Monthly Musings – May 2, 2017


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!

Monthly Musings – April 5, 2017

Our United States service jazz bands

Last night I heard the US Army’s premier jazz group, The Jazz Ambassadors. As a part of their tour, they performed at the University of North Texas. This was very appropriate since ten members of the band are former North Texas students. I think there are a couple of dozen North Texas grads playing in bands like this one, The Airmen of Note, The Navy Commodores, etc. Naturally, all of our faculty are very proud of their success!

The program last night was outstanding and included a wonderful variety of music that displayed their musical maturity very well. Ensemble sections were tight, the balance and tone were excellent and the solos were interesting to listen to. I hope and I am pretty sure that this band must be inspiring to many young people who hear it. This is one of the most important facets of these groups – to create enthusiasm and passion for American jazz!

I am very proud of the fact that our nation supports the performance of American music, especially jazz with these groups. In this sense, our country is fostering the cause of not only jazz but the arts in general and our cultural heritage. The activity of these service groups reminds me of the power of Radio Free Europe during the cold war. It is a very positive representation of America to the world!

It was and is always great to see former students like Andrew Layton, Tim Young, Pat Shook and Kevin Watt. It is extremely gratifying to me to see their success and growth as musicians to the highest standards of performance. And I am happy for them to have a career making music, raising their families and getting benefits for being artists. Why there isn’t more of this kind of government support for the arts is a concern.

One of the things I enjoy about Facebook is the opportunity to keep up to date with my friends, their professional activities and their families. Some water has gone under the bridge since some of these guys were wet behind the ears and just beginning to show potential. Now, it is fun to see their families, hear about their musical activities in and outside of the band and to see them realize their potential as human beings.

So, when you have an opportunity to see a US service concert band, chorus or jazz band, don’t miss it! It is your tax dollars at work and, thankfully so far, they are being channeled in a really good direction!

Monthly Musings – April 2, 2017

Analysis of “Joy Spring”

This is a great jazz standard by Clifford Brown. It is an AABA form but the unusual thing about it is that the second A section is in the key a ½ step higher than the first, the key of Gb major. This is a less frequent key for most jazz musicians and can be troublesome. It is actually a fairly comfortable key on piano because of all the black notes that fall under the fingers.

First A section – progression:

//Fma7 /Gmi7 C7 /Fma7 /Bbmi7 Eb7 / Ami7 D7 /Gmi7 C7 /Fma7 /Abmi7 Db7 //

The first three measures are in the key of F major and can be accommodated with an F major scale. The interesting feature of the A sections is the 4th measure that includes a II-V progression in the key up a minor 3rd. It’s kind of like a change of mode from F major to F minor. So the main interest here is the change of key. When you play a tune that changes key frequently for short periods of time, just making the key clear is interesting enough. It isn’t necessary to alter any chords.

The next three bars are a III-VI-II-V-I turnaround to get back home to F major and can be satisfied with the major scale of the key. However, we often like to play an altered dominant VI chord to create a stronger resolution to the II chord. The last bar is a II-V progression to modulate into the key of Gb. A Gb major scale is adequate.

 Second A section – progression:

 //Gbma7 /Abmi7 Db7 /Gbma7 /Bmi7 E7 /Bbmi7 Eb7 /Abmi7 Db7 /Gbma7 /Ami7 D7 /

Same as the first A section a ½ step higher: Gb major scale for three bars, A major for one bar, Gb major for three bars. The last measure is a II-V into the bridge and can just be a  G major scale.

 B section – progression:

 //Gma7 /Gmi7 C7 /Fma7 /Fmi7 Bb7 /Ebma7 /Ab-7 Db7 /Gbma7 /Gmi7 C7 //

Including the last measure of the second A section, the bridge is just a series of II-V-I progressions in G major, F major, Eb major and Gb major. The last measure is a II-V to return to the main key of F major.

The bridge can be played very nicely using only four major scales, G, F, Eb and Gb. The simplest and purest way of playing a II-V-I in a major key is to play in the major scale of the I chord in whatever key you are in. Of course, you could use a number of different dominant 7th scales on the V chords of those keys.

