateful for many, many wonderful friends with whom, I have shared this window. We have grown together, learned together and shared many wonderful times together. I don’t know what will occur after my window closes but, in addition to technology, I hope the human race will evolve further to achieve a perspective that puts emphasis on treating each other better. To me, the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” still matters.

Monthly Musings – May 10, 2017

My development as a player

I wanted to take piano lessons when I was young but my folks didn’t want me to be a musician. They had both been on the road and knew the life of musicians! So they put me off for a while but finally, when I was about 12, they gave in and let me take piano lessons. It was easy for me so I usually sight-read my lessons and played softball the rest of the week. My early teachers just taught me to play pieces, nothing about theory or how to practice to get better. At the same time, I began listening to records and picking out the notes to melodies by ear. I played the melodies because I loved the songs. Gradually I started to mess around with the melodies to the songs and embellish them or change the rhythm slightly. That was my introduction to improvisation. My dad taught me what notes to play so I could accompany him on tunes when he played trombone. I was his play-along long before those recordings existed! Then one day, I asked him why I played certain notes and he explained basic chord structure to me. That was my only jazz lesson. Other than that, I am pretty much self-taught. It took me longer than it would today because I didn’t have the opportunities that young people have now! But, in some ways, I learned to hear better, I became familiar with the traditions of the music, and I gradually formed a conviction about how I wanted to play. These are facets of a musician’s development that can’t really be taught or learned from a book.

In high school I played in little bands that played for sock hops after basketball games or an occasional musical revue. When I went to college, I took classical piano lessons but, outside of school, I was playing gigs and learning to play jazz, mainly by ear. I listened a lot and copied chord voicings and melodic ideas I heard on records. But I also learned a lot about music by playing the classical literature and observing things like melody, harmony, the registers of the piano, independence of the hands, etc. When I was in college, I was lucky to get a chance to play with older, more experienced players who helped me a lot! Gradually I established myself enough to get calls for gigs. I worked with Al Jarreau when I was a student at Coe College and he was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Iowa. I worked in a club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa called The Tender Trap. We played until 2 am and the local ballroom, where famous road bands played, closed at 1 am. So we often had people come sit in because they didn’t get to play much jazz in the big band setting. Sometimes, I was really nervous because of who was on the bandstand!

A huge part of my development was due to my studying piano with Herbert Melnick, a Juilliard graduate who was a phenomenal player and a great teacher. He was the first piano teacher to show me how to practice! This carried over into my jazz practice and helped me get better as a piano player and improve my jazz improvisation. So I learned a great deal during my college career! After graduation, I taught instrumental music in a small town about half way between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I put 28,000 miles on my car in one year because of the commuting I did to play gigs in those cities!

When I went to North Texas to do graduate work, I found myself in a community of very talented players who, like me, had come there because of the jazz program. That’s where I first met Ed Soph, Lou Marini, Billy Harper and other players of their stature. During my three years there, I did a lot of playing in various large and small groups. I also took advantage of being in close proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth. There were (and still are) many excellent players who came to the area primarily because of the burgeoning jingle business. I met and worked with many great players and I recall one experience that was a real epiphany. I worked with a saxophone player named Billy Ainsworth who was very secure in all keys and, on gigs, would call tunes in unusual keys. I will never forget the gig when he called “My Romance” in A major. I was used to playing most standards in the conventional keys and I knew the tune but could only kind of play it in F major. It was a baptism in fire! That night I realized I didn’t really know harmony very well and needed to become more secure with all keys. That began a serious revision of my practice regimen that included learning songs in all twelve keys or just taking one key like E major and playing everything I knew. In fact, since jazz groups played mainly in flat keys, I spent a lot of time playing in the sharp keys.

Also, at that time, I played a lot of dance gigs in small groups where there were no books of arrangements or charts. There were no fake books either so I learned many tunes on the band stand by ear. I would listen to the melody and the bass player and could usually figure out the root progression and qualities of chords. But it was great experience and helped develop my ability to hear harmony and melody. After I got my master’s degree, I met some great jazz players while teaching college and occasionally would back someone on a concert at our school. Through my entire teaching career, I made it a priority to be the best player I could be. I felt that I couldn’t reasonably tell students to do something that I couldn’t do myself.

