Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 4- Creating Something New

There's a way of playing safe and 
then there's where you create something 
you haven't created before.
-Dave Brubeck

Many have called it “mysterious.” Some will say there’s magic in it. Others might criticize it for being “too far out” or “odd.” No matter what is said about it, it is undeniably the center point around which jazz congregates.


I had been listening to jazz for a number of years before I realized that so much of what I was listening to only existed once in the studio or venue where it was performed. In that moment jazz went from being a great form of music that I loved to something far more profound. It was alive in a way that no other music could claim in my awareness. Sure there have been many great improvised solos in other genres; even the classical greats like Bach were known to be excellent improvisers. But no other music called forth improvising; no other music seemed to breathe the life of the music in the moment.

I was in awe.

About 20 years ago, I had my first jazz camp experience. I knew very little music theory and couldn’t have played in many of the keys if my life depended on it. But the time came to improvise. As I sat down that evening I wrote in my journal:
My first solo. Just the basics of course, but an improv solo on the simple concert B-flat scale.

"Play a melody. Write a song with it, Barry."

And I did.

It fit, too. It made some sense. You have to try to listen to what is going on around you. Hear the rhythm, devise the melody, watch the harmony. It wasn't polished. It was kind of stiff and boring, but no one started out as a virtuoso.
The instructors this morning emphasized that. The scales are to the instrumentalist what the gym is to Michael Jordan.
The same could have been said about my solo at last summer’s Big Band Camp. It wasn’t polished; it was kind of stiff and boring. One of my problems is that I get stuck on “bad” notes. A “bad note” is one that could be a great “blue note,” a note moving from one place to another. But it turns into dissonance and discord because I stop for too long. No movement, more like a crash into a brick wall. My mind blanks, I forget what I’m thinking and nothing of interest comes from the instrument. It made some sense for a little bit, a few measures, but that’s about it.

What a challenge then in this past year when, following the Big Band Camp and then Trumpet Camp in 2015, I decided I was going to do an improv solo this year. And not get stuck! It was one of several goals I set for myself, and the one that looked most challenging. Wikipedia’s entry on improvisation in jazz points out some of the problems.
Basically, improvisation is composing on the spot, in which a singer or instrumentalist invents solo melodies and lines over top of a chord progression played by rhythm section instruments (piano, electric guitar double bass, etc.) and also accompanied by drum kit. While blues, rock and other genres also use improvisation, the improvisation in these non-jazz genres typically is done over relatively simple chord progressions which often stay in one key (or closely related keys.) …Jazz improvisation is distinguished from other genres use of this approach by the high level of chordal complexity…
Problem #1: Composing on the fly.
Saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy once said,
In composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, in improvisation you have 15 seconds.
It takes time to learn how to do that. A lot more than a year. It takes a certain amount of courage to do it in public. It takes a certain amount of insanity to even want to do it in the first place.

Problem #2: Chordal complexity
Most of us want to sound professional when we do our improvising. That means the complexity of chords and chord changes. We don’t want to sound like some newbie just playing the blues scale over the changes. It may fit, but that’s baby stuff. To think that one can get to that point in one year would be the height of grandiosity- or blindness.

Problem #3: Learning the language
This is all about a language and developing an understanding of its meanings. It is no different than having a conversation with a friend- except we have all learned how to use words in conversations one little bit at a time. We didn’t do that in any great way until we developed a vocabulary, the experience of talking with others, and the experiences of our lives to have something to talk about. If you have 15 seconds to say something, you better have the language ready to be accessed at the right time and place.

A daunting task, to be sure. But I did have a few things in my favor.
  • I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. I have a decent ear for jazz, jazz forms, and jazz licks. I have been an intense jazz listener for 50+ years. It’s kind of like being somewhat able to understand, say Spanish, when it is spoken, even though my brain trips over itself when I try to speak it.
  • I am also a decent musician. I understand a lot more about music from simply playing it than I realized before this year. That means I have a basic understanding of chord progressions and the blues scale.
  • And, I now have the time, in my semi-retirement, to spend time learning.
While I didn’t have a set plan for learning jazz, I first spent a lot of time really getting to know my musical skills- the basics, just the basics. Day in and day out there were those long notes and chromatics. Then there was Arban (always good old Arban!) and Concone and others. Finally I decided I would learn the 12 major keys. Yes, after 50+ years I was doing one of those basic things.

The result was I got to Big Band Camp and I was ready. No getting stuck this year. Let it happen!

It did! No it wasn’t a great solo, but it didn’t get stuck, it didn’t suck, and it wasn’t stiff. I even think there might have been some swing it it. At least I was swinging. Since then I have done some more improvising with the one big band I play in. Nothing fancy. But I now have the courage to at least try. I have done it and I know I can do it again.

What then does all this mean?
#1. It takes time and effort. Just a year of work doesn’t do it. But it’s a start.

#2. Appreciate jazz when other people do it. Listen. Then listen some more. Finally, listen again.

#3. Have courage. Take the opportunity to improvise. In the privacy of your practice room and in public.

#4. Be good to yourself and appreciate what you have done and what you can do.

#5. Push yourself. Don’t stop where you’ve been. Look at where you still want to go.

