Arranger’s Guide to “Luciana Souza/HR Big Band”

January 31st, 2011 Comments off
Categories: Articles, Uncategorized Tags:

Arranging “Up from the Skies” for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

November 25th, 2009 Comments off

By Jim McNeely

In planning the music for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s new CD on the Planet Arts label (100454), I knew that most of the compositions would be my own. But I also wanted to include an arrangement of someone else’s tune, and I decided on Jimi Hendrix’s Up from the Skies (subsequently the album’s title). I’d always been a fan of his music, and “Skies” had long appealed to me as a possible subject.

In arranging an existing song, my initial process has little to do with actually writing notes. I need time to discover the heart and soul of the tune; to fall in love with it. I spent a lot of time listening to Hendrix’s own version, as well as to many of his other recordings. I purposely did not listen to Gil Evans’, or anyone else’s “cover” of the song. I made my own lead sheet, and spent days just playing through the tune, making little scribbles to myself about possibilities regarding form, solos, harmony, and rhythm.

The original has a heavy jazz influence: drummer Mitch Mitchell plays brushes; the groove is a swing feel; and Hendrix’s own accompaniment tends to be four-to-the-bar rhythm guitar. Moreover, his singing has a very “cool” feeling; while he finally builds to a blues shout at the end, overall the performance has a subdued vibe. So I started to develop my aural image of the arrangement: keep it cool, build it a little here and there, but don’t overdo it!

Enter the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, because the piece would not exist merely in my head, or on paper; it would come alive through them. Arranging is essentially a process of making innumerable decisions, and many of those decisions would be influenced by my knowledge of the VJO: their ensemble sound; the way they play time; the players’ technical possibilities; and the soloists. I decided that the atmosphere of the arrangement would be best served by Jason Jackson on trombone and Ralph Lalama on tenor saxophone.

Now I started to play with the tune’s form. Hendrix’s form (Ex. 1) served his original purpose, but I wanted to recast the song on a larger canvas, with the variety of colors the VJO afforded me.

Ex. 1

I devised two slightly different solo forms. The changes retained the essence of the original (Ex. 3),

Ex. 3

but the harmony has been expanded so that the chords kept moving up or down in minor thirds (Ex. 4).

Ex. 4

I also felt that the bridge (Ex. 5a) could function as an interlude, between the two solos as well as between the tenor solo and the band tutti. I decided to use much bigger voicings here (Ex. 5c), with a lot more chromatic movement than I’d used in the “cool” head chorus (Ex. 5b).

Ex. 5

As I played with the solo forms, I realized that I wanted to give the background some rhythmic texture. So I devised a scheme for the bridge in which groups of five eighth-notes are superimposed over groups of three (Ex. 6)

Ex. 6

One of the biggest challenges was presenting the melody of the song. It sounded great when Hendrix sang it, with his characteristic inflection and delivery. But I didn’t think that it would be as effective as a single instrumental line. First, I worked with the rhythm. Since I didn’t have to deliver the lyric, I had some flexibility (see Ex. 7 a & b).

Ex. 7

Ex. 8

I was also hearing the melody stated with a lush, cloudy voicing, played by all of the winds. Flügelhorns would add to the “round” quality of the sound. I left the bass trombone out of the beginning ensemble, saving him for doubling bass figures. The seven remaining brass are voiced in a tight diatonic cluster (Ex. 8 a & b ).

Ex 8

The soprano sax doubles the lead Flügel, and the other four saxes double voices 2, 4, 5, and 7 (Ex. 9). When this section is played really soft it sounds wonderful! I used a couple of other traditional techniques for more harmonic motion. Parallel planing of a voicing works especially well in embellishing half-step or whole-step melodic neighbor tones. And half-step approaches to a strong target voicing provide good motion in the inner voices

Ex. 9

After the solos I wanted the ensemble to say a few things before returning to the “out” head. I went for a “meltdown” effect, first with the saxes, then with even more of the band. I simply wrote a melody (Ex. 10) with the instruction “Don’t play exact rhythms”. The more players in the group, the more effective is the result.

Ex. 10

The arrangement’s form finally took shape as shown in Example 2. While I didn’t devise this specific plan on “Day One”, neither did it “just happen”. The form is the result of the myriad of decisions I made throughout the process.

