I was painfully aware of my lack of a jazzer’s ear the year I spent playing tenor saxophone in my high school jazz band. I felt honored to have been asked, as this had been an all-male organization up to my senior year. I could sight-read, I could play that tenor in-tune, and I could even swing. I could not, however, improvise. I froze. To my relief, there was only one chart (arrangement of a jazz number) in our books (folders full of our parts) which called for a second tenor solo. I turned the page that fateful day and instead of standard sheet music, suddenly there were chord symbols above the staves and slashes, one of each beat, through the five lines of the staff. This is the universal musical symbol to take off on a creative, unique solo for eight or sixteen bars (measures) or more. In my book, those slashes and chord symbols were a signal to panic, and I did. I probably knew the notes of each chord (the notes a solo melody should be based upon) better than any of the other eighteen guys in that group except for the guitarist and pianist, but that knowledge didn’t help when I was expected to come up on the spot, with an imaginative melody that fit with those chords. I froze like a deer on the road. I was humiliated. This was made more intense when I heard some of the guys making fun of me. This was the stuff of nightmares. After a few tries to get me to attempt the solo, the band director gave up and assigned it to the first alto player who, without preparation or hesitation, wailed a fantastic solo, each and every time we played that chart. I hated him and his ear. The chart, by the way, came from Buddy Rich’s band’s book, its name, ironically, was “Ya Gotta Try.” No, I don’t gotta.
A jazz musician puts his or her own life experiences into a performance, creating an aural environment for the listener. This environment would depend on what the musician wants to convey; his or her own interpretation of a song, how he or she is feeling at the moment, or memories the song evokes. I’m thinking of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” which can sound sultry or sad. When Tom Butler played it on his saxophone back in college the tune oozed “sultry”. But Thelonious Monk’s own versions tend to be sad, melancholy, depressed. Jazz musicians tend to interpret the same songs differently every time. That’s what musicians are trained to do from a young age, even in classical music where there is much less room for interpretation than there is in jazz.
Song is an interesting word, often used generically to describe a piece of music. I was corrected once by a piano teacher for referring to my assigned repertoire “To a Wild Rose” by Edward MacDowell as a “song”. “It’s a PIECE, Margaret, not a SONG!”
A song is usually sung, but not always. There are songs without words. A song is usually in ABA form (the first and last sections are similar and the middle part contrasts), but not always. I immediately stopped using “song” upon being corrected, and substituted the word “piece” when there wasn’t another term supplied by the composer such as “prelude,” “nocturne,” or “etude”. With jazz, the taxonomy is somewhat more difficult. I suppose song is okay. Number sounds honky-tonk. Piece sounds pedantic. Jazzers might say chart referring to the sheet music which contains instructions, signals, cues, and other notations besides the notes. When the music in question is a wonderland of textures, modes, and melodies such as “Round Midnight,” the usual terms song, number, and piece seem inadequate. Sometimes, with tongue-in-cheek, I might refer to the “sonic fabric” produced by a performance, but that’s only with people I know well. (It sounds pedantic for sure! Or goofy.)
I recently read and was impressed with Geoff Dyer’s, But Beautiful, a book about Jazz. I picked it with a certain prejudice, since I had just read about how he likes to study a subject intensely for a few years and then create a book about the topic. He calls it “gatecrashing”. This sounds familiar: I do kind of the same thing although I may not immerse myself for quite as long (usually it’s a year-long project chosen on New Year’s Day), and I produce an article or essay instead of a full-length book. I’ll be honest with the reader about my dilettantism and even crack jokes at my own expense.
What would a whole book about jazz by a non-jazzer be like? Without using jargon, he describes the sonic fabric, the onstage environment, and influences acting upon the musician. It’s no secret that many depend(ed) on substances in order to cope with life on the road, or unstable home and family lives damaged by that life on the road. They toured anyway, creating new interpretations of standard solos and tunes as they travelled from town to town. That recording you’ve listened to a thousand times of Art Blakey’s group playing “A Night in Tunisia” would sound different live in Philadelphia, and different again in Chicago. Dizzy Gillespie’s version would sound different still. You’d still recognize the tune, but the performances would differ. The point in jazz is not to make your performance sound the same as the original (as with a pop or rock cover band), but to make it sound new and unexpected. With the standard tunes often performed in jazz, it’s not even common knowledge who recorded it first.