Now that I have more of the basics down, it is time to move into the advanced beginning stage. (Trying to keep that trumpet ego in check!) That means more of the 5 things above. It means enjoying the practice and challenge. And it means seeing how improvisation has already made and can make a difference in my life.

That will be next week.

The genius of our country is improvisation,
and jazz reflects that.
It's our great contribution to the arts.
-Ken Burns

Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

I have absolutely no idea why Donald Trump would use the Rolling Stones song, You Can't Always Get What You Want as the closing of his epically long acceptance speech last night. He has used it other times, I gather, but it doesn't make sense. At least to me.

Might it be thumbing his nose at the Cruz people?

Nyah, nyah- you didn't get what you want
Might it be to pick up on anger the way only the Rolling Stones could? Here's one of the verses that might explain that:
But I went down to the demonstration
To get your fair share of abuse
Singing, "We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't we're gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse"
It might just be because he is of the generation that would have rocked to that song in 1969 when he was 23.
It has a good beat. I can dance to it. I'll give it an 80.
Or, and this is a little more subtle, which speaks against it, but he may be saying:
You think you want something else, but if you vote for me you will find that I am what you need.
That fits the chorus sung over and over with a magical and hypnotic beat.
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need
It may just be the hypnotic beat that will put us all to sleep so he can give us a post-hypnotic suggestion, subliminal ideas, to make sure we go vote for him.

I am at a loss to figure it out.

All I know is that for someone who preaches law and order, his continual use of songs without permission is a good example of his belief that he can do whatever he wants.


So I present another song for consideration by The Who:
I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!

And the famous last line:
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Books for Trumpet Worskshop Students

Go Fund Me

Over the past year I have written a weekly blog post on music and life titled The Tuning Slide . It has been based on what I first learned at the Trumpet Workshop at Shell Lake, WI, Arts Center in August 2015. I would like to provide a copy of the blog posts as a book for the students at this year's workshop.

I have tried to go beyond the basic ideas and describe how I personally wrestled with them in my own developing trumpet practice. I have also applied the ideas to every day life, connecting music with daily living.

I have played trumpet for over 50 years but until recently was not able to spend the time to become as proficient as I would like to be. The blog book also explores music as a life-long experience.

The money raised will pay for the book's publishing and free distribution to the students.

Go Fund Me

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 3- Swing

It Don’t Mean a Thing
(If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
-Duke Ellington

You may remember the old joke about the comedian who asks, “What’s the secret of a good joke?” and then answers the question without a moment’s break. “Timing.”

Until Einstein, “time” was seen as a constant. It was always the same. Then relativity came along and suddenly time was a “changeable” dimension.  (Don’t ask me to explain THAT!) Time became, to put it way too simply, relative. As we get older we can agree with that idea. Time sure moves faster when you have more time behind you. (Where did this year go? It’s the end of July already!)

Another way of describing this is to say that “time” is how we perceive it. If we are bored, it hardly moves; if we are having a great time, it ends too soon. Music depends on time- and timing. Music is guided by a “time signature.” In jazz, the idea of “time” can take on another dimension. Time becomes the movement of the notes in a unique and special way. From there that movement is what musicians often call “the groove” or the interaction of musicians, time and melody into something everyone can feel.

When you are in that groove with the movement leading you, holding you and the music together-
That’s Swing!

Wikipedia starts the definition of swing this way:
In jazz and related musical styles, the term swing is used to describe the sense of propulsive rhythmic "feel" or "groove" created by the musical interaction between the performers, especially when the music creates a "visceral response" such as feet-tapping or head-nodding.
Got it? It sounds simple.
    1.    There’s the movement (propulsive rhythm).
    2.    That movement is created by the interaction the performers themselves are feeling.
    3.    There is a “visceral response,” perhaps because of that interaction, responses like tapping your foot or nodding your head.

If that’s all it takes, I have seen many performers “swinging” in some of the dullest ways possible. In some ways it sounds like a small group of people doing their thing in a way that moves them.

Wikipedia continues:
While some jazz musicians have called the concept of "swing" a subjective and elusive notion, they acknowledge that the concept is well-understood by experienced jazz musicians at a practical, intuitive level. Jazz players refer to "swing" as the sense that a jam session or live performance is really "cooking" or "in the pocket." If a jazz musician states that an ensemble performance is "really swinging," this suggests that the performers are playing with a special degree of rhythmic coherence and "feel."
In other words, if you don’t understand it, that’s because you aren’t an experienced jazz musician. It takes a “practical” and “intuitive” understanding to know when it’s “cooking.” That just adds a bit of snobbery to the first part of the discussion. You have to be with the “in crowd” to really know what swing is or even how to make it happen. How about that attempt at paradox- practical AND intuitive.

Do you get the idea they can’t describe it any better than anyone else? All they are saying is that they know it when it happens. When it’s not happening, well, it “just ain’t swingin’ man.”

The crazy thing is that this is as good as it gets trying to nail it down without some time listening to the music. We have all had an experience of the essence of “swing” whether it is in jazz, or any other kind of music. It may have been the Sunday the organist at church nailed a Bach prelude or the praise band’s hallelujah touched the depth of your soul. It might have been at the rock concert when your favorite band never sounded better and every note was right where they (and you) wanted it to be. Those are the same as “swing,” just in a different musical genre. They are peak experiences when music and time come together and meld into Einstein’s four-dimensional universe.