Remember that arranging is about a lot more than voicings and chord changes; it’s about shaping a song in order to tell a good story. You control every single element, including form, color, harmony, rhythm, density and energy. The better and broader your control, the more interesting, nuanced, and powerful the story.

Back to the writing table…

Jim McNeely/Woodshed

Up from the Skies

Categories: Articles Tags:

Leadsheet for In This Moment

November 24th, 2009 Comments off
Categories: Downloads Tags:

Leadsheet for Hiatus

November 24th, 2009 Comments off
Categories: Downloads Tags:

Diatonic Process

November 24th, 2009 Comments off
Categories: Downloads Tags:

What We Do and Why We Do It

November 24th, 2009 Comments off

by Jim McNeely

(Adapted from keynote speech delivered 6/12/08 at the 2008 International Jazz Composers’ Symposium University of South Florida, Tampa, FL)

Thank you, Chuck Owen, for inviting me to be a part of this terrific event. I look out and recognize a good number of you. It’s good to see both faces that I know and faces that are new to me. We’ve all come together for these three days, driven by our love of jazz and our love of composing. We’re here to talk, to listen, and to hear music; to let our colleagues know what we’re doing, and to find out what they are up to. We’re here to learn, and to be inspired.

I would guess that most of us have beginnings as performers, playing in groups ranging in size from duos to big bands. We know that performing has a social aspect: you work together to achieve a group sound; you hang out after the gig; you travel together on the road. Composition, on the other hand, is typically a solitary activity; it’s easy for all of us to get holed up in our individual studios, in our individual heads, with our pencils and erasers, with our keyboards and computers. And I dare say that this has always been one of the big attractions for me about composition. It’s 2 am, I’m alone in my music room, there’s paper all over the place; the ideas are flowing, I’ve found a little countermelody that is so unbelievably slick; I’ve got my little universe where I am God, and this note will be a Bb, I don’t care what the rules say; and I smell the eraser, and I’m in the zone, and that glass of whatever that I poured 3 hours ago remains untouched because I’m so into this piece! I’m completely one with my inner geek, I’ve hit that point where the little fire in my gut has been lit, and I say, “Damn, I can’t wait to hear this! This is gonna be great”; and there’s no one else there, and I don’t have to talk to anybody!

Paradise! But before I start to sound I live like the Unibomber—I do have a wife and three kids, and we’re all normal enough—let me also say that it is important for composers to get together and talk to one another, whether in individual settings of teacher/student or mentor/protégé, or a workshop (such as the one I direct at BMI in New York), or a salon, or informal “hangs”. We discover how others may have solved problems that we grapple with; we can get inspired to try some new direction; we might discover new music to listen to, or to analyze, that might open new doors for us; and sometimes, articulating your own point of view to someone else simply helps to clarify it in your own mind. So with this symposium we have the mother of all “hangs” for jazz composers!

Many Questions, a Few Answers

In preparing these remarks I started to articulate questions that I might try to answer. I found that certain questions led to more questions, and sometimes the answers are hard to nail down.

What is jazz composition? Is it composing jazz, or jazzing (jassing) the compositional process?

In its early days, “jazz” was a verb; it was primarily a process applied to existing forms of music. You played a song/rag/blues and you jassed it, with improvisation and a new kind of rhythmic feel. So maybe as jazz composers we’re jassing more established compositional technique? Or, maybe we are composing frameworks that allow jazz to happen?

Jazz is largely improvised, right? How do you compose improvisation? Is that even what we do when we compose jazz? What is composition, anyway? And what’s the difference between composition and improvisation? Between composition and arranging?

When I was in music school at the University of Illinois back in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, one of the never-ending debates that raged was whether improvisation and composition were the same, or two facets of the same process, or different processes; or was one better than the other, or more legitimate? No one really won this debate, of course; a proponent of any one viewpoint simply proceeded as if he or she were correct, and dismissed the others. One of the wiser souls I encountered back then was the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl. He proposed that, instead of arguing about the relative merits of composition and improvisation, we regard a piece of music as a model. This model contains certain elements that are created ahead of time, and other elements that are created during the performance. When you think about it, every piece of music has a balance between the two. An Indian raga, a Brahms symphony, and a jazz performance of “I’ve Got Rhythm” all have certain pre-determined elements that must be there in order for the result to be called that particular piece, and not something else. Other elements are determined in performance, by the performer. With the Brahms symphony, almost every element was determined years ago by Brahms himself; the spontaneous elements may be the conductor’s choice of tempo, or the length of a fermata, or an issue of balance; with “I’ve Got Rhythm”, certain of Gershwin’s original elements must be there. But the jazz esthetic allows for most of the musical details to be created in the act of performance.

