Thursday, August 25, 2016

Only in WIsconsin?

Cheese and Fireworks.
Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 8- What It's All About

There are two kinds of music.
Good music, and the other kind.
-Duke Ellington

Back in week one I wondered where to begin with this series on jazz. I am still wondering and asking that question. Eight weeks is nothing in the great flow of this music. In it’s past century, jazz has transformed American life and been transformed by it. Yet its power has never diminished. Hearing a Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, or Buddy Bolden recording today is just as transformative as ever. The music lives! I could explore all the ideas and sidelights of jazz for the rest of my life and probably only scratch the surface.

I turned to Wynton Marsalis for some insight, then, as I came to this incomplete ending to the series. I have mentioned his book, written with Geoffrey Ward, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2008, Random House). It is a good introduction to jazz on a popular level. In his opening chapter he describes his experience in learning and experiencing jazz:
This is some of what I found:
The most prized possession in this music is your own unique sound. Through sound, jazz leads you to the core of yourself and says “Express that.” Through jazz, we learn that people are never all one way. Each musician has strengths and weaknesses.

Jazz also reminds you that you can work things out with other people. It’s hard, but it can be done. … Jazz urges you to accept the decisions of others. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow- but you can’t give up, no matter what….

On a basic level, this music led me to a deeper respect for myself. In order to improvise something meaningful, I had to find and express whatever I had inside me worth sharing with other people. But at the same time it led me to a new awareness of others, because my freedom of expression was directly linked to the freedom of others on the bandstand.
—pp. 11-12.
Marsalis clearly understands the inner power of music to make each of us who play it more than we are without it. Each of those paragraphs speaks to us as musicians. First he talks about us finding our “sound.” On one level this means he skills and development of our technique. Because it is “jazz” we find a freedom to develop and express that. While there may be variations, it is very difficult for a musician to express those sounds in a “classical” piece.

Second Marsalis sees the interpersonal musical interactions in jazz as a great paradigm for getting along with others. You can’t take your horn and go home in the middle of a gig because you didn’t like the way the tenor player took the theme. Instead you have to pay attention to the tenor’s message and expressions and see where it fits into your experience. Maybe that will mean developing a contrasting style or building the theme on a different chord. But you can’t deny the tenor player the right to his freedom of expression. It could start an interesting dialogue- musically on the bandstand, afterward while relaxing, or as a metaphor for how you can learn to interact with others day in and day out.

Third, Marsalis makes the obvious- and essential connection. In order for these first two to happen, we have to dig into ourselves. And we must respect ourselves. We must believe that in our solos, duets, or even just section work, we have something worth sharing. Maybe my section work as a fourth trumpet doesn’t get out into the crowd like the solos do. But how can I make that chord sound out when I have the one “blue note” in the section? How do I play that note so it enhances the sound of the section and the band? Do I believe I have a right to make that simple statement in that single note? Next it leads me to pay attention to the rest of the section and the group and give them the same freedom I want for myself and the same respect I would hope to get from them.

Marsalis then adds:
The value of jazz is the same for listeners and players alike because the music, in its connection to feelings, personal uniqueness, and improvising together, provides solutions to basic problems of living. -p. 13
Couldn’t say it any better! So I won’t.

One more thought comes out of Marsalis’s reflections. First, though, to introduce it, here is a quote, again, from Duke Ellington:

Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom…
In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom
and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved,
and the music is so free that many people say it is the only
unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom
yet produced in this country.
-Duke Ellington

Here’s where Marsalis takes the same thought. He puts jazz into the flow of American life, not just in the past 115 years, but representative of the flow of our overall evolution as a nation:
Knowing jazz music adds another dimension to your historical perspective…. Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves to come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
The melding of musical styles, melodies, and history may be nowhere more clear than in jazz’s development. European folk styles from the colonies and songs from Africa laid foundations of rhythm and emotion. The Black Church added the preaching style of call and response. Ethnic roots of Irish music and New Orleans parades gave movement to the musicians. Listen closely to jazz and these will echo from the past and into our collective subconscious imagination. Feel it move YOU.