Okay, enough of this. We can wax and wane poetic, prosaic, or scientific night and day and never quite get to that kernel of truth about swing. We know swing because it moves us. We know swing because something in us responds to it. As musicians, we know we are “in the groove” when we come to the end and realize you were simply carried along.

In jazz, we call it swing. Swing always is an interaction in time and musical movement. On a very simple technical level swing is that dotted-eighth/sixteenth combination of notes. But Latin jazz doesn’t do that, yet it can swing as hard as any other jazz.

That’s where the idea of time really comes into play. Wynton Marsalis describes it this way in his book, Moving to Higher Ground:
Jazz is the art of timing. It teaches you when. When to start, when to wait, when to step it up, and when to take your time- indispensable tools for making someone else happy….

Actual time is a constant. Your time is a perception. Swing time is a collective action. Everyone in jazz is trying to create a more flexible alternative to actual time
We are back to our perception of time, and again that perception is grounded in a collective sense of time in the interaction of the musicians, the rhythm, and the music.

Wynton Marsalis applies all this to our daily lives. Swing helps us in:
    1.    Adjusting to changes without losing your equilibrium;
    2.    Mastering moments of crisis with clear thinking;
    3.    Living in the moment and accepting reality instead of trying to force everyone to do things your way;
    4.    Concentrating on a collective goal even when your conception of the collective doesn’t dominate.
Change happens. It is a constant. Sometimes it is expected and not jarring. It is in time. Sometimes it knocks us off our balance. That is when the understanding of swing, staying in the groove, going with the flow comes in handy. The moments of crisis, times of change, when we can lose our ability to make healthy decisions is when we move back to the basics. The forms of life that keep us moving.

Remember that jazz is made up of forms and when you have an understanding of the forms you can adapt. If you know the forms of your life, you can begin to trust your Self 2 instinct as discussed in the Inner Game of Music. It’s the muscle and mental default mode that keeps us standing when it would be easier to fall.
From there we accept what is- staying in the moment- accepting the things we cannot change, changing what we can, and knowing which is which.

Another way to describe swing is that it’s how you accent the music, what you emphasize, what you want people to hear. Any jazz musician knows the forms for accents, for what to emphasize and what not to. That can change from performance to performance, within the basic forms of course. Tonight the musician may want to emphasize the upbeat feel of a chorus; tomorrow, after a difficult day, the emphasis may take more of a bluesy style.

What you accent in life can become your song or story. How you do that can change the rhythm of your life.  That’s your perspective. We all know the analogies of looking at the doughnut or the hole; the cage of horse manure with the optimist seeing the possibility of a horse amid all that. Even the old "is the glass half-empty or half-full" can add a new dimension- the glass is refillable.

Accentuate the positive. Assume positive intent.
Or not.
It’s your choice.

But you are not alone. With few exceptions jazz is a truly collective music. We have to listen to each other, not fight each other in a jazz performance. It is a cooperative action of attempting to make more than any one of us can make on their own. If I accent the upbeat and you slur through them it might sound unique, but will it sound appropriate? Will it sound like one of us is trying to one-up the other? The music will often suffer as a result. It can easily descend into chaos. Some might call that “free-form” but it takes amazing concentration of collective action to produce good “free-form” jazz.

In the end, Wynton Marsalis says, swing demands three things:
    1.    Extreme coordination- it is a dance with others inventing steps as they go;
    2.    Intelligent decision making- what’s good for group
    3.    Good intentions- trust you and others want great music.
Swing is worth the effort. We grow in relationships- and we learn how to develop relationships. We learn how to listen to others and, in the end, ourselves. That will lead us into the next two weeks’ posts on what may be the heart and soul of jazz- improvisation, the ultimate in going with the flow.

Until then, keep swinging.

I don't care if a dude is purple with
green breath as long as he can swing.
-Miles Davis

Note: All Wynton Marsalis quotes are from the book:
    •    Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward. 2008, Random House.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Political Tilt-A-Whirl

I have come to the conclusion that logic and facts, while interesting and even helpful, most of the time don’t do much to win arguments. In fact, for most of us our policy could very well be, “I know what I believe. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” We will sort through loads of facts until we find the one that agrees with us out of hundreds. Global climate change is one of the current examples. Out of every 100 scientific studies it appears that at least 90 or more support the idea of climate change occurring around us right now. But if you, for some ideological or political reason disagree, well, forget those 90 some. Just look at that one.

I have done the same thing with people’s comments after a sermon, performance, or Facebook post. I could get 25 “Good job! I loved it.” Comments. But there’s that one who didn’t like it, disagreed with me, said something unkind. That’s the one that will keep me awake at night and spoil my day. That is not about being thick- or thin-skinned. It’s about how we respond and how we make decisions.

At one point in time most believed that if you could separate emotions from decision-making, we would all be able to make better decisions. The paradigm for that was good old Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet! His quote, which entered the American lexicon, was “Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.” No opinions, asides, or emotions. The facts will lead us to where we want to go.