And arrangement vs. composition. The processes exhibit many similarities, yet are quite different. An arrangement is a process applied to an existing song; the song is the main character of the drama; the piece is all about the song. A composition may or may not have a recognizable song. Characters might be a melody, a phrase, a player in the ensemble, or a texture. A character might be developed beyond recognition; may enter into conflict with another character; may well die before the piece ends. An arrangement is a portrait of a character; a composition is the dramatic development of one or more characters. Still, the line between the two can be very vague, especially in the hands of a master. Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of “Artistry in Rhythm”, or Gil Evans’ arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “The Barbara Song”; Bob Brookmeyer’s “My Funny Valentine”, or Bill Holman’s “Just Friends”; these all straddle the line. The song to be arranged has become the main character of the drama; all are tremendous pieces of music.

As jazz composers, are we therefore creating pre-determined structures that contain points-of-departure for improvisation? Does this, by itself, mean that a piece could be called a “jazz composition”? And what makes a piece a “jazz composition” anyway?

We’d most likely not call Brahms’ Symphony #2 a jazz piece. Why not? And what about “I’ve Got Rhythm”? Or “Dolphin Dance”? Is jazz composition simply music that is written by jazz musicians? Or played by jazz musicians? When Sonny Rollins played “I’m an Old Cowhand”, did it become a jazz composition? Is “Lush Life” a jazz composition? If you play it note-for-note just as Billy Strayhorn wrote it–verse and chorus–and don’t improvise a single note, is it still a jazz composition? Is a piece’s jazz nature determined more by the perfomance than any intrinsic quality? Is Thad Jones’ “Don’t Get Sassy” jazz as played by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra? As played by a horrible junior high school band? Or if it were to ever be played by Marilyn Manson?

And all of this leads us both forward to and back to that most fundamental question: “What is Jazz?” No, I’m not going there today!

So, what is it that we all do that makes us jazz composers? I would propose several things. We generally—although not always—employ rhythmic language developed through jazz performance. This applies not only to “swing”, but to melodic phrasing, accents and articulation. We generally—although not always—use drums and bass in the way that they function in a jazz group: laying down a rhythmic and harmonic foundation over which everything else happens. We generally allow room in our music for improvisation—mostly by individuals, sometimes by groups. We consider the balance between the pre-composed and improvised to be a central issue of what we write. Finally, we write music that sounds like we have listened to jazz, and have played jazz, and heard a jazz piece at one time and said, “I want to write like that!” That’s very vague and personal, I know, but the boundaries between what is jazz and “non-jazz” are vague and personal. And, frankly, the more we venture beyond those boundaries, the stronger we are when we return to the jazz center.

We also speculate. Stravinsky said that one of the main jobs of a composer is speculation. We ask “What if?” and follow our instincts searching for an answer. I think that this is important, especially in an era in which many people seem to be asking “May I?” or “Is it in the tradition to…?” I’m certainly not advocating weirdness or rebellion for its own sake. But jazz, like any art form, is fluid, and it grows and enriches itself through the efforts of speculators, both performing and composing, whose inner voices demand that they try a different path. Sometimes that speculation leads you outside of other people’s boundaries, where you go at your own risk. It takes courage to follow your speculation. Sometimes the speculation takes you down a dead end road, sometimes it succeeds. But the alternative is stagnation.

