Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Keep Tapping Your Feet

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.
-Leonard Bernstein

A few weeks before writing this post I was listening to one of the jazz programs on Sirius XM channel 67, Real Jazz. Award-winning bassist Christian McBride was hosting his talk and music program The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian. Talking to the audience at the beginning of the show he encouraged them to be involved in the show. The gist of what he said was that too often we think jazz is something that only scholars and music specialists listen to with some kind of academic distance or in some indescribable mystical trance. (My words and interpretation!) This is “party music” he said. It is not dull and dead. It is alive- and has been alive for over 100 years now.
  • You don’t have to be able to discern all the ins-and-outs of the music.
    • You just let the groove grab you where you are.
  • You don’t have to know the chords and structure of the music.
    • You just let the melody move you with is rhythm
  • You don’t have to be a musician to know that this can be sung and played and enjoyed.
    • You just celebrate those who make the music.
  • You don’t have to be able to put into words what the music does to you.
    • You just have to let it do it.
I hope that is what I leave you with after these posts on jazz. Jazz is remarkable music. It is simple and complex. It is the blues and jumping dance music. It is chordless or as strictly structured as any other music can be. It can turn a Broadway-standard song or old country song into a new musical invention. It is freedom expressed without words; resistance without slogans; revolution without arms.

I recently had the pleasure and honor of being part of the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire jazz festival. I had the opportunity to listen to a number of amazing high school big bands compete for recognition. High school students stood up and played improvised solos for the judges. Some schools had as many as three or more bands competing at different levels. These students get up and show up at school at 7:00 in the morning or stay after school to rehearse. They do it for the love of the music! It shows. It also shows that the music is still growing and still making people dance, even in the intimacy of their own soul.

That’s what Christian McBride was talking about. In general, we make music so that on some level we can dance. Jazz is as close to perfecting that as any other music. It can be a dirge-like dance of the blues or the second-line dance as the Dixieland band leaves the cemetery. It can be a ballad dance of love or the soul-dance of having been touched by a musician who has shared their spirituality through their horn. It can be the driving rhythm of Latin culture, the cool movement of the west coast, the funk of the urban culture, or … take you pick. It goes on and on and hasn’t stopped for a moment. The best of jazz encompasses all of these and much more. I see and hear jazz in the best of bluegrass (which is, of course, the jazz of country music), the roots of rock and soul, even in the music now called “Americana” and folk.

We are a nation of jazz musicians seeking to make melody and harmony with a groove and rhythm. In the earlier post on the “bandstand” being a sacred place I talked about the importance of the big band (i.e. jazz) music in the 1930s and ’40s. Many gave it its own place in keeping us strong in the midst of World War II. After the war it went into “hiding.” It is our music- who we are and who we can be. That is why Len Weinstock on the website Red Hot Jazz (http://www.redhotjazz.com/index.htm) said:
Millions await its return. Believe me, we need it badly!
After fifty years of listening and ten of playing jazz, I am only now beginning to understand what it means for me.
These ten posts come nowhere near even scratching the surface. There will be more in the next year.
There is more to learn, more to experience, more to hear-
and more dances to be danced.

Keep on listening- and tapping your feet.
- Count Basie

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Tuning Slide: What It's All About

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
There are two kinds of music.
Good music, and the other kind.
-Duke Ellington
Back in the first of this series on jazz I wondered where to begin. I am still wondering and asking that question. Nine weeks (and one more to go) 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.
-p.13
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

Flag Day 2017

In my never-ending quest to dispel the libel that liberals don't love the United States and the flag, here again is my video from 2015 on this Flag Day.




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

That Reminds Me Of...

Couldn't help but notice that yesterday's video of the President's Cabinet meeting looked exactly like the old camp and group exercise:

Okay, everyone. Let's make Donald feel good by everyone saying something nice about what he has done.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Everyone's Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and 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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Losing My Mojo

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Many of our deepest motives come,
not from an adult logic of how things work in the world,
but out of something that is frozen from childhood.
-Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a time somewhere about half a century ago when I was your typical high school trumpet player. I no doubt believed I was invincible, the top of the band's musical food chain. My sight-reading ability was somewhat lacking, but one evening of working on it at home usually fixed that and I was able to exhibit the skill that my first chair position would expect.