I first met Clark Terry when I was teaching at Kansas State University and he came there as a guest artist. It was a thrill to get to play with him as I had listened to him on recordings and learned some of his tunes. I have done a lot of clinics and concerts with Jamey Aebersold, in the states and overseas and have met more great musicians working at his summer jazz workshops. I met Pat Metheny when he was 16 and he came to the University of Miami as a student when I was teaching there. We had a group with three faculty members and three students that played a lot although we never recorded. Whit Sidner, Don Coffman, Michael Treni and Danny Gottlieb also played in that band. I toured with the Stan Kenton band one summer when he was ill. I subbed on the Woody Herman band when they came through Miami and Andy Laverne, the piano player was sick. I can’t begin to itemize all of my professional experiences but I am grateful for all of them, good and bad!

I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach for the rest of my life so I took a couple of years off and freelanced for a while. In New York, I played with a great Hungarian guitar player, Atilla Zoller and Al Porcino’s big band. Also, I worked with Chris Connor for a while. I did two tours with Clark Terry, one in the states and one overseas. Eventually, I returned to teaching and, after two years at Arizona State University, returned to North Texas where I taught 25 years full time and another 10 years part time after I retired. While a member of the faculty, I usually played at least one concert with faculty and one concert with students every semester. Plus, I tried to play a lot of extra gigs in the DFW area and out of town. I have always loved teaching but I also love playing so that was my motivation. In recent years, I have enjoyed playing and taking short tours with my quartet and offering a format that combines clinics for the students with concerts. This has been a rewarding experience because of the opportunity to play the same music often and see it evolve in the band. Also, I feel fortunate to play with great players on a regular basis!

Monthly Musings – May 5, 2017

A Career In Music

I want to share my story that I think demonstrates how things may unfold in a musician’s career. We all have an idea as to what we want to do and how we think things will work out. But, in my case, there have been a series of opportunities (at times surprising) that have driven my career. I write this not to blow my own horn but simply to show that we are presented with choices throughout our careers and that they can make all the difference in the world!

I was born in Quincy, Illinois on July 23, 1937. My early life was spent there but, in 1952, my father was transferred to New York City for his work. So, my junior year of high school was at Flushing High School on Long Island. While in New York, I heard a lot of music at the original Birdland and other clubs. Later, we moved farther out on Long Island and when I graduated from Hicksville High School in 1955, I really had no idea of what to do next. So I asked my dad for advice and he suggested I go to college and study engineering so I could get a good job. I enrolled at Hofstra College and started a program in engineering. I hated it and did poorly so I dropped out of school and went to work in a grocery store.

In 1957, my dad was transferred again to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I asked my folks if I could study music and they said yes. So I enrolled at Coe College and began a major in music education. All through high school and college I was playing music as much as possible. In those days, we all majored in music education so that we could be accredited and get a teaching job. But my piano teacher, a Juilliard grad, treated me like a performance major and I did full junior and senior piano recitals. These were not required on the music education degree but I wanted to become a better player and I loved doing them. I also did a lot of accompanying and learned a great deal about music and the piano.

After graduation in 1961, I took a job teaching instrumental music at elementary, junior high and high school levels. It was rewarding and I enjoyed the work but I knew I wanted to study more. As an undergrad, I had no opportunity to study composition, in which I was very interested. So, in 1963, I enrolled in the college of music at North Texas State University and started studying composition with Samuel Adler who had studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale. During my three years at NTSU, I had to write a lot of music to make up undergraduate deficiencies since my bachelor’s degree was in music education. An important part of my time at NTSU was the fact that I was a graduate teaching assistant for Leon Breeden in the jazz program, teaching improvisation and arranging and directing a big jazz band..