In But Beautiful, Geoff Dyer profiles Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper. Somehow, Dyer makes clear to the reader that the performance being created onstage as we read is a direct product of the experiences and tribulations that each musician has gone through. Their emotions and memories come out in the music. We are there on the stage with the musician, with cigarette smoke impeding our breathing, and the sound of ice in glasses mingling with the music. Dyer is a Brit—this is obvious from words like serviette for napkin—and he seems unaware of jargon that an average American jazz fan like me would know. At one point, he has Ben Webster telling Charlie Parker, “You don’t play the tenor sax that way.” But we all know (don’t we?), that Parker played alto saxophone. I’ve noticed over the years that saxophone players say “saxophone” not “sax”, or more simply refer to the range: “Charlie Parker played alto.” These quibbles don’t take away from the book. The descriptions of the musicians are superb. I was tempted to call out from work so that I wouldn’t have to put the book down.
“Throughout I relied more on photographs than on written sources…” That acknowledgement appears in the paragraph leading into Dyer’s bibliography. Sure, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but still, what a curious, interesting way to put together a profile of a jazz musician. Think of all the information that would be found in a performance photo: what the musician looked like, what they wore, unusual hats, instruments, musical accessories, other musicians involved in a performance, smoke in the air, even audience members. I show a great photograph of Ella Fitzgerald in my Harlem Renaissance lecture, which shows her performing with Duke Ellington seated, smiling, at a table right in front. (Where else would Duke Ellington sit?) Nevertheless, that comment stopped me in my tracks as a lot of the book did. Look at pictures, because they are primary sources. Dyer is writing as a listener and as such has no need for pesky jargon. He has to make himself clear to his readers, not his jazz subjects, and he does this with impressions of the environment in which the musicians created their art.
DownBeat Magazine is a periodical that is a hybrid of a trade magazine and popular press glossy, which gave out coveted awards each year. I subscribed to it in college and read each issue cover-to-cover. I learned who the players were, where the hot clubs were, and I was exposed to the jargon, both slang and “legit”. I had a few jazz major friends, one in particular called Bob, who liked to go hear the big names when they came to our college town, Philadelphia. Bob and I heard Phil Woods, Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Toshiko Akiyoshi and her husband, Lew Tabackin, and Dizzy Gillespie, when they came to a club named the Chestnut Cabaret, and Sarah Vaughan at the Academy of Music (the opera house), and Trenton-area native Richie Cole, my supreme favorite saxophonist even if he did play alto instead of tenor, when he played Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton. One of Cole’s signature solo riffs is off the “I Love Lucy” theme. I love that.
In those days, I was past the thrill of just recognizing a standard tune. I was formally studying classical music forms and striving to apply that knowledge and identify structures in live jazz along with performers’ unique musical trademarks. (Richie Cole plays in the Bebop style similar to Charlie Parker.) I was trying to discover for myself what made the musicians and the music tick.
My jazz major friends, especially Bob, clued me in to the training they received. They had to learn hallmark solos such as John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in every key and be able to play them from memory. That was the easy stuff. They also had to become musically fluent in modes and be able to play in any given mode.
Mode means scales in the musical language that dates back to early Christian music in the Middle Ages and even Ancient Greece. Some modes are all but extinct except for a presence in music theory textbooks, but some found their way into folk and ethnic music, lending them an earthy flavor. Jazz and rock musicians appropriated modes for their distinctive melodies and solos. “Scarborough Fair,” “Greensleeves,” the solo from the Doors’, “Light My Fire,” and “So What” by Miles Davis are all in Dorian mode. Play all the white keys from D to D on the piano to hear what the Dorian scale sounds like. Play all the white keys from G to G to hear Mixolydian mode. “Old Joe Clark”, the Theme for ‘Star Trek’, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Summer Song” by Joe Satriani are in Mixolydian mode. Jazz musicians tend to borrow from the various modes for moments in their solos rather than composing entirely modal charts. The other modes, by the way, are Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
All of this complex planning and virtuosic musicianship is going on in jazz while many listeners are unaware. Jazz is rich! Many listen to jazz as background music, but knowing all this, even if you can’t put a name to the technique, doesn’t it make sense to limit distractions while listening? Pay attention to what the artist is trying to tell you.
When I was younger, I studied jazz. This was informal study concurrent with my formal study in classical clarinet performance and music theory. In spite of the humiliation about my lack of extemporaneous talent, high school jazz band is not a bad memory. Even while limited to playing the notes on the page, I was exposed to a new kind of music from the inside. Not only was the music happening all around me in that band room, my voice as second tenor was lots lower in the musical texture than I was used to as a clarinetist in other bands. I hear the sound of the clarinet as my own voice, but playing tenor was like a musical masquerade. The best memory of all from jazz band year was the Spring Concert. We walked onto the high school auditorium stage to a darkened house with spotlights throwing soft light onto us. I knew my mom was out there, but I could not see her. Did the audience have any idea how cool this was? It was a remarkable, unforgettable thrill to forget the audience in the dark and then be surprised by its applause. I felt like a big-name jazzer!