Sadly, the real world has a different reality based on other facts discovered in research. There are examples of people who have through surgery or accident had their emotional response separated from their logical response. They make decisions based only on the facts. There is no emotional content to their process. It is entirely disconnected. It would seem, according to “logical” thinking that such a person would be able to make sane, rational decisions.

That assumption is wrong. If they make decisions they are not logical or sane. In many instances they have great difficulty making these decisions at all, feeling overwhelmed by choices. Through brain scans and other tools of modern neuroscience, we have discovered that an interaction between emotion and logic is what makes the better decisions. The emotional content, also including intuition and stored memories beneath consciousness, is as important as the logical content- the facts.

What we see is that those decisions based solely (or mainly) on either pure logic or pure emotion are both flawed. Whether it’s the person above with only logic or the active addict controlled by the pleasure (emotional) content, they do not make the better or best decisions.

What is more to the point is that unless we have some physical or emotional reason for a disconnect between reason and emotion, we all make our decisions on a combination of both. Most of the time our brains are downright lazy and make most decisions based on intuitive reactions. We don’t even think about it. (Just because it comes through and from our brain does NOT mean we have “thought” about it. Many pre-, sub-, and unconscious ideas and reactions occur without the action of thinking.) That of course is fortunate. It is part of our survival mechanism, allowing us to react to danger in less time than it takes to think about it.

The very serious game of politics is one of those places where we can see the impact of facts, logic, opinion, or emotion. For some reason there are many people who look at a picture of Barack Obama and have a strong negative reaction. Many of them will have all kinds of logical reasons for that reaction. They can cite “information” (whether true or false, logical or illogical) for why they believe that Obama is a threat, a Muslim, an idiot, the worst president, or whatever. He has ruined the country, the economy is in a shambles, crime is up, he hates police, and on and on. Don’t show me statistics that say it ain’t so. I know it’s true because I believe it.

On the other side there are many who have the same response to Donald Trump. I saw on the web a supposed quote from the ghostwriter of his The Art of the Deal who expresses a fear for Trump’s finger on the nuclear arms button. Others say variations on this fear- all the way from his taking away American freedoms of religion and the press to an economic policy from the late 1800s that will bankrupt the world economy. Are these facts? No. Can they be supported with some sense of information? Sure. It’s all in the emotional responses.

Both sides will say that their opinion is based on “facts.” Maybe. But facts and statistics are only as good as the way we explain them. Correlation does not mean causation and in many cases truly means coincidence.

Could any of the fears about Trump come true? Yes, of course. But the likelihood is about the same as Obama having taken all your guns away in the past 7 years. And he didn’t even try.

Let’s be honest, that little fact is what helps me get through the insanity of politics today. It reminds me that all of us are caught in the same emotional Tilt-A-Whirl. Which is why I keep begging, pleading, exhorting, and praying for more dialogue. We need to talk about our feelings and examine our fears in the light of reality. We need to be open to the wonders that life is still presenting to us. We need to work together in that exceptional way we have often done in the past.

I am not optimistic but I am not as fatalistic as I could be, either. I will continue to do what I can do to make that work better.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Let's please stop the madness.

  • Let's please talk to each other. 
  • Let's please recognize that many of those involved in acts of violence are often sick or afraid individuals and not representative of any one or any thing. 
  • Let's not allow our fears to overcome the fact that we are actually far safer and less crime-ridden than we have ever been. 
  • Let's not allow media on any side to incite us into greater anger or fear.
Let's please stop the madness!

Ready for GOP Week?

In my mind is an awful memory. It was Chicago. The year was 1968. The nation was probably as divided as it had been since the Civil War. We watched as police and protestors clashed in Grant Park and outside the convention center and delegates' hotels. Walter Cronkite called the scene outside a "police state." An investigation later called it a police riot. Mayor Daley's face is forever etched into my memory as he angrily made a fist and scowled at the camera.

This has been a nightmare for 48 years. It was a low point in our political process. I watched it all with fear and anger, sadness and disbelief. We had seen so many riots and protests around the world and were witnesses to the failed attempt at a democratic breakthrough in Czechoslovakia which had been squashed by the Soviets less than a week earlier. There were, to many, eerie similarities. We can't be seeing this in our own country, can we?

The protestors picked up a chant from Prague:

The Whole World is Watching
which indeed it was.

The whole world is watching again, I am sure, as the GOP gathers in Cleveland, OH to nominate Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. The whole world watches because what we do here in the US can have significant impact around the world. What we do here is not limited to our borders.

The whole world is watching and try as I might, the pictures of Chicago 1968 are as fresh as ever- and as fearful as ever. Maybe even more so. We have already seen some violence at Trump campaign events and protests are promised for Cleveland. In the past few years there has been increased violence in protests against police. We have seen riots in many different cities, protests ending in arrests, a sniper attack against police and a mind-numbing series of mass murders against whoever the deranged individuals want to attack. At the same time many police forces have become more militarized, almost like small armies. It is all a set-up for disaster. In short, we are living on the edge.

The Democrats aren't in a much better position, although they are working together to mend their internally broken fences. Anything can happen there, as well. Philadelphia isn't exactly a small-town and has had its share of problems. Headlines indicate that things could wreak havoc there as well as in Cleveland.