But even more to the point may be the role jazz itself played in the 20th Century in creating a revolution in racial acceptance. When the music began, and for decades after that, it was impossible for white and black musicians to play together. Even when they could it was impossible for the black musicians to stay in the hotels where white musicians did. Movies were edited so they could edit OUT for southern audiences of the black musicians scenes showed them playing with their white colleagues. Jazz music’s influence on the civil rights movement is an essential part of its long-term success. Miles Davis saw this when he said:
Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around.

We have covered a lot of ground very superficially in these eight posts. Any one of them could be the start of a series on its own connecting music as a whole and jazz in particular, musicians and listeners, and finally, music and life. Jazz plays an important part in my life and will continue to do so. I keep learning and experimenting. It is a never-ending joy and experience. There will be more jazz posts as part of the regular weekly writing here on The Tuning Slide. I hope it will continue to open new paths for you as it has for me.

It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.
-Dizzy Gillespie

Monday, August 22, 2016

In Memoriam: Toots Thielmans

Toots Thielemans

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Just Another Short Comment....

Big news from France in the past week or so has to do with clothing and beachwear. There is this piece of clothing worn by Muslim women called a "Burkini". It's purpose is to maintain their modesty while still being able to go swimming at the beach. Well, it seems that France has outlawed the wearing of the Burkini in its post-terror-attack world.

I personally don't have an investment in what France does, or doesn't do when it comes to beachwear. I think it's an unusual law, an unusual approach to the terrorism concern, and just a downright silly argument. But, hey, it's their country.

But I have this one comment about it all:

I actually am NOT surprised that France is saying it's illegal to wear TOO MUCH clothing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 7- Everyone's Music

I merely took the energy it takes to pout
and wrote some blues.
-Duke Ellington

I said toward the end of last week’s post on big band music that jazz musicians need to know the roots of jazz. We are the heirs of an incredible tradition:
• Dixieland and ragtime
• Big band and be bop
• Hard bop and fusion
• Latin and free jazz
But there’s one more- perhaps the underlying roots of much American-based music.

The Blues.

I’m not sure we can understand jazz without at least knowing something about the blues. It is often the first type of music a jazz musician is encouraged to learn. The chord progressions are simple and repetitive. Yet it informs, shapes, colors, and even defines Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin, Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It is a music of life as it is experienced every day. Wynton Marsalis called it “everyone’s music” and said this about it in his book, Higher Ground:
The blues trains you for life’s hurdles with a heavy dose of realism. John Philip Sousa’s music is stirring. It’s national music of great significance. But Sousa’s is a vision of transcendent American greatness: We are the good guys from sea to shining sea. The blues says that we are not always good. Or bad. We just are. (P. 52)
It’s roots can be traced to the late 1800s in a melding of African-American work songs and European-American folk music.
Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes (or "worried notes"), usually thirds or fifths flattened in pitch, are also an important part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove. (Wikipedia)

Robert Johnson is perhaps the paradigm for blues musicians. Only in a bargain with the devil himself could music of such power and emotion develop. The Faustian story of such bargains is as old as human mythology, but is reserved only for the most incredible and impressive accomplishments. Johnson’s artistry in a short lifetime was powered by the incredible and impressive sound of the blues.

It’s simplicity is what makes it so infinitely malleable. That basic three-chord, twelve-bar progression can be the basis of every emotion. It can express the depths of sadness to the heights of ecstasy. They can underlie Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or the “Alleluia” in a worship service. B. B. King can bend them into dozens of melodies or W. C. Handy folds them into the "St. Louis Blues." When you have finished listening to a blues, you know you have been touched by that which is greater than any of us. (See the list "Greatest Blues Songs" at Digital Dream Door)

The Blues contain so much joy and
sadness at the same time.
-Bill Charlap

In that way, the blues can be our own personal guide into ourselves. An essential element to any of us who want to play music- blues, jazz, rock or classical is to be some kind of self-aware. It may only be within our own experiences of emotion that we can put that into our music. Or maybe the music itself digs into our psyche and finds those emotions and blends them into itself. I have no doubt that music is THAT alive and THAT powerful. In the blues is the foundation of what that means. Marsalis says it begins in “pain” but it will always have that element of “things will be better” someday. Even in the blues there is a sense of hope. That, I believe is the hope that lies within us, the view that we can get through this. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but it is there.

