Jazz for the Classical-minded

I was having some drinks with my buddy Tim recently.  Tim is an applied mathematician studying at Oregon State University (and he just got published!), but at one point his main focus was playing the cello and from what he tells me, he was pretty damn good.  The point where our interest in music diverges is that he is a pure classical musician and can probably play you all of Bach’s Cello Suites from memory.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t have an interest in jazz, as he was probably one of Cadillac Lunch’s most frequent fans.  We have talked at great length about the nature of jazz and improvisation, and I’ve told him the same thing I tell all of my friends who are classical musicians that express interest in jazz: “You are miles and miles beyond me from a technical standpoint! In order to improvise, you just have to do it! And do it a bunch!”  Now, I don’t claim to be a great jazz musician, or even a good one for that matter (and if you don’t believe me, have a listen to any of my ::recordings::) but I like to think that I have been thinking long and hard enough about music and jazz to have some idea of what it takes.  I think that beginning improvisers get hung up on language and playing the ‘right’ notes, things which are totally important at some level, but personally, I would rather be an audience to a solo that goes somewhere, that is adventurous and engaging and off the rocker rather than hear someone rattle off emotionless Bird licks.  As I type this, it seems like an obvious thing to say, but I think it is also an easy thing to forget.  Now, of course, the best musicians that you’ll hear will be able to do both–that is, use the language fully with strong intent and emotion and maybe some innovation if you’re lucky, but I don’t know how to do that, so that is outside the scope of this article.  Anyway, like I was saying, Tim and I were having drinks recently, talking about jazz and fancy tequila and women.  You know, the finer things in life.  He told me that he has a friend who was also a classical musician, (and in fact, he said this is true for a lot of classical musicians) who is interested in getting to know the basics of jazz for the sake of improving musicianship and well-roundedness.  So, here is my take on some entry points for classical musicians into the world of Jazz.  Oh yeah, before I start, I should mention that most, if not all of the great composers you are thinking of now were excellent improvisers.  I have always dreamed of temporally displacing someone like Beethoven or Liszt into a concert hall during a performance of, say, Charles Mingus to find out what he thinks.  I would like to think that, even if he didn’t dig it, he would hold his own in the spirit of spontaneous composition.  Also, keep in mind that all of these jazz guys are totally into Romantic music.  Debussy and Stravinsky and the like are powerful forces in the minds of the likes of Miles and Mingus and the like.  Check out ::this video:: of Sonny Stitt, J.J. Johnson and Company playing a blues called Buzzy.  Check out the beginning of trombone solo (starting around 6:00) and see if you can catch both of the classical music licks.  Also look for Sonny’s temper within the fourth minute.  Also check out how each of the soloist starts his solo with the last thing the previous person played.

First, we should discuss the basic idea.  I started playing recently enough that I remember what it was like to not understand how jazz works.  Here’s the gist: A typical jazz tune has two parts, the ‘head’ and the ‘changes’.  ::Here:: is what’s called a ‘lead sheet’, which is a distilled version of a tune.  This particular tune is one of the most important forms in jazz.  This particular set of changes and its variants are known as “rhythm changes.”  Surely you have heard the tune “I’ve Got Rhythm.”  The tune is 32 bars long, split into four sections.  The A-section comprises the first eight bars.  The first eight bars is repeated, then followed by a contrasting B-section, called the bridge, and then rounded out by a conclusive A-section.  For now, know that it is a presentation of the melody and the chord changes.  Performing this tune would go something like this: one musician counts off and someone plays (or sings) the melody once through while the rhythm section accompanies the melody.  This usually means the bass is walking, the piano or guitar player is comping chords and the drummer is swinging, usually accenting the idiosyncrasies of the head.  After you’re finished with the head, the solos start and the rhythm section continues to play the changes.  The soloist bases his or her solo on the same changes played under the head as the rhythm section loops the form over and over again as many times as the soloist can go.  One particularly legendary solo took place on Duke Ellington’s Bandstand.  While the band was performing at Newport Jazz Festival towards the decline of Big Band Jazz, the weather turned a bit sour and people started losing interest and leaving.  Enter saxophonist Peter Gonsalves who took a solo where the rhythm section repeated the form of the tune almost thirty times.  The crowd was electrified as the solo built and built and built and built………….  That being said, Charlie Parker once said that everything he knew could be played in three choruses (by the way, one repetition of the form is called a ‘chorus’).  As an exercise, when you’re listening to the tunes to which I am going to link in this article, try to follow the form and identify when the top of a chorus happens.  Following rhythm changes is a little easier because of the contrasting bridge.

