Experiences at UNT Jazz – Part 2 – Jazz Improv

Continuing the saga of Roger at the University of North Texas (UNT) Jazz Studies program included 5 semesters of jazz improvisation (improv) classes.

As mentioned before, I had to complete quite a few undergraduate courses on the way to my masters program. Hence, 4 semesters of undergrad jazz improv leading to the the masters level course that actually applied to my degree. Normally, these would be preceded by some jazz theory, but somehow in the early evaluations process I demonstrated sufficient theory knowledge, so those theory courses were waived.

Jazz Improv at UNT was a great learning experience. Being one of the top jazz schools in the nation, I was expecting good things, and was not disappointed. There are no doubt many ways to learn jazz improv in the many college programs out there. And, probably, if one attended UNT today, things might be done differently, as methods and technology progress. This is how it happened at UNT jazz improv classes during the years 1997 thru 1999.

My three improv instructors were Mike Steinel, Fred Hamilton and Dan Haerle. Mike Steinel is a renowned trumpeter, composer, educator and author of several jazz study books notably including the Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble series used by most middle school jazz bands. Fred Hamilton is a great guitarist with a solid career as a performer and educator. Dan Haerle is one of the great jazz pianists of today and authored several books about jazz piano and theory. He can be heard on many Jamey Aebersold jazz play-a-longs. All three are regular presenters at annual Jazz Education Network conferences.

You attend class with your instrument, ready to play. Class size is 10 to 12. Drummers also play vibes. Some singers were in my classes, but the requirements were high – they had to be good music readers and be able to sing scales and arpeggiated chords, which are a big part of the first courses. Jazz theory matches scales/modes with the many chord types. We would have to play from memory just about all possible combinations, at a brisk tempo. Other theory related stuff involved multiple note patterns and various tricks and licks such as diatonic and chromatic stair steps, rotations, II-V-I vocabulary and jazz phrasing. There’s a lot of stuff to learn and be able to play.

One thing I don’t recall is much talk about how we needed to listen to lots of great jazz artists. It seemed that by virtue of being in the UNT jazz studies program, you had already done lots of listening. Musicians in UNT jazz improv classes were for the most part already experienced jazz performers. The goal was to get better, not start from scratch.

I remember shopping for jazz theory books at the local Denton Music Store. What a great music store – they had a huge selection of everything musical for all instruments. I would pick up a rather large book, look at the table of contents and peruse a section or two. The resulting experience I will describe as “swirly brain.” That’s where your brain is overwhelmed by the information and kind of locks up for a while. In learning complex music theory, and probably math/science too, you must keep thinking and processing and hope that it really makes sense some day. It’s a great feeling when you finally get it. But then, on to the next level.

A typical daily drill would be to delve into a standard jazz tune, using a recorded version by a notable jazz artist as the main learning tool. For example, “Dolphin Dance” by Herbie Hancock. You were tasked to learn the chord progression and melody and play both at tempo from memory. You demonstrated the chords by making up an arpeggiated rendition that outlined the chords of the tune. Of course, those on piano or guitar would just demonstrate by comping the chords. Then you would need to chose one of the solos in the recording, usually one that fits your instrument (like trumpet for me), transcribe one or two choruses of the selected solo from the recording (listen closely, repeating phrases, maybe slowing down if technology allows, and notate what you hear), then play the solo transcription in class. This is a great way to learn jazz improv – it has been described as a personal lesson from the selected jazz great. It is also time consuming and requires considerable skill and knowledge to do.

One of my classmates during third semester improv, I think 1998, was now famous singer/pianist Norah Jones. I recall she was a very good pianist with an easy going personality. I had no idea she was also a vocalist, since that was not demonstrated during that class nor any other performance at UNT Jazz that I witnessed. She was at UNT for a while, and then she wasn’t. Next thing I know, some years later, she presents  her first Grammy Award winning, hit recording, and the rest is history. Seems she had gone to New York City and worked her way up the ranks gaining a contract with the Blue Note recording company. “Crossover,” they called it – melding jazz with pop and a little country thrown in. Apparently, the music audience approved, and they are still approving. 

