By Vince Gassi
Jazz is a many-splendored thing. The numerous styles falling under the umbrella of “Jazz” (Swing, Bebop, Latin, Funk, etc.) allow performers and composers to be expressive in a variety of ways. It is a dynamic and ever-evolving genre, and each style has its own set of standard practices with regard to length of notes and phrasing. For young musicians, adapting to these stylistic nuances is a critical skill. This article offers a few suggestions to help your students toward that end.
1. Pattern Recognition
With Swing, quarter notes are played short unless otherwise marked. Eighth notes are played unevenly though they are written as normal (see fig. 1). The reason for this is that it is simply easier to read.
But this is just one style. A Bossa Nova or a Samba has a different code to unlock. Quarter notes are not necessarily always short or long and eighth notes are not swung but played evenly. And what about Rock or Funk? No matter the style, lots of listening and imitation is required. Like learning a language, learning any style of music takes countless hours of listening and practice in order to learn pattern recognition and to apply the appropriate style. If you wanted to be an award-winning novelist, simply reading a lot would not get you there. You would have to read constantly and then imitate. It’s the same with any musical style.
2. Recommended Listening List
Have your students listen as much as possible to big bands, small bands, soloists, anything jazz related (and any other musical style possible) and try to copy what they’re hearing. Why not make a listening list and include a list of things to focus on (e.g., concept of sound, time, ensemble playing, effects, improv, phasing). Pick out phrases that you can isolate and have your students work on.
As a young trumpet player in high school, I was drawn to the big bands of Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, and Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. To this day one of my favorites is a tune called “Stay Loose with Bruce” (Maynard Ferguson Band featuring Bruce Johnstone on baritone sax). This tune is a great example of the swing articulations and other effects like fall offs, shakes, bends, scoops, etc. Also, have a listen to the interplay between the ride cymbal (Randy Jones), the upright bass (Rick Petrone), and of course the baritone sax player, and the ensemble. (By the way, I just love upright bass. My uncle Ray played upright bass with a big band when I was a kid. I was mesmerized by the instrument). Quarter notes are short and the eighth-note swing feel is oh so sweet! Later on when just the bass and baritone sax are playing together, notice how the sense of time is maintained by just these two players. There is an endless supply of great Jazz artists in bands and vocal ensembles big and small for your students listen to and imitate. Recommending a listening list to your students will greatly increase their in-depth listening skills and differentiation of styles and interpretation. Miles, ‘Trane, Ella, Basie, Maynard, Buddy, Goodwin, New York Voices . . . the list is endless!
3. Ensemble Matching
Choose a rhythm, say the one in “Stay Loose with Bruce” (see fig. 2), and have everyone play/sing it in unison (note how the articulations on the 8th notes remind players of the triplet feel). As in Figure 2, insert a bar of rest every other bar to allow students to process what they are hearing in the silence. This also gives them an opportunity to focus on their sense of time. Alternatively, you might instruct the drummer to simply keep playing time in the rest measures. A third option is to have one section play/sing the rhythm and another section match it exactly in the next bar. By the way, this exercise can just as easily be done with a vocal ensemble. Try using syllables such as “Dut doo ba doo bop!”
4. Live Performances
Find out where live jazz is happening in your locale and plan a “Jazz Trek.” The first live big band I heard was Maynard Ferguson’s band. My dad allowed me to skip off a day from my summer job so we could travel four hours by car to hear this amazing band at the Interlochen Centre for the Arts in Michigan. Mind blowing! Not just for the technical displays but for how tight the ensemble was and how well they could swing. To a kid in high school, hearing these sounds for the first time, it was transformative. Don’t you want to transform your students?
Encourage your students to make a habit of transcription. I spent hours wearing out the grooves in my vinyl (yes, that’s right…vinyl) albums, attempting to listen to and imitate what I was hearing. Just jot down pitches to begin with (one at a time); rhythms will come later. Students should use their instrument to test the notes they are hearing. There’s a great app called The Amazing Slow Downer which allows you to slow the tempo of an MP3 down without affecting the pitch. Additionally, you can loop sections and isolate one or more bars or even just a few notes.
Be sure that your students notice inflection—the altering of a note or notes; another essential ingredient which tells the listener about what style you are communicating. Listen to Snooky Young’s cup mute trumpet solo on a tune called “Tiptoe” (Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band). It’s legendary, not because he plays a million notes, but because he is so musical. Notice how he shapes the last note of certain phrases with a slight vibrato. It’s a very subtle thing but adds to the coolness of the music. I don’t think anyone taught him that. Later in the chart you’ll hear the tastiest trombone soli (with upright bass). Put this music on and see if you can stay still, not tap your foot, or start moving in any way. Impossible!
All of the tips in this article (pattern recognition, recommended listening, ensemble matching, live performances, transcription) come down to listening and imitating (deciphering the code) and this applies to anything we want to learn. There is a wellspring of expression and energy just waiting for your students to discover and, given the opportunity, these crucial moments will change the course of their lives. John Cacavas said it best, “Each day is different and your capacity for learning and expression will grow. Every time you browse through a score, hear a recording, see a movie, or attend a concert, your artistic self will absorb that which impresses you and will add to your experience.” As with any creative endeavor your students will eventually gain a greater awareness of their artistic self and begin to develop their own “voice.” So, encourage them to listen, listen some more, keep listening, and just see how much sweeter life is because of this music.
Vince Gassi is a much sought-after composer, conductor, and clinician. With nearly 100 published titles to his credit, Vince’s creative and energetic style has made him a favorite with young musicians. His works, both challenging and musically rewarding, appear on many international concert and contest lists. For 25 years Vince has taught instrumental music at the elementary and secondary school levels. He is in frequent demand as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and clinician throughout the United States and Canada.