My Own History

I started my own speculations around the age of 15. I suppose my first big question was “What if I wrote a big band arrangement?” I was in my second year at Notre Dame High School for Boys, just outside of Chicago. I’d chosen that particular school because they had a “stage band”. The director was a priest named George Wiskirchen, and he is one of the main reasons that I stand up here today. He was a Basie fanatic; he’d gotten to know Frank Wess, and was able to get a few charts from the Basie book into our library. I must have indicated my desire to write an arrangement to my father; he bought me a copy of the Russ Garcia book. I devoured it! Then I found the lead sheet to an Ernie Wilkens blues, and decided that I’d arrange it for the school band. Fr. George was very encouraging about the whole endeavor. I finished the arrangement, copied out the parts and brought it in to a rehearsal. They started to play it. Wow, those sax voicings sounded great! Russ was right, you don’t have to put the root at the bottom. Hmm, it’s hard to hear the melody in the tutti. Maybe I screwed up. Hmm, that shout chorus with those slick eighth-notes-inside-quarter-note-triplets never seems to come together. In listening to the rehearsal I realized that some of the chart sounded good, and some of it didn’t. I resolved to continue doing the good stuff, and to find different approaches to the parts that didn’t work. This is essentially the process that has driven me to this day. Put it on paper, listen honestly; pat yourself on the back for the good stuff, fix or get rid of the bad; then go on to the next piece.

I remember that at some point in my late teens DownBeat would print reproductions of pencil big band scores in the middle of the magazine. I don’t remember whose charts they were, but I remember that the ledger lines excited me. And they looked like a lot of work went into them. That excited me, too. I was such a geek, that while my school friends were checking out other kinds of centerfolds, my big turn-on was the ledger lines in a lead trombone part!

So I wrote a lot more for my high school band. By my senior year, my best friend Nick Talarico and I were writing marching band shows. Wiskirchen had a 6-line template that we would use; we’d write the arrangements, then he would copy out the parts. I used to play saxophone, and one time he wanted a chorus of “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage”, segueing into Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things”, with me squawking away on soprano sax. You don’t just call up Alfred Music and buy that kind of stuff off the shelf! This was also my first experience of writing to a deadline. Little did I know how twisted and neurotic my relationship to the deadline would become later in my life. It was during my senior year that I also heard Thad Jones/Mel Lewis on Daddy-O Daylie’s radio show. I realize now that a little flame had been lit inside me.

In 1967 I entered the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, because they had a great big band, led by John Garvey. I was pretty intimidated about writing for them at first. There was a grad student there named Jim Knapp who was composing and arranging music that, for me, remains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever heard. Jim is still quite active in Seattle; he’d thankfully left the U. of I. in the early ‘70’s. I finally got my courage together to write for the band. In addition, I was a composition major, and wrote a lot of chamber music combining contemporary classical and jazz elements. I also took seminars in Persian classical music and African music with Bruno Nettl. I started learning about how jazz wasn’t the only music to included improvisation, and that there were other ways to generate improvisation besides playing on chord changes. All in all, those were very ear-opening years!

Moving to New York in 1975, I was pursuing a career as a pianist. I wasn’t writing for large ensembles, but I was writing tunes for quartets and quintets, and made a couple of recordings featuring mostly my own music. I figured that I’d spent a number of years as a student, playing in big bands, and now wanted to concentrate on smaller groups. But I always felt that Thad and Mel was the best big band, with the hippest writing, and an important role for the piano. So when Mel asked me to join the band in 1978 I jumped at the chance.

I didn’t immediately start to write for the band. While Thad was there, I was intimidated; here I was playing great music written by him, and Bob Brookmeyer, and who was I to try to jump into that pool? But after Thad left in early 1979, I once again got my courage up and wrote an absolutely dreadful chart for Mel’s band. I was pretty discouraged, but Brookmeyer, who had come in as the band’s musical director, was very encouraging—he pointed out a couple of sections that worked pretty well, and said that I should write another one.

I did, and it was okay. In fact the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra recently recorded it for their most recent CD. The third piece I wrote for Mel, “Blue Note”, worked pretty well, and Mel’s band recorded it in 1986.

It was around this time that my long, fruitful relationship with the big band scene in Europe began. It started with UMO in Helsinki; in ’87 I began a seven-year stint with the WDR Big Band in Cologne. That band was my real workshop group, and I learned an incredible amount from them. I’ve also worked with the great Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, and spent five years as chief conductor of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra. Currently I am artist-in-residence with the HR Big Band in Frankfurt. These are all great ensembles; most of them have been around for 40+ years, have a number of terrific players, and have been a great resource for Americans like myself, Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer, John Clayton, Bill Holman and many others. You simply cannot talk about the current state of the modern big band without including these groups, and I wish that the American jazz press would wake up to that fact.

