Artist Blog

Bob Washut: Jazz Composition and the Creative Process

Note: A couple of years ago I was invited to make a presentation to the Twin Cities Jazz Composers Workshop. The following is a distillation of that presentation.

I’ve long been fascinated by the creative process, particularly through my work as a jazz composer and arranger. Along the way I’ve discovered several books that have helped me gain some insight into this mysterious realm: The Courage to Create (Rollo May), Free Play (Stephen Nachmanovich), Jazz Composition: The Creative Process (Ron Miller), The Jazz Composer’s Companion (Gil Goldstein), Bob Brookmeyer in Conversation with Dave Rivello, (Rivello) and The Jazz Composer (Graham Collier). In addition, interviews with several diverse, creative artists can be found at These reveal some unique and interesting approaches to creative work, as well as some of the fears, obstacles, and struggles familiar to many of us.

Although it may seem obvious, it’s important to realize – and perhaps be consoled by – the notion that we all work differently. The second half of Goldstein’s book provides a window into the varied ways in which several notable jazz composers have gone about their work. One aspect common to most is motivation. Motivation plays a big part in the creative process, and we are all motivated by different things. Some of us need a project (band, recording, commission, etc.) while others can compose in a vacuum (writing for no reason other than the need to create or express). Some of us are disciplined (e.g., composing for two hours every day) while others tend to procrastinate. Some of us can write anywhere, any time; others need a dedicated space and require certain conditions to be in place. Regardless, I think we can all agree that a deadline can be an important means of motivation. As Ellington famously stated, “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.”

Philosophy is perhaps another factor to consider: What is jazz composition after all? How much should be notated? How much is about accommodating the improviser(s)? Collier’s book challenges many conventional notions of jazz composition, stressing the importance of “moving the music off the paper.” (Moreover, his Interaction: Opening Up the Jazz Ensemble disputes the prevalent view of jazz improvisation: the primacy of the solo, vs. textural and/or structural improvisational alternatives.) Although we jazz composers should probably try to figure out where we feel the most comfortable on the continuum of notation vs. improvisation, these types of decisions might very well be determined in advance by prescribed parameters beyond our control.

The creative process can be initiated and nurtured by several means, as inspiration visits us in myriad ways. When the muse doesn’t magically appear, there are ways to seduce it:

  • Find inspiration from extra-musical sources (books, poetry, paintings, events, personal experiences, etc.).
  • When starting to work, impose limits and parameters: infinite possibilities can overwhelm us and create paralysis. (Nachmanovich)
  • Start by improvising or “noodling” on the piano or your instrument. (Joe Zawinul once stated in a DownBeat article that his compositions are essentially transcribed improvisations.) Then archive these musical ideas in a notebook or cell phone recorder, for immediate or later use.
  • Once a musical idea has been hatched, take inventory of its melodic and rhythmic motives (intervallic content, shapes, patterns, etc.). Mining these raw materials yields developmental potential.
  • Employ various compositional exercises to explore and extract possibilities. (Goldstein/Rivello)

Miller describes two fundamental approaches once a basic idea is conceived (or perhaps even before): 1) an intuitive approach (when we’re lucky enough to achieve a Zen-like flow); and 2) a pre-planned or systematic approach (when the muse is coy or diffident). Clearly a combination of the two can be equally effective. In addition, some initial planning (formal blueprints and graphs) can also help provide compositional goals and direction. Just remember that these aren’t carved in stone – they can be modified or discarded along the way as needed. Lastly, establishing a goal or premise can help get the juices flowing: what am I trying to do here? (my composition’s raison d’etre); what is my intended emotional effect? Once the composition gets underway, creativity is stimulated by working with the raw materials mentioned above. Possibilities begin to suggest themselves. This is not to say that problems and obstacles won’t arise; that’s part of the process. But with courage, determination, and discipline we’re able to work through them until solutions avail themselves, often rising from our sub-conscious minds (May). Rather than exploring these concepts and ideas in depth, and because my readers are likely to be jazz composers, I’d like to share a recent creative journey of my own.

