As we all know, learning to compose, arrange and orchestrate is an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. For this month’s blog entry I thought I’d share some personal recollections of the ways that I acquired skills and attempted to improve my writing over the years. This is a personal account, a sort of memoir, not an offering any sort of formula or even ideal way to progress. Everyone learns in his or her own way. That said, I hope these reflections may be of interest or of use to some.
1. Listening: Recordings, Concerts and Performing
I’ll start with an observation. Some astonishing music was recorded in 1959. I was eleven years old:
- Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)
- Giant Steps (John Coltrane)
- Mingus Ah Um (Charles Mingus)
- The Shape of Jazz to Come (Ornette Coleman)
- Time Out (Dave Brubeck)
- Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis and Gil Evans – released in 1960)
- Blowin’ the Blues Away (Horace Silver)
- Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans)
- Live at the Half Note (Lee Konitz)
These landmark recordings contained a high percentage of new compositions. There were new ideas, styles, approaches, and they all were, I think I’m safe in saying, game-changers. I imagine I’ve missed one or more of your favourites, so please add to the list by leaving a comment below this blog. It would be interesting to compile a longer list.
Of course, I didn’t listen to most of these recordings until well after 1959. Hey, I was just getting started. My listening drifted chronologically all over the place. For example, I didn’t hear “Live at the Half Note” until about 10 years ago when I went on a Lee Konitz kick. I couldn’t believe how fresh it sounded. I don’t think I listened to ‘Sketches of Spain’ until some time in the mid sixties. It still amazes me how many great recordings happened in the same year.
But it was in 1959 that I first started to pay attention to my father’s jazz LPs. He had a membership in something called the “Columbia Record Club” and at regular intervals (maybe every 2 months) the club would send one or more recordings in the mail. If you weren’t interested, you sent them back. This presents quite a contrast to today’s distribution challenges. The merits of iTunes, Spotify, CD Baby, Rhapsody, Beats, Mog, GooglePlay, Deezer, etc. is a potentially contentious topic. That’s for another blog on another day.
My father’s listening (and, therefore, mine) included ‘classical’ music, Broadway musicals, jazz, marches and all sorts of other things. I still think it is important to study many kinds of music. I learned that it was important to observe ‘forensically’, to analyze and pay close attention!!
One of the jazz albums that I heard very early on was, “Ellington Indigos” (recorded in 1957). The album is available now on CD and on-line, re-mastered and included on “The Complete Ellington Indigos” – and you can still find vinyl copies for sale on line. Here are some stats:
I vividly remember being drawn to Duke’s “Solitude” which is the first ‘cut’1I guess we don’t refer to ‘cuts’ anymore. ☺ on the album.2Much later, it occurred to me that this was a remarkable way for an album to start. Maybe even a little audacious. It was certainly a different type of ‘attention getter’. The arrangement begins with a rubato piano solo (probably improvised). I had absolutely no idea what he was doing, but I liked it…a LOT. So I tried to figure it out through much trial and much error at the piano. As I recall I was pretty hard on the LP, dropping the needle, picking it up and dropping it again. Not always with precision.
Here is a bit of the solo piano intro that I heard:
I was intrigued and decided to search for those sounds on the piano. What I heard (and knew nothing about) was:
- the sound of the half step grind at the bottom of the chords. And not just major 3rds over a pitch a half step down, but also the minor 3rd in measure 4 (That one took a few reps to figure out).
- the harmony above the melody which then beautifully shifted to the soprano voice in m.5.
- that the approach was so economical. Duke moved smoothly to open voicings in m.8.
- the low b9 in bar 9. Of course, I didn’t know that was what it was called.
Of course, there are thousands and thousands of examples of ½ step dissonances and b9 intervals or ‘grinds’ in all sorts of music written long before 1957. But this was my first moment when I paid close attention and realized what it was that I was hearing. I guess I could have started with any record, but this is what I remember hearing very early on.
I did a lot of listening to all sorts of jazz once I caught ‘the bug’. I remember that I fell head over heels for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1964 Carnegie Hall recording. I did try to find some of those sounds on the piano, but what I did more of was SINGING. Particularly the Paul Desmond solos. I can still sing along with that record. I learned a lot about melody from doing that. Sometimes I would figure out a chord by trying to arpeggiate (with my voice and the piano). I followed this routine with other recordings. I can still ‘sing’ many of George Coleman’s solos on the Miles Davis 1964 pair of records, “My Funny Valentine” and “Four and More” (Columbia).
Another big band album I listened to a lot back then was, “Li’l Old Groovemaker” by the Basie band with all the charts written by Quincy Jones. One memory is that cut 1, side 2 was “Nasty Magnus” which was great for learning one way to build excitement. The seemingly endless repetition of one idea behind the tenor solo worked wonders. Like you, I heard lots of Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Marty Paitch and on and on. And I was lucky, growing up in Canada, to be able to hear Nimmons ‘N’ Nine on weekly radio show on CBC Radio. Phil Nimmons is one of our (Canadian) great musical treasures.