I don't remember any hints of uncertainty or doubts about what I could do as a trumpet player. I was lead trumpet in our stage musical. I organized a small combo to play at our school talent show and even made an arrangement of the Beatles' Help! as our number. I was lead in a trumpet quartet that played at many local churches. I was also lead in a Tijuana Brass-style group that played at both the local pool and at our town's annual Fourth of July fest. I knew I would never be a professional musician- that wasn't in my plans. I did know that I loved being a trumpet player.

I had what I might later have called "mojo."

For fifty years, I have considered Memorial Day as the day I lost it. True or not, what we believe is often "truth" if not "fact." If we believe it, it is real. Since today is the 50th Anniversary of that day, I will tell the story in full, something I have wanted to do for years.

The "Monday Holiday" bill had not yet been enacted. In 1966 Memorial Day, the day to remember those who died in battle, always celebrated on May 30, happened to fall on a Monday. It was a mostly clear, cool morning. I remember a misty fog along the river, not unusual on a spring morning like that. The sun was breaking through as I joined the group of veterans at the corner of Main and Allegheny Streets on the bank of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

Memorial Day always began at the river. This was a time to remember the sailors who had died in service. Since we were only a couple decades past the end of World War II the memories were personal, real and not yet part of history. They were still at the edge of current events.

(Susquehanna River Bridge, Jersey Shore, PA)
It was a simple ceremony. I don't know what was said. I remember what was done. A reading and a prayer, and a wreath tossed solemnly into the river. The honor guard rifles faced up-river, to the right in the above picture, and proceeded with the traditional three-volley salute. The volley comes from the battlefield tradition of three-volleys to indicate that the dead had been removed from the battlefield and properly cared for.

The sounds echoed from the mountains and it was my turn.

Taps.

My notes felt right. They flowed as I wanted them to. They moved up-river following the smoke from the volleys. It was an honor to be called to do this. My friend Steve, the second chair, was stationed a short distance away to play the echo. It was all moving and appropriate. It was finished.

Next Steve and I joined the rest of our high school marching band for the parade. It would be our last official parade having just graduated. The parade moved up the main east-west street through town.
(Allegheny St., Jersey Shore, PA)
We marched past what had been my Dad's pharmacy and then our house. We went by the junior high school where a Winged Victory statue remembered World War 1 sacrifices. Just past my grandfather's house a small curve in the street took us to the left-turn that led into the cemetery. The band took its "parade rest"-style position for the ceremony.

(Jersey Shore, PA, cemetery)
Speeches and honors were now given for all who had died in the service of the country. For a small-town in Central Pennsylvania, we had our share of names on the veterans' memorials downtown next to the Post Office. There were 45 who died from World War II, and another 9 from Korea. Many hundreds served.

But that's another story.

My memory of that day is fixed with what happened next. The three-volley honor salute was finished. It was not the first time I had been in this cemetery and heard that. This was my fourth or fifth Memorial Day parade. Beyond that, my dad, a veteran of WW II, had died about 18 months earlier. The volley had echoed from the hilltop cemetery on that cold December day. Now I was standing but twenty yards or so from his and my mother's graves,

Again, time to play Taps. I was focused and ready to go. Taps is not difficult to play. It is ingrained in every trumpet player's mind. Its haunting sound is as familiar as our own name. Steve had gone to the hilltop behind us for his echo response to my call.

Perhaps I was nervous, or, at the other extreme, over-confident. I don't remember any performance anxiety at that time. This was not my first public solo performance. Most likely I was just careless.

Three notes in I choked. Everything I knew about performing disappeared. I had forgotten to let the water out of the horn. The sound started to gurgle, the notes lost their clear intensity. My mind went into auto-pilot, which 50 years ago did not include the simple act of letting the water out in one of the pauses at the end of a phrase.

I finished with the gurgles seeming to mock me even more intensely when Steve's echo sounded so perfect to my ear. I was upset at myself. I had let the veterans down. I had let my father down.

I was ashamed.

I had one more opportunity. There was one more short parade that afternoon in nearby Salladasburg. There was one more cemetery with Taps.
(Salladasburg, PA, cemetery from Stacy on Find a Grave)
That, too, became an embarrassment. I flubbed a note at the beginning and, yes, I again forgot to let the water out. That, I am sure, was more nerves and, even more likely, inexperience.