The last A section is like the first except the last measure ends with a II-V in F major.

Monthly Musings – March 31, 2017

The Blues Progression and the Blues Scale


The simple blues progression consists of three dominant 7th chords, I 7, IV 7 and V 7. The measure layout is as follows: I 7 (4 bars), IV 7 (2 bars), I 7 (2 bars), V 7 (1 bar), IV 7 (1 bar) and I 7 (2 bars). So blues in the key of C would be: C 7 (4 bars), F 7 (2 bars), C 7 (2 bars), G 7 (1 bar), F 7 (1 bar) and C 7 (2 bars). Before you try to improvise on the blues progression, you should first know the structure of the chords! The C7 includes the notes C, E, G, Bb (1, 3, 5, b7), the F 7 includes the notes F, A, C, Eb (1, 3, 5, b7) and the G7 includes the notes G, B, D, F (1, 3, 5, b7).


You can improvise on just the chord tones and that is a good place to start. It is always good to emphasize the 3rd and 7th of the chord because those tones identify what kind of chord it is! In this case the major 3rd and flat 7th reveal the dominant 7th sound! You can also improvise on dominant 7th or Mixolydian scales. They are simply major scales with flatted 7th tones like the dominant 7th chords. Remember that the 4th scale step is very dissonant against the 3rd of the chord and wants to move to the 3rd! Otherwise, any other notes in the scale will sound okay when emphasized. So, when a C Mixolydian scale is used with a C 7, C, D, E, G, A and Bb are all notes that may be emphasized. However, F must resolve to E! I call that the “amen” of jazz!

The Blues Scale

The Blues Scale is so-called because it includes notes that are considered “blue” notes, the lowered 3rd, lowered 5th and lowered 7th of the key. A Blues scale built on C has the following notes: C, Eb, F, F#, G and Bb (1, b3, 4, #4, 5 and b7). When used with a C 7, the Eb gives a “bluesy” sound to the chord. That is probably because Eb would be a minor 3rd in the chord and we generally seem to hear minor sounds as being sad or bluesy! However, you don’t normally have both a major 3rd and a minor 3rd in a chord so the Eb is really D#, the raised 9th of the chord! So we hear it as an alteration of the harmony. The same is true of F# which is the raised 11th of the chord. Bb, of course, is just the lowered 7th of the chord but it is not in the normal major key signature so it takes on a bluesy character!

Minor Blues scale of the key!

The beauty of the blues scale is that it generally fits all three chords in the blues progression. Unlike other chord progressions and their related scales or modes, you don’t use a separate scale for each chord. The blues scale built on the key center works with all three chords in the progression! However, you do have to be careful of certain notes that will sound dissonant or “wrong” on each of the chords.

 Dissonant Notes!

Below you will see the blues scale in the key of C shown next to each chord with the “wrong” notes in parentheses.

C7 – C, Eb, (F), F#, G, Bb – F clashes with the 3rd, E

F7 – C, Eb, F, F#, G, (Bb) – Bb clashes with the 3rd. A

G7 – (C), Eb, F, (F#), G, Bb – C clashes with the 3rd, B and F# clashes with the 7th, F.

Since the blues scale has such a strong feeling of the key, we generally don’t worry about the clash of C against the 3rd of the V chord, G7. Melodic ideas moving through the scale may pass by those dissonant notes without a problem but they shouldn’t be emphasized against the chord! The best test is to play each chord on a keyboard, holding down the sustain pedal, and play the scale over it with your instrument (if you are a pianist, play and hold the chord with your left hand and play the blues scale with your right hand). Listen for which notes sound best with each chord! If you listen carefully, your ear will tell you which notes are a problem! At first improvise using only two or three notes of the blues scale and compose ideas that you like the sound of on each chord.