So, one of (if not the) the main aspects of jazz is the solos.  There are a couple things to listen for.  Depending on what kind of ears you have, you may be really interested in melodic content–that is, what kind of melody is this soloist spontaneously composing?  Is it sweet, or angry, or flighty or dexterous?  What kind of story are they telling?  The jazz melodic palate is a bit richer than most classical music written before the middle of the 19th century.  Think Hayden, for instance, versus, say, Stravinsky.  Flatted notes (thirds and sixths in particular) and expansive chromaticism give jazz its distinctive sound.  Go to the piano and hammer a C7 chord (C E G Bb) and try playing a C mixolydian scale on top (C D E F G A Bb C).  Now try tossing in Eb or Ab, or even Db, or adding a B-natural to a descending eighth-note scale, and see how that sounds.  Another component of a solo is the rhythm.  Sure, its impressive to see someone spew sixteenth note runs like Flight of the Bumblebee, but that gets old quick, and without interesting rhythmic variation, the solo becomes stagnant.  Speaking of rhythm, listen for the syncopation.  Notice that it is rare that a soloist will begin many of his or her phrases on the first beat of a bar.  Also, note that the idea of a ‘four-bar phrase’ is present as in classical music, but the restrictions are much looser, and often elided or glossed over for the sake of continuity of a phrase, or an offsetting of conventional expectations.  Lastly, the thing that gets me going about a solo is the dynamics of the group as a whole.  The job of the rhythm section is to help the soloist tell his or her story by punctuating his or her melodic and rhythmic gestures.  This can mean different things depending on the situation.  For instance, the rhythm section should be sensitive to the dynamics and aggression of the solo and respond likewise.  It may be prudent to play less, or even not at all under a soloist, whereas in another scenario, it may be the rhythm section’s job to maintain a high level of intensity (see John Coltrane’s later years). There are hundreds of thousands of millions of metaphors one can make to describe this feeling.  One of the ones I like likens the relationship of a jazz soloist to his or her rhythm section to that between a surfer and his or her (sentient) ocean.  The surfer won’t be able to surf without a wave break, but waves breaking on top of the surfer who isn’t ready to go is disastrous as well.  Similarly, a jazz soloist who is trying to dig in to a solo while the rhythm section stays mellow will have no support, while an overzealous rhythm section will drown out a lyrical solo.  The same thing is true in classical music–the accompaniment needs to match the solo.  The difference is that in jazz, the collaboration occurs on the spot, not in the director’s notes.  This, for me, is the salient attraction to jazz–that it is exactly what you want it to be exactly when you want it to be.

So that is my two cents about what jazz is.  I’m going to run through a brief history real quick.

Although jazz ‘started’ at the end of the 1800’s, I’m going to start with ::Louis Armstrong::.  (1901 – 1971) Among other things, Satchmo was notable for abandoning the melody of a tune during his solos and inventing his own melodies, rather than simply embellishing the existing one, as was commonplace in that time.

I’m going to gloss over big bands, but if you’re a classical musician, you may be able to get into Duke Ellington.  He wrote several long-form works in the vein of a classical piece of music like ::The Far East Suite:: or ::Black, Brown and Beige::.

The descent of the big band saw the emergence of Bebop.  At the forefront were people like ::Dizzy Gillespie::, ::Charlie Parker:: and ::Thelonious Monk:: who expanded the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic vocabulary and slammed on the gas as far as tempos go.  Listen to the difference between a solo from Dizzy and Bird compared to the solo from Louis.