In many ways our political and cultural system is facing the most important two weeks in many decades. Police forces in two big cities have one of the most difficult tasks they have seen in just as long. Americans like to protest. It's how we got started several centuries ago. They will be there at both conventions.

I am trying to remain hopeful and calm. It is a difficult task these days. For most of us this is all out of our hands. We will be observers, like the rest of the world. We can do nothing about it directly. But I am going to do a couple things for my part:
  • I will be praying for peace. I will be praying that we can recognize our fellow Americans of all political, racial, gender orientation, or opinion. We are all Americans and need to work together to keep our American experiment moving forward.
  • I will make a pledge to avoid making inflammatory statements or judgments. Sadly, though, it has reached a point where making any statement of opinion on one side of an issue or another brings condemnation. We must move beyond that! We must re-learn how to dialogue. I will work somehow to do that.
That may not sound like a lot- and it isn't in the whole scheme of things. But it is what I can do. Perhaps the Serenity Prayer needs to be at the center of my life for the next two weeks. I invite you to join me. It may not change what happens in Cleveland and Philadelphia, but it may help each of us to find our way in these difficult times.

God grant us the serenity 
to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Long Couple Weeks

When the news keeps pounding like it has the past few weeks, we all seem to go into some sense of self-preservation. I know I have. I have been personally preoccupied with finishing the editing of The Tuning Slide book so it will be available for trumpet camp.I am getting near the final okay to print. (It better be soon- time is getting short.) I have also been working on a few other writing projects all of which has led me to more distraction than usual.

Then along came the deaths in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. Before we even began to assimilate those there was the sniper killing 5 police officers in Dallas. I spent two days wanting to shout to anyone who would listen.

For. God's. Sake. Stop! Now!
I read the incredible pain in postings on Facebook. Everyone was hurt, angry, reeling, sad, stunned. It just seems to keep on going. These are hardly past the mourning period from Orlando, which was hardly past the mourning from San Bernardino. We are getting battered over and over with death, seen in ever more graphic detail thanks to our smartphone cameras.

I experienced the pain, starting with the fact that one of the deaths was in our Minnesota "backyard" and people I know knew someone who knew Philando. I heard the cries of law enforcement friends. Then I saw the reactions from Dallas, which, thankfully, began to turn the narrative in a different direction. While there were some highly one-sided posts, most were not. Most began to see the deadly insanity that is infecting so much of our thinking. Some pointed to the killer in Dallas as an example of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most saw him for what he was- another deranged individual, acting on his own as any of the number of serial killers have in the past years.

It didn't slow the anger of some in Minneapolis, but it did help the nation begin to deal with it. Former President Bush nailed it with his few but pointed words:
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
People have tried to deepen divisions by trying to say things about Bush or Obama at the memorial service.

Stop it!

Why do we have to keep going there? Why does one have to be the good guy and the other the bad guy when they are standing there together? The partisanship goes on and on and on.

Stop it!

I don't want police officers to be in the kind of dangers they face.

I don't want African-Americans to be afraid if a police officer walks up the street toward them, let alone at a traffic stop.

I don't want police officers to be afraid of the African-American they are talking to.

I want both sides to talk and meet each other on equal grounds. I want both sides to be able to express their fears and frustrations without being told they are wrong. I want both sides- and all of us who support both sides- to celebrate that we are all Americans! Period! None better, none lesser. That's what we celebrated last week. Let's not leave it stuck there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 2- What Makes Jazz Jazz?

Jazz does not belong to one race or culture,
but is a gift that America has given the world.
-Ahmad Alaadeen

I remember a discussion I had with a teenager in my church youth group some 30+ years ago. We had been listening to some live rock song that had a great guitar solo. We started talking about different styles of music and came up with a question.

What makes jazz jazz? Why isn’t it rock or vice versa?

Neither of us had an answer, although we did, in general, agree that we knew it when we heard it. Here, then, decades later, I am going to attempt to answer that question from my experiences. As I said in the previous post, I have been enthralled by jazz in all its forms for over 50 years. I’m not out to give an in-depth analysis of jazz and what makes it what it is. There are countless books that do that. Some are history like Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, a remarkable story of how jazz got to be what it is. Some are on video like Ken Burns’ mini-series documentary, Jazz, from PBS. Barry Kernfeld’s What to Listen For in Jazz has informed this particular post. All three of these are 16 - 20 years old, but capture the story that has become jazz.

Since one of my goals is to relate the music and the experience of jazz to my life and experience, musicology is not my goal. Living jazz is. So, I found in Kernfeld’s book seven things that are essential ingredients to understand about jazz. These, I think, give a little more to work with than just saying “I know it when I hear it.” While all of them can be found in most other musical genres, how they apply to this genre begins to answer the greater question of what makes this music what it is.

First comes rhythm. This should come as no surprise. Jazz started as music for movement. It was street music, dance music, walking and marching music. The power of the “beat” is unmistakable. It is almost impossible to call it “jazz” if it doesn’t have rhythm. It must constantly be supported and carried by the rhythm section- drums or bass, piano or guitar. I know that sometimes that rhythm is pretty hard to find, especially in more free-form jazz, but if you ask the musicians they will say there is something there. It will go nowhere without a living, breathing pulse.

