Sunday, December 1, 2013

Teaching Jazz Literacy Rather Than Rote Charts

It frustrates me to no end to hear high school jazz ensembles play charts that are clearly written in a particular idiom (hint: they all are!) without, in their performance, giving any indication that they understand what that idiom happens to be.  This is an enormous problem, and it is probably inextricably conjoined with the severe deficit (many would say categorical drought) of serious jazz listening among jazz students.

First things first: If you want to speak a language, you must listen to people speaking the language.  Analogously, if you want to play jazz in a literate and facile manner, then you must listen to people playing jazz in a literate and facile manner.  Otherwise, you will remain functionally illiterate no matter how much time you spend reading out of textbooks (or, in the case of jazz, no matter how much time your band director spends drilling measures into your skull, one bar by painstaking one bar, like an endless barrage of rusty nails).

Second things second: If you want to speak a dialect, you must listen to people speaking the language in that dialect.  If an American flew to the United Kingdom and spoke with a Southern California/San Fernando Valley accent, he would be immediately recognized as coming from far afield.  Likewise, if a Briton flew to the United States and referred to a "truck" as a "lorry," he would be immediately recognized as an out-of-towner.  The same goes for the differences between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish, in both pronunciation and inflection.  So it should come as no surprise that if you play Charlie Parker licks over a 1946 Ellington arrangement of a blues head first published in 1917, you would come across as a visitor from another idiom.  Except many band directors--even many of the nation's finest band directors--fail to communicate that point to their students.

The Duke's Men

With Ellington, there are really clear directives on sound.  Duke wrote for his particular men.  Strayhorn wrote for those same particular men.  There are no generic Ellington charts.  With few exceptions, any baritone saxophone part in an Ellington chart should sound like Harry Carney, not like Gerry Mulligan.  Likewise, with few exceptions, any lead alto part in an Ellington chart should sound like Johnny Hodges, not like Charlie Parker.  And those trumpet parts are targeted toward the mute work and lyricism of Cootie Williams, the melodic tone of Ray Nance, the screamingly high acrobatics of Cat Anderson, etc.  The drum parts are not written for Buddy Rich; they are written for Sam Woodyard, Louie Bellson, etc.  These differences matter, not because students should not be able to play like Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, or Buddy Rich... but because there is a time and a place for each particular style.

Similarly, if you are doing a Bill Holman arrangement that Bill wrote for the Kenton band, odds are that many of the Ellington sounds would be a touch too antiquated; for those charts, students should be familiar with the modern sound of late-era big bands like Kenton, Buddy Rich, and the more modern Herman Herds.

Broad Curricula

That is one of the big reasons why your jazz curriculum not only should, but indeed absolutely must contain representative charts from all (or at least most) epochs of jazz.  There should be a Fats Waller tune where students can learn the comedy/jive traditions of Fats, Cab Calloway, and Ray Nance.  There should be a modal tune where students can learn the cooler-than-cool sounds of Miles and Trane.  But each style must be taught specifically.  Students should know each tradition and be able to shift gears when they switch from one chart to another, adjusting with all of the sensitivity that is required when playing across a range of styles.

Flipping The Bird (Charlie Parker, That Is) To A Dixieland Chart

So it enraged me as I was listening to Royal Garden Blues being played by band after band at last year's Essentially Ellington festival and had to tolerate one soloist after another playing bebop figures over one of the earliest Dixieland tunes!  Guys, there is a time and a place, and that wasn't it.  Even where Duke's arrangement dated from the mid-1940s, that was still no excuse for playing like Sonny Stitt instead of like Sidney Bechet.

The same thing happened in a lot of the multitude of Blood Count performances.  No, the alto soloists didn't try to play bop figures over a Hodges ballad (God forbid!).  But they did--in many instances--add literal growls to their tone, as though the curvaceous bends and seductive swells that Hodges played were insufficient, and it was absolutely necessary that the soloist gild the proverbial lily with a raunchy growl.

There are times to growl.  There are times to play bop figures.  Even on certain Ellington charts.  But heaving a kitchen sink full of your technical and tonal repertoire into a solo as if to say "Hey, look at me!  I haven't listened to much Dixieland, but I sure as heck have listened to a lot of Verve records with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie!" is inappropriate at best and musically illiterate at worst.

What Is The Solution?  Listening broadly to build jazz literacy!

Jazz students need access and regular exposure not only to the recordings of the charts that they themselves are playing, but also to the recordings of the major figures who played in the same style.  A female vocalist looking to sing blues over Black And Tan Fantasy should not be looking to Ella Fitzgerald for inspiration: she should, instead, be directed straight to Bessie Smith, who sang in the sort of dirty, funereal blues that Black And Tan Fantasy so exemplifies; this is true even notwithstanding that Smith only recorded once (in 1930) with the Ellington band.

Twenty or thirty years ago, that would have been a tall order; it was tough enough to build a set of jazz recordings that reflected a program's annual curriculum, let alone adding "other musicians in a similar style" for every one of the tunes.  But the Internet has changed all of that.  Today, a student can go on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, or The Internet Archive and find free or inexpensive recordings of virtually any jazz musician they want to listen to.  They can do this at noontime or at midnight with the same ease of use.  And they can dig as deep into the oeuvre of any given jazz master as they want to dig.