In 1966, I completed my master’s degree in composition and took a job at Kansas State University teaching traditional theory and composition. I was very active writing compositions for faculty and student groups and it was a rich time for me. In 1968, I was approached about coming to California to teach half classical and half jazz at Monterey Peninsula College. This was the result of Leon Breeden recommending me for the job. This was a big decision because, though I loved playing and writing jazz music, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach it for a living. My view of my career was to become a respected composer and someday have my music performed by major orchestras and chamber groups!

Finally, I decided to try it out. So in 1968 I started teaching at Monterey Peninsula College. While a colleague was on sabbatical, I taught classical theory and classical piano lessons. On the jazz side, I taught an improvisation class, a jazz appreciation class and directed a jazz ensemble. When my colleague’s sabbatical was over and I was relieved of the theory class, I added a jazz piano class and a small group.

Monterrey is probably my favorite place of anywhere I have lived. But I was dying professionally there. It was at least a two and a half hour drive to San Francisco so it wasn’t practical to think of trying to do any performing there. At the military base, Fort Ord, there were some good players who came through but most were transferred out so it wasn’t possible to develop any long-term relationships. Also, there weren’t many venues for gigging in Monterrey unless you had some kind of pop act together which I didn’t! So, in the spring of 1971, I received a phone call from Jerry Coker asking me it I would like to come to Miami and teach in the jazz program at the university there. This too was the result of a recommendation by Leon Breeden, a reminder to always try to do a good job wherever you are working or whatever you are doing.

I knew of Jerry’s work, mainly through having used his “Improvising Jazz” book at North Texas. So, I knew I wanted to work with him and learn more of his ideas about music. Plus, I knew that there would be many musicians in a city like Miami and I would have more opportunities to play. I actually took a cut in salary from what I was paid in Monterrey to make this move. But I felt it would be important to me to give it a try. At that time, Jerry and I were the only full time jazz faculty and we were actually part of the theory department. Each semester, Jerry and I would teach some non-jazz course to fulfill our obligation to the theory department!

Working with Jerry was stimulating and very enjoyable. I feel that we developed some concepts of jazz curricula that were very important. Also, I did get to do a lot of playing and, my second year there, I played as many shows on Miami Beach as I could to build up my savings. This was because I had reached a point where I was torn between being a teacher or a performer. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue teaching the rest of my life. I had always believed that I should try to be the best player I could or my teaching didn’t mean anything. In Dallas, I worked six nights a week while teaching or I would go on the road in the summer time when school was out. Also, I was frustrated with my playing and wanted more time to practice.

So, in 1973, I resigned my position at the University of Miami and went back to New York to experience it at another level from my high school days. It was a great period of time for me. I usually got up and took my coffee to the piano to practice until lunch time. Then, I often went to jam sessions in the afternoon and sometimes had gigs at night. I had the opportunity to play with many great players and to be constantly humbled by them. However, as a keyboard player, I often had to drive my van and haul my electric piano around. I was amazed at the absence of pianos in what were considered music venues! And then there is the challenge of parking in New York. You either had to pay a premium to park or hunt for a place. I remember, first of all, having to double-park to unload my gear and hope I didn’t get towed in the process. Then I recall hunting for a parking place on the street and worrying about finding one and getting back to the club in time to start the gig! Oh yeah, and then there was the same challenge when I got back to Brooklyn after the gig. Sometimes I would have to park a mile away from my apartment and walk through some strange areas to get home. Of course, the next morning I would have to get up, after little sleep, and run over to move my car before they towed it for being on the wrong side of the street! Fun and games!

So, needless to say, those circumstances made being there less glamorous and affected my attitude about “making it” as a player. Plus, I was always playing other people’s music and I had music that I wanted to pursue. Also, I realized that I really loved teaching and wanted to have a more stable life style. So, in 1975, my good friend Herb Patnoe made me aware of a new jazz degree program that was to start that fall. Long story, short, I applied for the job and was fortunate to be hired. That fall, I headed for Tempe, Arizona to join the faculty of Arizona State University. They had a terrific faculty, excellent facilities and great students! Plus, I loved the country. I co-led the program with my dear friend Bob Miller who paved the way for the major in jazz studies. He did this by setting a standard of excellence and showing the students that they needed to meet that standard in all of their activities, traditional subjects included!