All music breathes. The rise and fall of dynamics, crescendo and decrescendo, are the active elements that make it something more than a one-level sound. In jazz, that breath becomes a rhythm. Some of this is what is called articulation. When you emphasize what note, how you flow from one section to another. But it is always alive, always moving.

When jazz musicians say the music is “in the groove” this is part of what they mean. It is alive and moving. The two most common rhythms can be described as

• Swing and
• Duple.

Swing is a movement of triplets enhanced or bounded by accentuations. Duple is doubles, also enhanced and defined by accentuations. While recognizing that there are numerous variations and exceptions, we can take Dixieland and “big band” traditional jazz as the best examples of “swing.” Duple is more straightforward and can be seen in Latin jazz. I will talk more about rhythm, especially swing, in the next post.

The connection of rhythm and breathing with living is obvious. Drumming has been one of those human endeavors most likely since the first time an ancient relative hit a hollow log with a stick. In so doing they were mimicking the action at the center of our lives- the heartbeat. Rhythm is more than primitive in its origins. It is primal. It is basic, essential. A heart arrhythmia can be fatal- it is out of rhythm.

Second is form. With tens of thousands of possible songs to play, a jazz group and its musicians would be hard pressed to memorize everything out there. That would clearly limit their repertoire and challenge the skill of even the greatest among them. What has developed to make this job relatively easy is the form of jazz music. The most common of these was adapted from the basic “song” form- the music of the Great American Songbook. Very simply this form is the beginning theme, the “head”, the first description of which is usually done twice, the chorus in the middle and then closing with the theme. This often referred to as the AABA form.

There can be many variations on how long these individual sections can be. The song form would, in general, be 32 bars, 8 in each section. Other variations can have a repeating pattern of measures and chord changes such as the 12-bar blues which can be adapted to 8- or 16-bars. Chord changes are often sort of standardized with the 12-bar blues being the grandaddy of them and the progression of the chords of I’ve Got Rhythm (referred to as “rhythm changes”) being another.

One other form is the march and ragtime form. These are usually 16-bar phrases with two, three, or four themes as the song progresses.

Now, in general, a jazz musician can pick up a book of songs and all it might have are the head, chord changes, and the closing. When you understand the basic form of these songs, you have the greater possibility of playing more music and not being completely lost.

Third is arrangement. This is the first of three elements of jazz that are about “writing” the music. Arrangement is taking something that already exists and adapting it. Arrangers can do it note-for-note adding embellishments with their group playing as close to the original as possible. They can also take the original and add embellishments to it to change the patterns around the original. The third is to orchestrate the song differently. Having a saxophone-based combo play a song will give a very different experience from a piano-based one. For example taking a Lennon-McCartney song and arranging it for a big band would take all these into account. What instruments do you want to play when? How close to the original will it be? Will you divide it into sections that build on or riff on the theme?

Fourth is composition. Simply put this is basically writing new music. You are composing a new song. It can be based on the chord progressions from another song, such as the many on the changes of I’ve Got Rhythm or the 12-bar blues. It will be a new melody, a new song.

Fifth is improvisation. Improvisation is so essential to what call jazz in all its forms, I will take at least two posts to deal with that. Suffice it to say here, that being able to improvise is what can help all of us succeed in the ups and downs of life. It is not simply flying by the seat of ones pants. It is the ability to call on our knowledge, experiences, hard work, and creativity to solve problems and enhance our lives. Kernfeld called improvisation the “most fascinating and mysterious” element of jazz. It will be featured prominently in all that we do in jazz.

Sixth is sound. This is where orchestration comes in. Different instruments sound different. Different combinations sound different. How you put them together can make a huge difference in what you hear- or don’t hear. It is also the tuning of the notes and how they fit together. Miles Davis famously said that “there are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places.” Thelonius Monk added to that sentiment. "There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

The ultimate in the jazz sound is what has been called the “blue note.” Simply put the “blue note” is a note that is played or sung a half-step off from what would be expected. Blue notes add a sense of tension, surprise, or worry to the sound. It comes from its use in the blues progression. The “sound” of jazz is what has led many to say they may not know what jazz is, but they know when they hear it.

Finally, the seventh element of jazz is style. Jazz is not one style of music- it is a genre made up of these elements and then flowing into numerous styles. Kernfeld, in What to Listen for in Jazz, leaves the idea of style to an epilogue. That way he could look at the elements that can be found in one way or another in different styles. Here are some of the styles that have developed in jazz, and are still breathing life into the genre:
  • New Orleans Jazz
  • Big Band
  • Bebop
  • Hard Bop
  • Fusion
  • Free Jazz
  • Latin Jazz
  • Acid Jazz
  • Jazz Rock
  • Kansas City Jazz
  • Modal Jazz
  • West Coast Jazz
And Wikipedia goes on to list another 30 sub-genres.

Talk about diversity. Talk about having an abundance of opportunities. Talk about a perfect music to have developed in a little more than only 100 years in the United States.