This is where the music and life intersect with the blues. It can be very difficult for any of us to live in the midst of pain and uncertainty. Somehow or another I believe we have to find outlets for our feelings, ways of expressing our common humanity. The alternative to that is dangerous to our health and happiness. We stuff it; we put on a “happy face;” we deny our concerns, our fears and our needs. The more we do that the more unhealthy we become. Blues becomes a way to let that out either though listening, singing, or playing. Part of that comes from the very repetitive nature of the blues form. We can fall into the rhythm and the groove to be carried along to new places in life and soul.

One other piece of the blues (as well as jazz, in general) is its place in the American story. It may be easy to overlook the fact that this music is a gift to our national spirit and soul from an oppressed people. It is very much American music. It’s an expression of soul in spite of pain, hope in spite of fear, grace in spite of hate. Wynton’s thought that it is “everyone’s music” is beyond argument. Perhaps in these days of fear, pain, and hate, the blues can lead us into some new ways of sharing with each other. Perhaps we can hear the pain and be willing to do something about it. Maybe we can see the hate and refuse to allow it to conquer. In the end we can allow the American soul which includes all of us of myriad ancestries, faith expressions, racial identities, or sexual understandings. In that we will hopefully discover the power of the blues.

The Blues are the true facts of life expressed in
words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.
-Willie Dixon

Monday, August 15, 2016

A 50-Year Memory: Video for August

(Sorry for the delay. See yesterday's post for my "excuse.")
August 1966.
I turned 18-years old, but in those ancient days I was still not old enough to vote.
August 1966.
My last month at home before heading off to college.
August 1966.
Probably for me one of those pivot points between what was and what would one day be.
August 1966:
"Wild Thing" by the Troggs topped the charts for the first week of August, but then the Lovin' Spoonful took over with Summer in the City.

(One of the few John Sebastian songs where his voice doesn't sound like it's smiling all the way through.)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Neglectful- Not Lazy

For all my fan(s?) I am hereby apologizing for the past three or more weeks of neglect to the wanderings. Partly I WAS wandering.

  • I spent part of a week as vespers leader at one of our church camps for elementary age kids. It was my first trip back as a camp staff in well over 10 years- and the first time ever (after 45 years in camping ministry) with this age group. I was a blast. Some for the kids, some for the opportunity to do some exploring of faith sharing, but most significantly to reconnect with an old and special friend and a couple former campers from over 20+ years ago. Basically for vespers I told stories of heroes and "she-roes" of the faith, connecting with the program leader's (my old friend) theme. Great week.
  • I was home for a few days and got ready for the Vintage Band Festival in Northfield, MN, with the Polished Brass Quintet. These performances started the second week when I wandered off to the Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop. Prior to the week (and the previous camp) I was highly engaged in getting The Tuning Slide blog posts from the past year into a book format. I published it through some crowd-funding help and the participants were very appreciative. The week itself was even more awesome than last year when I got kicked into high-gear with my trumpet playing. I have lots of ideas and thoughts for the next year of the Tuning Slide which now has it's own domain name and web-site: That took time, too.
  • In the week I have been home I first had one of those special opportunities of life- getting together with a childhood best friend. We reconnected several years ago on Facebook and finally had the chance to get together as he came through Rochester on his way west. We had some amazing times sharing where we were and where we are today. The fact that he is a "traveling Santa Claus" just made it all the better. Exciting!!!
  • A week ago I realized I was on a 12-day deadline to finish editing my Christmas stories book to get it published on Kindle and Nook by the end of the month. In so doing I decided to do a hard-copy publish as well through Amazon's Create Space. Here's the link to pre-order the Kindle eBook. (The Lost Jesus. Nook and hard-copy on Amazon will be available soon.) More time.
My "To-do" list has hardly gotten any shorter. I still have a day or two of work on completing the publishing of the Christmas book. I have a video from the church camp to put together and get out to the participants. I want to get our videos from the Vintage Band Festival finished and posted. I have the weekly deadline of The Tuning Slide. No wonder I have not completely retired from my "career job"- I need to go to work to slow down.