So if you are directing a jazz program and choosing charts, you should, either verbally or (even better) in a written list or notes packet, set forth the secondary and tertiary sources for students to turn to in expanding their knowledge in a particular jazz sub-genre.  Examples could include:

Christopher Columbus (Bob Mintzer arrangement)

Primary source (arrangement): The Bob Mintzer Big Band: Art Of The Big Band

Secondary sources (tune): Fletcher Henderson: A Study In Frustration, The Fletcher Henderson Story (LP); Andy Kirk: The Chronological Classics: 1936-1937; Benny Goodman and His Orchestra: Sing, Sing, Sing; Dizzy Gillespie: Digital At Montreux, 1980 LP; Don Redman: 1933-36; Duke Ellington: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings CD 1; Fats Waller: The Complete Fats Waller, Vol. III 1935-1936 LP; Maxine Sullivan & Her Jazz All-Stars: A Tribute To Andy Razaf

Tertiary sources (stylistically similar artists): Fats Waller; Fletcher Henderson; Benny Goodman; Cab Calloway; Andy Kirk (and/or Mary Lou Williams)

For most of those tertiary sources, it would be easy enough to then refer your students to the relevant volumes in the David Niven Collection tape series at The Internet Archive (  Just use the search engine at to come up with the tapes for those figures.

You would also note for your students that Christopher Columbus became well-known to many audiences primarily through its interpolation in Sing, Sing, Sing (another Fletcher Henderson chart popularized under Benny Goodman's name).  So enterprising students could then refer to Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and hear some very clear examples of the sounds that they should strive for.

What would this avoid?  It would avoid a tenor player standing up during a performance of Mintzer's arrangement of Christopher Columbus and playing bop figures with a straight tone.  It would hopefully teach a tenor player to play with the style of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster on a chart like this.  It would teach a pianist to play in the style of Fats Waller rather than something more modern.  And it would teach a drummer to eschew, even if for just this one chart, the style of Buddy Rich in favor of that of Gene Krupa.

"How do I find time for teaching this nebulous 'literacy' concept while also teaching particular charts so that my students can have something to show for their effort at a performance?"

Use each chart as a window onto its idiom and major exponents.  Sure, you are teaching Jeep's Blues, but you are also teaching (1) the Ellington medium blues, (2) the Hodges blues, (3) the Ellington shuffle, (4)  lyrical blues playing, and (5) Ellington sax section blend; you can add on recordings like Hodges playing On The Sunny Side Of The Street to further demonstrate every one of those skills.  Sure, you are teaching Jackson County Jubilee, but why not add on Benny Carter's entire Kansas City Suite as further background, and then introduce students to the late-1930s Basie recordings and the early-1930s Moten (i.e., Basie band progenitor) recordings, which Carter's Kansas City Suite was really a reference and/or tribute to?

"But my students favor rock-oriented stuff!  It's tough enough getting them to listen to serious bebop recordings!"

Bull.  Your students will respond to serious jazz once their ears become acclimated to the sound.  Sure, the first few (or even more than a few) times that they listen to Ellington recordings from the late 1930s and early 1940s, they may think that Cottontail sounds like a soundtrack to a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon.  And the when they go from listening to the 1963 Great Paris Concert recording of Rockin' In Rhythm to the 1931 original, they may be unable to understand what was is so infectious about the groove of the slower early version.  But more time listening will eventually yield an appreciation for those less-immediately-accessible idioms.  And it will teach your students some delayed gratification, which is always a good thing.

I know this because my first reaction to Cottontail was to think that it was a cartoon soundtrack, and because I loved the 1963 Rockin' In Rhythm but couldn't make sense of the 1931 version.  But appreciation came faster than I thought it would.  Maybe it was chuckling along with Herb Jeffries during Jump For Joy, or maybe it was the unavoidably infectious trumpet solo of Rumpus In Richmond, but at some point while listening to my dad's old copy of Duke's In A Mellotone LP (which re-issued many of the best of Duke's 1940-1942 "golden age" tracks) it finally clicked.  That's what it takes.

It also doesn't hurt to shame your students, where appropriate and in appropriate doses, with their jazz illiteracy.  Not to embarrass them or make them feel like they cannot expand their frame of reference, but to make it clear to them that all they have to do is listen more!  Call out the tenor player who plays with a straight tone over a 1930s chart.  Call out the pianist who fails to add some Ellington dissonances in the intro to a Hodges ballad.  And then, give them the recordings that they should be listening to in order to achieve the sound that fits in a particular style.  You are not telling them that they are incompetent; to the contrary, you are demanding of them the work ethic, studiousness, and competence that you are utterly certain that they indeed do have.

"Isn't it easier to just teach the individual charts?"

Not if you want your students to sound like they know what they are doing.  Sure, you can teach measure-by-measure and figure-by-figure until the life has been drilled out of every chart you work on.  You can teach one set of chord changes on each chart and ask students to model their solos specifically on the solo from the one original recording of that exact arrangement.  But the student who becomes familiar with the sound of each jazz sub-genre will not need to be told the various details implicit in ensemble parts or solo improvisation on one particular chart.  It will take you far less time to teach Uptown Downbeat if your students are already familiar with Sidney Bechet and 1920s/1930s Ellingtonia, far less time to teach I Like The Sunrise if your students are already familiar with Come Sunday (better yet, the entire Black, Brown & Beige symphony!) and Ellington's Sacred Concerts, and far less time to teach Flirtibird if your students are already familiar with Hodges ballads like Blood Count, The Star-Crossed Lovers, Passion Flower, and Prelude To A Kiss.

So, at some point, you need to ask yourself whether what you want for your jazz program is to endlessly re-invent the wheel for every single chart, or to build a level of jazz literacy that will enable you to say "Okay, this is another Hodges ballad" and have everyone in the band know exactly what that means.  It takes years to build that kind of literacy, but the yield for your program and your students will give you results that you could never get by teaching individual charts in isolation.  The best jazz programs in North America teach jazz literacy, not a rote batch of jazz charts.

"How do I do all of the research necessary to cross-reference all of these artists, albums, tunes, styles, sub-genres, etc.?  I'm a band director, not a reference librarian or a record collector!"

Contact me.  That's what I do, and I am glad to do it for you and your jazz program.

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