That’s jazz. That’s all there is to it. In 2000 words or less.
The details, are in the hands of the musicians- and of you and me as listeners. That’s where we will go in the next six posts, seeing how these are good metaphors for life and how, when we learn jazz, we are also learning how to live.
Jazz is the type of music
that can absorb so many things
and still be jazz.
-Sonny Rollins

Friday, July 08, 2016

What If?

I am an ordained clergy. What if all clergy would automatically stand-up for all other clergy, even when they commit a crime? What if every ordained clergy of whatever denomination always was willing to let the abusing pastor off the hook simply because he was a pastor? Pretty soon no one would listen to us.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

When, O God, Will We Ever Learn?

Philando Castile
Alton Sterling
R. I. P.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 1- What About Jazz?

Eight weeks on jazz. Ah, where to begin?

I could start with a dictionary definition, but that would be almost antithetical to the whole idea of jazz. I could find a quote from some famous jazz musician and place it at the top of this page as an introduction. I could find a video of someone explaining the basics of jazz. But jazz is much more than any of those and far beyond any ability to explain it easily, quickly, or purposefully.

So instead I will do what jazz might encourage. I will riff on the theme. I will answer my own question: What do I want to say about jazz? Here goes:

1. It moves me- just like many forms of music. It moves me internally- I feel good when it hits me. It moves me externally- I physically cannot sit still when listening to jazz. My family will tell you that I direct music when listening to it. Jazz inhabits me and makes me move like no other music.

2. It is a dialogue in sound that occurs through the interaction of different instruments- just like many forms of music. I’m not even talking about improvising at this point. Just the sonic mix of instruments does it. Again, all music requires some sense of interaction in sound, but jazz has taken it and made it into a musical art and craft.

3. It is alive. Even when it is a studio recording there is a sense of a living form that most other types of music may only get through a live concert performance. This is where improvised solos play an important part, but because the music of jazz has grown out of live experiences, it seems to capture that in ways other genres do not.

4. It is almost infinitely adaptable. That is another aspect of jazz being “alive.” Jazz - combo or big band - can play an arrangement of Jim Croce or Lennon-McCartney as easily as it can play the music of the Great American Songbook or the classic music of jazz and Dixieland. On top of that, composers can write music that is new and exciting and it will be jazz.

5. It can stand up with other genres and styles as well as anything. There is Preservation Hall Jazz Band recording with Bluegrass icon, Del McCoury. You can hear Wynton Marsalis in concert with Eric Clapton or Willie Nelson.

6. It is our American music. It is part of the very roots of our American heritage. It describes so much of who we are and the potential of who we can be.

I have been enthralled by jazz for well over 50 years. Jazz has been involved in all of my adult life, moving me, challenging me, inspiring me. It started with Al Hirt’s Java. Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground kicked me up the side of the head. Les McCann and Eddie Harris with Compared to What gave me more insights. Doc Severinsen, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and, above all, Louis Armstrong all contributed even before I graduated from college! I want to share what this has done and why.

You see, above all else, I think jazz is the best musical paradigm for how to live day in and day out. Life is an improvisational exercise. Life is finding the rhythms, harmonies, dialogues, hopes, fears, and emotions to make it through another day. All of that is what jazz does in ways that no other single genre of music can- at least for me.

Sadly it has been reported recently that, as far as music sales go, jazz has become the least popular musical style. That is a long way down from the heights of the big band era when some would argue that Glenn Miller’s In the Mood helped us win World War II. It is a sad departure from the incredible all-time best-selling Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. There are no doubt many cultural factors involved in that, but it still is depressing to think that this rich musical heritage is an endangered species.

So what I will do in the next seven installments of this Tuning Slide series is talk about jazz as I see it. I will explore how it has enlivened me, what it can teach us, and how it can give us all a sense of movement and unity.

Let me close this with a video. Well actually it is a You Tube video of what many consider the greatest jazz solo Louis Armstrong ever made. Way back in the mists of jazz history, Satchmo and His Hot Five recorded West End Blues. It set the standard on which just about everything else is built.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

An Excellent New Album

I came across the new Avett Brothers album the other day. It is titled True Sadness. Here's the trailer:

They are a folk-rock-Americana band from North Carolina who capture spirituality and life in remarkable ways. As I was listening to the album, the title track hit me. These two verses say a great deal.

When I was a child, I depended on a bottle
Full-grown I've been known to lean on a bottle
But you're the real deal in a world of imposters
And I've seen the program make men out of monsters

I cannot go on with this evil inside me
I step out my front door and I feel it surround me
Just know the kingdom of God is within you
Even though the battle is bound to continue

Here's a live version of the song.

Here's a link to a Rolling Stone interview that talks a little about the new album.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Way John Adams Would Want It

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding
Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Happy Birthday, USA

As we continue this weekend of celebration, 
here's the video I produced last year.
Happy Birthday to US.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

In Memoriam: Elie Wiesel

One of the important voices of the 20th Century.
May he never be silenced so that we may never forget.


Thoughts Before the Fourth

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA
Over the past couple months I have been deeply aware of the political insanity we are facing this presidential election year. It has probably been the single meanest election since 1860 which ended with Lincoln's election and the secession of the southern states. It may even surpass the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for media mis-reporting, name calling, and downright uncivil discourse.

