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

Book Review: ‘Jazz Greats Speak’

Jazz Greats Speak;
Interviews with Master Musicians
Roland Baggenaes, Author
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Pp. 139; paperback
© 2008 by Rowland Baggenaes

There was a sign in the medical library of the hospital in which I practiced; it stated: Any Book Is New Until You’ve Read It. And, that may also apply to this review.

The author Roland Baggenaes is Danish and the interviews of 17 jazz artists were conducted from 1972 through 1987. The interviews were originally published in Coda magazine. Interviews are conversational in style, perceptive and informative. Each interview is preceded with a brief biographical sketch, obviously written later for the book since a number of the interviewees had died in the interim.

The names of most of the interviewees will be familiar to American jazzfans. Less familiar, perhaps is Marie-Ange Martin, a guitarist who grew up in Paris. Pierre Diorge, guitarist-bandleader-composer and clarinetist-saxophonist John Tchicai are both Danish.

The 14 Americans interviewed are Dexter Gordon, Stanley Clarke, Duke Jordan, Jackie McLean, Mary Lou Williams, Howard King, Red Rodney, Marc Levin, Benny Waters, Warne Marsh, Mal Waldron, Ernie Wilkins, Sahib Shihab and Lee Konitz. There also are photos of all 17 interviewees.

This is the kind of book that might best be read one or two interviews at a time and then seek out a recording or two, YouTube or other source. One possible economic drawback is the expense of many of the Scarecrow Press books, which are academic and not mass-market. This is still in print with list price at $51. One may be able to find, however, a lower-priced used copy for significantly less, as I did.

This book will be available for circulation at the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library.

Applications for 2017 Jazz Fest sponsors, vendors now available

JazzPensacola currently is seeking sponsors for the 2017 Pensacola JazzFest, to be held April 1-2 in downtown Pensacola.

ehsjazzPensacola JazzFest is a FREE all-jazz festival held in historic Seville Square in downtown Pensacola.

Jazz Pensacola produces the event with assistance from a variety of corporate sponsors and community organizations. The weekend festival, held early each spring, celebrates America’s unique musical art form—jazz. Volunteers work yearlong to present this festival as their annual gift to the community. Jazz Pensacola relies upon individual and corporate donors for their essential support.

We have posted complete details on all levels of sponsorship, as well as an application form in downloadable PDF form. Click here for the form.

Jazz Pensacola also has opened the application process for food and arts & crafts vendors at the 2017 Jazz Fest. A limited number of food vendor spots are available for this popular spring event, and selection is competitive. We strive to avoid duplication of menu items and to offer a variety of food choices for festival attendees.

For complete details on the application processes for both food vendors and arts & crafts vendors, and to download vendor applications, click here.