But it became my experience. It became, for me, a defining moment in my musical life. It made me, in my mind, a sloppy trumpet player. One day in May 1966 set a standard of self-understanding that I have spent half a century trying to change. My low sight-reading skills added to it three months later when I did not pass the audition to get into the marching band at college. I never thought until recently that they simply didn't need another freshman trumpet player at that point and it had nothing to do with my ability. The Memorial Day experience was already coloring my personal lowering expectations.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on how logic and emotions interact. My now ancient story is as good an example as I can imagine. In the great scheme of things, even the past 50 years of my own life, that Memorial Day series of flubs isn't even a drop in the bucket. If anyone noticed then, or remembers it today, I would be shocked. I did what I could and I did it well. My logical brain knows all that. It knows that the gurgling sound of a trumpet is not the end of the world- and that very few people even heard it.

But there was a sense of failure and shame connected to that moment in my memory. It had more to do with standing mere yards from my parents' graves than it did about the hundred or so people who were there. It was connected with my own needs to live up to perfection for my deceased parents. In that moment I failed.

Here's how that all works in us. We start with:
  • Principles:
    • Values
    • What you stand for
    • Your personal foundation
These don't change much over our lives. They are reaffirmed or adjusted, but we mostly maintain our personal principles.

We add to our lives with:
  • Experiences:
    • What happens to you
    • Interactions with the world beyond you
In and of themselves, these experiences are simply there. We give them meaning, positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, based on our personal values, that foundation through which we judge the world and ourselves. This then produces:
  • Emotions:
    • Feelings at a given moment.
    • Reactions to experiences
Let's put it together:
  • Experiences produce emotions.
    • These emotions may be based on our principles and values, or on a physical reaction to what is happening. If it makes us feel good, happy, fulfilled or whatever, it is a positive emotion. If we are hurt, sad, lost, etc. it can be a negative emotion.
  • Experiences and emotions are stored together in our memory.
    • That's how memories work. They are not stored as a single event- A Memory in A Location. They are stored in some interconnected way in our brain. When a memory comes back it easily comes back with the emotions. This is Proust's famous experience with the madeline cake.
  • The emotions connected with experiences can then interact with our principles.
    • Good emotions can produce a positive "value" response; negative feeling emotions can produce a "value" response that says that this does not fit my values.
  • Together these guide how we do what we do in our lives.
To design the future effectively,
you must first let go of your past.
-Charles J. Givens

There's the rub. Back again to the letting go I talked about last week. Back to logic and emotion and principles and mindfulness.

After a previous post on developing experiences my friend Terry commented:
Experience counts more than theory, because experience works on the heart
But when that work on the heart is an ongoing emotional "shame" it will color what we do every time we are faced with a similar situation.

Finally, today, 50 years later, I am discovering new ways to rewrite that emotional experience of Memorial Day 1966. I have been able over the past few years specifically, to present alternative realities. I have also been willing to take risks such as doing a solo, attending jazz, big band, and trumpet camps where I couldn't hide and playing in a quintet. New experiences rewrite the "heart story" and put things into a better perspective. Even this Tuning Slide blog on trumpet playing is part of it.

I have been controlled by that previous day for 50 years. Maybe I will finally let it go.

In working on the previous post and this one I came across lyrics from singer-songwriter James Bay in his song Let It Go. The song is about breaking up with a girlfriend, but some of the words are perfect for what I have been talking about...
Trying to push this problem up the hill
When it's just too heavy to hold
Think now's the time to let it slide

So come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don't you be you
And I'll be me

Everything's that's broke
Leave it to the breeze
Let the ashes fall
Forget about me

Come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don't you be you
And I'll be me

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Intertwined with Society

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Adding to the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Why can't jazz musicians just leave a melody alone?
-Peter Capaldi

The previous two posts have dealt with improvising, what could be considered the mainstay of jazz. From small combos to big bands the music is wide open for the possibility of composing on the fly. How that improvised solo fits into the whole form of the particular song varies with styles, size of the ensemble, abilities of different members of the group. In some groups, for example, the first trumpet may not have as many improvisation skills so they tend to play the written parts while the second trumpet takes the improvised solos. In songs from the Great American Songbook of standards, the well-known melody of the song is shared around the different sections with one or two sections devoted to the improvised solo.

In most instances, though, this is built on the originally composed song. The song may be just the main theme (the head) and a closing coda of the theme. In-between the soloists go off on their own understandings of the song’s feel. The rhythm section often “comps” under the solo. (Think Dave Brubeck’s amazingly steady piano in “Take Five” under Paul Desmond’s wondrous solo.) In the beginning, then, all of the music is someone’s composition. The original song or theme or melody. Add to that the chord changes, tempo, mood, rhythmic structure, and written accompaniment and you have the song which will most likely change every time the group plays it.