Major Blues Scale

Another mode of the blues scale may be used. I call it the Major Blues scale and, built on C, it contains the following notes: C, D, D#, E, G, and A (1, 2, #2, 3, 5, and 6. Since it contains both the major 3rd and the minor 3rd of the key, it is easy to emphasize important chord tones. On the C7, you could emphasize E and when the chord changes to F7, you could emphasize Eb (D#). All the other notes fit both chords. Another option is to use a separate Major Blues scale on each of the three chords. So, on the IV chord, F7, the notes would be F, G, G#, A, and D. The scale for G7 would be G, A, A#, B, D, and E. This would create the opportunity to use exact repetition of ideas on any of the three chords.

There are not just one or two blues scales. There are variations for major chords and some scales contain chromatic passing tones in different locations. There are many jazz cliches that use a form of the scale that adds a passing tone between 5 and 6. So this variation of the blues scale would look like this built on C7: C, D, D#, E, G, G#, A and C. One typical melodic idea might be : G, G#, A, C, D, A, C or Eb (D#), D, C, A, Ab (G#), G.

There are many variations on the chord progression of the blues. One of the most common forms uses a II-V-I progression in the last four bars. The blues scale may not sound as good over this progression. One solution is to play the major scale of the key over those three chords. Also, in the 8th measure, there is usually a VI7 chord to lead to the II chord in the next measure. This usually will sound best if it is altered by using either Harmonic Minor of the II chord or Melodic Minor a 1/2 step above the root of the II chord. So, on an A7, the scale would be D Harmonic Minor or Eb Melodic Minor.

Dominant 7th Scales

On any of the dominant 7th chords in a blues progression, there are a number of scales that may be used: Mixolydian, the Bebop scale, Lydian b7, and the Lydian Bebop scale. If you want more tension, you could use scales with alterations in them like Whole Tone, Diminished and Super Locrian. A handout on dominant 7th scales can be found on my web site,

Monthly Musings – March 27, 2017

Just for Today

This was written for a column in the Boston Globe in 1921 by Frank Crane.

Here are ten resolutions to make when you awake in the morning.

They are Just for One Day. Think of them not as a life task but as a day’s work. These things will give you pleasure. Yet they require will power. You don’t need resolutions to do what is easy.

  1. Just for Today, I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life-problem at once. I can do some things for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
  1. Just for Today, I will be Happy. This assumes that what Abraham Lincoln said is true, that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Happiness is from within; it is not a matter of externals.
  1. Just for Today, I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come, and fit myself to them.
  1. Just for Today, I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, and nourish it, and not abuse it nor neglect it; so that it will be a perfect machine for my will.
  1. Just for Today, I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer all day. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.
  1. Just for Today, I will exercise my soul. In three ways, to wit:

(a) I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. If anybody knows of it, it will not count.

(b) I will do at least two things I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.

(c) I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt. They may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

  1. Just for Today, I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress as becomingly as possible, talk low, act courteously, be liberal with flattery, criticize not one bit nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate nor improve anybody.
  1. Just for Today, I will have a program. I will write down just what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I’ll have it. It will save me from the two pests, Hurry and Indecision.
  1. Just for Today, I will have a quiet half hour, all by myself, and relax. During this half hour, some time, I will think of God, so as to give a little more perspective to my life.
  1. Just for Today, I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to be happy, to enjoy what is beautiful, to love and to believe that those I love, love me.

Monthly Musings – March 24, 2017

Analysis of “The Girl From Ipanema”

This tune is a great standard from the songbook of Antonio Carlos Jobim. I can remember that, when it was first popular, we often played it several times a night due to requests. I fear many musicians became burnt out on the tune because of that. If you ask a jazz player to play the tune, he may say something like, “Aw man, are you kidding? I’m sick of that!” My comment to some musicians would be, “Don’t bitch about it unless you can play the bridge!”

As a composer, Jobim is a master at doing the most with the least. Many of his pieces only utilize one or two melodic ideas that he masterfully develops into a complete melody. Also his use of harmonic and melodic sequences is wonderful. As improvisers, we can all learn something about melodic development from Jobim.

This tune is a common AABA form except that the bridge is sixteen measures long instead of eight.