Final exams were always performance based. You select tunes and perform jazz improv with a rhythm section, usually other students in the class. Most of the time they were video recorded. The instructor would then critique your performance and assign a grade. Sometimes I proudly got an “A.”

Up next: UNT Jazz Chamber Music – the small ensembles.

Experiences at UNT Jazz

Before moving to Pensacola in 2003, Kat and I lived in Denton, Texas, home of the University of North Texas (UNT), where I completed possibly the longest master’s degree program in history – six years – leading to a Master of Music Degree majoring in Jazz Studies. 

In 1964, when I was in high school jazz band in Altus, Oklahoma, UNT, which was then North Texas State College, was my dream college to attend. I auditioned and visited the campus, listening with awe to a concert that featured all of their Lab Bands (that’s what they called their large jazz/stage bands). Mostly for financial reasons, that dream was put on hold.

Thirty some years later, the dream reappeared. I could afford it. I had an opening in my schedule. And they approved my admissions application. There I was – an over 50-year-old, retired U.S. Air Force aviator (25 years) with a rather old Music Education Degree, some old band directing experience, some musical talent and experience, and a 30-year old Conn Constellation trumpet that I had resurrected and was working to sound better on. So enter I did – to a musical world full of young, highly talented musicians from all over the World. Boy, did I fit in.

And why did it take me six years to graduate? Well, for one thing, earning a masters degree in jazz studies at UNT requires proven proficiency or requisite course completions at the undergraduate level. That means you either show up for your masters program as a professional jazz performer listed on a Downbeat Jazz Poll, or you have earned a suitable undergraduate degree in jazz, or you have to take most of those UNT undergraduate courses in progressive order – you can’t just skip from Improv 1 to Improv 4. The latter option was my road to the mountain top. But hey, I had some time, and it was a fun journey.

UNT Jazz Studies was like a musical meritocracy. Neither students or faculty cared about your non-musical experiences or credentials. Your previous rank in the U.S. Air Force or your leadership and management experience or your age or lots of other things made little day-to-day difference. It was all about your last jazz solo or arrangement or other school performance in a very competitive environment. Neil Slater, then head of Jazz Studies, conferred with me well into my program, that getting in was one thing, getting out with a degree was quite another. Dan Haerle, a renowned pianist and one of my instructors, told his class something like: one of our jobs here is to help you in making your career choice in the field of jazz. In other words, maybe it’s not really the best fit for you.

One of the highlights of attending the UNT Jazz program is playing in one of the Lab Bands, or large jazz ensembles. The term Lab Band came from the historic experimental nature of often playing student arrangements/compositions and exploring new frontiers of jazz. Bands were named by the hour they met: one o’clock thru eight o’clock (the last 2 actually met earlier using a second room). The upper level bands met in the Kenton Hall Monday thru Thursday. All the bands were very good to excellent. The top one o’clock and two o’clock bands were highest level professional quality.

Placings, band and part/chair (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), were by audition each semester. The jazz staff would deliberate our audition performances and assign placings in the various bands. The results, typed on 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, would then be posted in the foyer of Kenton Hall for all to see. Hundreds of students would mass around the bulletin board to see what their fate would be for the upcoming semester. I remember being happy and sometimes sad at my placing. I was mostly in a solo position (4th or 5th trumpet part), which I liked, in bands ranging from 6 to 3 o’clock.

I was often disappointed to not make the one or two o’clock bands. It was considered the UNT badge of honor and ultimate sign of success. I worked and tried hard and gave it my best – and never made it. Once, I felt really good going into the auditions – this could be the year, I told myself. I looked at the placing sheets and found my name as 4th trumpet in the 4 o’clock lab band. Not only that, but one of the trumpet soloists in the one o’clock was a freshman. It turns out, he was really good. Welcome to the competitive world of jazz.