Apart from recordings and radio, hearing the music played live for the first time was a profound experience. In the late sixties I recall hearing small groups including Mongo Santamaria, and the Miles Davis band with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette. And then the big bands of Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Maynard Ferguson all came to Toronto. Listening to these large groups and hearing the orchestrations live helped me take more steps forward.
Another big step forward came from playing with other musicians, which allowed me to hear the sounds in yet another way. Checking out the music from that perspective was yet another ear opener. It really improved my ability to be able to hear combinations of instruments, the sound of various trumpet and trombone mutes, and so on when I was writing at a desk or piano.
Gradually I started transcribing. Simple things at first and then more complicated things.
I have a clear memory of hearing for the first time the iconic “Blues and the Abstract Truth” by Oliver Nelson3Impulse! Recording. Engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. One early revelation was figuring out that in “Butch and Butch” the trumpet and saxophone go from playing in unison to parallel major 2nds. Definitely a wow moment. The melodies on the album were full of interesting intervals. And the music swung like crazy!
Transcribing jazz orchestra charts came later for me – out of necessity. I taught in a high school for 6 years in the 1970s and while there were some great Thad Jones charts in print and Kendor was also publishing Sammy Nestico but those were few and far between. (I recall that Gil Evans’ “Maids of Cadiz” was published, but it was an exception to the rule. At that time I had very motivated students and I wanted them to have the experience of playing good music. So I started lifting, among others: “Tones for Joan’s Bones” (Chick Corea, arr. Duke Pearson), “La Fiesta” (Chick Corea, arr. Tony Klatka),4it was eventually published so I could check for accuracy. “In A Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington, arr. Bill Holman). “The Quintessence” (Quincy Jones), “Evening in Paris” (Quincy Jones), “Round Midnight” (Monk, arr. Marty Paitch) – those last three were alto saxophone features and I had a killer alto player in my high school band so, the mother of invention is necessity, right?
Regarding transcribing Quincy Jones’ “The Quintessence”, which featured Phil Woods. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder in those days. And I used it a lot. Those machines had three speeds: 7 ½, 3 ¾, and 1 7/8ths. The high speed was good for hearing roots and bass lines, and of course the slowest speed was great for slowing down fast tempos. Music recorded at 3 ¾ would sound normal, 7 ½ would be twice as fast and an octave higher and 1 7/8 was an octave lower than normal. Somehow, either the turntable I used to play the original into the tape recorder, or the tape machine itself, were out of whack. And the music I heard was in Gb major. So I lifted what I heard and had my high school band and later on a college band I directed play it in that key. It was later that I realized the tape recorder hadn’t been calibrated properly (I guess) and played back the recording up a ½ step. Once I realized my mistake, I changed it to the correct key of F major. Lesson learned (but no longer relevant) was to check several sources for accuracy.
3. Studying Arranging and Composing Texts
I picked up techniques from various books over the years. For my 16th birthday, my parents gave me a copy of “Sounds and Scores” by Henry Mancini. It came with small vinyl discs containing recordings of many of the examples in the text. I remember I learned a lot from that one. Everything from laying out a score to rather advanced orchestration. Hank loved those alto flutes, didn’t he? Another gift when I went to university was William Russo’s “Composing Music”. Over the years there have been many books I’ve found very useful and inspiring. In no particular order, texts by these authors have been valuable: Russ Garcia, Don Sebesky, Sammy Nestico, Simon Adler, Bill Dobbins, Gary Lindsay, Richard Sussman and Michael Abene, Jim McNeely, Mike Tomaro, Nelson Riddle, Ted Pease, and more.
In 1966 I was a first year music major at the University of Toronto. The courses were challenging and I learned a lot, but I really wanted to study jazz arranging and composition and, in those days, you lowered your voice when you said “jazz” in those hallowed halls. (At that time they didn’t admit saxophone majors – you had to play clarinet instead).
So I began private studies in theory, counterpoint, arranging and composition with Gordon Delamont who was the go-to guy at that time in Toronto. Among his students were Rob McConnell and Ron Collier, and many others. He had five texts published by Kendor which I believe are still available.5I think they stand up fairly well these many years later, but while still full of great information the arranging text could use an update. Subsequently I was also fortunate to have instruction from Ted Pease, Walter Buczinski, John Beckwith and one fabulous 4-hour session with Jim McNeely. Grabbing a lesson or series of lessons with someone whose music you love is highly recommended.
4. Score Study
I’m a score junkie. I have found score study to be extremely valuable throughout my musical life. I was fortunate to lead big bands in college and university for nearly 40 years and so I saw a lot of full scores. Learning to read transposed scores was a skill I acquired a bit later than some. When I transcribed I got in the habit of writing in concert pitch. But it is clear to me that learning to read transposed scores is essential. Most published scores are transposed. Many writers prefer to write transposed scores.
Nowadays you can find published scores by a many great jazz arrangers and composers for performance and study.6For example, I recently discovered a link where you can find out lots about Gil Evans’ “My Ship” arrangement. Go to: http://jazzarrangingclass.com/gil-evans-arrangement-of-my-ship-w-transcription. It is wonderful to see the music preserved and published.
I continue to collect scores. I’ve obtained scores directly from composers like Jim McNeely, Mike Holober, Asuka Takitani, Chuck Owen and Fred Stride and through ArtistShare I’ve purchased scores by Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer. E-Jazz Lines, Sierra Music and others provide other great resources.7An aside: the late, great Canadian arranger, Rob McConnell donated all his original Boss Brass paper and pencil scores to the Music Library at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. They aren’t in regular circulation, but if trying to track down something of Rob’s you could try contacting that library for more information. http://library.music.utoronto.ca
For ANY public domain ‘classical’ music score, visit http://imslp.org. You may do what I did and purchase a membership. You can download pdf files to study off-line. No copyright infringement.
Speaking of possible copyright infringement, it appears that there are hundreds of recordings on YouTube with video of the scores sync’d to the audio. That said, I understand there are new efforts underway to improve the tracking of streaming on YouTube, SoundCloud and other sites so that music creators get paid when their music is played. Check out http://www.audiam.com for one service I just heard about.
A more recent discovery is that you can view a great number of scores that have been performed by the New York Philharmonic. They are in the Leon Levy Digital Archives. The scores are images of the complete scores complete with pencilled annotations and other markings by whoever was conducting at the time the score was archived. It’s a bit of history I find very interesting. And there are many scores still under copyright. You can’t download, but you can study them on your computer display. One example: I found Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” there.
5. Write, Hear, Edit, Hear, Write, Edit…
I’ve learned a great deal of what I know about writing from actually doing it. And, even more important, hearing the music performed by musicians. MIDI is okay in a limited way, but hearing live musicians interpret your music is invaluable. I’ve also learned a lot by listening to players’ advice and feedback about playability of my music. For example, I learned how to greatly improve my drum parts by listening to various drummers’ advice (don’t overwrite, consider the page turns, etc.).
One final anecdote: In 1971, I had my final lesson with Gord Delamont and he gave me a present to commemorate our time together. It was an oversized eraser. The perfect gift. I’m still learning and relearning to use it…often.
I never anticipated writing an article for this blog, but I guess it was inevitable that a month would come along when my invitations to others to contribute would not bear fruit. Many who have been invited have written to say they were interested but that they were in the middle of a project or busy in other ways and, could they write later. This is great news. Composers and arrangers (and all musicians) should be busy (and hopefully, remunerated handsomely).
If you have suggestions or comments about this or any of the other articles, please contact me at: email@example.com or post a comment below.
Sincere thanks to those who have contributed one or more articles to date: John La Barbera (2), Adam Benjamin, David Berger, Rick Lawn (2), Bill Dobbins and Florian Ross. Their knowledge, insights and music have been informative and inspiring.
About the Author:
PAUL READ (pianist, composer, arranger) lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Currently he curates the blog for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. He was a member of the Humber College Music Faculty in Toronto from 1979 to 1991, Program Coordinator there from 1982 to 1987, and Director of Music from 1987 to 1991. In 1991, he founded degree programs in jazz studies at the University of Toronto (Mus. Bac., M. Mus. and DMA) where he was Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies and following that, Director of Graduate Jazz Studies. He was Canada’s Representative on the Board of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2002-2008, and was the founding Director of the National Music Camp (NMC) Jazz Camp (1987 to 2006). He has also taught in the summers at the Ken Kistner Jazz Camp (Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan) and the jazz faculty of the Prairielands Jazz Camp (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is now retired from education.
The Dance Never Ends – with Trish Colter (1998, At Long Last Love – Trish Colter (2002), The Heart of Summer – Paul Read Quartet featuring Scott Robinson. (2004) Now available on CD Baby, and Arc-en-ciel Addo Records – Paul Read Orchestra (2013) Now available on CD Baby.
2015 Muriel Sherrin Award for International Achievement in Music (Toronto Arts Foundation), 2008 Paul Read Orchestra (PRO) nominated for a Canadian National Jazz Award, 2007-2008 Awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Recording Grant, 1993 Awarded the University of Toronto Senior Alumni Award for Innovation in Teaching and finally, 1972 Winner of the Rob McConnell/Gordon Delamont Arranging & Composition Award.
Paul’s Website: www.paulread.ca
|↑1||I guess we don’t refer to ‘cuts’ anymore. ☺|
|↑2||Much later, it occurred to me that this was a remarkable way for an album to start. Maybe even a little audacious. It was certainly a different type of ‘attention getter’.|
|↑3||Impulse! Recording. Engineered by Rudy Van Gelder|
|↑4||it was eventually published so I could check for accuracy.|
|↑5||I think they stand up fairly well these many years later, but while still full of great information the arranging text could use an update.|
|↑6||For example, I recently discovered a link where you can find out lots about Gil Evans’ “My Ship” arrangement. Go to: http://jazzarrangingclass.com/gil-evans-arrangement-of-my-ship-w-transcription.|
|↑7||An aside: the late, great Canadian arranger, Rob McConnell donated all his original Boss Brass paper and pencil scores to the Music Library at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. They aren’t in regular circulation, but if trying to track down something of Rob’s you could try contacting that library for more information. http://library.music.utoronto.ca|