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.

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