Staying in the upper two bands could also be a challenge. They were very unforgiving of any lapses in proficiency or participation. I remember a young trumpeter who made the one o’clock and in the first week announced to Neil Slater that he had a conflict with one of the scheduled concerts. A new guy was in place the next day.

Once when I was in the 6 o’clock band the lead trumpeter from the one o’clock substituted as lead with our band. The rule was, if you can’t be at a rehearsal, you must arrange a substitute. No exceptions were allowed. Your honor was at stake. Anyway, he was sight reading, so you might expect an occasional small error. None were made. He played perfect. I was impressed.

I did sub in the 2 o’clock a couple of times. The first time I remember, and learned a lesson, about what it is like to play in a top level ensemble. The slightest imperfection – hold a note a little longer than the others, crack an attack, not perfectly in tune in a unison section – made you stand out like a shark fin at the beach. You are motivated to bring your best skills and attention to the task at hand. When great players do this – great music happens. 

The Lab Band music library was huge and diverse. Lots of original charts from famous big bands. Stan Kenton willed his library to UNT, and we played quite a few Stan Kenton charts. Always copies, never originals, which were of course quite valuable. Kenton charts were fun and exciting to play. Characterized by BIG sound. BIG climactic parts with VERY LOUD brass with VERY HIGH lead trumpet parts. And by the way, the 8 UNT jazz bands were all set at Kenton size: 5 saxes, 5 trombones (with 2 bass trombones), 5 trumpets (solos split between 4th and 5th players), plus piano, guitar, bass and drums.

I remember playing Bill Holman’s Malagueña in a 3 O’clock Lab Band concert at a high school in Dallas. The lead trumpet part is one of the most difficult I have ever seen – super high, with some fast fingering and complex note combinations. The other trumpet parts are also challenging. In one climactic part the whole section plays the melody in unison up to a high D above the staff, over the very big sound of the rest of the band. Very exciting!

So there you have it. I did graduate (that’s what DG really means), and we moved to Pensacola, mostly because of the beach, but also attracted by the musical and jazz scene in our beautiful area. 

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 years experience at UNT Jazz. 

And, for those interested, I plan to write more about some other UNT experiences. Next up: improv classes and playing in UNT jazz combos.

We Will Miss Ralph

As you probably know, Ralph Knowles passed away on July 18 at the age of 93. Talk about an avid Jazz Pensacola supporter! He could always be counted on as a hard working volunteer, steadfast financial supporter, enthusiastic attendee at virtually all events, active leader as a Board member and interested advisor in the Sparks group –  Ralph gave his all for Jazz Pensacola for a long time.

When Kat and I moved to Pensacola in 2003, it was Ralph and Janet at the door for our first Jazz Gumbo. They were so friendly and inviting. We were hooked on Jazz Pensacola, and we began a very close friendship with them. We were so sad when Janet passed in 2009, and now Ralph. But hey, 93 is an enviable age to reach, and he led a fantastic life – one to be celebrated as well as missed. 

Ralph was a truly kind and good person, and he loved jazz too. He loved that hot traditional jazz, with a toe-tappin’ beat, and I think he was warming up to that progressive jazz I presented from time to time. You could always find him in the merchandise tent or the VIP tent or around the Gazebo or at the Jazz Jams and Jazz Gumbos or at the college band concerts or wherever Al Martin was playing. Of course, many more good things can be said about him. Just want to say again – we will miss Ralph.

Roger and Kat

Playing By Ear and By Eye

Jazz improvisation, which is basically making and playing a little composition in real time, is a creative act coming from the performer’s personal storehouse of ideas and techniques. Students often remark that they just can’t think of anything to play. Two concepts that are crucial to this ability can be termed as “playing by ear” and “playing by eye.”

First, playing by ear. If you can’t read music at all, or can’t see at all, playing by ear is all you have got. And, if you are sufficiently gifted, it can be all you need. Playing by ear involves trained listening, then storing of sounds and patterns, then the ability to perform based on those stored sounds and patterns. Tone, tuning, vibrato, style and many other nuances of performance are rooted in hearing. Music lives in the realm of hearing. The more you listen and take in – the better player you can be – up to a point.