The only word I can use to describe my feeling about the election is
As I have said before we have two candidates who at this point are deeply distrusted by major portions of the electorate, including staunch members of their own parties. I have conservative friends who express great fear of Hillary becoming president. I do not share their concerns and believe that she will be an "average" president. The fear with her election is that the GOP will continue their 8-year blockade of Congressional action. They dislike her more than they dislike Obama, if that is possible. The Do-Nothing Congress will continue. Not her fault, but still a reality.

But Donald Trump terrifies me. For two reasons:

1) He is a loose cannon of a leader, incredibly narcissistic, and even delusional about himself, his power, his skills, the way a country can run, etc. For one who speaks of the future greatness of America, his statements often indicate that he is willing to move toward that greatness by dismantling what has made America great in the past. He is willing to undermine the very values, rights, and principles that are often pointed to as American exceptionalism. He has been doing this on a level of personal attack, insinuations, and downright lies. This incredible lack of respect for his opponents does not allow for any discourse. I have the fear that this and his  policies and ideas will disprove any idea of American exceptionalism. It could place us in the camp of demagogue-run nations. It is my opinion that one cannot reconcile an idea of American exceptionalism with Trump's ideas and truly low-ball values.

2) I am also afraid of what the election has so far shown us of the deep divisions within our country. Trump's appeal to a generally white, male, older electorate intent on a narrow nationalistic view of who we are places this in the same class as the 1860 election. I don't believe a civil war will erupt if one or the  other gets elected, but the strong opinions are certainly worrying. Americans have often been able to see through demagoguery. But when the levels of anger are stirred and even encouraged as they have been by Trump's style, we are in a different ballgame. Some of it has even slid over to part of Sanders' support. If Hillary wins, this anger will only intensify by the actions of her opponents. If Trump wins, all bets are off on what will happen.

We survived the election of 1800 and are still working on the fallout from 1860. There is a deep, intense fear that we may face many years of uncertainty and anger with this one. I was recently looking at the video I produced last year for the Fourth of July which is posted for Monday. It is a celebration of America the Beautiful,  a wonderful, exceptional country. It is a country I am proud of and deeply grateful to have been born in. We are a country with a rich heritage of hope for immigrants (all my family, even those who came over before 1776!) We are a country who has survived through the wisdom of the founders developing a three-branch government with checks and balances and a principle that we can adapt the founding document to meet the changing times.

Yet, as I watched that video again I found sadness and a nagging sense of urgency. The thought came into my mind that this could be the last Fourth of July with the freedoms we celebrate every year. Things could get ugly; things could get uncertain; rights could be seriously negated. All in the name of national security or alleviating fear or, worst, expressing anger.

Some of my friends have told me I am overreacting. Others have said that they have the same fear. One conservative friend said that in the end he isn't as worried as I am. We survived Obama, he said. We can survive either Hillary or Trump. I keep saying I have great faith in the American people to make the best decision. I have not lost that, but the forces allying themselves against us are great.

It is a long time until Election Day. Much will be written and reported, presented and mis-presented in these four months. May we be open to discourse and discussion. May some sense of civility lead us to act as the citizens of the leader of the free world, modeling the power of democracy to do what is right.

That is the heart of my celebration of who we are this Fourth of July 2016.

Friday, July 01, 2016

A 50-Year Memory: Video of the Month

Continuing to look at 1966's popular music. I was halfway through my last summer before college. The first week of July Frank Sinatra made a big comeback with a great song. It went on to win Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards for 1966.

Doobie, Doobie, Do...

But let's not forget the younger generation. The last week of June and the 2nd week of July found this quartet at the top.

Unfortunately, these classics were followed by two weeks of Tommy James. From my point of view, that's enough to say.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

It's Been a Few Days

Amazing, sometimes, how life happens when you have other plans. Life was active this past week, and I am finally catching up. The reasons aren't important to know since everything is settling back to something that resembles normal.

  • Another ISIS-type attack, this time in Istanbul. Very little praying for Turkey on the Internet.
  • The Supreme Court made some significant decisions that were sort of surprising. Several would have gone the same way with Scalia voting. 
  • British citizens vote to leave EU. It seems that some people are very willing to cut off their nose to spite their face.
  • Volkswagen gets hit with a big fine. Still an amazing story of fraud.
  • Trump's numbers continue to tumble and no one wants to speak at "his" convention. Now the GOP gets the danger?
  • Michael Phelps, in recovery, qualifies for his 5th Olympics! Some good news!
See, it's not true that nothing happens if you don't watch the news. Some of it is actually interesting.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

But I'm Not the Only One

I have decided that it is time to stop posting memes against those we disagree with, spouting the same old, tired talking points on both sides and sit down together. For a change let's talk face to face with our fellow Americans and find out that we are in this together! Yes: You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope someday you'll join us / And the world will be as one…

Thursday, June 23, 2016

In Memoriam: Ralph Stanley

Glad I got to see him at the Opry.

Ralph Stanley at Grand Ole Opry, February 2014

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

From My Weekend...

Had a great weekend at an adult Big Band Camp. 
Here's the video with my solo.

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's 5:34 PM CDT

Yep- it's officially summer.

Monday Musical Memes

Spent the weekend at a music camp.
So, here are some memes I found to go along with it.