This now was my first job that involved only jazz curricula and it only took me nine years to get there. So, I was happy and ready to put down some roots, planning to develop one of the best jazz studies programs in the country. But, in 1977, Leon Breeden contacted me about a new faculty position at North Texas State University. I suspect that, for whatever reason, he was having trouble filling the job. So he appealed to me to come interview for the gig and, after all he had done for me, I felt it was the least I could do. Once I came and met some people and heard the students play, I decided I needed to come back to Texas. It was another hard decision because I regretted leaving students at ASU who had actually come there to study with me. I vowed to myself that, unless I was fired, I wouldn’t do that again.

In 1977, I assumed a position on the North Texas faculty that lasted for twenty-five years full time and another ten years part time and adjunct. It was a great place to be and I feel very fortunate to have had the colleagues I had to work with and the excellent students who have always been inspiring in their passion for jazz. I feel good about my contributions to the jazz program and the successes of the graduates. It is interesting to note that several members of the current faculty (2017) are former students like me. That seems only natural since those who have been in the program know better than anyone how it works!

Now, for the last couple of years, I have been on my own schedule, pursuing personal projects and doing things like writing this blog. Oh yeah, and I’m still trying to learn how to play better and understand the harmonic universe. I assure you, I will never be bored!

Monthly Musings – May 2, 2017

Orchestration

I have always been fascinated by color mixtures in compositions, arrangements or even just in the sound of a small group. There is a certain quality of a classic bebop sextet, for example. With trumpet, saxophone and trombone in the front line, there are a number of nice color mixtures possible such as alto and trumpet, tenor and trombone or trumpet and trombone. The quintet normally would have trumpet and saxophone as the horns and, if they read from the same Bb part, the result is a great octave sound that has been the signature of many groups. It’s interesting that it came about mainly as a matter of convenience but it remains a good horn sound. The same would be true of a vocal group which could sound very colorful in harmony but always sounds fine when all sing in unison!

When I was active writing big band charts, I loved to experiment with color mixtures of three or four instruments in unison on the melody or counter melodies. It’s kind of like painting though. If you mix two many colors together, it becomes black. So it seems, in music, that there is a limit to how many sounds you can blend together. Also, range is a factor to keep in mind. Any instrument in its extreme low or high register will be more intense and may not blend as well. So a trombone mixed with alto will be more intense than trumpet and alto because less of the trombone and alto ranges overlap.

Some color mixture unisons that I like:

Trumpet, soprano sax and guitar

Flute, piano and guitar

Trombone in cup mute, bass clarinet and guitar

Acoustic bass, bass trombone and guitar

Do you notice the repeated mention of guitar? Guitar has a wide range and the ability to alter tone quality to blend nicely with many instruments. I’m a big fan!

In recent years, I have been performing a lot with a quartet involving alto sax, piano, bass and drums. Often either the piano or the alto may play the melody alone. But I like the color mixture of alto and piano in unison and play many heads that way. This creates a challenge for the alto player to play in tune with the piano that might be a problem with some instruments. The other problem is that the piano doesn’t have the sustain of a wind instrument. Nevertheless, it is a unique color that at least introduces some semblance of orchestration into the band.

This fall I hope to add guitar to the group for our next tour. As my earlier comments might hint at, the guitar adds many possibilities for a variety of orchestration. The unisons of guitar and piano, guitar and alto, guitar and bass should be obvious. George Shearing had a unique and readily identifiable sound with his signature piano, vibes and guitar sound. So with the new quintet, we can allude to that even though the alto will be different in the mix.

One of the things that appeals to me about a group with guitar in it is that I can lay out sometimes to change the orchestration. Since both guitar and piano are comping instruments, either one can lay out to change up the sound. As much as I like to play, I get tired of hearing piano all the time. It seems the arranger in me needs relief from one chord instrument playing continually. By the same token, a good guitar player understands the need to lay out sometimes. In fact, it may be important for both piano and guitar to lay out and let the soloist play with only bass and drums. By the same token, there are times when a savvy drummer or bass player will lay out. There are many precedents for this. Clark Terry often liked to play with just the bass player in a duo setting for a while. John Coltrane often played with just Elvin Jones and no bass.

