Jazz Professional               


Swing for Beginners (Part Three)

Getting this band to swing is like trying to row the Queen Mary up a canal filled with Mars bars. Phil Seamen


Tip: Once you have the Examples on your screen you can toggle quickly between text and examples with Backspace or Shift+Backspace


In the first two parts on this subject I have attempted to unlock some of the mysteries of jazz phrasing for the uninitiated.

Various styles have been used in the past by jazz composers in an attempt to make classical musicians swing. Mostly they have failed. Classical players, as a general rule, are not stompers. Conversely: Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto had to be rewritten because the members of the Woody Herman orchestra, whom he much admired, could not read his idea of jazz phrasing.

Regardless of the difference in notation, there should be no doubt in the reader’s mind as to the writer’s intentions. But jazz writing can, and should be, more simplified. It needs to be precise, yet leave more room for expression.

Some composers add a little note at the top of the page in an attempt to clarify the phrasing. Generally, though, the type of music will tell you how to phrase: even eighths in Latin American and rock numbers, jazz eighths in jazz, bebop and dance music. With Kenton charts it all depends on the vintage, with Eager Beaver on jazz eighths and Young Blood strictly even.

I’ve already shown you how jazz phrasing must be adapted to tempo variations. To pin the player down to exact notation in the classical sense is unnecessary and counter–productive. Big band jazz phrasing has been simplified and standardised, and you use it whether you are playing in the best band in the world, or the worst.

Leave the explanations and arguments for the learning period: when the chips are down it’s what comes out of the horn that matters. If it’s wrong, then man—you are out.

Let me tell you why all this is so important.

The studio musician, the so–called sessioneer, works under severe time restrictions. He must be in and out of one recording studio within so many hours, and straight on to the next one. There is no room for error: a quick check for wrong notes, the number gets recorded and we’re already looking at the next piece. This requires fierce concentration from everyone. In the past a mistake from any member of an orchestra of up to 90 musicians could scrap the take. Today multi–track techniques allow individual part dubbing, but this often involves overtime, and costs money. Here’s an example of that.

A while back I was called into a studio, literally yanked out of bed, to repair something that had been done badly the previous day. It was a big band LP with twelve titles for a well–known vocalist. The entire trumpet section had to be recorded again. I sat in the completely deserted studio wearing earphones and dubbed in the whole lot, 48 parts in all.

To avoid being distracted by other instruments I listened only to the drum track. I didn’t even want to hear the other trumpet tracks I was dubbing on one by one. Yet the recording went like clockwork. We sailed through the stuff. Why was that? It was because the music had been properly written by a jazz composer for jazz musicians to play. On the previous day the members of the trumpet section had not been jazz players. Each had had his own conception of how to phrase the music, with results that were far from satisfactory.

Take a look at Example 1. This gives a good idea of the kind of jazz writing they were up against, and is typical of the writing throughout the twelve titles.

The rhythm was a steady rock of the kind typical of the old Earth, Wind and Fire recordings. In the passage shown I slipped in the octave bit on yet another over–dub. Of course the trumpets didn’t have to play all the time, so we punched in and out of each passage, dubbing all four parts in as we went along. The whole remake took less than two hours. The result was glorious—me 48 times! And at four times the money! Such mistakes can cost record producers dearly.

If the passage had been written throughout in either of the ways mentioned above it would, no doubt, have been academically correct, but unreadable. Imagine what would happen if a jazz orchestra were confronted with something like Example 2. Chaos would ensue, and that’s exactly what happened with the first version of Ebony Concerto. On the other hand: Example 1 is simplicity itself. The markings above the notes are enough to tell the jazz player all he needs to know.

Examples 2 and 3 are, of course, absurd, and demonstrate the mess you get into when a certain kind of phrasing is dogmatically utilised throughout. I’ve encountered that kind of thing often enough. But if the player becomes bogged down and irritated when he has to sight read stuff like that, why write that kind of phrasing at all? Good question. Let somebody else answer it.

As I am in a kind mood I’ve taken pity on those of you still struggling to figure out the original in Example 1. Example 4 tells all. The trumpets now read and play at a virtual double tempo, while the rhythm section remains in the actual slow 4. The dotted bar line in the centre of each double tempo bar represents the third beat of the actual slow 4 bar of the rhythm section. When the virtual double tempo feeling is no longer necessary then the trumpets revert to the slow 4, as seen in bar 13. In practice the time and tempo markings are generally omitted, but I’ve included them to help you understand the process.

Many jazz composers use this method to simplify complex phrasing. Strange as it may seem: it is easy to grasp and enormously effective. Mark well what I am telling you. As a professional musician you are expected to be able to play anything at sight. Be prepared. One day soon somebody is going to plonk down a piece of music like Example 1 before you and you will now be able to sail through it with the greatest of ease.