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.

This is part of a Bass book I'm working on:

June 4, 2012

Where does the sound come from?

One day when I was rehearsing with Jimmy Giuffre (If you don’t know Jimmy you should check him out) I was tuning.  Pling pling, pluck pluck…  Jimmy interrupted asking “What are you doing?”, “I’m tuning”, “well it doesn’t sound like music”.

I thought I’d tune first and then get to the music and said as much.  Jimmy replied something like “you should never touch your instrument unless you intend to make music”.  I thought “Wow you’re so strict Jimmy! “ 

Of course Jimmy was right.   Don’t take anything for granted musically (or otherwise for that matter).   There’s an awful lot to consider when you play, no matter what style of music.  What’s my tone like?  Am I in tune?  What kind of attack and how do I end this note?  Am I dominating, supporting or equal relative to what’s happening around me?  Where’s the time?

Everything we encounter is a teacher and if we don’t take our instrument seriously we’re teaching ourselves that it’s ok to just pluck a couple notes mindlessly, and that can/will infiltrate our “serious” playing.

So the first place the sound comes from is your CARING what you sound like and paying attention to every note.

Think of a sprinter at the start of a race.  She’s waiting for the starting gun.  Her feet are in the blocks.  Her hands are on the starting line.  She is poised and waiting.  The gun fires and she’s off.  What happens?  Her feet push off from the blocks, but if you think that’s all that happens you’re missing something.  That would be like thinking you only pluck the string with your finger.   It’s the finger, the forearm the elbow, the weight of the arm, all the way back to the center of your spine between your shoulder blades.  It’s how you breathe and stand.  Can you feel your feet on the ground?

Feel gravity through the bottoms of your feet on the ground, take a balanced stance and let your mind travel from the ground up through you between your shoulder blades and down your arm to your fingertips. Pluck an open D string with one or two fingers.  Don’t pull the string sideways but push it down as you pull it sideways.  Let your plucking finger come to rest (follow through) on the fingerboard and the A string simultaneously.  If you only pull sideways you get a dead sound.  If you push down while pulling sideways (especially with a stopped note) the sound is more complex and alive.  When you push down you get the string vibrating against the wood of the fingerboard, giving you that growl on the lower strings.   From time to time send your awareness to various parts of your body to look for tension.  The shoulders are a prime tension area. 

Also be aware of how much you are moving when you play.  I see players who are moving and emoting all over the place when they play but if you close your eyes and listen the playing is lackluster.  Watch the great players and you’ll see there is very little wasted motion.  Play efficiently.