Although I like to accompany bass solos, it is one of the hardest instruments to comp for with out covering it up. So sometimes piano or guitar may both lay out and let the bass player solo with accompaniment from the drums only. Traditionally, people take fours or eights with the drummer or let him play the form alone. Those are fine traditions but I like to comp for a drum solo sometimes. Also, a drummer may like for the bass to walk the changes during his solo, providing another form of accompaniment.

Orchestration is an important aspect of a small group as well as a big band. Though I like to play in a trio, I really don’t prefer it. The instrumentation is monotonous regardless of how good the music is! So doing things like having the bass player play the melody can be engaging to the audience. Assuming the quality of the music being played is high, a variety of styles, keys, meters, tempos and orchestration all add to the effectiveness of the musical statement.

 

Monthly Musings – April 11, 2017

Instrumental technique in performance

There are many things you can do to help your technique. You can practice scales and arpeggios, various etudes and other classics, and specific jazz vocabulary in all keys. These days, with the advent of good music software for computers, it’s pretty easy to play a transcribed solo by someone into the computer and make copies of it in all twelve keys to practice as an etude. Short of that, it’s always a good idea to practice typical idiomatic vocabulary that you like in all twelve keys. This might include II-V-I phrases, for example. Or it may just be favorite licks or clichés that you want to have available at any time. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this because these ideas are your personal stamp on the music. Ultimately, it is their favorite clichés that allow us to recognize famous players.

I have another feeling about technique that I would like to share with you. The surprising thing is that technique can sometimes get in the way of making good music. This is not because of poor technique which prevents you from executing ideas but from too much technique that hits the listener in the face as if to say, “Listen to me, I’ve got chops!” Of course, I could always stand to improve my technique. But I find that, in general, I am able to execute most of what I want to play so I am not frustrated or discouraged. It is important to remember that, as you learn to play better, it is okay to not play! You will play many choruses on tunes over a lifetime so you don’t have to play everything you know every time you play a tune! You might even take some chances and improvise ideas that you have never played!

Of course, another thing that has a direct impact on technique is mental preparation. If we can’t visualize and “hear” what we want to play, the best chops in the world won’t help us to get the idea out since we don’t really know what it is! in practice, try to “sing” your ideas and visualize them written on a musical staff. Probably, if you can hear it, you can play it! Another interesting thing is that I believe we all have more technique than we realize and often the challenge  is to remove performance anxieties that inhibit our ability to play as well as we are capable. Tension can creep into the kinetic system and cause you to tighten up physically and therefore be less comfortable playing.

It is easier said than done but what we have to learn to do is to release control and “let” ourselves play rather than consciously directing the process and deciding what we should or should not play or what will or will not be “hip”! Once you have practiced and learned something you want to be able to play, why ever doubt that you can play it? A gentleman named Luigi Bonpensiere wrote a book called “New Pathways to Piano Technique” which has ideas applicable to any instrument. Basically, rather than making yourself play something, he says you should form the idea of what you want to play in your conscious mind but then release control and let yourself play it. Though a simple idea in principle, it takes practice to apply the thinking.

Haven’t you experienced the pleasant surprise of something flowing effortlessly from within you that you didn’t think you could play? If so, you got a little glimpse of the power that lies within you already! I believe in the power of the subconscious mind to store a vast amount of information that may be accessed whenever we need it. The subconscious is like an autopilot that takes care of a lot of business without conscious direction. Your conscious mind is freed up to think about interaction within the group, how you want the energy to increase or decrease and the feeling you want in your playing. Now the challenge is to learn how to tap into that on a regular basis. Sometime, sit down to play with no notion of what you are going to play and see if you can let go even a little bit. Don’t pass any value judgments on the quality of what you play but just try to open up and play what you honestly feel. Probably some good things will happen!