The Ring of Gyges

I received a commission to compose an original piece for a college jazz ensemble. I was given a firm deadline, with three months to complete the composition. Many parameters were established in advance by the director. He wanted me to give the horn players some stuff to “chew on” but also wanted to feature his three strongest soloists (alto/soprano, trombone, and drums). Thus, composition and improvisation were to be fairly balanced.

After having been given a list of restrictions and limitations in advance (including ranges, available doubles, attributes of the featured soloists, and preferred rhythmic style), I began my creative endeavor with these basic goals and objectives:

  • Tailor the piece to the strengths and weaknesses of the band.
  • Be practical: create “user-friendly” improvisation sections along with challenging, but playable ensemble parts.
  • Establish macro-parameters: use an even-eighth rhythmic feel (pre-determined), find a comfortable key and moderate tempo, and create a melancholy, but tuneful vibe.
  • Construct a relatively extended overall form. (I wrote a vague, formal graph with a ternary – ABA – macro-form. The climax would be in the B section and would involve the trombone soloist and drummer.)
  • Establish micro parameters: use both modal and freely/functional tonal sections, incorporate odd meter, and make sure the melody has strong, identifiable melodic and rhythmic motives.

My Initial inspiration was a 7/8 piano vamp that I discovered by “noodling”:


This generated a modal, diatonic chord sequence: D-7 (aeolian), BbM7 (lydian), D-7 (aeolian), and G-7 (dorian), that later served as the basis for the soprano solo in the A section. I created a plaintive melody over this 16-bar sequence with strong melodic and rhythmic motives (Theme 1):

To this I added a 12-bar (tonal) contrasting (‘b’) section:


In essence I ended up creating a “tune” (ab1ab2) as a point of departure. In so doing, I wanted to make sure to disguise and deviate from this quasi-song form structure during the course of the piece. To this end I planned to create different “blowing” contexts for the horn soloists, as opposed to the hackneyed “head-solos-head” format. To help achieve a sense of continuity I inventoried the intervals in (and rhythm of) the basic head motive, notating inversions, transpositions, and retrogrades in my sketchbook for use in counter lines and background figures. Orchestrating the “tune” using a variety of textures and colors, I tried to maintain a light, transparent quality throughout.

I didn’t set any daily goals, as I had to work constantly to meet the deadline. (I had procrastinated, and Duke’s words rang true!) As is typical with me, I beat myself up a lot during this process: “You call yourself a composer? Is this really the best you’ve got? You suck!” The inner critic was raging: “Dude, you’re plagiarizing yourself! Don’t you have more imagination than THAT?” Then I tried to step back from the piece and find a Zen-like objectivity. I put myself in the role of the listener. I asked my wife to listen to it, to gain an external perspective. This helped, at least to some extent.

After further rumination I felt I needed to better establish the vibe of the piece from the outset, before introducing the 7/8 vamp. Thus, I decided to compose a soft, short, tonal brass chorale utilizing the melodic motive from the ‘b’ section – an introduction, if you will:


I should note that Brookmeyer viewed intros and outros as obscene (Rivello). Ok, then I’m obscene. Regardless, I was able to extract a two-chord sequence from the chorale (DbM7-Bb/D in bar 2) to create a transitional section (described below).

I decided to follow the intro and “tune” with the soprano solo section, a vamp based on the four modal chords of the tune’s ‘a’ section. It’s in 4/4 and starts with an open feel, to release the tension of the preceding 7/8 groove (and to make it a little easier to blow over). The solo vamp gradually establishes a groove, after which I wrote a background (“solo enhancement”) section to help the soloist build to a climax. Here I used permutations of the main motive mentioned above to create unity and cohesion. I also interpolated a measure of 7/8 every four bars, as a reminder of from whence we came:

To wrap up the soprano solo I reintroduced the ‘b’ section, albeit it slightly altered. Thus, I was able to deviate from the strophic (chorus) nature of the ab1ab2 form by dissecting and reassembling it.