First A section

The progression is: //Fma7 /Fma7 /G7 /G7 /Gmi7 /Gb7 /Fma7 /Gb7 //

To establish the sound of the key, an F major scale is called for at the beginning. Later in the solo, for variety, an F Lydian scale could be used.

The G7 is not altered and probably shouldn’t be. This is a dominant II chord that is only one note different from the key (B natural). The unaltered 9th and 13th of the chord are in the key of F and want to be in their natural state. You could use a Lydian, b7 scale which would add a C# to the sound if you want more color. The C# is the #11 of a G7 chord and is not an alteration but is the normal extension of the harmony. I find that, in general, dominant II chords sound better if left unaltered. There are exceptions, of course.

Gmi7 is the normal II chord of the key and calls for a Dorian (F major) scale.

Gb7 is an interesting chord that we often encounter in jazz compositions. It is a tritone substitution for the V chord C7. Both chords resolve to the key center of F major. But the bII chord (Gb7) requires a Lydian, b7 scale because we want to hear a C natural in the scale. This is because the Gb7 is a substitute for C7. It only hit me in the last several years that Jobim had used a tritone substitution in the composition of the tune!

Second A section

 The progression is: //Fma7 /Fma7 /G7 /G7 /Gmi7 /Gb7 /Fma7 /Fma7 //

The only difference is that the progression stays on Fma7 to end the phrase.

Bridge – B section

 The bridge of this tune is where the real harmonic interest occurs.

The progression is: //Gbma7 /Gbma7 /B7 /B7 /F#mi7 /F#mi7 /D7 /D7 /

/Gmi7 /Gmi7 /Eb7 /Eb7 /Ami7 /D7 /Gmi7/C7 //

The bridge is easier to make sense of if you keep in mind the context of each chord, specifically what sound occurred just before. Generally, if a note just heard in one chord can continue into the next, it sounds good to let it do so.

The first chord of the bridge, Gbma7, was preceded by Fma7. So a C natural (the 5th of the Fma7) has been recently heard and can continue into the Gbma7 as a #4 or Lydian sound. If you are skeptical, play the Fma7 scale and then play both Gb major and Gb Lydian. I think you will find that the Lydian scale sounds better.

When we arrive at the B7, we have recently heard F natural which would be a #4 in the B7 scale so that implies Lydian, b7. In the B7 scale we heard D# so that implies Dorian on the F#mi7. We hear G# in the F# Dorian scale so that implies a #4 in the D7, again a Lydian, b7 sound. Gmi7 is a II chord in F major and calls for Dorian but that is reinforced by the fact that we just heard an E natural in the D Lydian, b7 scale. The Eb7 also requires a Lydian, b7 because we just heard the #4, A natural in the G Dorian scale.

Read the previous paragraph over again slowly (several times) and possibly play the scales as you do to hear the interesting effect of context on our choices of colors. Extensive use of Lydian, b7 scales is required to make the bridge sound “normal.” I personally love any mode of melodic minor for its unique quality of a mixture of darkness and brightness!

The last four measures of the bridge are a III-VI-II-V turnaround. This is an extremely common progression with many variations. In this case, the melody implies an altered sound on the D7 and C7. There is a #4 in the melody on both chords. I like the altered scale (melodic minor a ½ step above the root). This is also consistent with the Lydian, b7 scale used on the Gb7 chords since that is the same as an altered scale on C7. The minor chords can simply be Dorian scales since they are II chords.

Last A section

This is old business since it is identical to the first A section.

It is recommended to look for guide tone motion in the progression, especially motion of ½ steps across the bar line. For example, here is a guide tone line for the first 8: Start on C on the Fma7, move to B on the G7, move to Bb on the Gmi7 and Gb7, move to A on the Fma7. Here’s another one: Start on E on the Fma7, move to F on the G7, repeat F on the Gmi7, move to Gb on the Gb7, move to G on the Fma7. Here’s one more: Start on A on the Fma7, stay on A for the G7and Gmi7, move to Ab on the Gb7, move to G on the Fma7. Building your melodic line around guide tones can give them a stronger forward motion!