Enter Miles Davis.  Miles was a integral figure in extending bebop into hard bop, a music focused on more singable melodies rather than the frantic expositions by Diz and Bird, and then into Cool Jazz, typified by the famous album ::Kind of Blue::.  The thing to listen for in Miles’ playing in the 50’s are sparse, nonchalant solos and his trademark timbre, both with and without his mute.

Along with Miles on Kind of Blue is the sax player John Coltrane.  His recording career was relatively short, but the difference between Coltrane’s playing with Miles and the ::free jazz:: at the end of his life is immense, but is tied together by a powerful, longwinded style.  Compare these two.

Meanwhile, Miles has moved towards more free jazz, yet his flavor remains steeped in the ‘traditional’ style, but employs a rhythm section that is far more free than sticking to changes, and is granted the ability to steer the whole damn machine while Miles and his saxophone compadres (most notably Wayne Shorter) float along on top.  Here is ::Miles at Antibes::.

Now, there is more to be said, for sure, but I’ll stop here, and maybe list some people to listen to after you feel comfortable with what we’ve done so far.

So, now that things have been put into a bit of context, I’m going to try to give you a handful of albums and some comments geared towards the classical musician who is becoming interested in Jazz.

On my mind a lot recently is piano player ::Bill Evans::.  Evans is a subdued, sensitive, intellectual player.  His gestures and patience remind me of the impressionistic pieces of Debussy.  His music can be thought of as almost tone-poems using a lot of quartile and quintal harmonies evoking wide open harmonic space.  Another reason I like Bill Evans is that unlike a traditional piano trio where the piano is the leader and the bass and drums play along, Bill Evans’ groups exude a truly democratic approach.  While there is still usually a clear soloist, listening to his music feels more like listening into an honest conversation between three people rather than a follow the leader type lecture.

Again, I will mention Miles and point you towards one of his ::albums:: that is particularly lyrical, deriving its power from the honesty of sparseness and clarity.

I am going to be a bit biased here, and say that Charles Mingus is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.  Again, the type of jazz musician that probably had more Stravinsky or Debussy on his record player than any records from other jazz musicians, maybe except for Duke Ellington, Mingus composed in long forms, often with simple chord changes, but with the freedom to carry his usually large groups (often eight or more people) through any and all of his wild emotional swings.  I’ll put two Mingus albums here.  The first is considered by some as the greatest jazz work of all time.  Written as a ballet, ::Black Saint and the Sinner Lady:: is a six-part through-composed work.  The second album is a live album from ::Cornell in 1964:: to highlight the way his groups can turn on a dime, mostly due to the interaction and tightness of Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond, as well as Mingus’ penchant for hollering out commands.  I should mention that Mingus is a scary dude.  His rage is legendary.  Once, he got fed up on the bandstand and hurled his $3,000 bass off stage onto the floor.  Another time, he ripped out some of the low piano strings with his bare hands.  Another time, he punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the face, knocking out his two front teeth and destroying his embouchure.  That being said, Mingus was also a very sensitive and insecure guy with a strong sense of musical humor (for instance, see the tune titled All the Things You Could Be if Sigmund Freud’s Wife was your Mother).  He is a fascinating character.

Out on the west coast, Dave Brubeck was exploring a cousin of cool jazz with a distinct west coast vibe.  His famous album ::Time Out:: is a great thing to listen to for form and oddness of meter.

There is also a lot of examples of jazz musicians taking on classical music.
Glenn Miller plays Dvorak
Oliver Nelson plays Copland
Hubert Laws plays Stravinsky

Here is a bit of a closing remark on how I have discovered jazz.  I will say that I have listened to a lot of jazz music for someone who is not seriously studying the art form.  I have found that I have patterns of listening, where I will go through kicks of one particular artist, or group of similar artists.  During these kicks, I will become hooked on the other musicians.  Say I am going through a phase of listening to a lot of Charles Mingus, and I am really digging the saxophone solo on ::one of his tunes::.  I will go find out who that sax player is and listen to his own stuff.  Voila, I have just discovered ::Roland Kirk::! Another musician to dig into!

Further Listening – Here are a couple of albums that embrace the long form and stray from the “head, solo, head” format.
Chick Corea – Return to Forever
Pat Metheney – The Way Up
Jaco Pastorius – Word of Mouth


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