Put this all together and I have been neglectful of these Wanderings. Not a good way to treat your writing outlet of over 13 years. (I even missed posting a first day of August video. I will make that up this week.) I am not planning on stopping this blog. The thoughts and reactions I post here are not the kind of posts I feel are appropriate to also post on The Tuning Slide. I do think that things are going to slow down a little bit. We will be doing some traveling in the next six-weeks and should be back to some photography, which has also been neglected.

So thanks for hanging-in with me. I haven't forgotten to write or wander. Stay tuned. We still have over two months until the election- and that is worth writing about.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 6- Intertwined With Society

The bandstand is a sacred place.
--Wynton Marsalis

Big Band- a musical group of 16 - 20 musicians
  • Built in many ways on the unique soulful sound of saxophones.
  • Set solidly on the bass foundation of the trombone
  • Trumpets soaring over the top taking the group to new heights
  • Held together by the rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar and drums.
    (Len Weinstock in an article on the website Red Hot Jazz said: No big band that hoped to swing could succeed without a great drummer. Essential for a solid solo to build on top of.)
Behind it all were those genius composers and arrangers. Bassist Marcus Miller commented on his Miller Time show on Sirius XM that the arranger is the mastermind. They took simple leads or complex melodies and put them into a form that the Big Bands could use. Big band history is the story of great arrangers- Billy Strayhorn, Sammy Nestico, Neal Hefti, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Joe Garland, Jerry Gray, Gil Evans. Without these gifted arrangers, big band music would probably never have made it.

By the late 1930s and into World War II, Big Band jazz was THE popular music. Live radio broadcasts, local, regional and national, brought the music into people’s homes like none before had quite experienced. At the beginning of the war, Weinstock says there were at least fifty nationally famous big dance bands in the US and hundred of others with local reputation. Weinstock says that big band music “was such a positive morale booster that it is arguable whether we could have won the war without it!” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” has often be called the “song that won World War II.”

Big Band music went into hiding after the war. It lost it’s widespread popularity as radio and then television began to showcase rock and roll and country to wider and wider audiences. Jazz became more of a combo music. It was more and more expensive to maintain a working national big band. Even the great ones struggled and found themselves having to scrape. A revival did occur in the 1990s but it has never reached the level of popularity of the original movement. As that was happening, Weinstock wrote
Millions await its return. Believe me, we need it badly!
It is amazing that the popular music of an era has lost its popularity. As a musician in a couple big bands I have had the joy of seeing people energized by the music. We play many gigs at senior housing and nursing home facilities. This was the music of their generation- and they are fading away. To see the late 80 and 90 year olds swaying to the music, or even getting up and dancing is one of my thrills. We start playing “In the Mood” and a happy response comes back at us. The drummer kicks off “Sing, Sing, Sing” and eyes light up. Even more recent pop songs from the 60s and 70s get positive responses, partly from the power of the big band style.

Fortunately many schools do have jazz bands that are helping to keep the music alive. There are dance venues that will have the “swing” bands do live music dances. Many of the people on the floor when we play these are not the older generation. Music moves people, and for those who like to dance, swing is as much a dancing art as any other.

One of my memories from the 60s, when the big band era was not doing well, was Lionel Hampton. I guess many groups were struggling and it was not unusual to have someone of Hampton’s stature to play in small venues- like high school gyms in rural north-central Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I didn’t go to dance, I went to hear Hampton and his band. It is now a subliminal memory, perhaps having influenced me in my own love for big band jazz.

