What is Jazz Composition?

This was a mission statement that I wrote as part of an application for chair of the Jazz Comp. department at Berklee. I didn't get the job which is for the best, I think. I enjoyed writing this though.

Feb 24, 2012

What is Jazz?

Jazz swings, has syncopation, has improvisation, has a blues influence, incorporates elements of music from any culture on earth, is musically complex, is simple. Jazz has many of these things sometimes and sometimes none of them. 

What Jazz has consistently been is a music that celebrates the freedom of the individual.  The soloist, expressing the current time with what is at hand, developing an individual Sound and Concept.

What is Jazz composition?  Jazz composition is music written by Jazz musicians.

I think the idea of trying to be cutting edge is a problem because it can distract from the essential idea of Individual Expression and lead you away from yourself.  We should not try to be new but try to be unique.  It is in being uniquely yourself that you may stumble upon newness.

I think the Jazz Composition department should always have at its core the idea of being uniquely oneself while realizing that we are not purely individuals but also members of a group of individuals within a tradition.

The curriculum should include a strong emphasis on melody, harmony, orchestration, ear training and history within the Jazz traditions of small group and big band writing.   

Although I am not a fan of sequenced music I realize sequencing is a useful tool and getting better all the time.  With computers there is a danger of developing an unrealistic sense of what instruments can do.  It might be interesting to have a class where students sequence their pieces and then have them played live. 

I think Jazz Comp students should be introduced to composition ideas from the contemporary “classical” schools, maybe making something like CM 311 (Contemporary techniques in composition) required instead of an elective, possibly replacing Conducting 2 which I think is less important.   Possibly something about writing “free” music, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

There should be opportunities for live performance at every level of Jazz Composition study.

I think it’s imperative that we have something like a “what if?” attitude and a questioning underlying whatever we do.  “What if I try this or that?”  We have no bassist, OK lets assume Bass doesn’t exist, what do we do now? Write an arrangement of Speak Low for 7 trumpets. Pretend you’re an alien and never hear this music before.  You might ask: “how come that person is hitting a metal disc (ride cymbal)  all the way through the piece?” Does that make sense or is it just convention or habit?

When you ask questions like that you get things like Jimmy Giuffre abandoning the drum set in the 50’s and later abandoning groove all together or Ornette letting go of the changes. What if I play or write it this way? 

Maybe have Jazz Comp department T-shirts that say “What if?” on the front and “Why Not?” on the back.

© Robert Nieske 2015  email me at:    bobnieske@gmail.com