That is jazz. But it requires that original song. It requires composing something on which to build. It is why jazz musicians do not leave the melody alone. They hear more than just the melody- they hear a whole composition starting with the original melody. This is not something new. Bach was known as a superb improvisor. For some of Mozart’s piano compositions, the solos are at times just a bare bones skeleton of the piece. Know one knows what Mozart played when he performed those pieces. The full score never existed.

How does all this happen? How does any one of us move into composition- either written scores or improvised solos? I have been experimenting on and off with that in the past year. I have a bluegrass medley that I would like to have our brass quintet play. I have been working on an improvisation on the folk song made famous by the Beach Boys and Kingston Trio- Sloop John B. I have some other melodies that I have heard in my imagination and would someday like to turn into a written composition, whether for jazz or brass quintet. I figured this was a good place in this jazz series to talk about that and see how it has fit together with so much else of what music is all about. So here are the essentials as I have been discovering them:

• Listening
“What jazz are you listening to? How often are you listening?” These are two important questions to ask yourself on a regular basis. In order to begin to grasp what jazz music can be you have to listen. On recordings; on the Internet; in person. Finding live, improvised jazz can be difficult in some places, but it is worth the effort. Get in there, watch the musicians, their interactions, their reactions. Listen to the phrases and get into the groove. Don’t use it as background music. It’s alive.

• Learning the language
The reason to listen is simple. Jazz music, like all music has its own unique language. I’ve talked about this before- and I will again. The learning for many of us is that initial listening. You may not understand what it’s saying at first, but as you surround yourself with the music the phrases and low of the music will begin to make sense.

• Listening
So you listen some more.

• Singing your music
For me singing along was a great start to working on composition. Sing the melody, sing a counter melody, sing a walking bass line, sing the chord changes of a 12-bar blues, sing nonsense syllables (scat singing), let the rhythm sing from within you.

• Experimenting
Then pick up your horn and play over some songs you like. Get an app like iReal Pro. Find web sites that have accompaniment tracks available. Work with the Jamie Aebersold books and CDs. Some of these will work better for you than others. For some reason I am still struggling with the Aebersold resources but iReal Pro helps me. One of my goals in the next few months is to double down on the Aebersold and see if I can move past that barrier. Your experimenting will help you get the feel of the language and you will be surprised (I have) when something happens that you never thought you would be able to do. Riff off the melody; play chord progressions; make the mistakes in your practice room and figure out how not to make the same mistakes more than once.

• Listening
Did I make it clear about the listening? By this time it may even be an idea on some of these to record and listen to yourself and your solos. But don’t stop listening to others. The language skills grow from the hearing, the imitating, the experimenting.

• Learn solos by ear- transcribe them
This is the most difficult for me. This is just like ear-training in any language learning. It is just as essential in learning jazz. Even if we never plan on doing much improvisation, to learn the solos, to improve our ear for the language, will help make us better musicians overall and will help the written scores become more identifiable and musical.

• Repeat
Go back to the top and start over.

As we do these things we are composing. We are making our own music. I know that none of this is all that earth-shattering- or new. I used to think and hope that if I bought the right book, read the right information, watched the right YouTube video that this would all fall into place. It won’t. Aebersold books could line my shelves, but if I don’t take the steps into the new and different, I won’t improve.

What this does is get me in touch with me- my music, my songs, my soul. As I express that music I am composing a whole new story to add to the greater story around me. That is important. This is what we do every day in our daily lives- we compose something new out of what has been around us. That something new can only come from us. I can’t leave life alone in the same old rut. Jazz teaches me how to take the risks to tell my story in a new language.

Last year musician John Raymond had this to say after he had spent some time focusing on composing. It is what it’s all about:

At the end of the day, so much of composing (to me at least)
is about trusting who you are,
what you love,
and about trusting the music that YOU hear.

Just like improvising, it's an incredibly personal process and your goal is
ultimately to be as honest as you can be.
(John Raymond, email, September 2016)

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Question: "If you had a magic pill that would cure your alcoholism or addiction, what would it do?"

Answer: Give me my life back.

No one said it would allow them to use without consequences. This is a disease and it would never allow that to happen.