For jazz musicians, big band can be quite a challenge. Some might say that is even more of a challenge than combo work- or at least as important. Again, bassist Marcus Miller had a whole 2-hour episode of his Miller Time program on Sirius XM’s Real Jazz devoted to big band music. He referred to the classic and the new. He didn’t like the word “old” applied to the music. He commented that every jazz musician should spend time playing in a big band. There, he said, you learn a great deal.
  • You learn to blend your sound with the sound of the group. 
  • You have to be more aware of the dynamics because it isn’t helpful to have one part stand out from the others. 
  • You have to be conscious of being in-tune. In a small combo you can get away with it. In a big band, Miller said, you have “twenty other cats looking at you” wondering when you’re going to get it and tune up.
Even more than that, he added, you begin to absorb the music itself. You become a different musician. It changes you and how you approach music. I have told the story before of how when I joined my first big band I realized how underwhelming I could be. I knew and loved jazz, but not as a jazz musician. I was a listener- an educated listener, but a listener nonetheless. Big band jazz speaks the language of jazz and I was a more “classical” trumpet player. I was comfortable in a concert band- wind ensemble- because that language had become ingrained. Jazz was new, even down on that fourth part. The sound and rhythm, the two essentials of great music, were different from what I was used to playing. I knew them when I heard them but I didn’t know how to play them.

That was over eight years ago now. I still play fourth, for reasons to be talked about in other posts. But now I know the language. The music isn’t as strange to play as it was. I hear the changes, feel the rhythm, listen to the others in the group and can actually even adjust my sound once in a while.

One other thing about big band music- it is essential to the ability to speak the jazz language. Classic music of the 30s to the 50s is part of who we are as musicians and as people. If I want to be able to be a jazz musician- or even a jazz fan- in the 21st Century, I cannot, must not, forget the roots of this amazing music. Yes, it is more than big band and I will talk about that next week. But to understand why be bop and hard bop became what they did, you have to know where they came from. To understand Miles’ and Coltrane’s place in music history and how they changed history, you have to know what they built on, and that was the big band sound.

It was swing at its most basic and most exciting.

Jazz is such a powerful cultural statement that
it's almost as if it's intertwined with society.
-Tom Harrell

Monday, August 08, 2016


Go Fund Me

Here's the box of books- The Tuning Slide, Year One.

The boxes are now empty and recycled as they were given to the students at last week's Shell Lake Arts Center Trumpet Workshop. It has been a labor of love for me- to be able to share my trumpet learning journey of this past year with others is actually humbling. I realize how little I know, but that I can still add to other people's experiences.

I am still about $300 short of the goal of crowd-funding this project. Any help you can add would be appreciated.

Go Fund Me

Saturday, August 06, 2016

In Memoriam: Pete Fountain

Pete Fountain
1930 - 2016

And now they are jammin' again. What a sound in heaven today!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 5- Adding to the Music

Life is a lot like jazz.
It’s best when you improvise.
-George Gershwin

I’m going to start today with some thoughts from the book, Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy by Katie Goodman. (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2008.) It is NOT about jazz, but rather a book on living a spontaneous life based on improv comedy. But, hey, improvisation is improvisation. So here are her suggestions for skills needed in living a spontaneous life.
1. Be Present and Aware
2. Be Open and Flexible
3. Take Risks
4. Trust
5. Surrender and Non-Attachment
6. Gag Your Inner Critic
7. Get Creative
8. Effortlessness
9. Desire and Discovering What You Want
10. Authenticity
11. Allowing Imperfection and Practice, Practice, Practice

As I look at these I see a number of the themes that I have covered in the past here on the Tuning Slide.
  • The “be present and aware” touches easily on the mindfulness we have talked about. 
  • “Gag your inner critic” is certainly a variation of the discussions of Self 1 and Self 2 in the Inner Game of Music posts. 
  • “Desire and discovering what you want” and “authenticity” tie in with finding your story and song.
But as I pointed out last week with my improvisation stories, it is all easier said- or thought- and done. It takes work and determination to do it. It takes hours of practice. (That’s another whole series to think about for the next year!) One cannot want instant gratification - or instant expertise in improvisation or in life as a whole. So as I look at those 11 suggestions I want to simplify it. I want to make it sound easier than it is, live in my fantasy world that it is easy, or just throw my hands up in surrender. Which is NOT what surrender and non-attachment above mean. So maybe there is more to be learned in that skill than I am giving it credit for.