By about 1993 I was a minor celebrity around Stockholm and within the listening area of the WDR in northwest Germany, but hardly known as a writer in the US. When I started to write arrangements for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, I began to get a reputation on this side of the Atlantic. In 1996 I’d rejoined the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and they asked me to write an album for them. The resulting CD was called “Lickety Split”. It helped both the band and me. By this time I was writing a lot. I remember in 1998 I was in the middle of two projects: a George Gershwin retrospective for the Danish Radio, and a Chick Corea concert with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. In one month I wrote 270 pages of big band score. It was an exciting, exhausting, exhilarating time. Someone later asked me, “What did you do when you got stuck?” I thought about it and realized that I never got stuck; I simply didn’t have time! Composition and arranging are essentially decision-making processes. We can get stuck when we have the luxury to put off making a decision. If the deadline is imminent, we make a decision, living with its consequences, and move on.

The Process

Much of the music I write begins with a question. Sometimes it’s about a musical detail: “What if a unison “E” grew into a chromatic explosion?” “What if I constructed lines in which each successive interval was a half-step larger or smaller?” “What if a song repeats over and over, getting more chromatic and intense each time?” More, though, it begins with an image: “What if a big band started to melt in the middle of a line?” “How would a tenor player react if he felt lost in the middle of a solo?” “What if Mel Lewis came back?” “What would it sound like if a band fell down a flight of stairs?” “What would loud sandpaper sound like?” If not a question, there might be a one- or two-word description of the piece: “moving rondo”, “burn”, “exhaustion”, “exuberance”, “chewy”, “ahhhhhh”, “glow”, “vulnerable”, “help me”.

The speculation is the first step in what I call the “high level”, conceptual issues. If I am writing for a specific group I keep them in mind. Each group with whom I work a lot has its strengths and weaknesses; time feel and timbre; lead trumpet sound and collection of soloists. If I’m not familiar with the sound of the group I write for, I create one in my head. It’s better to connect the piece to some kind of “virtual” ensemble, rather than none at all.

I decide how long the piece will be, if only in a general sense. I decide on the “surface sound” of the music—this is more or less “what a dog hears”—high, low, loud, soft, rough, smooth, dense, open, screechy, woofy. I also decide on issues like the harmonic palette, and timbral palette (open brass, flutes and mutes). I decide on who will play solos, and where they will occur in the piece. For larger pieces I make a time line to indicate the length of the piece, and indicate certain events along the line. I also decide on the general shape of the piece. I will admit that much of what I have written conforms to the ideal defined by Ray Wright in “Inside the Score”—that a piece usually peaks at somewhere around 80-something % through the piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

At the same time I start to work with the “low” level issues: specific musical ideas. These might be a motive; a vamp; four bars of a progression; a three-note group, a chord voicing; or anything else that might occur to me. Sometimes I walk into my studio, thinking about the sandwich that I just ate, or the conversation I just had with my wife; anything but music. Then I sit at the piano, put my hands on the keys and hear what comes out. I try to hear the result with the same un-connected ears that the other six billion people on earth have, not my own ears.

At this point there is a list of “don’ts” I refer to:

• Don’t judge your idea as good or bad. It is neutral; a gift. Write it down. • Don’t start by telling yourself that you are going to write the greatest piece of your career. This is one of the best and quickest ways to kill the music. • Don’t worry about who might be playing this idea. If there is an instrumental or ensemble sound associated with it, great. If not, great. Either way, you’ve got something happening.

• Don’t worry about whether this idea will fit into the piece. It either will or it won’t. Right now you need to see how to develop the idea, and see where it leads you. • Don’t worry about where this idea will fit into the piece. As you work with it, you may find where it goes. If you don’t, put it aside. • Don’t think that every idea must be put into the piece. • Don’t take your original ideas at face value. Work with them. I think if them as physical objects, like pieces of clay. They can be stretched, cut up and recombined, rolled into different shapes, flattened, thinned, and replicated. Imagine being a kid playing in a sandbox. If, after all of that, you decide to go with your original idea, at least you do it knowing what some of the other possibilities are. • Don’t get wrapped up trying to obey all the rules. If a rule doesn’t serve you anymore, make up a new rule.

