Adam Benjamin on Jazz Composition

Greetings Earthlings! This is my first blog post for ISJAC. It is an informal essay on "jazz composition". I'll try to be clear and make some useful points. Future posts will include some specific methods and techniques to try.

"Jazz composition" is a slippery term. There is lots of disagreement about "jazz" and what is "jazz" and what is not "jazz". Many complex and important questions reside in and around these debates, and I would love to discuss them with you in the future. However, for the purposes of this informal essay, my answer to such questions is "Meh." By which I mean, let's not worry about what we're calling things and who thinks you're Jazz and who thinks you're not. Let's disregard all that for the moment.

PART ONE: Here's one thing I know for sure

Here's one thing I know for sure, is that to do something well, you have to actually do it. Preferably you have to do it many, many times. So all of that THINKING about compositions and TALKING about compositions and STARTING compositions is all well and good, but in order to write some decent music you're going to have to write a lot of pieces / tunes / songs / jams / beats. Every time you write a piece / tune / song / jam / beat, COMPLETE THE CYCLE. Here's how:

  1. make the complete thing
  2. bring it to the World
  3. hear it back and live with it
  4. edit as necessary
  5. DONE now start a NEW CYCLE!

So, if you're writing Hot Jazz Tune, this would mean:

  1. write a complete piece
  2. bring it in to your Hot Jazz Combo
  3. hear them play it, record it, play it at a few gigs, etc
  4. make some tweaks if it needs it
  5. DONE now write a NEW HOT JAZZ TUNE!

Or, if you're writing Sick Beatz for Partiez this would mean:

  1. make a complete piece
  2. release it on the internet, play it at shows, have a sick MC spit over it, etc
  3. see if you like it, if it makes people dance, if it gets the human you have a crush on to comment on it, etc
  4. make some tweaks if it needs it
  5. DONE now make NEW SICK BEATZ!

The whole point is, don't spend too much time and thought and stress over any one thing you create. Just give it to the world and move on. Don't get stuck trying to make a masterpiece. Everybody writes some crappy things. Creating a lot of things is the only way to make sure that some of them are not crappy. As you create more and more things, completing the cycle more and more times, you make less crappy things, more good things, and possibly ... possibly even a great thing. But you cannot force this, it comes only when you have completed many cycles, with mixed results. This means being TOUGH, so that when something sucks, you don't feel awful, but it also means being SENSITIVE, so that you can write music that make people feel things. TOUGH but SENSITIVE, that's the way.

PART TWO : Here are two kinds of Jazz Composition

"Jazz Composition" can be a bazillion things. Today I'm going to talk about two different kinds of Jazz Composition. (There's a bazillion minus two kinds that I'm not going to talk about today.)

Jazz Composition Kind One : You have an awesome Band. You write for the particular people and particular sounds and particular personalities of that Band. For example, I write songs for my awesome band Kneebody. I specifically write things that they will sound awesome playing, and that makes them feel good, which in turn makes me feel good. I try to make it fun for them, comfortable in some ways and challenging in some ways. I think about what will fit in our setlists with the songs we're already playing, and what will fit the venues we're playing and the bands we're playing with. I try to write something that propels our band forward and nudges our music in a more Now direction, a more Us direction, a more Real direction, a more Human direction, a more Imaginative direction, a more Mature direction, a more Yeah direction. We put no limits on ourselves and write music that is as detailed and complex and through-composed as we want. We don't think about what kind of music it is.

LESSON: You don't want to have a band exactly like my band (trust me), but you want to do something like this, you want to have a situation with this much trust and rapport, because it will help you grow as a composer (and as a person). This situation will not always be there in your life, but you must make it be there sometimes. You must.
Clue: try making the primary concern finding people that you want to spend time with, rather than just finding the Cats who are most Killing.
Clue #2: In Kneebody we learn all the music BY EAR. That's worth repeating -- We learn all the music BY EAR. We initially encounter all the music as sounds and feelings and we work in that realm. (Disclaimer: we all went to school and read music well, but just choose to work this way in this project.) It helps us form personal connections with the music, and to retain and evolve the music over a period of years. This process may or may not work for you, but find a process that is uniquely yours. Plus, do you really want to bring music stands to every gig ever?

Jazz Composition Kind Two : You have Gig with some Cats who are Totally Killing. You write songs for this group of people that may or may not play together again, and you want to play the songs at next Gig with some different Cats who are also Totally Killing. You have maybe one rehearsal or maybe zero rehearsals before said Gig.

LESSON: In this situation, you must write differently than in Jazz Composition Kind One. You must write music that is more flexible, and does not depend on particular players to succeed. You must write music that is suited to the playing abilities, and reading abilities, of the current and future musicians that will play this music. What can be executed successfully after one, or zero, rehearsals? (If you're feeling skeptical about this scenario, think of almost all the great jazz music ever made.) You must distill the uniqueness of your ideas into their clearest forms, which is a very, very important thing to do. (Try it when you are talking as well.)
LESSON ALSO: Even though you think it will not sound Killing if you write something that is Jive, do not be afraid to write simply. That's worth repeating -- DO NOT BE AFRAID TO WRITE SIMPLY. Simple music makes musicians play better and improvise better because they're not spending 90% of their brainpower trying to play the material correctly. Yes, master musicians can play ultra-complex music flawlessly with one or zero rehearsals and improvise creatively. But these Cats on your Gig, they may be Killing but are they master musicians? Right.
LESSON ALSO ALSO: Also, when I say write simply, I don't just mean the music, I mean the CHART. In this musical scenario, the CHART is the Ur-document, the holy text of the moment. A very common mistake I see is that even when Composer writes a Simple Tune (Yeah man) the chart is confusing and byzantine (Not Yeah man). Sometimes you won't even be there and CHART is the only communication connecting you with the performers. In a very literal way, CHART *IS* the composition. You must communicate the essence of the piece with CHART, using great detail when necessary but never, ever more detail than necessary. If you are there, you can Talk Down CHART before playing it at Gig, but you should say either zero, one or two sentences. Anything more than that people will forget. Remember, these are improvisers. All you have to do is not get in their way.

In conclusion, don't be a drag. People are going to be playing your music and it's going to sound great or terrible or Meh and they will probably play some things wrong. It definitely won't sound like it did in your head. You will be feeling stressed and feeling judged. Eventually (after many times COMPLETING THE CYCLE) you won't feel stressed or judged, but for now you do. Don't take this out on the people around you. They're just trying to play your music or have a successful night at Venue or eat dinner or whatever. You, and they, are doing this for Joy and Feelings, so just let go of all the stress. Nothing can go wrong. If your song sounds terrible the world does not blow up. You still have to drive home later. Music is amazing because it can be such a vehicle for Joy and Feelings and Understanding and Bonding but when it sucks NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. We are not surgeons. You are free to experiment and no one will die. If someone dies at your gig, it's not your fault. It was just their time.

About the Author:

Adam Benjamin
Adam Benjamin is a Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, composer and educator. He is a founding member of the band Kneebody and is the director of the Program for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recognized as a “Rising Star in Jazz” in Downbeat magazine’s critic’s and reader’s polls for seven years running, his unmistakable sound crosses stylistic boundaries and challenges traditional notions of jazz. Adam maintains a humble and humorous approach that connects him with his audiences worldwide.

You can stay up to date with Kneebody at kneebody.com.

  • Austin Biel

    Super great writing – thanks for bringing this to the world, bro!

    By the way, your website seems to be down…(adambenjamin.net)