For most of us moderately gifted mortals, the playing by eye part can help greatly in achieving a higher level of jazz skills. Of course, first in the line of eye skills is proficiency in reading musical notation. But then in addition to the notes, what about all those colorful jazz chords we see symbolized on the music sheet. How can you know what tones will fit well in the harmony you are about to improvise on. That is when the playing by eye skills really kick in. Chords and scales are like letters in the alphabet that are used to make words in a story. Today’s jazz theory teaches a correlation between chords and scales, or in other words, when you see or play a C major chord, the improvisor learns that the appropriate scale would probably be C major. I say probably, because it could also be C lydian, which is the 8-note scale built on the forth note of the G major scale. Taking this much further, the many possible chords in jazz (or any music genre) harmony can be correlated with various scales and modes to serve as resources for improvisation. This gets complicated. This is why we go to music school and read technical books and spend lots of time and effort learning stuff.

Ironically, the best “by eye” players are able to hear in their mind what they see on the paper. One of my lab band instructors at University of North Texas asked the band during rehearsal one day to “show me the music.” We all held up the part we were reading. He then said, “No, that is the paper, not the music.” The trick is to turn the notes and info on the paper into a musical performance. That means transforming what you see into what everyone hears. This skill can also be applied to play improvised melodies and patterns based on internalized knowledge of the notes and sounds of chords and scales. Now we are getting into advanced performance territory.

The skills and knowledge of playing by ear and by eye end up working together in a synergistic way. This can also be explained as a coordinated left brain plus right brain thought process. Left brain analytical/methodical plus right brain creative/sensory equals best artistic outcome. So if you really want to be a great jazz improvisor, listen to lots of good jazz, internalize the sounds, study jazz theory, then add that knowledge to your internalized sound bank. Then when your solo comes up and you look at the lead sheet with melody notes and chord symbols you can hear in your mind what it might sound like before and while you are playing that great solo. 

Roger Blows His Horn – The Squeaky “X” Syndrome

It’s Saturday morning and while doing some chores around the house I turn on the TV and select the Music Choice Jazz Station. Soon, a solo erupts from the speakers that garners the comment “oh boy, another squeaky sax solo.” Another descriptive phrase I have heard likens the sound to “strangling a goose.” Sometimes it is followed by the equally popular extended drum solo, but that’s for another article. 

Although saxophones are particularly well suited to squeaking, honking, rapid fingering maneuvers, and other discordant sounds, the idea and similar effects can be done on any instrument whether it be the piano (the forearm smash), clarinet (max blow above high C), violin (screech bowing), guitar (max distortion) or even trumpet (real high and loud). Therefore, to partially mitigate the anger and resentment of all those saxophonists out there, I will simply label it the squeaky “X” syndrome, and you can fill in the “X” with the instrument of your choice. So, how does this squeaky “X” syndrome fit into the world of jazz we all love and promote. Where did it come from? Why does it happen? What can we do about it?

First, jazz musicians did not originate the squeaky “X” syndrome. Classical musicians really got into this around 1910, continuing to the present day, with practices like increased dissonance, atonality, serial/twelve tone composition, use of not-usually-considered-musical sounds, free/spontaneous performance and many other innovative techniques. Such methods can produce a squeaky orchestra, opera, or other classical ensemble. This was good because music was art and artists were supposed to express themselves and create art and pleasing the audience became a lesser consideration. The same phenomenon happened in modern visual art and sculpture. Jazz didn’t get far out until the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time that jazz also decided to become “art” music. Jazz coincidentally also became more of a concert music rather than dancing and social music.

Another source of more strident sounds in jazz comes from some musical practices by tribal Africans, which then of course became part of the mix of ingredients to form the musical gumbo we call jazz.

Therefore, the squeaky “X” syndrome happens in jazz because, in the context of contemporary music practices and principles of music making in general, it is a justifiable tool in the performer’s arsenal – especially when it comes time to kick it up a notch. Emotional contrast or contour – excitement versus tranquility, tension versus release, storm versus calm – is what makes music interesting and captivating. Honks and squeaks can definitely increase tension and excitement. Five to ten minutes of honks and squeaks will kick it way on up there. Could it be that it comes down to considerations like how much for how long and who is listening and where.

So, in your jazz listening experience you perceive an instance of the squeaky “X” syndrome— what can you do? First, you most quickly conclude that this performance was not meant to be background or easy listening music. If you are at home or in your car and wish for background or easy listening music, you can take appropriate action, such as manipulation of the on-off switch, channel selector, or other audio control device. In a conversational club environment, legs can take you to a different place. If seated in a huge auditorium having paid big money for the tickets, keep in mind that the performer is attempting to elevate the excitement level and express emotion and produce an art jazz listening experience. I say give the performer a chance to make his musical point and then decide whether the overall show gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Remember that John Coltrane did great ballads and lots of accessible jazz in addition to his more far out renderings.

So, there you have it, a totally scientific treatise dealing with the squeaky “X” syndrome. You may now consider these thoughts on the matter as you chose your level of acceptance of the squeaky “X” syndrome in your world of jazz. See you at Jazz Jam and Jazz Gumbo.

Roger Blows His Horn – The Future of Jazz

What is the future of jazz? Will there be more, less, new styles? Defining jazz as a music characterized by a motivating beat, improvisation, and jazz-like sounds and styles, let me make a few predictions based on my experience and observations.

 

Jazz will certainly live on and thrive. I very much doubt it will be the popular music of tomorrow, with multi-platinum recordings and people making big bucks for sold out mega events. But there will be many jazz festivals and concerts in a variety of settings. I have attended numerous annual conventions hosted by the Jazz Education Network. Mingling with 7,000 jazz fans through four days of non-stop performances and clinics leaves the impression that jazz is alive and well.

 

The many styles of jazz will all be happening to enthusiastic audiences. This has been a long running trend going back to the early 50s. Out of traditional and swing came bebop, cool, soul, hard bop, Latin variants, fusion, free, smooth, and on and on. They are all happening today, and if something new comes up, it will simply be added to the mix. In today’s global village, one can find a million or so people interested in just about anything you can imagine, including any kind of jazz.

 

Jazz musicians of the future are coming from the school music programs. A friend and professor at University of North Texas co-authored The Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble, a music text designed for use in middle school jazz bands. It seems to be in all the music stores and most middle school band rooms. Young people are learning how to play jazz and improvise solos. They think it is fun. Many will want to do it for the rest of their lives. There are awesome jazz musicians out there in the schools and universities of America. And did I mention the rest of the world.

 

Jazz is and will continue to be a ”world” music. Jazz roots are in America, but the branches are everywhere. Europe has a thriving jazz scene. We export many of our master jazz musicians to Europe—has been happening since the early days of jazz. It’s also big in Japan, Thailand, Canada, Australia, South Africa—I think it is spreading.

 

Jazz will be mostly about performing and listening. The shift from dance music to concert music began back in the 1940s when the bebop players in the clubs of New York started playing jazz that was too fast and complex for dancing. Still had a swing and beat, but 240 beats per minute is too fast for the foxtrot. Moreover, while some jazz is good for dancing, jazz is certainly not necessary for dancing.

 

Jazz will be a cultivated musical art form on the same level as classic music. Jazz has traveled from the nightclubs and dance halls to the universities and concert halls. The explosion of books on jazz, the advanced degrees offered in jazz studies, the historical database, the growing body of works/composers, and the proliferation of jazz in the general world of academia points to a very cultured art form.

 

Lastly, jazz will be a lifetime pursuit for adult musicians. Once learned, one tends to want to keep on doing it. In addition to school programs, more adults are learning and playing jazz. Technology makes it feasible to play along with a recorded band in your own home. An explosion of books and tutorials are available to help learning. Two or more musicians who know the language of jazz can get together and play—often referred to as a combo or band.

 

So there you have it, a totally scientific treatise outlining the future of jazz. I hope you plan to be a part of it.