I start to work with my ideas, and develop them. Make some melodic lines; extend progressions; transpose vamps. Whatever I can think of. I never say “no” to a possible variation or development or re-working of an idea. I just write it down. My goal is to create enough material so that I can throw most of it away. What remains is something that I absolutely believe in. It’s not perfect, not “amazing”. But I believe it.

As the low level starts to develop, the high level starts to get more defined. Details of the form and shape begin to emerge. One of my big concerns is to take my time getting to the first solo. When you are young and starting out, it is a laborious process just to score the “head” of the arrangement. So, BAM, next thing is a tenor solo; after the painstaking task of writing voicings and making orchestrational decisions, it’s such a relief to just write some slashes! But I believe that the first solo should start only when the music is ready for it. As writers we are exercising a lot of control over all elements of a piece, and with the first solo we relax some of that control. Wait until the time is right. It might occur before there’s any written music; it might not occur until five minutes into the piece. But make sure that the time is right.

At this point I also begin to think of myself as a kind of playwright. I’m creating characters, and thinking about how they might develop through the course of the piece. Besides the many jazz and classical composers who have inspired me, I would also have to pay tribute to writers like William Shakespeare, August Strindberg and Tennessee Williams. So many of Williams’s plays are set in the south—“Orpheus Descending”, for example. You can feel the humidity dripping off the willow trees. The men drink a lot and don’t work much, and the women, at the primes of their lives, have resigned themselves to their lot. Halfway through the first act enters Val, “The Young Stud”, from some far-off place. Said stud upsets the balance that has been agreed upon by the local folks; the women shoot him surreptitious glances and have vapors, and the men start looking for their shotguns. The resulting tension and resolution drives the rest of the play. When tickets to a Broadway play hover around $100 a head, you don’t pay that kind of money to see people sitting around a table having a pleasant conversation about the weather. Give us conflict! And so it may go in music. Let the piece go on for a while, then introduce a new, unexpected character into the mix, and see what happens!

So as the high level becomes more defined, and the low level develops, I’m usually ready to start sketching, which is where I make most of my decisions about voicings and orchestration. I still use pencil and paper. I’ve tried “real composing” on the computer, but feel that it gets in the way. I end up looking at a picture of the music. Pencil and paper are physical, tactile substances that give me more of a feeling of being connected. Besides, for me it’s more fun to erase than to hit “delete”.

Technology and Computers

I use Finale for writing my scores now, mostly for the incredible convenience of editing, archiving, and sending via e-mail. But I still have some reservations about it. As with any tool, we have a tendency to adapt our behavior in order to use the tool more easily. With pencil and paper, we can draw almost any shape imaginable. Yet certain shapes are still difficult on the computer. With pencil and paper, all of us older folks learned how to make a good drum part, with relative ease. Those of you who know me, know that I could spend the next half hour kvetching about the drum parts I see in students using Finale or Sibelius. One of the problems is that we use these programs to tell the players what is easiest to say via the software, and not what really needs to be said in the score or in the part.

There’s also a bigger issue, and I’d like to share with you an excerpt from an article I read on the plane flying down here. It’s from the latest Atlantic Monthly, in an article by Nicholas Carr entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. ‘Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,’ the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his ‘”thoughts” in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.’

‘You are right,’ Nietzsche replied, ’our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’ Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzche’s prose ‘changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.’”

And I’m sure that Nietzche wasn’t the first person to notice that the new technology fostered a difference, not only in his output, but also in his thinking. This is, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing. But therein lies a problem. A tool may make certain things easier; make us more productive; give us greater insight and flexibility. On the other hand, that same tool, especially if not used properly, can hinder us from expressing well many of those creative things we might do better without the tool, and ultimately limit us. A chain saw, when used properly, can be a useful, powerful tool. In untrained hands, however, it can cause horrible damage. In other words: if you, as a professional composer, are going to use Finale or Sibelius, learn how to use the program, and learn it well. Look at the user manual. Seek help from more experienced users. Apply the same standards to software as you would to your musical instrument. It is your musical instrument! Would you show up at a gig not knowing how to finger an F#? It’s simply not enough to say, “Gee, this trumpet doesn’t let me do that!”