So NOW WHAT? I’m stuck. Where do I go from here? (Just when I was starting to feel better about myself!) I knew I wanted to transition to a contrasting (B) section, and I thought the drummer could help me get there. I devised a rhythmic figure derived from the main rhythmic motive, three 8ths + one 8th (or dotted quarter-eighth), and extracted the two-chord sequence from the chorale introduction:

To this figure the drummer adds a double-quarter note figure in the bass drum. This foreshadows and establishes the rhythmic character of the ensuing groove of the (B) section:


The transition eventually features the drummer and builds gradually into a loud, “quasi-metal” rock section, diametrically opposed to the character of the first section (A). Based on a vamp of “power chords” (vaguely related to the previous sequence of D-7/BbM7/D-7/G-7), this new section features prominently the double-quarter note figure in the preceding bass drum pattern:

To this I added a 2nd theme with a bluesy, raucous character:


As previously mentioned, my plan was to establish a new, accessible blowing structure for the trombone soloist. Hence, after a few modifications, the trombonist blows on this open vamp, until layered backgrounds are cued. These backgrounds are derived from the motivic structure of Theme 2.


This eventually culminates in the apex of the chart, which I had vaguely planned in my initial formal graph. Wanting to return to the first theme, I got there via another short transition based on the dotted quarter-eighth rhythm (augmented in bars 4-8 below):


I decided to tweak the recap by scoring it in a more transparent manner and by gradually reestablishing the 7/8 groove. This was another attempt to disguise the strophic character of the “tune.”  (The listener will have heard this before but not in the exact same way.) Eventually the first section returns in its original form and progresses to closure.

To conclude the piece, I extended the ‘b2section by creating a final cadence derived from the introductory chorale:

Those interested in hearing a complete recording of the piece can click the link below:

Listen to The Ring of Gyges on YouTube


You might be wondering from where the title comes. (I thought you’d never ask.) I was strapped for a title, but while writing the piece I was also wrapping up a book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind. It’s a fascinating account of moral psychology. In it he mentions a discussion between Glaucon (Plato’s brother) and Socrates. In support of his argument that humans behave differently if no one else is watching or sees us (i.e., our reputation governs our actions), Glaucon cites the ancient myth of The Ring of Gyges. Click below for a synopsis to see if you can decipher my intended connection:


About the Author:

Robert Washut is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa where he retired in 2018. He served as Director of Jazz Studies from 1980-2002. An accomplished jazz composer and arranger, Washut has received numerous commissions from collegiate and high school jazz ensembles, professional jazz artists, and symphony orchestras. Many of his works are published by iJazzMusicKendor Music, UNC Jazz Press, ejazzlines, C.L. Barnhouse, Lorenz, Sierra Music, 3-2 Music, and Really Good Music. Washut also has served as jazz composer-in-residence at several universities around the country.

During his 22 years as director of the award-winning UNI Jazz Band One, Washut recorded eleven CDs (two of which earned 5-star ratings from DownBeat magazine), toured Europe three times, consistently received “Outstanding Band” recognition at collegiate jazz festivals throughout the Midwest, and was awarded three “Outstanding Performance” citations in DownBeat’s Annual Student Music Awards.

Dr. Washut is in demand as a clinician and adjudicator nationally, and has conducted all-state jazz bands in 16 states. He is also a jazz pianist who founded the locally popular Latin jazz band, Orquesta Alto Maiz, in 1986, with which he remained for 27 years. His newest recording, Journey to Knowhere, was released in 2018 and features his original compositions for jazz dodectet. In 2000, he was a composer/arranger for Bobby Shew’s Salsa Caliente recording. Washut also recorded a jazz duo CD (with Chris Merz) entitled Gemini, in 2007, and a jazz trio CD (with Mark Urness & Kevin Hart) entitled Songbook, in 1999. With Orquesta Alto Maiz, he recorded 10 CDs and performed nationally and internationally. In 2013 Washut was inducted into the Des Moines Hall of Fame and the Iowa IAJE Hall of Fame in 2003. At UNI he was the recipient of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Orfeus award in 2018, the recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award in 2015, and the College of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences Dean’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship, Research, and Creative Activity in 2014. He received the Outstanding Teaching Award in 1996. In 2019, Washut was bestowed with the Iowa Bandmaster Association’s Honorary Lifetime Membership.


Cover photo by: Colby Campbell