Surrender and non-attachment, as Goodman defines it on page 92 is about
…learning to let go of your attachments to expectations, goals, and perfectionism. … to cultivate a sense of humor, and to lighten up. [We] surrender the controls and allow life to unfold in a more joyful, free-flowing, and perhaps, unexpected way.
This does not mean giving up and going home. I have heard several times in the past few weeks that the #1 rule for improv comedy is the “Yes, and…” rule. That means you affirm what has come before you, the line or theme that has preceded the hand-off to you. Never negate it- that brings everything to a stop. Instead, accept it as an important bit of information or an unfinished sentence. What do you have to add to it? How can you give added value to the “musical conversation”? In order to do that use those skills of mindfulness, creativity, and giving Self Two the direction to go ahead and play.

Now, in order to do that you have to believe you have something to say. At first, all it may be in your improvisation is to hit the note of the chord with a certain rhythm. Remember, jazz is about rhythm. Then you might want to think about the structure of the song, blues, classic standard, funk. Keep those same chord notes and rhythm but give them a little something extra here and there. Don’t be shy. That doesn’t mean play fortissimo when the song is a nice quiet ballad. Remember, you are adding to the conversation, not stopping it or hijacking it. There are then legato and staccato passages, slurs and marcato. How do they fit together?

Now, don’t expect to go onstage in a public performance and know how to do this. Improv comedy troupes practice. Then they practice some more. Improv does not mean off-the-cuff with no thought or training. It means learning the words and sounds of jazz and making conversation with other musicians. I wish I was able to do this as easily as I write about it. But I am a slow-learner. I still have an inner critic that freezes when he hears that “sour” note. I still have the perfectionist that says he has to do it right or don’t do it at all. I still have the ADD dude who gets distracted by a a lot more than squirrels and then loses mindfulness, flow, rhythm and creativity.

So I go back to the practice room. I pull out the scales or find a song on iReal Pro and try to get the feel for it. I listen to Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” and feel the movement of an easy-flowing improvisation. I take a walk and refocus my mindfulness skills. I do some breathing meditation that gets me back in touch with me. Then I work on it some more. It is a much slower process than I want it to be. I can tend to get too busy. I have too many things to write or too many concerts or gigs to prepare for. So the hard stuff, like learning to talk jazz with my trumpet is set aside.

In other words I am writing these posts as much for me as for you. I am working on my Inner Game. I am reminding myself that I have a story and a song. It is mine and I have been writing it for many years. Back at that very first jazz camp I went to in the 90s one thing did become clear to me. I improvise all the time in my daily life. Things happen that I have to react to. As a preacher for years I would regularly “ad lib” in the middle of a sermon. All that was was just improvising. I pulled in all my knowledge and experiences, all the sermons I had written and preached, all the people I had talked to, all the books I had read. Then came the inspiration and I shared it when it happened. I can still do that. It is almost as easy as falling off a bike for me. I couldn’t do that when I started, of course. I wrote down every word of every sermon. I still work from a manuscript (the score of the music?) and take off when and where appropriate.

That’s all I need to learn to do with my trumpet. It is getting better. I am learning. I don’t believe I will ever be done.

Kind of like life!

You have to practice improvisation,
Let no one kid you about it.

-Art Tatum

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Go Fund Me

Here's the box of books- The Tuning Slide, Year One. They are ready to be given to the students at this year's Shell Lake Arts Center Trumpet Workshop. It has been a labor of love for me- to be able to share my trumpet learning journey of this past year with others is actually humbling. I realize how little I know, but that I can still add to other people's experiences.

I am still about $300 short of the goal of crowd-funding this project. Any help you can add would be appreciated.

Go Fund Me

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.