Obvious next statement: There may not be a pill, but being in recovery will do the same thing.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

No Excuse Zone

I have no excuse for not posting much in the past few weeks other than the Tuning Slide series. But I do have some reasons. Not that I need to explain to you, my faithful reader(s?) but since I am feeling guilty and am avoiding doing what I should be doing, here goes.

  • Top reason is simply that I have been editing and formatting the two years of Tuning Slide posts into a new book. I did one last year of year one. Well, I decided to put year one and year two together in one book to give to this year's Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop students. That has been taking my time.
  •  Next reason is I have also been busy with some ethics committee stuff for a presentation two weeks ago. 
  • Third reason is that I have gotten fed up (pun intended) with my overweight and out of shape-ness. That means I have spent some more time in the gym working out. I am trying to keep from falling into making things worse. An extra hour or two a day does take away from my writing. 
  • Number four is that I have also upped my trumpet practice time. There goes another hour per day. 
  • Finally, I have absolutely no idea what to say about what is happening in Washington. At least without using words that are not safe for a family-friendly blog. My mind is completely out of sorts with the shenanigans, the insanity, the complete idiocy of the actions of the President. When I'm not angry, I'm sad. When I'm not sad I am afraid. Most of the time I am just flabbergasted that the GOP congress hasn't stood up to his bullying, gaslighting, abusive personality.  
Perhaps one of these days soon, after the Tuning Slide book is off to Amazon, I will get back into the swing of things. Until then, my apologies for being so out of it. I am working on it!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tuning Slide: More About Composing

Weekly Reflections on Life and 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

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Creating Something New

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

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.

Improvisation.

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 my first Shell Lake Adult 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. Since then I have done a couple improvisation solos with the one big band I play in. One was good, the other so-so. But I am learning that it is okay to make mistakes. That's how we learn.

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Swing

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

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 April 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, April 24, 2017

Yom HaShoah- In Remembrance

Never again.
With any people.
Anywhere.
Ever.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Struggling- But On the Road

I realized last week that I am still in the recovery mode from last year's election. I am not as stuck as I was in November and December, but I recognized in a discussion last week that I have not gotten back to the energy and excitement that I had before that. To watch the ongoing circus of tearing apart the nation we have built over the past 25-40 years is downright scary. It is like the current administration (and GOP leaders) see it as their mission to undo absolutely everything progressive and hopeful for anyone not in the 1%.

In the midst of all this I have continued to play trumpet and have worked hard at my improvisation and overall skills. As I look back at it, that was all that kept me going some days. This weekend I have been at the UW-Eau Claire annual Jazz Fest. I have listened to some great music, reconnected with a number of musical friends and mentors, and found my groove beginning to fall into place.

I am a work in progress. I don't want to ignore the world around me that looks like it is being undone on a regular basis. Nor do I want that undoing to pull me down.

Music!

Thanks be to God for such a wonderful gift!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Tuning Slide: What Makes Jazz, Jazz?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter- To Live.. For Others


The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!


The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Let those who have ears, hear!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A 70-Year Memory: When Baseball Changed!



April 15, 1947

# 42 made his Major League debut.

Baseball helped lead the way 
into a new United States.

Thanks, Jackie Robinson!


Lenten Journey- Great Sabbath- The Way Back

The day in-between.

Ponder Bonhoeffer’s words as a guide to be ready for the second half of the weekend.


We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds;

we have been drenched by many storms;

we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense;
experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open;

intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.

Are we still of any use?

What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men.

Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lenten Journey- Good Friday- Loving the Real


God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross

On the cross, no matter how we explain it, God in Jesus knew the reality of being human. It was not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good moment. I have no idea how or why it happened. There are many different theological explanations. I have a hunch all of them are wrong- and all of them may have a kernel of truth. If I could understand it, it wouldn’t be the work of God.

What I do know is that in the eternal wisdom and will of the Creator of the universe, Good Friday was the first half of the revolution and restoration of humanity. Jesus knew very well how we humans act. God knew very well how we humans can be evil and do injustice to our fellow humans.

Yet there was that cross.

At that I am speechless.

Were the whole realm of nature mine, 
that were a present far too small. 
Love so amazing, so divine, 
demands my soul, my life, my all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lenten Journey- Maundy Thursday- Obedience


One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.
 -Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Do this!
Wash each others’ feet.

Do this!
Break the bread and share it.

Do this!
Drink from the same cup as Jesus.

Do this!
Remember Jesus.

Just do it!
It makes quite a witness.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or
take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and
grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.