I spent last week at jazz camp, and in the course of my travels I’ve misplaced the cable that lets my recorder talk to my computer. So I’m not recording a podcast for you today. I hope the cable will surface when I completely unpack, which could take a while. It could also take a while to unpack some of the ideas and approaches from the week. But I wanted to let you know about some of the discoveries I made, and some of the things I’m thinking about, so I’ll write a bloggish post.

I like to think of myself as a fairly educated listener, with advanced degrees from fancy places, and jillions of concerts and lessons and hours listening to music under my belt. I’ve hung out with jazz musicians. Heck, I’ve even dated them. So it was humbling to realize that I just didn’t understand some fundamental things about how jazz works. Just in case any of you are in the same boat, here’s what I’ve got now:

Jazz pieces consist of a melody and a bunch of chord changes that go under it (yes, that I knew. Bear with me). Jazz standards—you know, the songs you love and can sing along to, like All of Me and Embraceable You and Summertime and so forth—are in a standard key. That key might be changed around to suit a vocalist, or just for brainflexing fun, but in general, if someone says “let’s play Autumn Leaves,” everyone knows what key it’s in and what all the chords are. Yes, the masters can play every song in every key, and there’s lots of educational literature saying that you should learn everything in every key, but finding out, say, that the original key of I Got Rhythm (which gets used for umpteen other tunes) is Bb, felt to me like useful information. So just like, say, Chopin’s etude Op. 10 no. 2 is in the key of a minor, most songs have keys, and most players know what they are. So while some jazz players have a deep understanding of how all the chords relate to each other, just like some classical players do, most of them have learned those chords to that tune. It’s not just that everybody is magically playing by ear all the time.

There are very specific rules about which scales go with which chords (and boy do people argue about them, but so it ever goes). And there are specific chord progressions, namely the ii-V-I (think d minor, G7, C), that show up all the time. And there are specific patterns that work really well over those chord progressions. The point is that a master jazz player will have practiced lots and lots of patterns and have them in his (it’s almost always his, but that’s another story) back pocket. So the improvisation is maybe like cooking on the cooking show where all the prep work has been done off camera, and the chef has everything lined up in little clear bowls: “let’s put some lemon zest in here [pour] , and some basil [pour].” The chef is choosing basil from a bunch of little bowls that have parsley, or oregano, or lemongrass or whatever. Practicing scales and patterns is putting all the chopped up things in the little bowls, so you have them handy (that’s my own metaphor; blame me if it’s confusing). So there are discrete, learnable patterns you can practice, to have a few in your little glass bowls,  that will help you know what to do when it’s your turn to solo.

A definition I really liked was that improvisation is composition sped up.

This explains why I sometimes have had trouble listening intently all the way through a live jazz performance. Composition is hard. Sometimes the muse strikes and sometimes she’s on strike. Just fitting correct notes over the chord, which is no picnic with an outlandish chart, doesn’t necessarily give you much that’s interesting to listen to. So now I know why I sometimes have trouble maintaining my focus when I listen to jazz played by less than master players: to really be inspired, I usually need to hear an interesting structure with lots of contrast. Loud, soft, busy, spacious, fast, slow…if it’s all one sound, even if it’s all the right note choices, I can tune out.

There’s a specific structure to a jazz performance. Everyone plays the tune together, then each person takes turn soloing over the chords, then everybody plays the tune together at the end. Each person will generally play some multiple of the whole “chorus”—that is, all the way through the tune—before handing off to the next player. The rhythm section—piano and/or guitar, bass, and drums—solos last. But everyone, in the main body of the piece, plays the tune all the way through at least once. This means that when there’s that endless drum solo towards the end of a jazz performance, and all the other musicians are standing around onstage nodding like they’re tremendously inspired (though they may be), what they’re really doing is counting the measures of the original tune. Sometimes at the end the drummer will trade a few bars with the players. You’ve heard this. Boppity boppity boppity boppity bam bam da bam bam, toot tooty tooty tooty tooty toot toot. When that happens, they’re still all going through the original tune: the drummer plays bars 1-8, say, then the trumpeter plays 9-16, then the drummer 17-24, then the saxophone 25-32.

That’s obvious, you say? Maybe I’ve just been spectacularly obtuse (wouldn’t be the first time). But it wasn’t until last week’s faculty concerts, with the chart projected to the side of the stage and someone pointing out where we were in the tune, over and over and over, that I realized that the jazz tune really does repeat and repeat and repeat until everyone’s done. The structure is innately repetitive. I hadn’t thought about that before, and no one had explained it to me. It clears up something about why I have sometimes found performances of tunes I love frustrating: I only got to hear the tune at the beginning at the end, and I spent most of the middle wishing someone would just play the darn tune.

This makes me wonder what I’m not explaining to my audiences at my classical concerts because I think it’s obvious. I do often say things like “This piece is in ABA form. It’s shaped like a sandwich: bread, peanut butter in between, slightly different piece of bread on top.” Or “You’ll probably hear a climactic point towards the end, where everything gets fast and loud and complicated. Once you get to that point, listen to how everything really wants to come to a resting point, and see if you get what you want.”  But what am I not telling them? And what am I not telling the people who aren’t coming to my concerts that would make them want to come?

Here’s another thing that was really fun, and really interesting, about the week: thinking obsessively about exactly how notes related to chords and scales. Now, I have some theory geek cred—I can get wonky about Schenker, let’s just say—but it’s easy to let that slide into the background when I’m in the throes of learning a piece. Spending a week trying to understand and play jazz, even at my very rudimentary level, meant that I was constantly thinking about notes as scale degrees and chord members. A chord becomes “3579” or a run becomes “half step below 3, 3, 5, 1, half step below 5, 5, 1, 3, half step below 1, 1, 3, 5.” After a few days of that I took a break and played a few Chopin etudes in the practice room. And suddenly all the compositional choices in the runs were popping out at me. 10/8, for example, starts out with a triad with a passing tone between 3 and 1. This is something I can take from my jazz studies into my classical studies. These etudes are like a solo with someone exhaustingly virtuosic—I find myself wishing for a simple tune. So this morning I took 10/2 and made a chord chart for it. I may or may not find a melody I like that goes with it, but somehow making the chart felt less intense than marking every chord, and it turned the piece into something I can see on a page, and then playing the piece while looking at the chart felt creative and fun in a way that it hasn’t. So here’s my chord chart for Op. 10 no. 2, in case anybody feels like improvising over it:

|A- D-|A- |E7 A-|E7|

|A- D-|A-| E-/B B7| E7|

|A- D-|A- |E7 A-|E7|

|A-D-|A-|Bb/D  E7|F A-|Bb/D A- E7|A- E7 A-|


|C7 F| C7 Db7| D7 G-| D7 Eb7|

|E7 A-| E7 A-| F Bø  E7|Eb Aø D7|

|G- D| F C|Eb Eb7| D|D E|


|A- D-|A- |E7 A-|E7|

|A- D-|A-|Bb/D E7|F A-|

|Bb/D A- E7|A- D-   E7| A- D- E7|A-|D-|A|


When it’s laid out like that, a couple of things become immediately clear (that I knew, but it just shifts the focus a little). For one thing, there’s totally a bridge(the peanut butter in the sandwich part). And look at all those |A- D-|A- |E7 A-|E7|s!

I’m taking the next couple of weeks off Chopin to do another project that I’ll tell you about when it’s done, and also for some much-needed downtime. The podcast will be back in mid-August. Till then, here’s to an enjoyable, productive summer…and thanks for being my practice buddy. Cheers!