Another computer-related problem is that we now have the ability to play back, and play back, and play back, ad infinitum. You can make the flutes sound as loud as you’d like, and you can make that fourth trumpet player play his double high “G” at pianississimo. Trombones can play without taking a breath, and everyone is perfectly in tune. Better yet, all of your intricate interlocking rhythms are performed with no problem at all. The problem is that some inexperienced composers are convinced that this is the way their music must sound at the first read-through. Worse, a few get really angry when real humans can’t play the music as precisely and perfectly balanced as their computer. We all must learn how to get through that first read- through. You may have a piece that you have lived with for months, and played back over and over on the computer. But the human players see only dots on a page. It’s going to take them time to assimilate all of the information on the paper, and if it is notated poorly or unclearly, all the worse.

What Are We Doing, and Why Do We Do It?

So, here we are—all jazz composers. Why do we do it? I’m sure that each of us has our own reasons. But music is a universal human phenomenon. Every culture has music to accompany religious rites and secular ceremonies. And many cultures have an “art music”: music that may have had utilitarian origins but is now performed for a listening audience. People want to hear music. They are drawn to it. And contrary to the attitudes of many school boards and politicians, music is an important, alternative way in which humans communicate and connect. And music needs composers. Performing musicians need someone to give them at least that “point-of-departure”, if not an entire score. Ever since the days of Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians have realized that the more players there are in a band, the more important it is for someone to organize the music and the players’ roles in that music. Sometimes we function as the ones who say, “Hey, guys! Here’s a melody for you to play together!” Or, “Hey, I’ve got an idea! First the clarinet plays a solo, then there’s a two-bar drum break!” And so forth. Jelly Roll seemed to have the idea that music was better if it was interesting; if it had dramatic twists and turns. What a concept! “Without breaks you don’t have good jazz”, he said. And so on through Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, up to today.

We composers play a crucial role in human musical culture; and as jazz composers we play a crucial role in the most important musical form to have emerged in the 20th century. At a minimum we help entertain listeners, giving them an artistic pause in their daily lives. And we give performing musicians “something to play”, so that they can sound good. We may even give them a little employment. But at our best, we challenge listeners to put aside their preconceptions, and offer them a chance to enter our world and hear something that they haven’t heard before. We inspire listeners to feel something that they haven’t felt before. At our best we challenge performers to stretch; to reach a little deeper for something they haven’t done before, and inspire them to a higher level of performance. I firmly believe that to compose music, and to do it well–jazz or otherwise–is a most noble profession.

We are all blessed to be musicians. We spend a great deal of our time doing something that we love, and that many other people would love to do, but can’t. We earn the bulk of our living from activities that many people consider a hobby, or something they’d love to do once they’ve retired. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder about the larger social contexts of our lives. It is one thing to get “in the zone” as a composer; it is something else to hide one’s head in the sand and avoid living the rest of one’s life. Bob Brookmeyer once said to me, “Society doesn’t owe you a living just because you have musical talent.” So it’s not enough to just write music. You need to think about the larger context: responsibilities to your family, to building your career. Remember, Bach was a musical genius who continues to inspire today. Bach also always made sure he had a gig, and a good one at that. He had a lot of mouths to feed! There is also a multitude of ways to get involved in the many other aspects of life: charitable, political, social, artistic, and so on. It’s not enough to simply write a tune, call it “George Bush Is An Idiot”, and think that you’ve done your job. Writing a dynamite big band piece, in itself, will probably not bring peace to the Mideast, justice to Darfur, or reverse global warming. But it could get some people thinking; might start an argument; and might even spur the composer to take some further action to help the cause. It may take some time, but music can make a difference. We can make a difference (“Yes, we can!”)

In Closing

We have a lot of music on tap for the next three days. I’m looking forward to the evening concerts, of course; but I’m really looking forward to hearing what all of you have brought to this event. I’m hoping to be surprised, challenged, soothed, and inspired. And by the end of Saturday I trust that we will all be fueled and fired up to go back to our own studios and take it to the next step. In the words of Billy Strayhorn: “Ever Onwards and Upwards!”

Thank you!

Categories: Articles, Uncategorized Tags: