Artist Blog

Mike Conrad: Approaching a Multi-Movement Jazz Work

For a long time I have been fascinated by the various approaches to long-form jazz composition. I love the creative possibilities sparked by a “big idea” that is broken down into multiple parts. The individual pieces can often function like chapters in a story, creating a linear narrative. In other cases, they can serve as vignettes – pieces that could stand alone, but usually are tied together by some unifying theme. Among the most obvious and best examples that immediately come to mind are the suites composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

I am going to share my approach to the conception and construction of my Fertile Soil Suite, written for the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra.

The idea for the suite came about after I had accepted a job at the University of Northern Iowa, and I found myself settling back in my home state. I began to reflect on what makes this place feel the way it does – what are the things that make it unique? What makes it feel like home?

Before writing a single note, here were some of my goals:

  • To work with themes that will be relatable for Iowans (and understandable/interesting to non-Iowans as well) while also expressing some of my personal thoughts and feelings about this place
  • For each piece to have a distinct vibe, resulting in some variety in terms of style, tempo, etc.
  • To feature the unique musical personalities of the individual players in the group, creating environments in which they can thrive and express themselves

What emerged was a four-part suite, with the following titles/inspirations:

  1. Battleground – Inspired by Iowa’s unique position as the first state to caucus in the U.S. Presidential primary season, and all of the chaos and tension that comes with that
  2. Ioway – Created with themes taken from field recordings of Native American Siouxan people
  3. Hog Heaven – Playing on the fact that nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa
  4. Flyover – Exploring feelings associated with often being overlooked, ignored, or underestimated as a state in the middle of the country

Rather than attempting to give a measure-by-measure breakdown of the entire suite, I’ll highlight some of the most prominent features of each part, sharing the elements I used to try to give each piece its character.

Part I: Battleground

Hear me talk about the vibe I was aiming to capture with “Battleground”:


Elements of tension

  • Harmony/Modality
    • The primary harmony in this piece is a Maj7(#5) chord a half-step above the bass note, which relates to the 2nd mode of melodic minor (I refer to it as Phrygian nat. 6). The combination of the lowered 2nd and the raised 6th creates an unsettling coexistence of dark and bright, which I believe suits the character of the piece.

Ex. 1: Harmony/Modality, “Battleground”

    • I explored the general idea of stretching toward a breaking point, almost like a rubber band, using contrary motion between the outer voices to create the feeling of something pulling apart.

Ex. 2: Contrary Motion; “Battleground,” mm. 97-110


Ex. 3: Contrary Motion; “Battleground,” mm. 157-172


    • I also employed what could be described as “special effects” to heighten the feelings of tension and chaos throughout the piece.
      • Overlapping trombone glisses – see mm. 9-12, 21-24, etc.
      • Half-step clusters – see mm. 89-96, etc.
      • Trills/tremelos – see mm. 14-16 (trumpets), mm. 30-32 (saxes), etc.
      • Collective improvisation – see mm. 51-56, 181-184, 220-224

Fans of Maria Schneider’s music will notice some similarities to one of her well-known pieces from Evanescence (the bari sax in unison with the bass at the beginning, some of the dissonant effects, slash chords, etc.) – hopefully not too similar to the point of feeling derivative, because that was certainly not what I was going for!

The relatively fast tempo, and the indication in the solo section to play “Angy New York Jazz,” also contribute to the white-knuckle feeling of the piece.

Together, I think all of these elements make a piece that communicates the vibe I was trying to create. “Battleground” serves as an energetic (and perhaps unexpected, seemingly un-Iowan?) opener to the suite, setting up a dramatic contrast with what follows.

Listen to “Battleground” here:


Part II: Ioway

Hear me talk about the inspiration for “Ioway”:


  • More pastoral feeling; “chamber music”
    • Atypical doubles: violin, bassoon (as well as typical doubles: flute, clarinet)
    • Brass in bucket mutes

Native American Melodies

I transcribed and transposed a Siouxan “Funeral Song” from a recording archived in the Library of Congress. This became the primary melody which is stated by the violin near the beginning of the piece. It recurs a few times in different contexts.

Ex. 4: Native American ‘Funeral Song’ melody; “Ioway,” mm. 14-24


Subsequently, this melody is used in canon with the violin, bassoon, and alto saxophone.

Ex. 5: Native American Funeral Song melody in canon; “Ioway,” mm. 34-44


Later in the piece, a different Native American melody that I transcribed (also from the Sioux tribe) is passed back and forth between the flugelhorn soloist and the alto saxophone soloist. Interestingly, this “Ritual of the Maize” melody metrically works out to a 13-beat cycle. If you’re curious, you can find the field recordings of these melodies in a collection called “The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.”

Ex. 6: Native American ‘Ritual of the Maize Melody’ in the flugelhorn; “Ioway,” mm. 76-77



To me, the perfect 5th is the interval that best captures the earthy quality I was going for. By stacking five pitches in perfect 5ths, a simple major 6/9 sound is achieved. By stacking a couple more on top of that, the lydian scale is fully realized. Throughout the piece, especially at the beginning and the end, I use these sounds and play around with stacking additional perfect 5ths to stretch things harmonically. In the piano intro, the stack of perfect 5ths (with one octave displacement) in mm. 5-6 covers all 12 chromatic pitches.

Ex. 7: Perfect 5ths in “Ioway” piano intro, mm. 1-7


A stack of perfect 5ths can be condensed to a stack of 3rds, resulting in a polychord consisting of two major 7 chords whose roots are related by wholestep. This structure is planed chromatically as an eerie and disorienting way of harmonizing the “Funeral Song” melody just prior to the alto saxophone solo.

Ex. 8: Polychord generated from perfect 5ths

Ex. 9: Chromatic parallelism with the polychord; “Ioway,” m. 55


I was intrigued by the relationship between these quintal harmonies and the pentatonic scale used in the Native American melodies. The alto saxophone solo explores this harmonic landscape. The first few lines of that solo section are shown (in Eb transposition) below.

Ex. 10: Alto saxophone solo; “Ioway,” mm. 60-71


Episodic Structure

The form of “Ioway” is far removed from the typical head-solos-head structure. It instead plays out in a more episodic way:

  • Brief intro – piano (quintal) → ensemble (quintal)
  • Violin “Funeral Song” melody with ensemble accompaniment
  • Bassoon, violin, alto saxophone canon
  • Brief flute solo – picked up piano
  • Brass “Funeral Song” melody in parallel polychords
  • Alto saxophone solo over quintal rhythm section accompaniment
  • Alto saxophone and flugelhorn trading, using “Ritual of the Maze” melody – 13-beat cycle
  • Extended piano solo – rubato transition
  • Jazz waltz ala Coltrane quartet – collective improvisation, building to a climax
    • quintal harmonies are inverted to quartal harmonies in this section
  • Piano transition which returns to quintal structures
  • Ending – recapitulation of intro/primary melodic material (transposed down a whole step)

Listen to “Ioway” here:


Part III: Hog Heaven

Hear me talk about the childhood memory that inspired “Hog Heaven”:


Trombone Trading

In addition to all of the more artistic considerations for the suite, there were practical considerations, like “how am I going to create space to adequately feature all of the great soloists in this band?” One solution was to build some trading into part 3. I wanted to lean into the fun and humor of this piece by opening it up with solo plunger trombone, and having the three trombone soloists participate in some trading. (Trombonists, after all, are often the butt of the joke!)

In the first half of the piece, the key changes each time a new soloist is introduced. The key areas are a major 3rd apart (Bb, D, and Gb), making an otherwise simple, bluesy chord progression somewhat more interesting.

Phrasing and compression

During the tenor saxophone solo, the modulations by major 3rd are preserved, but 8-bar phrases are now compressed to become 7-bar phrases, creating both a slightly off-kilter feeling and a sense of forward motion.

Ex. 11: Tenor saxophone solo chord changes; “Hog Heaven,” mm.129-143


Compression is also utilized when it comes to the spacing of the brass plunger “waps” leading from the tenor solo to the shout section. Beginning at letter M, each set of three quarter notes is rhythmically displaced so that the figure starts a beat earlier each time. This gesture then gets compressed from three short bursts to one longer “waaap” (see letter N).

Blues elements

In addition to the harmony, which suggests a blues tonality (dominant chords abound), a simple, bluesy melody is introduced, initially as a brief transition between trombone solos. It highlights scale degrees b3 and b7 – both blue notes – and is harmonized with descending perfect 4ths. This has a tie-in to the transitional material in “Battleground” which was harmonized with ascending perfect 4ths (see “Battleground” mm. 97-104, shown in example 2).

Ex. 12: Bluesy melody harmonized with descending perfect 4ths; “Hog Heaven,” mm. 105-112


This melody returns (transposed to Gb) for a shout chorus, with dissonant brass voicings ala mid-60s Brookmeyer. My apologies for the mixture of sharps and flats… there was just no good/clean way to do this.

Ex. 13: Shout section of “Hog Heaven,” mm. 164-167


Finally, I just wanted this piece to serve as a fun swinger – a big stylistic contrast to the other pieces. On a macro level, one could say that “Hog Heaven” fills the role of the light-hearted scherzo in a prototypical four-movement symphonic form.

Listen to “Hog Heaven” here:

Part IV: Flyover

Hear me talk about feelings that “Flyover” is meant to communicate:

The title is a reference to the fact that the Midwest is sometimes called “flyover country” by people traveling from coast to coast.

This one begins as essentially an arrangement of an AABA tune, shown below in lead sheet form.

Ex. 14: Lead sheet version of “Flyover” theme



I knew I wanted to have three soloists on this composition, and it would not be very satisfying or interesting to have all of them blow over the same song form. I decided that each solo would serve a different function in the structure/narrative of the piece.

  1. The alto saxophone solo is sort of a continuation of the exposition – an opportunity to elaborate on the themes and feelings that have been established.
  2. The trumpet solo is a departure from what has been established – it’s meant to feel like a journey, including elements of conflict. Many of the primary motives of the piece get developed by the ensemble as part of the underpinning to the solo.
  3. The guitar solo is more static harmonically, and should convey a feeling of arrival and closure.


In search of harmonies that would convey the emotions that drive this piece, I found that certain slash chords had the right level of complexity, dissonance, and richness. On beat two of the 5th bar of the melody, for example, major 7th intervals are formed against both the melody note and the bass note.

Ex. 15: Slash chord in “Flyover,” m. 5


Motivic Development

The ensemble material during the trumpet solo is almost entirely derived from material that was already presented by the alto saxophone and the ensemble earlier in the piece. The figure from the 2nd and 3rd bar of the main theme shows up in the piano at letter H. The rhythm and contour match the original motive, so it’s easily recognizable, but two pitches are lowered to signal a new direction in the piece.

Ex. 16: Motivic transformation in “Flyover”


This motive recurs a few more times, and is recontextualized by different underlying harmonies. Then, the last three notes of the motive are developed by the saxophones at letter K.

One of the other prominent motives that gets reused in a new context is the bass line from the last four bars of the bridge. It is modified and repeated to add some drive underneath the trumpet solo. When this bass figure shows up again during the recapitulation of the bridge theme, it is further developed and expanded from 2-bars-per-chord to 4-bars-per-chord.

Ex. 17: Motivic expansion in “Flyover”


These are just some of the elements in the piece that I thought fellow composers who read this blog may find interesting.

Listen to “Flyover” here:



I hope this gave you a good look into one composer’s approach to multi-movement jazz composition. Again, my intention was that each piece could stand alone, but when taken together as a collection, the four parts of the suite make a more significant musical impact and provide more of a complete picture of the state of Iowa and some of my feelings about it.

Among the many things that weren’t mentioned were the ways that the particular musicians in this band inspired the choices that I made as this work came together. For me, knowing the players, both as people and as musicians, makes the compositional process more enjoyable, and ultimately more successful.

I’d be honored if you took some time to listen to it. The full studio recording is on YouTube, with some interviews (with me and band members) between each piece. And if you’d like to support me and the band, feel free to download the recordings on Bandcamp or on my website.

Please reach out to me (michael.conrad [at] if you’d like me to share PDFs of the full scores with you, or if you have any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you!

The Fertile Soil Suite project was supported, in part, by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Author:

Mike Conrad is a composer, improviser, and teacher from Iowa. He has been recognized for his arranging and composing with four ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards and seven DownBeat Awards, as well as awards and commissions from the Contemporary Music Academy in Beijing, the Bundesjazzorchester of Germany, the West Point Army Jazz Knights, and many other organizations. Conrad’s music has been performed all over the world, including a 2017 concert by the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands, a 2014 Carnegie Hall octet premiere, and a string quartet performance at the US Presidential Inauguration in 2013. Some recent career highlights include winning the SONIC Award from the International Society of Arrangers and Composers for his piece “Flyover,” collaborating on an hour-long recomposition of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with the incredibly creative Stegreif Orchester of Berlin, and releasing recordings with both the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra and the Mike Conrad Trio.

Equally accomplished on both trombone and piano, Conrad truly loves collaborating with other musicians, and always brings his creativity and expressiveness to everything he does. In addition to his own projects as a leader, Conrad regularly performs regionally with Chris Merz’s Quartet, the Bob Washut ‘Emeritet,’ the Max Wellman Big Band, as well as several other groups, and has performed and recorded with musicians such as Louis Hayes, Alexa Tarantino, and Dave Chisholm. Conrad is in high demand as a clinician and guest director for jazz bands, and he continues to come up with fresh and exciting works for a wide variety of ensembles. Many of his compositions and arrangements are published by iJazzMusic, UNC Jazz Press, and his own website,

Dr. Conrad earned degrees from the University Northern Iowa (BM and BME), the Eastman School of Music (MM), and the University of Northern Colorado (DA). He is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies & Music Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he directs Jazz Band Two and teaches courses/lessons in Jazz Improvisation, Jazz Pedagogy, Jazz Methods, Jazz Theory, Jazz Piano, Jazz Composition, and Jazz Arranging.

Artist Blog

Courtney Wright: The Genius of the Great Thad Jones

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was one of the most innovative and influential big bands of the modern era. Not only did this ensemble revolutionize the way big bands performed, but it also had a major influence on the way composers and arrangers wrote music for large jazz ensembles.


Thad joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1954, as one of the band’s arrangers and trumpet players. In 1965, Basie commissioned Thad to write an album’s worth of big band arrangements, which he ultimately rejected because they didn’t fit with the already established style of his band. Thad wrote all original music for this commission, including some of his more famous charts like “Big Dipper” and “Low Down”, and “The Little Pixie”.


After Basie rejected all of his commissioned charts, Thad decided it was time to move forward and start his own band. In 1965, Thad teamed up with drummer, Mel Lewis to form the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Thad co-led his band with Mel for 13 years, in which time he wrote and recorded 94 different arrangements for the band. Of these 94 arrangements, exactly half were his original compositions! Thad was a charismatic and enthusiastically expressive conductor. The energy he had while in front of the band always inspired his musicians to make great music.


“It was different from any of the big bands that were around. You know, you take Duke and Count- they were not playing any music like this. It was like Thad had written music for a small group, only it was for a big band. It was like small group music. It was like what Dizzy did with Gil Fuller back in the ’40s. You see? That’s what made the music really different.” Jimmy Owens


Thad’s music is jam packed with complex, extended harmony and rich color tones, which he took even further by orchestrating the horn and the voicings in a way that created dissonance in the inner parts of the voicing. Thad’s use of complex harmony and his love for thick, gritty voicings, is what helped to define the sound of the modern big band.


Many of Thad’s arrangement’s feature the soprano sax as the lead voice of the sax section (e.g. Groove Merchant, Tiptoe, Cherry Juice, To You, among others).


Thad’s shout choruses are always swinging and full of energy. Baritone saxophonist, Gary Smulyan, is a huge fan of Thad’s shouts, expressing that how much of a joy his shouts were to play, even after playing them “dozens and dozens of times”. “When you play it,” says Smulyan, “you’re like, ‘Man that’s so swinging and so fun to play!” The shout choruses on tunes like “A-That’s Freedom”, and “61st And Rich’it” would get as much applause from the audience as a soloist would get after their solo!


Thad always made sure to write interesting, melodic lines for the non-lead parts. Each player’s part had smooth, melodic voice leading and was integral to the music. As a result, every part was fun to play, and the musicians in Thad’s band were more invested in performing his music at a high level.


Thad’s charts were never played the same way twice. Something was always different! The band was always looking at Thad and not the music. Thad gave his players freedom and how he fostered their creativity and their understanding of their importance as individuals and what each person brings to the band. Gave the players a place where they could express themselves creatively as soloists as well as inside of the arrangement. The music was challenging and exciting and gave the players a chance to express themselves musically and play music they were itching to play that they didn’t get to working on the scene.


Thad’s example and a bandleader and model and encouraging students to connect and play with each other by listening, watching, interacting, and getting to know each other as individuals. A strong sense of trust, safety, and camaraderie will develop within the ensemble, making it easier for students to be vulnerable and not be fearful of expressing themselves. Creativity will flourish!  


Thad normally orchestrates the trumpets and the trombones as a single functioning unit. This technique comes straight out of the “Basie” style, of which Thad was heavily influenced by. The trombones function as the foundation of the band harmonically and are responsible for playing the basic chord tones (root, 3rd, 7th, 5th/13th etc.). Thad always writes his trumpet voicings in closed position (within an octave of the melody). The trumpet section is usually structured so that the top 3 trumpets form an upper-structure triad, with the 4th trumpet supporting and the lead on the same pitch one octave lower. (example 1a and 1b)

Example 1: “Cherry Juice” Brass Backgrounds (mm.122-125) 2:48


Thad uses the saxophones to add extra color and dissonance and grit to his ensemble voicings. When the lead trumpet is written above the staff, Thad uses the saxophones to fill the gap between the trumpet and trombone voicings. When this happens, the saxes are usually in an open position voicing and are often placed so that they have whole and/or half step tensions against the top trombones and/or bottom trumpets.

When the lead trumpet is playing in the middle of the staff or lower, Thad will create a thicker voicing where the saxophones in a closed position voicing, or even in a cluster (the brass may be voiced this way as well). In addition to the 3rd and 7th, the saxophones normally cover the extended color tones as well. There are also times when Thad has the saxophones playing counter lines in unison or in octaves against voiced brass ensemble sections (the heads to Cherry Juice and Once Around, or the intro to Low Down etc. (example 1 and 2)

Example 2: First 2 Bars of Shout Chorus from “Cherry Juice” (elapsed time – 3:14)



Thad loved to crunch in as much color as possible into his ensemble voicings, which is why he typically voiced the saxophones in 5-part harmony. He is definitely much fonder of the sound the sax section produces when they are voiced in open position drop 2 voicings instead of closed position voicings. Voicing the saxophones in this manner makes it so that the basic chord tones are sitting at the bottom on the voicing with the color tones above. It also puts a spotlight on the unique timbre of baritone saxophone, who in a 5-part voicing ends up playing a chord tone or even a color tone like the 9th, 11th, or 13th. Thad took advantage of this, and very rarely had the baritone functioning as a bass instrument. When the lead voice gets low, Thad will normally use closed position voicings (4 or 5-part) to prevent the voicing from being in the bass register and sounding muddy. (example 2, 3 and 4)

Example 3: “A-That’s Freedom” Shout (first 4 bars) 5:27



The most definitive characteristic of Thad’s writing style is the way in which he colors the harmony on dominant chords. Thad’s approach to harmonizing melodic phrases in very linear in nature, and his harmonic template for voicings usually derives from a specific scale or mode. On dominant chords, Thad tends to use lydian-dominant, altered (aka. diminished-whole tone or super-locrian), and diminished most frequently, the latter being is favorite. Thad took advantage of the symmetrical nature of the diminished scale and used it to navigate harmonically through melodic passages that were busier or more complex in nature. He loved the sound of half step grinds in the inner voices, and extremely dense harmony where every single possible color tone and extension is squeezed into a single voicing. The result is an extremely harmonically dense and very powerful full ensemble sound that is quintessentially Thad. (Example 3 & 4)

Example 4: “Low Down” Intro (first 6 bars) 00:00



Below are short excerpts of shout choruses I composed with the intention of capturing Thad’s compositional style harmonically and rhythmically. In both excerpts, I utilized the sound of diminished on dominant chords, and voiced the band in Thad’s characteristic style. I was also looking to create a sense of melodic flow, dynamic variation within the lines, and rhythmic intensity as is characteristic of every single one of Thad’s shout choruses.


SKETCH #1 – Shout Chorus on “My Shining Hour”
(progression was reharmonized to fit Thad’s harmonic style)


SKETCH #2 – Ensemble Interlude from “Joey in the Pocket” (original tune)
(Inspired by shout from “A-That’s Freedom”)


About the Author:

Courtney Wright is a promising young composer and baritone saxophonist based in New York City, where she leads her own jazz orchestra and quintet that perform her original compositions and arrangements. Courtney is a native of Woodbridge, VA, and grew up outside the vibrant jazz scene of Washington, D.C.

Courtney’s music has been performed and recorded by the WDR Big Band, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, and the One and Two O’Clock Lab Bands at the University of North Texas. She a current member of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop and the 2021 WIJO Mentors Program. Courtney was a recipient of the 2021 ISJAC/USF Prize for Emerging Black Composers as well as the 2021 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award.

Courtney studied jazz composition at the University of North Texas under the mentorship of Richard DeRosa and was recently accepted into the jazz performance master’s program at Manhattan School of Music.

Artist Blog

Meg Okura: STRING THINGS – Basic Bow Marking Tips to Maximize Your Budget and Get Better Results

I have been a part of over 100 recordings in the last two decades in New York as a violinist-albums, jingles, and soundtracks of all sizes and budgets. Moreover, I worked as a music librarian in an orchestra to copy the bow markings onto each string part. My work-study gig at Juilliard was being the first violinist for the conductor’s lab string quartet- I got paid to criticize conductors. Today, I wanted to share tips on bow markings so you can maximize your studio time!

Disclaimer: This article was written from just one composer and violinist’s perspective, and this doesn’t represent the opinions of all string players or composers.

We string players tend to discuss, write, erase and re-write the bowings on your studio time. One of the unique issues we face is that our bowings require uniformity as a section. And this process is rather time-consuming. It also doesn’t help that we use slurs to indicate both bowings and phrase markings. Whether a slur is a bow marking depends on the context and interpretation, and sometimes, they are the same. So it isn’t obvious even for the string players themselves.

As composers, we know how critical detailed markings on each part are—the more precise the markings, the more efficient rehearsal, thus better result. I have noticed composers’ concerned looks, thinking about how many more tunes to get through while string players sort out their bowings. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I should have put more bow markings”? Composers who play some violin would painstakingly put many specific bow markings. So, should a composer start writing more bow markings, up-bow on this note down-bow on that one, with meticulously precise articulation with many mini-slurs under phrase markings? 

The truth is that no matter what you mark on the page, string players will always keep figuring out bowings as the rehearsal progresses, and this sometimes continues until we are already on stage. This is true for classical music, too. The most subtle tempo changes, balance with other instruments, micing, and monitoring situations could affect the bowings. 

Mistake No. 1 – Putting “up” and “down” bow signs in ink on the parts

String players will want to change your bow markings, and when you put it in ink, the parts will start to look very messy, which will make it harder to read. Instead, leave the bow choreography to the section leaders!

It is also slightly annoying to the players. These up-bow down-bow signs remind us of repertoires for “student” players. As a principle, string players should know how to make the same sound whether they use an up or down bow. So it shouldn’t be a composer’s business to dictate which directions violinists should move their arms, even if the composer knows how to play the violin. 

Another way to get the most out of your studio time is to leave the bowings to individual players – which we call “free bow.” Free bow lets individual players use whatever bowing they want to use. Each player will choose the bowing that will allow them to produce the best result using what is most comfortable and convenient to that individual. We use this method when we determine that benefit of “free bow” outweighs the benefit of beautifully uniformed bowing. This is an excellent way to go when you only need audio and no video. The free bow will cut down a significant amount of time, allowing more time to rehearse the music and giving players more mental space to pay attention to other things such as pitch and rhythm. (But unless you or the section leader declares “free bow,” string players will always want to know specific bowings.) Moreover, this is a great way to stagger bow changes to smooth out phrases.

But wait, does this mean we don’t have to put any slurs? As mentioned earlier, slurs are both bowings and phrase markings. What if we don’t put any slurs and let the players figure it out on their own? 

Mistake No. 2 – Leaving out slurs when you want legato

A well-established jazz pianist and a producer for a record label once told me how shocked he was when the string quartet he hired played each quarter note like a military march on a slow bossa. When my jazz composer friend was still in school and instructed not to put any bowings for her string quartet piece, she took all of the slurs out, including a graceful sixteenth-note run on a ballad. To her horror, the string quartet bowed each note!! You might say, “I put ‘legato’ at the top!” or “but it’s a ballad!” The problem is that when you put “legato” at the top, it directly contradicts what’s on the staves. 

We jazz musicians are used to reading lead sheets, which we use as merely a guide for what the music could sound like. But for classical string players, our job is to faithfully play what’s written on the page and refrain from individual interpretations. When string players see notes without slurs, we ARE supposed to play them with separation. You can put “legato” or “ballad,” but we will still play them like a military march if there are no slurs! 

I have also seen young composers putting tenutos instead of slurs, or in addition to slurs, expecting the notes to be sound longer, thus connected. After hearing us play the notes se-per-ra-ted, their faces get red, and they scream, “tenutos mean ‘FULL VALUES!'”

Mistake No. 3 – Putting tenutos, expecting notes to be played connected

Unfortunately, if you put tenutos under a slur, these notes will be what we call “hooked” into a bow- the notes will be separated by lifting the bow while moving in the same direction. So you will never get the “full value” of the notes, and instead, you will get precisely the opposite.

Well, I hope these tips are helpful for when you work with the best string players in your town next time so you can get what you want from string players. 

But here is the bonus tip (mistake), which will cancel out all three tips above.


Mistake No.4 – Getting so-called the “best players” instead of the “right” players

Over 15 years ago, I had the chance to tour with the Michael Brecker Quindectet led by Gil Goldstein. Initially, the group planned to perform with the very best local string players in each city. However, after the first tour of Europe, Mike and Gil both concluded that it was not going to work. The “best string players” were not keeping up with the rest of the band, resulting in compromised music. Hence, I got the call. 

It is more important to get the “right” players than the “best” players for the best result for jazz compositions. Many of my classmates from Juilliard play in major orchestras, and they “should” be the best players ever. (At least they think they are!) But believe me. I have worked with many players who cannot keep up with Afro-Cuban rhythms. You would think you can explain and help them “get” it, but it is nearly impossible because their sense of time differs from those who grew up playing non-classical music. I grew up playing only Classical music, and I used to struggle with these rhythms myself. Though I don’t play in a major orchestra, I have had the tremendous opportunities to work with various bands and composers whom I learned so much on the job: from John Zorn to Vince Giordano, singer-songwriters to a Cuban Jewish Band, Steve Swallow to some of our contemporaries such as J.C. Sanford, Emilio Solla, and Erica Seguine. My on-the-job experiences, however embarrassing it was by turning around the beats, can never be replaced. 

So be careful hiring players in major symphonies “just because” – they may not do the job well. But when you get the “right players,” they will give you much more than what you put on the page and make everything sound right- and nobody will ever know that your markings were less than perfect.

That’s it for today. If you find this topic helpful, please come see me at ISJAC symposium in Austin, Texas, where I will be sharing “10 More Mistakes To Avoid!” with a live demonstration and Q & A. 

If you have any questions or would like me to demonstrate any segments of your composition, please email them to me so I can address them in Austin! MegOkuraViolin [at]


About the Author:

“grandiloquent beauty that transitions easily from grooves to big cascades to buoyant swing.”
– Giovanni Russonello, New York Times

Jazz composer and violinist Meg Okura uses the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble to negotiate her conflicting identities: a Japanese immigrant Jew by choice, and a mother of a black Jew, and a violinist in jazz.

Since its founding in 2006, the ensemble has performed in its hometown of New York at Birdland Jazz Club, Blue Note, Knitting Factory, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center. The ensemble has been presented at t Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Winter Jazz Fest as well as K.L. Jazz Festival in Malaysia. Okura has released six albums under her name since and two more albums in the works this year.

Her recent honors as a composer include Copland Residency Awards, Chamber Music America New Jazz Works, Jazz Road Creative Residencies Award, and NYC Women’s Fund.

Her works have been performed by BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, New York Symphonic Ensemble, Sirius Quartet, and other jazz and chamber music groups.

Native of Tokyo and formerly a concert violinist, Okura toured Asia as the soloist and concertmaster of the Asian Youth Orchestra as a teen. She moved to the U.S. in 1992 and made her solo concerto debut at Kennedy Center with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra. She then earned B.M. and M.M. degrees from the Juilliard School as a classical violinist, only to make a difficult shift to becoming a jazz musician. As a violinist, she has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Barbican Hall in the U.K., Madison Square Garden, Village Vanguard, Blue Note Tokyo, Hollywood Bowl, and numerous jazz and Jewish music festivals worldwide.

Okura’s credit appears on over 100 albums/films/live videos, including David Bowie, Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, Diane Reeves, Tom Harrell, Vince Giordano, Jeremy Pelt, Sam Newsome, and Grammy-nominated album by Emilio Solla y La Inestable de Brooklyn.

Artist Blog

Aaron Wolf & James Miley: The Power of the Song – a Conversation with Ron Miles

Forward by James Miley:

Having already been a fan of his music for nearly a decade at the time, I finally had the chance to invite Ron Miles to appear as a guest artist at the Cuesta College Jazz Festival in 2004. His brilliant teaching and playing, combined with an immense generosity and instant connection with our students that weekend led to Aaron (who played saxophone in the big band at the time) reaching out to Ron a few years later as part of a project for one of his graduate composition courses at the University of Nevada, Reno. Upon hearing the tragic news of Ron’s passing, Aaron and I reconnected and he sent me a transcript of this wonderful conversation from 2006. I was reminded upon reading it of just how much Ron’s profound musical insight, wisdom, joy, enthusiasm, and openness both to music and to the world have influenced my own growth as a composer (and as a human being) over the years. Aaron and I have edited the interview for easier reading and are excited to share Ron’s thoughts with the ISJAC community—his truly original, band-centered and forward-thinking approach to writing and playing is on full display here, and his words are as relevant and impactful now as they were sixteen years ago.

Forward by Aaron Wolf:

At this moment, more than ever, I am acutely aware of the honor I had in having the following conversation with composer, trumpeter, improviser, and educator Ron Miles, the gentle genius who left this world at the age of 58, just this month.

 Ron’s sage voice stood out in every setting. As a composer, he was as equally sensitive as he was fearless. On the bandstand he performed with profound clarity, fire, beauty, intent, and honesty, all while perceptively improvising with the musicians around him. With a unique depth in trumpet/cornet timbre, along with his extraordinary lyricism, Ron was able to tell a vivid story with every single phrase. It was his unapologetic and visceral presentations of pop and folk soundscapes that guided me as a young composer who also grew up with that music always playing on the stereo at home.

Back in 2006, when my graduate composition class assigned a project to present an influential composer, I immediately thought of Ron. I reached out to him inquiring about the possibility of an interview, with the full understanding that his busy teaching and touring schedule might make such a conversation impossible. Yet his response to me was immediate, and with tremendous enthusiasm he engaged me in a phone conversation brimming with an energy and generosity as striking as his insights. Immediately after that call, I listened back to the recording and transcribed every word. I’ve read that transcript many times since, learning something new each time. 

After receiving the devastating news of Ron’s passing, I revisited this interview and realized just how important a connection it was at the time, and how profoundly influential Ron’s words and music have been for me over the years. I hope that this condensed version of the interview can offer something special to you as well.


A.W.  One of our final projects in my composition class is to research an influential composer. Rather than focusing on a composer of the past, I wanted to focus on a composer of today, and I immediately thought of you.   

R.M.  It’s so wild because school is so balanced towards history, of course, but I think it’s good to keep some ties to now, because that’s why we study history—to contribute to where we are. That is really cool. I am honored that you would think of me.  

A.W.  An album of yours that we listen to non-stop in my house is Heaven.

R.M.  Oh, with Bill! Gosh, I think of that album as like, taking a picture with Tyra Banks and people say, “Wow, you two look wonderful!” Playing duo with Bill Frisell is like that. He is so good that you can’t not sound good, too. It’s such a joy to play with him.

A.W.  I like the album so much because it feels like you are one person, as if you two became a singer-songwriter-guitarist-in-one.  

R.M.  There’s a new recording (ed. note: Stone/Blossom, released in 2006 on Sterling Circle Records), with more of a band, and that’s the comment that a couple people have had: “It sounds like a singer songwriter record,” which is something they didn’t like about it. But I really like songs. This goes for improvising too—the song is not just an excuse to blow (which, yes, is fun to do, too). I like the idea of continuing the song by improvising something as strong as the song itself.  

When you think about songs, a lot of them don’t have running eighth notes. They have whole notes, half notes, and spaces, and all sorts of different rhythms, instead. So, to see if you can communicate over a long period of time without always resorting to pyrotechnics—that approach can convey energy really nicely. That’s a lot of what we were trying to do with that record, and still trying to do.

A.W.  The album is so beautiful and lyrical. I hear words and poetry in those songs, even though there aren’t any. Is that something that we’ve maybe lost in the way we compose and improvise in jazz?

R.M.  In some ways I think so. But when we think about the past masters, Charlie Parker’s songs sound like the way that he improvised, Thelonious Monk’s songs sound like the way he improvised, and the same with Jelly Roll Morton. I think that we are still trying to apply old models to new songs, and this is one of the reasons we haven’t seen jazz go towards contemporary pop material. If you can embrace the spirit of what contemporary songs are like, you’ll find a way to improvise that works with that music. You can’t just say, “Ok, I am going to do this new song and apply Charlie Parker’s language to it.” As songwriters, the more we can generate a book of material, and then put a band together to play that material, the more it will generate a way of playing that works with those songs.  

A.W.  It’s been a challenge in recent years to find jazz bands who are truly together as a band. Has Jazz moved too much towards individuals just thrown together, and we’re missing bands who are a collective unit as a result?

R.M.  Well, I do think bands have been making a comeback, recently. And it’s really bands that have moved the music forward throughout history, as much as the history books would like to say it’s the individuals: You know, Charlie Parker did this and that… which he did, of course. But there were a lot of other folks who created the environment that allowed that music to work. In America, sometimes we are so star-centered; like in sports, it’s “Michael Jordan.” Yes, but there are also five people playing out there at any given time! I think it’s the same thing in music—everybody contributes to the band working.

A.W.  Can you mention a few of the performers, composers, or even songwriters who have most influenced your compositional development?

R.M.  In some ways they all go together, playing-wise and composition-wise. I really like musicians who play inside of the band, not on top of the band. A good example of that is Duke’s Money Jungle, my favorite trio record. There is such depth to the way they play together. I love Wayne’s (Shorter’s) current band so much because nobody really solos. Maybe for a minute somebody will solo, but not like an extended solo. That means anything can happen. When you set up the hierarchy of soloist and rhythm section, in a way you’re limiting possibilities. There is a soloist, and that person is on top, and you just have to work with that. But in Wayne’s band, anybody can be on top. Also, Wayne is such a great improviser—nobody else can play that way, the way he just can move in and out of the texture.             

That is a lot to me: composers who write and play that way, like Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke, and Mingus, Ornette, Albert Ayler, Wayne, and Bill, of course. Singer-songwriters like Prince, he’s huge, and such an amazing musician! Public Enemy had a big influence on me. Elliott Smith, Lennon and McCartney, Bad Brains, Nirvana. So much of that music has had a big impact on me—just the power of those songs.  

In jazz we tend to overplay and overwrite sometimes. I think we overplay just to keep our place in the music. But if we can get to a place where we are familiar enough with the forms that we don’t have to do that, then it immediately reduces the amount of stuff we play. If we play less, it allows others to play more. It allows us to hear more, too, because we aren’t playing all the time.  

I also think that we overplay and overwrite to prove something: to show that we can play over the changes a certain way, or that we can play a lot of notes fast. In pop music, especially with bands like Nirvana and other punk groups, they don’t try to prove anything. That’s not part of their vision. They’re presenting these songs, and you can either get with it or not get with it. I think that (as jazz musicians and composers) the more we can get away from that desire to prove something, the more we can really get to something.  

A.W.  So for the jazz setting, do you have a sense that we can connect to audiences in a bigger picture? 

R.M.  I think that is a very important question to be asking ourselves. There is a really good book by John Szwed on Sun Ra where he talks about the fact that musicians sometimes act like audiences are supposed to give it up to us, simply because we’re so good. But he says that the audience should never have to give it up to you for any reason. You can’t just say “I’m good,” you have to give them something. And that is so powerful, and scary too, because we hide behind, “Hey man, I’m practicing! They just don’t get it… I am doing all the right stuff.”  

We forget that the right stuff is only the right stuff if it helps to get something out there, something really valid, that really touches people. A smart audience recognizes that. So, practicing eight hours a day is good, but only when it leads you to some higher realizations about how practicing will result in some real music.  

A.W.  Can you recall a time where something clicked for you, in your awareness and process, that changed your development as a composer?

R.M.  When I went to Manhattan School of Music, I was in a combo with Bob Mintzer. He was a person who I had a lot of respect for. And, he really liked my songs, and encouraged me to do something with them. I had never really thought about being a songwriter before that. It made me get deeper into it and it led me down this road.  I left Manhattan to move home and form a band and try to play my own music. From that point on, I just loved playing with folks, and hearing the different ways people approached it all. I am always learning as a composer, like how much to write for folks, and how much not to write, because it really depends on the setting. You start to learn an amazing amount by being in bands and playing the same songs every night. You get a sense for how different people deal with the music, how they communicate.

A.W.  Do you go through periods in life where you seem to be more productive as a composer?          

R.M.  One year my wife took a vacation to visit her mom for a couple weeks. I stayed home, in my pajamas, and I’d just play and write all day, and watch U2’s Rattle and Hum over and over again—I was totally into that movie, and it would get my imagination rolling around.  Most of Woman´s Day was written then. So now, when the house is totally still, that will usually get the ball rolling.  

A.W.  Could you discuss any sort of compositional process that you do? 

R.M.  I sit at the piano, and my four-track usually comes into play after I start hearing things in some orchestrated form. With a lot of my songs, I will make a recorded version with just the trumpet and piano and listen back to it for a while. But with some stuff, for example the guitar-oriented material on Woman’s Day, with the power chords: power chords sound really good on guitar, but they don’t sound good on the piano. So, I’ll record guitar, bass, and drums on those myself and see if that does something for them. Then I drive around in the car and listen, to see if it holds my interest. Does hearing that chord progression one more time bug me? If there’s going to be blowing, then does it need a new set of chords? Does it need a new part in there? Does the super-chorus need to happen after the chorus and the verse? All that stuff.

A.W.  Does it help to play those other instruments in the writing process?  

R.M.  Yeah, it does a few things for me. For one, it allows me to hear it. But it also allows me to be in that person’s spot and get a sense about how it would be to play that part: Would it be fun and rewarding, or would it be a drag? Is this too much or not enough information? Imagining yourself in their spot— especially with the different personalities of improvisers—you want to give people information, but not lock them in. I think particularly of pianists in this regard. Too many voicings makes them too restricted with what they can do if the improvisation goes a certain way. But what if something is not really any kind of chord? It’s just this stuff. Bill does this all the time. He has lots of minor ninths in his music, and sometimes major and minor thirds and major and minor sevenths altogether. And he will just write that, and not say it’s any chord, because it’s really not. Playing all those parts on various instruments helps me figure that stuff out a bit.  

A.W.  Do your compositions develop in lots of different ways?  

R.M.  Yes, sometimes. But almost always, I will start with just a melody, and no bar lines. I usually write melodies that change meter over the course of the song, and I like the freedom to not think I am writing something in four, or that I am writing a waltz. I just write what it is, and if an extra beat or a lesser beat shows up, then I figure out how to bar it to make it work. Then, we have to learn how to play over it!  I try to never go into a song thinking that it is this feel, or that thing. It’s just a melody, and it starts to come together with the chords and the motion and the meter changes and whatever else.          

A.W.  I never would have thought of that.

R.M.  A big thing that reinforced that approach for me was starting to play with Bill and listening to a lot of “Old Timey Music” like the Carter Family, and also Robert Johnson and other blues folks. When you hear those records, the words dictate the meter. There are all sorts of 3/4 and 7/4 bars. All sorts of stuff shows up in there because the words demand it. So, I thought, “Gee, we play melody. Why not let the melody reinforce that for us too?” So, I started writing songs like that. At first I would write these complicated songs, and we would just make the blowing open to make it easier to play. Then I started playing with a bass player who suggested we blow over the actual form. And man, it was so hard! So we practiced and practiced until we could play over those forms, and that is how it is now.   


About the Artist

Ron Miles was a songwriter and cornet and trumpet player based in Denver, Colorado. He was born in Indianapolis in 1963 and moved to Colorado with his family in 1974. He recorded as a leader for Prolific, Capri, Gramavision, Sterling Circle, Enja/yellowbird, and became a Blue Note Records Artist in 2020. One of the finest improvisers and composers of his generation, he was revered by his fellow musicians and heralded by critics around the world. In addition to leading his own bands, Ron Miles performed in the ensembles of Bill Frisell, Mercer Ellington, Don Byron, Wayne Horvitz, Ginger Baker, Myra Melford, Joe Henry, Madeleine Peyroux, Jason Moran, Matt Wilson, Jenny Scheinman, The Bad Plus, Harriet Tubman, Ben Goldberg, and Joshua Redman. Also a gifted and experienced educator, Miles was a music professor at the Denver Metropolitan State University since 1998. Following his trio releases with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade, Quiver (2012) and Circuit Rider (2014), his recent quintet recordings, I AM A MAN (2017) and his Blue Note debut RAINBOW SIGN (2020), feature again Frisell and Blade, along with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan.


About the Interviewer

Aaron Wolf is a Music Educator, Composer, and Performer, from California.  He received a BA in Performance from Berklee College of Music (’04), and MA in Performance from University Nevada, Reno (’07).  He was a faculty member at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA (’08-’14), and BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, CA (’14-’21).  He has performed and recorded across the US, and currently resides in Quebec City, Canada, with his wife and children.



About the Editor

PIANIST/COMPOSER James Miley is a recipient of the IAJE/Gil Evans Fellowship in Jazz Composition and Professor of Music at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he coordinates the jazz and improvised music program and teaches classes in composition, improvisation, music theory, and music technology. He is a founding member of the Radiohead Jazz Project, and his music for big band has been performed in Europe and Asia, as well as by many of the top high school and university big bands throughout the United States. As a pianist, Miley can be heard with the jazz chamber group Bug (featuring saxophonist Peter Epstein), the Hashem Assadullahi Sextet with Ron Miles, and Dan Cavanagh’s Jazz Emporium Big Band on Origin Records. His most recent recording is with the free jazz collective Trio Untold, featuring Mike Nord (guitar/electronics) and Ryan Biesack (drums/percussion), available on PJCE Records. Future projects include an album of original music with pianist Dan Cavanagh and drummer John Hollenbeck, available late Spring, 2022.

Artist Blog

Ayn Inserto: The Compositional Techniques of Bob Brookmeyer – A Brief Introduction

Those of us who were lucky enough to study with Bob Brookmeyer were exposed to his various exercises.  Whether it was in composition or improvisation, Bob had developed methods to help with our creative development. These exercises also aid in generating material in a more organic fashion, and lend a hand when you are “stuck” or need to edit your piece.  I am going to lightly touch on four of my favorite exercises.

A small side note: Bob’s exercises were never quite uniform.  You can ask any of his students about a certain exercise, and more than likely they had a different interpretation of them, were taught differently, or they evolved over time.  There were even times he would “tweak” the exercise on the spot to accommodate what he saw to be something worth using in a composition.  In essence, they became more like guidelines. So, this is my experience with the methods, and hopefully I won’t strike much controversy.

Another side note: Dave Rivello wrote a book that contains these methods along with a lot of other Brookmeyer moments in “Bob Brookmeyer in conversation with Dave Rivello” available through ArtistShare.


The White-Note Exercise

This is the quintessential Brookmeyer exercise.  It was the first one you did when you met him.  At New England Conservatory, first-year graduate students who studied with him had two 2-hour group lessons with him in the first week he was there.  There were three of us in my year.  He assigned three white-note exercises the first day and played through them the second.  Mine were absolutely horrendous.

My version of the white-note exercise is as such:

Compose one page of a melody, away from an instrument, using only the C Major scale from middle C (C4) and only within an octave (up to C5).  This should be in 4/4 time. There should be no chords. This exercise concentrates primarily on melodic and motivic development, and you shouldn’t assume harmonic content, although diatonic harmony will naturally be implied.

He also gave me three “starting points”.


In playing through the melody, Bob would do it on the piano with a C drone in his left hand.  He never wanted me to play it because he wanted me to be “separated” from the exercise and hear it with fresh ears.

The initial takeaway from doing the white-note is whether what I hear in my head is accurate that I don’t need an instrument to hear it, and that I can just put it down on paper.  It was astounding to me how that wasn’t the case initially. The exercise’s focus on motivic development is also very important.  When I first started doing it, I had too many ideas within the first few lines and no sense of patience or development.  I also was lacking space and “melodic cadences”.  There are tendency tones (2,4,6,7) within the major scale, and those needed to be resolved for us to hear the key of C Major.

As aforementioned, the objective of the exercise is motivic development.  Bob had a “rule of three”, where there should be repetition with variation, usually about three times so that the listener is acclimated to it.  He also had a metaphor about when you give a child a toy to play with but immediately take it away, the child will cry.  He likened it to the motive being taken away too early from the audience (don’t make your audience cry).  This exercise also works on a macro level. Not only do you use this way of development in the initial exposition, you can also do it in your compositional form.

This exercise also got me into linear writing.  As a pianist, I tended to compose immediately with melody, harmony and even groove.  This exercise changed the way I write, where melody is Queen and that is where I start.  Does that mean that I discount other elements? No, but it does allow me to focus on separate elements in my compositions. And whether or not I start a piece by doing a white-note exercise, I do use the fundamentals of it in developing all my pieces.

My composition “Eshel Sketch” is one that comes from the white-note exercise.  Below is a small snippet of the motive followed by the recording.


(Refer to 0:43 to 4:11)


The Three-Note Collection

This is a voice-leading exercise.  You are given a starting point, and then various targets throughout the exercise. For example, there is a three-note structure in measure 1 and another target in measure 7 (see below).  You move only half notes so rhythm is not addressed in this exercise.  These structures are not conventional triads, although they may resemble sus chords, clusters or quartal/quintal voicings.  It is discouraged to use root position triads, unless, it makes sense to “resolve” to one, but rarely does that happen.  You can do this at an instrument i.e. play it on the piano.



The three-note collection makes me aware of shape and direction, tension and resolution, and three lines that can also result in harmony.  Dealing with how to decide to use contrary motion or parallel motion, or symmetrical or asymmetrical lines is also something I got out of this exercise.

One thing I do love telling my students is that even if you feel that your exercise isn’t “successful”, you’ve still generated material.  There is a chance there is something in there that you like and can use.  Below are some ways I encourage that.

Here is an example of a three-note collection:



You can use any of the lines for a melody, or bass line:



You can use a structure you like to create a harmonic progression with its own unique intervallic relationship:

You can use the structure itself to be the upper structure of conventional chords:


Lastly, my composition “Dear John” is one that primarily uses the three-note collection during the exposition:

(Refer to 1:08 on)


Pitch Module and Rhythmic Module

I am grouping these two exercises because of their similarities.  These exercises are also some of the best to use when you are “stuck”. The concepts behind them are to really break down melody by initially separating pitch from rhythm.  Some may say that they are similar to serial techniques, but they have a looser approach.


For the pitch module, after you have found a theme or motive that you want to work with, take only the pitches. It is best to work within 3-7 pitches, so if you have a longer theme, you should work in subgroups. If you have repeated notes, do include them e.g. if you have a phrase that starts and end with the same note, you must include that note twice (initially in the order they appear in the motive). Do the following with your pitch module:

  1. Reorder the pitches in as many permutations as you can.
  2. Transpose the permutations.
  3. Examine the intervals, then pick two at a time and freely create permutations.


See below for an example:



Another fun thing that you can try is to combine different modules or portions of different modules.


For the rhythmic module, you do the same thing by isolating the rhythm.  Working in smaller modules will help.  You can go through various permutations by displacement, fragmentation, augmentation, etc.  See example below:



And voila! You can combine the pitch modules and rhythmic modules together.  Thus, you end up with a melody.  None of these exercises are binding, so you are usually a half-step or a rhythmic figure away from something you may like.


When I am “stuck” or a student is stuck, I tell them to just sing the rhythms without the pitches, or play/sing the pitches without the rhythm.  This allows us to hear motion and also see if we have “done enough” to the idea itself.  I also have them take whatever part they are stuck on and have them put it into the exercise to generate more material that is organic and unique to their piece.


I do use these methods quite a bit; my composition, Vinifera, uses the pitch module in its exposition.



In conclusion, these exercises (and many others) don’t just generate material, they are also ways of methodically working through a piece.  For example, I may have a student who is having trouble with their melody and I’d say, “Do a white-note on it.”  That doesn’t mean that they will be only using C major, but rather taking the contents of their melody and applying the principles behind the exercise. I hope that this information was helpful to you.  Thank you to ISJAC for having me this month.


About the Author:

Ayn Inserto is a groundbreaking composer who is emerging as one of the preeminent voices of her generation. She received her Master of Music degree in Jazz Composition from the New England Conservatory and is a winner of the IAJE/ASCAP Emerging Composer Commission honoring Frank Foster and the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers’ Awards. She was picked by Bob Brookmeyer to study jazz composition as his protégé.

Her music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai, Dizzy’s Club (Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC), the Berklee Performance Center, JEN Conferences, Reno Jazz Festival, Billy Higgins Jazz Festival, New England Conservatory of Music, Brown University, Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival, McGill University, Senigallia, Italy, Terni Jazz Festival, the Sant’ Elpidio Jazz Festival, and the Fano Jazz Festival.

Inserto has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the NYO Jazz Ensemble, The Jazz Education Network, ASCAP/IAJE, the Commission Project for JazzMN, Madison Technical College, Amherst College, Cal State University East Bay, Los Medanos College, Foxboro High School, Harvard Jazz Band, Marin Catholic High School, Fairfield High School, and Jennifer Wharton. She has given masterclasses and clinics at the Panama Jazz Festival, Brown University, IMEP Paris College of Music, International College of Music in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Seoul Jazz Academy, Tokyo School of Music, Singapore Polytechnic, Arcevia Jazz Seminar, Rossini Conservatory of Music, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra from London, UK and the Sydney Conservatorium.

Inserto has served as a panelist for the Jazz Improv Convention with Dr. Billy Taylor in New York as well as for the Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer at New England Conservatory. She also has been a clinician for the JENerations Jazz Festival, an adjudicator for the Berklee High School Jazz Festival, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Massachusetts Council for the Arts Composition Fellowship, and the International Alliance for Women in Music Jazz Composition Contest. She is a mentor for the Women in Jazz Organization and a member of the Board of Directors for the Jazz Education Network.

Her big band, the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, has recorded three albums with special guests Bob Brookmeyer, John Fedchock, George Garzone and Sean Jones. The ensemble has garnered many positive reviews such as Downbeat Editor’s Pick, The Boston Globe 2018 Best Jazz Albums, Top Ten Recordings of 2018 (Cadence Magazine) and the Jazz Journalists Association Best of 2018 (Large Ensemble) List. She currently resides in Boston where she is a Professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music.

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

Artist Blog

Jason Palmer: Getting a Foot in the Door of the House of Composition

Thank you to the ISJAC for inviting me to contribute to the blog.  I didn’t know about this resource before the invitation, and I’ve learned a ton since diving into the archives.  I’d like to offer up a commentary on my journey through the world of composing creative music in a small group setting with the hope of inspiring those who are wanting to jump into the process but may not know a path to take.

I’ve been afforded the opportunity to present clinics on improvisation, composition, and everything in between over the past 20 years in places near and far.  One of the proverbial questions that always arises is, “So how did you approach composing original music?” So here are a few ideas that I have been relaying to musicians getting their pens/keyboards wet in the composition game:

Composition as Improvisational Language

When I arrived in Boston in 1997 to attend my undergrad, I met Darren Barrett, the great trumpeter/composer who was just finishing his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.  I asked him about the idea of composing and how he approached it.  He told me, “You know, when you’re composing, you’re documenting what springs from your improvising mind.  It’s all improvisational language.”  This idea initially sent me for a loop, but eventually made sense and settled in nicely.  Darren later relayed a relating idea of writing out solos to tunes that you’ve been working on just to have something in front of you that you can play variations on.  I started to really work on this and that’s when the idea of composing for small groups (what I was into at the time, and still am) started to take shape.

Contrafacts are our Friends

I took the idea “composing in real time” and locked myself in a practice room with a tape recorder, a pair of headphones, and my CD Discman.  I brought recordings of songs that I really dug at the time on cd with me, put on headphones and started playing along with them (in many ways, that’s a lot hipper than playing with an Aebersold or iRealPro), while at the same time recording myself practicing in those sessions.  I then listened back to the practice sessions and transcribed anything from my playing that I thought could become a composition.  What I later realized was that by doing this, I was able to “creep” into the habit of writing out melodies that were already attached to a particular chord progression.  Below are a few examples of contrafacts that I’ve recorded:

Found It (an original based on Myron Walden’s Like a Flower Seeking the Sun)

3rd Shift (an original based on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer)

Learning Songs to Write Songs

As I began to write contrafacts, I did my best to become more mindful of making a stronger effort to learn about the art of composing interesting harmonic progressions for improvisers.  At the time, I didn’t know many songs but I was attending a weekly jam session at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston, where tunes that I didn’t know were being called left and right.  I made it a point to go to the local record stores (there were about 5 really good ones in Boston/Cambridge at the time) and spend all of my work study money on records that had the quintessential versions of the songs that I had to learn on them.  I then transcribed the song(s) on the record along with all of the other songs on the record, which built my repertoire immensely.  It was there that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of consonant/dissonant harmonic functions in this music.  This gave me the ability to compose without relying on chord changes from other tunes and only returning to that idea when I feel the itch!  I always tell my students that you don’t have to give up the idea of learning more standards if you want to start to compose original material and vice versa.

Have a Band/Gig?  Write Flexibly for It!

I was lucky to have a steady gig on the weekends leading my own band for over 15 years in Boston at Wally’s Jazz Café.  It was really an incubator for compositional experimentation for me.  It was unique to me because I was able to test out new material constantly (with no artistic constraints whatsoever) for an audience that didn’t necessarily come to hear us play.  While I found that to be a welcomed challenge, I also faced the challenge of writing music for great musical bandmates that juggled busy life/school schedules, therefore limiting available time to rehearse.  There was also the aspect of hiring subs, which always altered the repertoire for any given night.  I started to compose and organize older compositions of mine into 3 graded categories that I found to be useful.  Examples are at the below the description:

Grade 1:  Songs that are easily sight-readable by any competent musician, needing no rehearsal.  Fun songs to improvise on (“blowing tunes”) that make the band sound like “a rehearsed band”.


Grade 2:  Songs that would need to be looked at ahead of time for most competent musicians, but don’t necessarily need to be rehearsed beforehand.  These songs strengthened the idea of what a “band” sounds like to novice listeners.  These songs have unconventional song forms, challenging harmonic progressions, and melodies that need shedding before hitting the stage.

Grade 3:  Songs that need a thorough rehearsing with the band.  These songs are written to push and advance my technique and challenge my bandmates as well as the audience.

After you’ve composed pieces and considered what level of musicianship is required to have the songs come to life in a way that you’ve hoped for, considering organizing them into separate books that can be easily pulled out to match the appropriate personnel in your band for any given gig.

It’s my sincere hope that at least one person finds something helpful from post.  I invite everyone reading this to take any or all of the information and run with it!

Sent with LOVE,

Jason Palmer

About the Author:

Jason Palmer was recently named to the inaugural class of the Boston Artist in Residence Fellowship for Music Composition.  He also received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works for 2019.  In 2011 and 2017, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2014, Jason was honored as a recipient of the French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship where he collaborated with French pianist Cedric Hanriot, collaboration on an album and touring the United States and Europe. Jason won 1st Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and was cited in the June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the “Top 25 trumpeters of the Future”.   

In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Jason has recorded thirteen albums under his own name on labels Ayva, Steeplechase, Whirlwind, Newvelle, and most recently with Giant Step Arts. Four of his recordings were reviewed by Downbeat Magazine, all receiving 4 stars or better. Jason has toured in over 30 countries with saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, and Matana Roberts, and has been a featured guest artist on multiple projects in Portugal, Mexico, Canada and Russia. 

In addition to a heavy performing schedule, Jason Palmer offers his passion for improvised music as an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music. Jason has also served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and at New England Conservatory. He has also served on the faculty at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.

Artist Blog

David Caffey: The Jazz Soli: The Arranger’s Solo

“The jazz soli is the arranger’s solo!” I can’t remember who it was that I first heard say that, but I believe it is absolutely true. I’ve always been intrigued by jazz solis, saxophone solis especially, but also brass solis and trombone solis.

A soli is the spot in a jazz arrangement where you as the arranger have the opportunity to write something that represents what you would play at that moment if you were the soloist. Of course, since you are writing it down, you can work with it until it says exactly what you want it to say, which is very different than improvising the solo. The composer whose soli writing I found to be most compelling early on in my studies was Thad Jones. Who can forget the saxophone solis on Groove Merchant, Don’t Git Sassy, and Fingers? And Little Pixie, in which even the opening melody sounds like a soli? Little Pixie is really soli writing from the beginning to the piano solo. It is two different “soloists” (brass and saxophones) playing and then trading 16s, 8s, 4s, and 2s. This is really exciting music that builds at an amazing pace!

In recent years I have written a number of jazz arrangements and compositions that include solis by saxophone sections, brass sections, trombones, and mixed instruments. I’m happy to share some of the ways I go about writing a soli and a few of the techniques I use.

The most important aspect of a jazz soli is the melody. It seems obvious, but I’m sometimes surprised how often I hear solis that don’t have interesting melodies. It’s important! When I began writing a saxophone soli for an arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike, I knew that I needed to come up with a melody that was “Freddie-like.” I studied Freddie’s solo on his recording of the tune and discovered that it was a perfect example of the “Bebop Scale approach” to improvisation. I decided to write a melody that sounded like what Freddie Hubbard might have played, without using any quotes from his solo. The written soli follows and there is a link to the recording of the arrangement.

The first eight measures of the melodic line include very clear usage of a downward moving F bebop scale that begins with an enclosure of the root, which is a typical element of bebop language. The downward, mostly stepwise, bebop scale of measures 1 and 2 are followed by an embellished arpeggio of F9 beginning with the 7th moving to the 9th, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th. It’s a classic looking (and sounding) bebop phrase consisting of “down by step” and “up by arpeggio.”   It’s interesting how the line in m. 176 on beat 3 moves chromatically down to the 7th on the Bb9th at m. 177. That Ab is drawn out in a bluesy fashion, appropriate for a blues tune and it is something that a bebop player might do. At the end of m. 179 there is an enclosure surrounding the F# (3rd of D7) followed by a chromatic enclosure of the A (9th of Gmi9) and a diatonic enclosure of the G. Use of the diminished whole-tone scale for the line in m. 182 is also idiomatic. These are melodic elements that Freddie Hubbard uses in his playing, so it fits very well in an arrangement of his tune.

Example 1) Birdlike by Freddie Hubbard, arranged by David Caffey; mm 173–225

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 3:51 of the recording.)

I often use guitar melodically with the saxophones on a sax soli. I have done this fairly consistently over the last seven or eight years. The guitar adds a sonic quality that somehow focuses the saxophone section sound in a way that I really like. This allows me to write the saxophones in 5-part voicings without doubling the melody an octave lower. The guitar plays the melody an octave lower than the lead soprano sax. In this arrangement there is a trumpet used on the melody in unison with the soprano saxophone. Using the trumpet seemed appropriate since it is a soli on a Hubbard tune in which I’m trying to be consistent with his solo style. This combination provides a beautiful color and allows for voicings with more density than the more typical voicings used in sax solis. The denser chord voicings do not obscure the melody because there are three players on different instruments playing the melody. The melody comes through clearly.

One of the first questions that comes up when writing a soli is “how do I begin.” In Shades of Blue I decided to use the melodic figure that appears in the highest point of the melody (m.20) of the A sections as the source for the opening statement of the soli (m. 120). The rhythm shows up again in m. 127 and there is an extended version of the first motive in m. 131. If you have a good idea that works, use it more than once (but perhaps not more than three times).

Example 2) Shades Of Blue by David Caffey; mm 120 – 148

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 3:47 of the recording.)

The opening measures of the soli demonstrate ways to use very thick 5-part voicings that work well. The voicings in m. 120 use the four pitches of the B diminished 7th with one added pitch drawn from the B diminished scaled. The fifth  pitch chosen in each of the voicings is in the 2nd tenor part and is a half-step below the pitch in the first tenor part. This creates a distinctive dissonance that colors a diminished sound, making it interesting rather than bland. This can be used on altered dominant seventh chord voicings, as well. I learned this technique from studying Thad Jones’ scores. In his scores, you can find brass voicings with eight different pitches, all derived from a single diminished scale.

The five-part voicings in m. 120 are cluster voicings. These work because there is a third between the top two voices. Cluster voicings are also used in mm. 121 and 122. The voicing for the F7(#9) in m. 121 uses, from bottom to top, the 7th, #9th, 3rd, #11th, and 13th.  The first voicing of the following chord in m. 122 consists of the 3rd, b5th, #5th, 7th, and #9th. And it moves on in a similar fashion. This makes for a meaty saxophone section sound. You can open up the voicings with Drop 2, etc, and get the same kind of sound.  The two voicings beginning on beat three of m. 125 are good examples of this.

I try to create balance by separating passages that are technically difficult with passages that are relatively easy. The music needs to breathe, and so do the players! In the Shades Of Blue soli, you will see that there are three spots that have sixteenth note lines. Before and in between those technically challenging spots, there are measures of melody with relatively easy and straightforward rhythms.

I sometimes use a single scale to harmonize a melodic line in a soli like this. In m. 140, for example, the melodic line in the soprano sax is a diminished scale for an octave followed by three chromatic notes moving downward to the concert C on beat two of m. 141. Beginning with the C, there is another diminished scale moving upward. Using the process I described above to voice a diminished chord for five voices, I found a voicing to begin on and then ran all of the voices in exact parallel motion with the soprano. It was quick and easy, and it sounds good! This technique can work well using diminished-whole tone, whole tone, blues, pentatonic, and bebop scales. I recommend not over-using it, though.   

The saxophone soli in Blue 16 is another example that uses the guitar with the saxophones an octave below the soprano sax. The baritone sax is often an octave below the soprano sax, as well, in contrast to the approach used on the previous two solis. 

Example 3) Blue 16 by David Caffey; mm. 132 -179

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 5:21 of the recording.)

An example of the technique of using a single scale to harmonize a melodic line can be found in measure 174 of Blue 16. In this case a pentatonic scale is being used. The soprano sax line was written first. The first voicing for the saxophones was created after testing the line that it could be followed throughout before running out of the range. Then each part has the pentatonic scale line from their starting pitch. Another example of this technique can be found in m. 156.

Measure 175 includes another version of the diminished scale being used to create the voicings throughout the line. In this case, when the line moves upward, the chord tones are approached from a half-step below. When the line moves downward, the chord tones are approach from a half-step above. In this context I think of the scale as being a “melodic diminished scale.” When moving upward the connecting notes of the scale are ½ step below the chord tones; when moving downward the connecting pitches are ½ step above the chord tones. The concept is similar to a melodic minor scale in which scale degree 6 and 7 are raised going up and lowered going down. Another good example of usage of this can be found in mm. 158-159.

Finally, just remember that it’s all about the melody…

About the Author:

David Caffey has appeared as a clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor at music festivals, conferences, universities and schools throughout the United States, in Canada, and in Europe. He was inducted into the California Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 2011. His compositions and arrangements have been performed in concerts and festivals in Europe, Asia, Australia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Canada and throughout the United States. He has won awards for musical composition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE).  He served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2004 to 2006 and is a Founding Member of the Jazz Education Network (JEN). He also serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC). Most of his published compositions and arrangements are available from UNC Jazz Press. His most recent CD, ALL IN ONE by the David Caffey Jazz Orchestra, was released in October 2018 by Artist Alliance Records and is available at Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes. The band’s first release, ENTER AUTUMN, was released in October 2015.

Mr. Caffey recently retired from a career in Higher Education and is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Northern Colorado, where he served as Director of the School of Music from 2005 to 2013.  His work as a college professor and arts administrator spans 44 years and includes previous appointments in Jazz Studies at California State University – Los Angeles, Sam Houston State University, and the University of Denver. He relocated to Southern California in August 2018 and is working full-time as a composer, arranger and music producer.

Artist Blog

An Interview with John Clayton

NOTE: Interview conducted by Paul Read on Jan 10, 2018 at 2:30 PST.

ISJAC: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.

JC: Happy to do it

ISJAC: Where are you at the moment, Los Angeles?

JC: Yes, I am in Los Angeles. I actually was born and raised here and finished school at Indiana University… hit the road for four years and then moved to Holland to be with my, then, girlfriend, now my wife, and played in a symphony orchestra for five years.1The Amsterdam Philharmonic.

ISJAC: You were with the Basie band before you went to Amsterdam?

JC: Yes. After I finished school I went on the road with Monty Alexander and Jeff Hamilton for two years. And I missed out on my dream to play with Duke Ellington – he died while I was still in college – and one of my other dreams was to play with Count Basie. I was studying with Ray Brown and I knew that Ray knew Count Basie very well. So I asked him if he could look into helping me get in touch with him. He said, “Sure” and the next day I was talking to Count Basie [laughter]. He called me and said, “Young man, I hear you would like to play in my orchestra.” and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Basie”. And he said, “Well, I’ll have my manager call you.” and it just so happened that his bass player was leaving in two weeks, so I let Monty Alexander know I had this opportunity and he gave me his blessing. I went with Count Basie and that’s where I really got bit by the writing bug. I’d never studied composition or arranging but I fell in love with that music being able to hear it every night there in real time. I knew how to transpose for instruments and I had some fantasies. So, I asked Mr. Basie if I could write some music, and he said, “sure”. I wrote something that was embarrassingly bad.  [Laughter] I was frustrated, certainly, but I wasn’t put off and I wasn’t discouraged. That’s the best way to put it.  So on one of my breaks I took the recording that Basie had done years before with Neal Hefti of a song called “Splanky.”2Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.

ISJAC: Right.

JC: “Splanky” has an amazing shout chorus,3See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach. and I got goose bumps every time we played it, so I wrote a sketch of everything that was happening in that arrangement. The intro, I wrote it in words…you know: piano – Ab pedal in the left hand, drums plays with sticks, bass playing the pedal. Roman numeral two: melody played in unison by the brass with mutes (and I didn’t know which so I wrote cups, buckets, question mark). Sort of walked through it in words like that, and then I went back and I transcribed as many of the notes that I could hear. From that, I noticed that when we got to the shout chorus I could hear on the recording that the lead trumpet note happened to be the same note that the lead trombone player was playing and the same note that the lead alto was playing so I had discovered this ‘triple lead’ concept of writing…

ISJAC: Yeah, I hear that from time to time in your writing…

JC: Yeah, and the thing that it provides is a lot of clarity for the melody.  So I learned that whenever I want that kind of clarity I could use ‘triple lead’ or even ‘double lead’.  Anyway, that was the beginning.

ISJAC: How much music did you write while you were with Basie? Were you producing an arrangement or composition once a week, once a month?

JC: It went from once a month or every three weeks or so…it was never once a week.

ISJAC: Yeah, that’s a lot!! [Laughter]

JC: I also acknowledged that I did not have the chops to write that fast. And, by the way, they paid me for the arrangements.

ISJAC: That’s great of course.

JC: It was kind of shocking that I wrote my first endeavour and I got paid for it. So that was great.  And they not only paid for the chart, they paid for the copying too.

ISJAC: What a tremendous learning experience. To be inside a band like that, to be playing with the band, and hearing all those colours, and the orchestration. Everything is right there for you. As opposed to learning about those things from a purely theoretical standpoint.

JC: I absolutely agree.

ISJAC: Whenever I played saxophone in a big band, I would particularly notice what the trumpets and trombones were doing…. I mean I couldn’t avoid it…they were sitting right behind me [laughs].  But it is a truly amazing story that you started writing while you were in the Basie band!

JC: And, of course, the guys were very helpful. They had excellent writers in the band: Bobby Plater, Eric Dixon, and Dennis Wilson. Dennis was my homey because he was my age. He was a schooled writer because he studied at Berklee, and he would show me things about writing technically. And the other guys in the band would say things to me off the cuff that turned out to be invaluable – things that I think too many writers don’t know or don’t do. For instance, they’d see me working on a score, and that I was frustrated because we just played it and I’d be making some edits and corrections and they’d say, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I’d say, “Oh, this didn’t sound very good and I just want to change this or that”, and they’d say, “Well don’t change that! Just write another one! And the stuff you didn’t like in this one, don’t put it in the new one.”

ISJAC: Great advice.

JC: And that was so spontaneous on their part, but so deep for me and I followed their advice. With their encouragement, I kept writing and writing and writing. Another time, earlier on, one of the writers in the band was looking at a score of mine and he asked, “You write a ‘C’ score?” I replied [hesitating] “Yeah”, and asked me, “Well why?” and I said, “I don’t know” and then he said, “Don’t do that! Write a transposed score.” So I said, “OK” and that was that.

ISJAC: And is that what you do now?

JC: Yes. I write my sketches in C but then I always write transposed scores. Honestly, I’m at the point now where I have an assistant, so I usually write detailed sketches and use shorthand that she understands and can decipher. I’m in a lot of situations now where I have to write very quickly and so having an assistant is very helpful.

Incidentally, when I write a score, I don’t use notation software. I have Sibelius because I thought I should have it but I really don’t use it. I had Finale before that because I thought I might use it, but I have so many shortcuts that the software slows me down. It’s just the way I write.

ISJAC: I totally get that. It’s so much easier to write something on paper rather than have to look on page 135 of the manual to find out how to put something or other on the score for the first time.

JC: Yeah, and also, let’s say I’m writing a more extended piece. I sit at my piano and to my left is my desk and to the left of my desk, are two music stands. Now, I may need to refer to page 12, or 23 and 35 and, if I have to scroll on a computer, and have a couple of screens open, it really slows me down. But I do understand the importance of that technology and all my charts are computer-generated now and it is great to have those files. I do recognize the value of it. Its just that writing-wise, it’s just not the way I work.

ISJAC: And your assistant puts it into the software? Is that what happens?

JC: Yes. She copies them into the software. I’m not the kind of person who writes one line and says, “Here, make this sound like Thad Jones.” [Laughter].  I mean all the notes on the score are my notes.

ISJAC: You mentioned Thad Jones. He was in the Basie band long before you, right?

JC: Yes, long before.

ISJAC: Was he an influence on your writing?

JC: Huge. Yeah, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, Billy Byers, Oliver Nelson and Henry Mancini.  I got to work with him [Mancini] in my early days, so I really got to hear his treatment of orchestra and big band and big band with strings and all that. And – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out – those are some of the people that really had an influence.

ISJAC: That’s a pretty heavy list. I read a story recently about Thad writing on the band bus. I think the story was in that book that came out last year, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard.”4“50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at Do you know that book?

JC: Yes, I know about that. I don’t have that yet.

ISJAC: I haven’t read all of it yet, it’s pretty comprehensive, but at one point one of the members of the band noted that Thad would be writing a score while riding the band bus and that he was able to shut out everything. Just completely absorbed in what he was doing. Apparently the music was for whatever event they were heading to – a recording session or whatever it was. It takes such great concentration to be able to do that with so much going on around you.  Really amazing.

JC: I think that’s something you learn to do, I mean, if you desire to do it, you figure it out. In fact, I got my chops together doing the exact same thing on the Basie bus. I would sit in the back of the bus and write my scores and then, when we got to the concert hall, or wherever we were going, I’d go to the piano to check things. You know, you do write a little differently when you write away from the piano. It’s not that you write more safely, it’s just that you write things that are a little more familiar to you. And so, yeah, I still write that way. At one point, I had a lesson with Johnny Mandel and he encouraged me to write that way because I played him one of the songs I had composed, and he said, “Mmm, did you write that at the piano?” And I thought about it for a moment, and I said, “Yes I did”, and he said, “Yup, sounds like it. You know people don’t sing chord changes, they sing melodies.” And so, whenever possible I try to write away from the piano. That was a major lesson for me. So to this day I write away from the piano and use the piano it to check what I’ve written.

ISJAC: Do you find yourself singing while you write?

JC: Yes. You know, the musicians have to have a chance to breathe when they play or sing what I’m writing.

ISJAC: I’m curious about something that I think every writer faces as they evolve, and that is developing good judgement or taste. You know, how much you decide to put here or put there. Or when there is enough of a particular idea and its time to move on. I guess I’m referring to the intuitive side of things. Finding rhythmic ideas that feel good, sound good and swing. Do you have any thoughts that would be helpful to students or up and coming composer/arrangers that you might want to share?

JC: I’m big on models. I find training wheels are a really good thing because we’ve all got ideas. We’ve all got fantasies. But if you are in the beginning stages of it, there’s a lot that you don’t know. And if you write from rules, it sounds like you are writing from rules.  To free yourself from that you need to put your feet in the shoes of the masters – the people you are interested in and that have influenced you. When you put your feet in their shoes, you go well beyond the analytical level.  You develop a feel for what they are doing. You develop a feel for the phrases and textures and for the apex of the phrase or the piece – and, of course, that’s really what you want. You don’t merely want to write from an analytical, left brain, point of view. You want to naturally flow the way that the music you enjoy listening to does.

I haven’t had that many composition/arranging students but sometimes I believe sincerely that they kind of don’t want to do what I say. And that’s fine…that’s cool…but if someone was studying with me, I’d would have them work on a three-tiered project. The first part would be to find a piece that they like, that’s close to their level. Don’t focus on a ‘level 25’ piece right now. Focus on something with an  ‘11’ or ‘12’ level of complexity. They are going to have to work hard to get it right,  but because it is close to their level it will be an attainable goal. So, for someone who is just starting out writing, I’m not going to send them to a later Thad chart or later Brookmeyer work. I’m going to send them instead to explore a piece they love. It might be Neal Hefti or early Quincy Jones or something like that where the textures are more at their level.

They would start by describing the piece in some detail using words – including describing the moods. Is it an exciting piece? Is it a romantic piece? What does the mood of this music say to you? Because that’s what we are ultimately doing as writers: we’re expressing ourselves and taking those moods that we want to express and attaching sounds to them.  And they would have to describe the structure of the piece. For example, they would describe the intro, where the melody is, who is playing it, what the textures are…just in words. And then they would have to go back and, as best they can, transcribe the notes of the entire piece. There are some options here if the task is too difficult.  It could be that they don’t transcribe the bass line, or only transcribe a sample of the piano voicings, or not transcribe exactly what the drummer is doing with all of his or her limbs. Then the work is not as daunting as it might seem at first.

So that’s the first tier or part of the project, and then the second tier would be that they would have to write their own piece based on what they just analyzed and transcribed.  Of course they can change things, but they should respect the model they’ve just analyzed. So, instead of an 8 bar intro, they might write a 12 bar intro instead for the new piece. They should note things that were particularly noticeable in the piece they transcribed. For example, they might hear that the trumpets were in a certain register and so, in their piece they would write the trumpets in a similar register. It could be that the composer stuck to tensions like 13s and 9s and maybe just occasional alterations to a certain harmonic structure. Well, they should do the same thing. In other words, if you are going to write something in the style of Mozart, you probably shouldn’t use Ravel-like harmony.

And then, the third part of the project would be to write something that has nothing to do with the first two.  You know, whatever you’re feeling – wherever your fantasies take you. So you don’t feel like you’re becoming a carbon copy of that other music.

And then I would have them go through that whole process three or four times. Then they would have a good 12 pieces that they have have really put their heart and soul into. Some of this is analysis based, and some of it is putting your feet in the shoes of another composer and imitating certain aspects of their writing.  And then finally they do whatever they want to do.

Along with that advice I would address three things that I define as gaps in the skills composers or arrangers that I see today. Number one would be transposing. Become comfortable with writing transposed scores. I can’t tell you how many times, having been instructed by writers in the Basie band to do this has saved my bacon.  I’ve been in so many recording situations or rehearsals when I’m standing in front of an orchestra and a hand goes up, the red light is on, and someone says, “John, can you tell me what my note is in the first bar of letter C?” I look and I see that they are playing French horn, and then I have to do an immediate vertical analysis of the score and figure out what that person’s note has to be changed to. Well, someone else could say that they never write a transposed score and still would be able to answer the French horn player’s question, but then, you don’t know what kind of situations you are going to be in and you may have to conduct someone else’s score and that score might be transposed.

Also, I think that the tendency nowadays in education is to allow students to prepare just enough to get through the gig; just enough to get through the recital; just enough to make it through the lesson; just enough to get through the concert and then move on to the next thing. And that’s kind of the nature of what happens in a lot of schools. But if you look at all the things that you feel good about having done, they reflect, I think, over-learning. You’ve done it so many times you don’t have to think about it. It feels really comfortable. But I think that it is too easy in some instances to be satisfied with doing an adequate job –accepting that that was your best effort and then moving on.

Luckily in my life I’ve had enough people who wouldn’t let me do that. You know, Ray Brown told me, (I can’t tell you how many times – maybe hundreds) – he would say to me, “Here’s what you got to do.” And then he would tell me whatever that was and I’d do it! I trusted him. And if I questioned his advice, I’d kind of put those questions aside for the time being. Often, it would take me a certain amount of time – sometimes years – to look back and say, “Oh, that’s why he had me do that!”

ISJAC: Ha! [Both laugh]

JC:  So Ray Brown, and like I said, the guys in the Basie band would give me that kind of advice. Even Basie. At one time, I was really writing a lot and the band was playing more and more of my stuff, and I said to him, “Chief,”  – we used to call him Chief, “ – would you ever consider allowing me to write an album for the band? It would be an honour for me and I would love to do it.” And he kind of looked at the ceiling and looked around and you know, like he wasn’t quite hearing me. So I sort of slithered out of the room and never brought it up again. Well, years later – because I know he heard me – I’d already left the band and I was living in Holland and I found some cassette tapes of some rehearsals and some things I’d done with band, and I’m listening to them and the light bulb went on. And I thought, oh my god, I wasn’t ready. He knew that I wasn’t ready and he allowed me to discover, at some point in life, that I wasn’t ready. He didn’t say ‘no’ to me and he didn’t say ‘yes’ either. He left it alone and that is one example of those lessons that Basie allowed me to learn.

ISJAC: What a wonderful lesson.  I wanted to mention that I had occasion to play some of your charts many years ago while playing piano in a big band, I think in Vancouver, and there were several guest artists – one of them being Diana Krall. I expected her to play piano for her part of the concert and I started to get up and she said, “No, you play,” so I was in the, what I think was the unusual position of playing piano behind her.  I think some of the charts might have been on the From this Moment On recording that you arranged for her. I can’t remember exactly. But one of the things I noticed while I was playing your music was the economy, that’s the word that comes to mind…there wasn’t a note out of place, and there wasn’t too much of anything. It was just right. Everything was clear and beautiful. And I haven’t forgotten that experience. It was a great lesson for me about writing music to accompany a singer, or any other writing for that matter.

JC: Wow, thank you!

ISJAC: It’s so easy to overwrite (I do it all the time!).

JC: Yes, it truly is. [Laughs]. You’re absolutely right and we learn that by…overwriting! There are no shortcuts, you know. Again, I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been around people that have encouraged me and been patient with me as I developed my writing skills. They saw how eager I was and how much I wanted to do it. Nobody said, “You’re going to have to figure this out on your own.” Or, “I don’t have time for you.” It was never that. And that helped me understand the familial relationship that we musicians have with each other, with this community that we are a part of. But the ‘economy’ thing… the older I get, the simpler I want to write. And the reason I want to write simpler is because I am striving for clarity. Even if I’m writing a piece that has a lot of information in it, and has a lot going on, I want there to be a lot of clarity in the textures and the complexities I’m involving myself in.

Here’s an example: I might have a two-fisted chord with 10 or 11 notes in it…oh I guess there would have to be 10, wouldn’t it? [Laughs] Or I guess it could have 11, but anyway, what I’ll do is play a crunchy, thick, dark chord, and I’ll just start lifting fingers and play the chord again with those fingers lifted and if I still get the effect that I’m going for, then I’ll lift another finger and I’ll think, can I eliminate that? And sometimes I think, no, I need that one, and I’ll put my finger back down.

When you write for a vocalist – and Bill Holman said this – it’s almost like taking candy from a baby. A lot of ‘givens’ are already in place. You already know the length of the piece, you already know the key, and you already know the tempo. You already know the time signature. You already know the melody. You know, there are so many givens and you remember the basic rules: enhance the mood and probably before that, don’t step on the singer. Then continue to do what you can to draw the ear toward the vocalist. So with all those parameters known, it makes it pretty easy to work with them and adapt them to your taste. Versus, if someone says,  “I’d like you to write a composition for me – write whatever you want”. Now I have to come up with virtually everything. And even though we love doing that, it’s definitely going to take more time and thought and effort than doing an arrangement for a vocalist.

ISJAC: You encourage those who you are around because that is what others did for you. And with respect to that, I have a question related to your son, Gerald.  I love his playing and everything he does.

JC: Thanks.

ISJAC: I have a daughter and when she was young I decided not to teach her. It was a difficult decision, but I thought it best to separate the dad part from the teacher part. As I was thinking about interviewing you, I thought I’d ask how you approached that with him as he was growing up. Did you teach him, or just encourage him, or…?

JC: Yeah, I think that it was more of the latter. My wife and I supported and encouraged, but we never pushed. And his older sisters, they are a year older than he is, and they both were taken to concerts and there was always music around. Actually, I didn’t have a stereo in the house but they heard a lot of music and knew what was going on. Once that I saw that Gerald was interested in going the music route, I just did my best, like most parents, to supply him with things that hopefully would help him move forward. So it was not only taking him to concerts, but also showing him a melody or showing him a chord that he was trying to figure out or, maybe just chiming in, but then stepping back and leaving him alone. I just didn’t want him to feel pressured. But then, often I’d be in the kitchen cooking dinner and Gerald would be in the other room practicing and he’d be playing a tune that I knew and I’d call out, “No, that’s an A-flat!” [Laughter]. So there’d be moments like that, but for the most part I was, as you say, more encouraging.

ISJAC: Thank you for sharing that. I suppose it was a bit of a departure, but I thought I’d ask you about that.

JC: How old is your daughter?

ISJAC: She turned 41 on New Year’s Eve.  She was into music and played piano and flute, but ultimately she became a graphic designer and art director, which, interestingly enough, is what her grandmother did.

JC: Yeah it’s funny. My daughter hasn’t followed in my wife’s footsteps but is aligned more to her way of thinking…and it’s a combination for sure, but I feel a lot more of my wife’s influence in my daughter in direction than I do in Gerald in a lot of ways. We’re a close-knit family.

ISJAC: I’ve always been fascinated by the great musician families. You mentioned the La Barberas: Pat, John and Joe, and the Jones family, Thad, Hank and Elvin, the Heath brothers, and…the Clayton family too.

JC: You never know!

ISJAC: Before I let you go, are there any current projects, performances or recordings you might like to mention?

JC: Before I do that, I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed our chat! Thanks for all of the time you’re putting into this.

I guess you could mention to be on the lookout for a few projects this year. There is possibly/probably a duo release with the wonderful (deceased) pianist, Mulgrew Miller. I’m also discussing releasing or rerecording the Monterey Jazz Festival commission I did, “STORIES OF A GROOVE, Conception, Evolution, Celebration.” It’s one of the largest works I’ve done and I’d like to release it in some fashion. That’s all being discussed. So, everything is percolating! Fingers crossed that it all comes together.

ISJAC: Thanks. What a joy to talk to you!

JC: Likewise.

ISJAC: And, thanks for the lesson! I learned a lot.

JC: Yeah, well I was just passing along what was passed along to me.

ISJAC: Thanks, John.



Shout chorus from “Splanky” composed for the Count Basie Band and is recorded on “The Atomic Mr. Basie”. Demonstrates ‘triple lead’ orchestration. Lead trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone are doubled at the octave.

About John Clayton:

John Clayton is a natural born multitasker. The multiple roles in which he excels — composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and yes, extraordinary bassist — garner him a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar.

He began his bass career in elementary school playing in strings class, junior orchestra, high school jazz band, orchestra, and soul/R&B groups. In 1969, at the age of 16, he enrolled in bassist Ray Brown’s jazz class at UCLA, beginning a close relationship that lasted more than three decades. After graduating from Indiana University’s School of Music with a degree in bass performance in 1975, he toured with the Monty Alexander Trio (1975-77), the Count Basie Orchestra (1977-79), and settled in as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam, Netherlands (1980-85). He was also a bass instructor at The Royal Conservatory, The Hague, Holland from 1980-83.

In 1985 he returned to California, co-founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in 1986, rekindled the The Clayton Brothers quintet, and taught part-time bass at Cal State Long Beach, UCLA and USC. In 1988 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where he taught until 2009. Now, in addition to individual clinics, workshops, and private students as schedule permits, John also directs the educational components associated with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Centrum Festival, and Vail Jazz Party.

Career highlights include arranging the ‘Star Spangled Banner” for Whitney Houston’s performance at Super Bowl 1990 (the recording went platinum), playing bass on Paul McCartney’s CD “Kisses On The Bottom,” arranging and playing bass with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” and arranging playing and conducting the 2009 CD “Charles Aznavour With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra,” and numerous recordings with Diana Krall, the Clayton Brothers, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz, Orchestra, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and many others.




1 The Amsterdam Philharmonic.
2 Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.
3 See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach.
4 “50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at
Artist Blog

Michael Phillip Mossman: On Arranging

When I teach arranging at Queens College I like to use lots of analogies, mostly having to do with cooking or architecture. As musicians it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the music and lose our connection with the human experience. Everyone eats and everyone needs a place to live so cooking and building make for good points of reference. Particularly, I think of arranging as preparing a meal for friends. If I knew I had a group of vegans coming over for dinner I could buy the choicest cut of meat available and grill it to perfection yet my dinner would be a failure. Similarly, if I had a group of cattle ranchers over, tofu as the main course might disappoint. So before I start a project I like to take some time to think about who will be involved and what would fulfill or exceed our needs. What can I prepare that will bring out the best in all the participants? These include the performers, sometimes a featured guest artist, the audience, the promoters, perhaps a publisher and certainly myself.

In some cases thought alone will get me there but in other cases I need to do significant homework to get to know the participants better. In this way I can create something original yet take into account the particular talents and abilities of the people involved. This is similar to the architect who designs an house based on its setting, the surrounding environment, the needs of the owner and those of the town while still staying true to his/her own standards of design and style.

The homework process isn’t always easy.

My first experiences as a professional arranger came writing for Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I was the jazz soloist in the trumpet section and was probably one of the least savvy when it came to understanding how to arrange music for a band with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. I had studied composition with Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory and had taken arranging lessons with Don Sebesky in New York so I had some idea how to write but was way out of my depth when it came to these styles at this level of collective expertise. In addition to the technical issues there were cultural and personal skills to learn as well. We used to rehearse in the basement of Boy’s Harbor, an institution in East Harlem. Everything about these rehearsals was inconvenient. Getting there from Brooklyn was inconvenient. Waiting for everyone to show up was inconvenient. Arguing over the figures and whether they were in clave was inconvenient. Some of the band members were real characters with musical talent but had odd personal traits. There were many egos as well to navigate amongst the musicians, whose approval of the music meant a chart’s adoption or rejection. Inconvenient!

Its much easier to just work everything out in your head and enter the music into a notation or sequencing program and just hope the musicians play their parts right.

But the magic in music is when all these inconvenient individuals bring all their voices and opinions together and we work through difficulties and possibilities together. The wisdom and experience of each musician in that band, along with the opportunity Mario gave to me as a young arranger were among the greatest gifts one can receive. The extended family that was Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra taught me how to arrange for that band by sharing their knowledge. Bobby Sanabria showed me numerous bell patterns to learn and recordings to listen to. Victor Paz shared his unique philosophy of what makes for good section writing in that context. Patato Valdez reminded me how much deeper the tradition was than could be captured in any chart. Still, when I arranged a melody given me by Mario in a style that was a bit off center from the band’s repertoire, they trusted me.

Example track “Lourdes’ Lullaby” from album 944 Columbus:

The sharing process is not always pain-free! Once I transcribed a vocorder recording Joe Zawinul gave me to orchestrate for the album “My People.” I didn’t understand the groove under it but was too timid to ask for an explanation. I wrote it out mistaking where the downbeats in the bars were! Yikes! But the experience reminded me never to be either too fearful or pompous to ask questions and seek help from performers. Making and correcting errors, however frustrating and sometime embarrassing is essential for growth and is sometime necessary do arrive at the best work possible for the people involved. I regularly consult with performers about bass lines, piano figures, percussion breaks, section orchestration, etc. In the process I have learn new techniques and also history, language and a greater cultural awareness through these personal interactions. Personality is the essence of style! An orchestra is made up of people, not just instruments.

As I teach my students: “The audience does not hear your chart. They hear people playing your chart.” If the music fits the performers and brings out their best, that’s what the audience hears. (Perhaps the best example I have experienced as a performer is when I have played with Jimmy Heath’s band! Love is in every part in every chart.)

Another part of the homework process is transcription, including transcribing grooves (including bass lines, cymbal patterns and drum, piano voicing styles, particular harmonic languages) and melodic construction. A recent album I did with the WDR bigband with Mohktar Samba and friends as guest artists required a great deal of transcription. The Senegalese and Morrocan grooves we were using were new to me and to learn them meant a massive immersion into listening and transcribing as much as I needed to get the grooves right. As I teach my students: Get ahold of any material you can to learn what you need to get the groove right so what you do with the winds doesn’t crush the groove! In this case Mohktar had a book with examples of the grooves, recordings and video to check out. And I asked him questions, directly, which is by far the best way to learn. A ten-minute conversation with a real artist is worth hours of “Googling” stuff!

Still we had to resolve issues in rehearsals, which involved listening to one another and negotiating solutions. More human stuff! Inconvenient! But the growth offered by such work is enormous and mirrors the very process we need in all forms of human engagement.

Link to example, WDR rehearsal with Mohktar Samba, directed by Michael Philip Mossman:

As terrifying and painful transcribing unfamiliar material can be, the practice leads rewarding artistic growth. The truly terrifying thought for me is churning out the same kind of stuff the rest of my life!

While composing and arranging can be a solitary pursuit, learning to share ideas and collaborate can also lead to larger opportunities such as ballet, Broadway and film scoring. It can be inconvenient sometimes, to bend your ideas to include the needs and opinions of others. But with practice their knowledge and experience can become yours in the process. Here is a clip I scored for the animated film “Chico and Rita,” nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. The director, Fernando Trueba is a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban jazz and its historical context. Working with him was as much a learning experience as a creative one. Music is essential to most movies. Yet the role of the composer/arranger/orchestrator is subject to the needs of the action on screen and succeds or fails on that basis.

Clip from Chico and Rita:

Perhaps not as flashy as film scoring and recording albums is the kind of collaboration I do with my publisher, Hal Leonard (which is really the people who work at Hal Leonard… corporations are made of people!) I have gained an enormous amount of respect for the work publishers do to keep music strong in our schools. To produce work for a school market means listening to the needs of directors and state boards of educators. This can be the most difficult of all for creative artists! Arranging under technical and range restrictions is very challenging. Writing for Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band was easy in comparison… they could play anything! But answering the needs of a director in rural school district who may or may not have a strong lead trumpeter or who might have a freshman bassist means preparing music that can teach as well as sound good. If there is anything I am proud of its seeing videos of bands across the US playing charts I arranged and learning how to play a Mambo or Partido Alto. Without music in schools we have no public to enjoy hearing jazz in the first place! No question, it is inconvenient to get a score back with 50 questions about articulations, range decisions and rhythmic quantization. But the expertise and experience of editors I have shared has raised my work considerably and has helped me become a better professor of arranging!

So, in summation, we all celebrate creativity and innovation. Individual achievement in the arts is what we strive for. But my long-winded rant has been one of listening and learning from others in the pursuit of a collective result. It’s the Yin and Yang of jazz arranging: We strive for individuality but we depend upon the work of others to realize what we have created. Gaining the full value of the performers and the satisfaction of our audience depends on our level of understanding and respect for their work and needs as well.

About the Author:


Michael Philip Mossman has been active on the international scene since the age of 17. And has recorded with his own groups and with a virtual “who’s who” of the music industry.

Michael was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his “Afro-Latin Ellington Suite.” Michael has composed and arranged music for the films “Bossa Nova” and “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. His ballet “Beneath the Mask” was performed by Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra with the Deeply Rooted Dance Company. His ballet, La Cova do Rey Cintolo was premiered in 2010 in Mondoñedo, Spain.

Mr. Mossman has conducted the Bilbao Symphonic Orchestra in Spain, and has composed and arranged scores for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Tri-Cities Symphony, Joe Henderson’s Grammy winning Big Band album, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Slide Hampton and the Jazz Masters Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera, the UMO Orchestra of Finland, the NDR Big Band of Hamburg, WDR of Cologne, HR Bigband of Frankfurt, HGM Bigband of Zagreb, Danish Radio Big Band, the Andalucia Latin Jazz Big Band, Heineken Jazz Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, Granada Bigband, Sedajazz Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit.

Following stints as lead trumpet with the Machito Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Michael became the musical director of Blue Note Record’s “young lion” group, Out of the Blue. He recorded four albums for Blue Note with this group before joining the Horace Silver Quintet. Michael has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McKoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Zawinul, Slide Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Faddis, George Gruntz, Bob Mintzer, Steve Turre, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Tom Pierson, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Benny Carter, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Michael has played lead trumpet with the Michel Camilo Bigband, the Jon Faddis Orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra and the Jimmy Heath Bigband among many others.

Michael has also been a key performer in Latin Jazz since his days with Machito. Mr. Mossman has performed and recorded with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Daniel Ponce, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdez and Michel Camilo (including a screen appearance in the motion picture “Two Much”). Michael is featured in director Fernando Trueba’s highly acclaimed documentary on contemporary Latin Jazz, “Calle 54” as both performer and commentator. He also served as arranger and trumpet soloist for the legendary innovator of Latin Jazz, Mario Bauza and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.

Michael is featured as lead trumpet and arranger on the Grammy winning album, “Song for Chico,” by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as on “Un Noche Inolvidable” and “40 Acres and a Burro.” Solo releases by Michael Philip Mossman include “Springdance,” “Mama Soho,” “The Orisha Suite,” “Missa Afro-Cubana,” “Soul con Timba Live at Bohemian Cavern.”

Michael, a Yamaha Artist, is currently Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York City. Michael’s music is published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.



Artist Blog

Thinking Forward (Blog 17)

by Paul Read, ISJAC Artist Blog Curator

This month’s blog is a blog about blogging (say that three times very fast)… and the ISJAC blog in particular. This is our 17th entry… can you believe how tempus fugit?

A little background to start with:

When asked to curate the ISJAC Artist Blog a year and half ago, I agreed because I am of the opinion that composing and arranging involve life-long learning. And having a place on this site where jazz composers/arrangers might share ideas, experiences, or muse/opine about anything at all seemed (and still seems) like a terrific idea to me. I’ve been composing and arranging music in a variety of genres and styles since I was about 16 or 17 (I turn 70 next February…Yikes!!) I have had wonderful teachers over the years (there’s a list in my Mar 1/17 article), and like most music creators, I find I am constantly learning – by doing, by studying scores, by listening, improvising, experimenting, and so on. Thus, I’m sure you will understand why I have really enjoyed the blogs that have been posted so far and have found them both  inspirational and informative.

The first thing I did back in mid-2016, was to draw up an initial wish-list of potential contributors – an obvious first step. Then I started to look for contact info and/or emails for those that I didn’t have on hand. The first iteration of the list was chock full of highly accomplished, skilled and knowledgeable musicians – all of them personal musical ‘heros’. The list is long and I keep amending it and appending to it. It will be some time before I have made contact with everyone. But in the past 16 months it has been tremendous to have so many great musicians agree to contribute – and some have written more than once. Scroll down to see a list of the 16 contributors we have had since John La Barbera posted our first entry on July 1, 2016. We trust you have been enjoying what they have had to say and also the many resources accompanying the articles – many include scores, excerpts, links to video and audio files.

We invite your comments:

So now we have arrived at month 17 and are wondering how the blog is being received by our members and other readers. We don’t have any clear picture, as there has been very little (as in, almost no) feedback so far. As a result, we thought it might be a good idea to ask for a little help from you and to ask you to tell us briefly what you think of it so far.  I expect that this will be very helpful as ISJAC has quite a few members now so we expect the feedback will indicate many different points of view. Please consider leaving a short comment at the bottom of this article, or any previous blog.  Or, send an email and let us know what you think about the directions we are taking. If you have suggestions that would make this blog stronger or of greater interest to you, please include those as well. Your note doesn’t have to be more than one sentence or can even be point form.

Why you may find the blog helpful:

I know I’m not alone when I say that, when composing, I sometimes experience a sense of not knowing what the heck I am doing. Being an habitual deconstructionist, I used to find this bothersome. But somewhere along the line, I learned through experience, and from other composers, with skills far superior to mine, that this state of mind is not unusual at all – in fact, when it occurs, it best be embraced. We know that music theory is something that is created through close examination of what composers write. Not the other way around. As I am sure is the case with you, I study and analyze scores and recordings so I can find out as much as I can about why and how the music works so well. Man, there is so much to learn. That may be why I value this blog so much.

Before Closing:

The 16 previous articles have been stellar and, in my opinion, they make for great reading and offer helpful information and insights. We feel they provide valuable resources for anyone involved in this great art form. Some of the past blogs have been ‘how-to articles’ while others have been more personal, historical, analytical or general in scope. Some bloggers have offered individual accounts of their unique writing processes. As curator, I am very lucky to be able to see them before anyone else does J. We are looking forward to future entries and hope you will check back to see the December 1 article (blogger TBA).

In the meantime, I hope you might contact me at I hope to hear from you soon.

We would appreciate your passing along our website address to friends and colleagues. It might be good to mention that membership in ISJAC is free!!

OK, here is a list of our previous ISJAC blogs:



7/1/16 John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 1
8/1/16 John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 2
9/1/16 Adam Benjamin on Jazz Composition
10/1/16 David Berger’s Answers to Common Jazz Arranging Questions
11/1/16 Rick Lawn: Remembering Manny Albam
12/1/16 Bill Dobbins and Concerto for Jazz Orchestra: the Use of a Twelve-Tone Row in a Large Scale Jazz Composition
1/1/17 Rick Lawn: Lessons I’ve Learned
2/1/17 Florian Ross: Cooking & Eggs
3/1/17 Paul Read: Minor and Major Seconds, 1959, Transcribing, Score Study and other Reflections
4/1/17 Terry Promane: Give Me 5
5/1/17 Asuka Kakitani: My personal perspective on composing
6/1/17 Fred Hersch: A Composition Exercise to Try Today
7/1/17 Bob Mintzer: The Ever Evolving Writing Process
8/1/17 Adam Benjamin: Some Thoughts on Listening
9/1/17 Ryan Keberle: Eight Things I’ve Learned About Jazz Composition and Arranging as a Freelance Trombonist
10/1/17 Scott Robinson: Following the Music


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 Program (1987 to 2006). He has also taught in the summers at the Ken Kistner Jazz Camp (Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan) and the Prairielands Jazz Camp (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is now retired from education.

Selected Recordings:

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 cdbaby, and Arc-en-ciel  (Addo Records) – Paul Read Orchestra (2013) Now available on cdbaby.


2017 Inducted into the MusicFest Canada Hall of Fame, 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:

Artist Blog

Scott Robinson: Following the Music

There are times when I am reminded of the power that creative music can have in our world.

Living in the New York City area, I confess I am in a bit of a bubble. Creative opportunities abound here, with many inspiring colleagues, and even the most adventurous music finds eager listeners who usually know a thing or two about what we are trying to do.

But this music is a hardy traveler, with a well-stamped passport. She visits many places, opens many doors. She makes friends easily, sleeps around, and has children of mixed heritage. As a devoted servant of this music, I follow her where she leads… and she can lead me to some unlikely places. My trip to Pakistan is a recent case in point.

PAKISTAN?” you say? That’s exactly what I said when my old friend and colleague, bassist Pat O’Leary, first called me about going there. His wife Gabrielle Stravelli – a very fine singer — was putting a group together for a State Department-funded trip, and they wanted me to go. For a guy who dreams of playing in every country on Earth (I’ve made it to about 60… long ways to go!), this was certainly enticing… but also somewhat concerning. What about safety and security? What were the risks?

My wife didn’t want me to go… and I don’t blame her a bit. But I gave it a lot of thought. Yes, I felt nervous about being in potential targets like big Western-style hotels (think Mumbai) and consulates (Benghazi). But, on reflection, I realized that I feel just as much a target every time I enter the Lincoln Tunnel right here at home. And there had just recently been a terror attack in Times Square. Maybe I was more at risk right here in New York.

And there’s something else: I feel a sense of duty when it comes to this music. She needs to be shared… to be taken out into the world. Not just to the comfortable, well-known destinations, but sometimes off the worn path, to places where she may risk being greeted with blank incomprehension… or even hostility. This is part of what we do. It’s a part of the job description for anyone wanting to continue what Louis Armstrong started. Sometimes you have to follow the music where she leads. It’s a bit like walking the dog – and then realizing at a certain point that the dog is really walking you.

I decided to go. My brother was stunned: “You’re going to go play jazz, in Pakistan… with a woman?!” I was reminded of my own reaction when my friend Bob Belden told me he was going to Tehran to play some jazz concerts. “C’mon, really? Iran? You’re joking.” Nonetheless, he later told me he had an incredible experience and was very well-received, and sent me an amazing photo of his Iranian audience cheering and waving.

My own trip was equally eye-opening. We travelled with armed guards, and every venue — including schools, hotels, and TV stations, as well as diplomatic facilities — was likewise under armed protection. Our performances were all by invitation only, with no advertising or advance exposure on social media, in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. But never once did I feel any hint of hostility, whether under those controlled conditions or just out in the street. In fact, warmth and friendliness were easy to find. Visiting the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore one day, we were shyly approached by a group of schoolgirls in traditional Muslim garb who wanted their photos taken with us (we were the exotic ones), and before long we were all smiling, laughing, and taking “selfies” together. As we said our goodbyes, their teacher came up to us with incredible graciousness and sincerity. “You have no idea how much that meant to our girls,” he said. “They will not forget your kindness.”

Our first performance took place in a little arts café in Islamabad, run by two very industrious and dedicated individuals who are devoted to the idea of bringing such small venues back to the Pakistani landscape where, I was told, they once proliferated. Known as the Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education, or FACE (the word “music” being omitted due to the belief in certain quarters that music is forbidden by Islamic Law), this little venue serves as an art gallery, café, performance space and educational center all in one. It quickly filled with a small but enthusiastic and diverse audience, eager to hear – yes — music. We played a short set first, after which we were treated to an amazing duo performance by two Pakistani virtuosos of the sitar and tablas. Then, the two groups joined together and gave an impromptu collaborative performance, the kind of thing that could only have taken place among improvising musicians (the Pakistanis are very fluent improvisers). This was a revelation, hearing these two disparate cultures meet in the realm of sound and creativity, the two musics intertwining like living things. The people loved it.

Later, socializing up on the rooftop lounge, I met a Pakistani gentleman who described himself as a documentary filmmaker, and I was struck by the depth of his gratitude and sincerity. “I want to thank you,” he said earnestly, “for bringing your music here, to this harsh environment.” I asked him what he meant by “harsh environment.” “We always loved music in Pakistan,” he told me, “it is in our blood. But now, it is very difficult for music here. Many feel that it is forbidden. This is very sad; we need music here. It is an important part of our culture and history.” I asked him what he thought was the solution to this state of affairs, and was rather stunned by his response. He thought for a moment, then looked me in the eye and said, “We must fight against religion.”

I know this answer will not sit well with some. But I found it remarkable to hear such candor on the rooftop of a tiny arts café in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (that is the country’s full name) — and ironically coming from a man whose appearance, to be perfectly frank, would probably be unfairly associated with the words “Islamic extremist” in the minds of many Americans. It caused me to wonder what sort of risks some of these people might be taking, both to present and to partake of this music here in this “harsh environment”… perhaps greater than any perceived risks I may have taken to bring it here. In fact, there is a long history of people taking extraordinary risks to embrace American jazz, in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and elsewhere. On my first trip to Japan I was standing outside a noodle shop in Nagoya with alto great Jerry Dodgion. The proprietor recognized Jerry and ran outside to beckon us in, enthusing about having once seen Jerry with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. “I love jazz, I love American jazz musicians,” he gushed while plying us with food and drink. Then, “I have something to show you,” and off he scurried… returning moments later with a tabletop wind-up Victrola and a small stack of 78s! To my astonishment, a few cranks later the sound of Louis Armstrong was filling the room. “My father kept these records hidden during World War II,” he told us proudly. “If you were caught with American music, you could go to prison… or worse.”

This was the moment that I began to comprehend the power that this music can actually have. Here I was, thousands of miles from home, hearing this glorious sound come out of a fragile disk spinning at our table, and thinking, this is who won the war. The generals, the battleships, the emperor are all long gone, but Louis Armstrong and his music came through it all unscathed. The guns and bombs long ago fell silent, but this music still speaks. It lives on… not just in New York, not just in America… but here in this little shop in Japan, where someone cherished and preserved it, and took considerable risks to pass it on to his son. That is real power: the power to move minds and hearts in troubled times, to serve as a kind of antidote to the ills and evils of the world… and ultimately to outlast them.

The timing of our trip to Pakistan proved to be fortuitous in just this regard. The very day we arrived, our American president delivered a speech containing some remarks about Pakistan which touched off quite a bit of ill will, and were considered by many Pakistanis to be threatening. The backlash could be seen daily in the Pakistani newspaper editorials. Anti-American street demonstrations sprang up and persisted for days, resulting in cancellations of several of our events due to security concerns and an overabundance of caution. And yet, whenever we performed, we were met with warmth and gratitude. There was the young woman in a head scarf, eager to tell me how excited she was to be hearing American jazz for the very first time… the astonished young man staring at my instrument, asking me what it was – having never seen a saxophone before (he was not alone!)… the star leader of the “Qawwali” band we collaborated with who, after a very long rehearsal with Gabrielle, told her it was the first time he’d ever sung with a woman… the music teacher and instrument collector who spent seven hours with me the day we met (taking me to his school, his home, out to eat — even buying me a set of Pakistani clothes!), and who wrote the next day after being up half the night listening to my music, “You’re a great musician and I am your student and fan… I love your music from the core.”

This is why we’re here, I thought: to offer up our music and let it serve as an antidote, and to let its presence, and ours, bring commonality and goodwill. And not only our music, but the Pakistani songs we learned and performed as well. We touched a small number of people, I know… but they will carry the experience away with them. They will tell their families, their friends, that all Americans do not despise them. And they will remember.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic reaction I received came during a workshop we gave in the sweltering, smelly basement of a cultural center in Karachi, when I was asked to introduce my instrument to the crowd. “This is my saxophone,” I told them. “We’ve been together a very long time, more than forty years. She is much more socially adept than I am, much better at making friends. Smarter, too! And she likes to travel. So by staying close to her, I have been able to meet many wonderful people all over the world. And now I am very happy because, today, she has brought me here to meet all of you.” The place erupted. Music wins again.

I intend to continue to follow this music for as long as she will put up with me. I seem to show my age, but my 100-plus-year-old escort does not. Ageless, she has survived countless calamities, injustices, and upheavals, and will doubtless outlast many more… yet her voice is as clear and sweet as ever. As she trots around the world and makes herself perfectly at home, I am grateful to still be allowed to tag along. I hope we’ll run into you somewhere.


About the Author:

Scott Robinson and his unusual reed and brass instruments have been heard in some 60 nations and on 260 recordings with a cross-section of jazz greats representing nearly every imaginable style of the music, including Bob Brookmeyer, Tom Harrell, Frank Wess, Maria Schneider, Anthony Braxton, Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruby Braff and Roscoe Mitchell. Primarily a tenor saxophonist, Scott once placed directly below the great Sonny Rollins in the DownBeat Readers Poll. As a composer, his works range from solo performance pieces to chamber and symphonic works. He has been a writer of essays and liner notes, an invited speaker before the Congressional Black Caucus, and a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Scott releases highly adventurous music on his ScienSonic Laboratories label, and his Doctette (celebrating pulp adventure hero Doc Savage) gave what The Boston Globe called “the most quirky and delightful set” of the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival. See

Artist Blog

Ryan Keberle: Eight Things I’ve Learned About Jazz Composition and Arranging as a Freelance Trombonist

This was a difficult writing assignment for me. As I tried to decide what to write, I kept thinking about the wealth of resources that aspiring jazz arrangers have at their disposal, including the brilliant pedagogical methods books from people like Ray Wright, Don Sebesky, Bill Dobbins, David Berger, etc.  And, as the ISJAC Blog has made readily apparent, there is also a wealth of knowledge possessed by a new generation of jazz composers like Darcy James Argue and Adam Benjamin who are eager to share their knowledge in eloquent and insightful ways. So I asked myself, what do I bring to the world of composition and arranging that perhaps others may not? Although I’ve had many wonderful teachers over the years and have read many insightful books on the subject, the lessons I most frequently refer to in my own compositional and arranging pursuits come from the enormous amount of time I’ve spent playing trombone in a big band, large ensemble, or even in small groups. This brings up an important yet slightly off-topic discussion on why performance experience is even more valuable than most people recognize in the training of educators. But, we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. For now, I’ll focus on lessons learned that may or may not be included in your typical jazz arranging textbook, or concepts that, when experienced playing in an ensemble, might present themselves differently thus allowing for an alternative point of view.

1. Your Music Should be Fun to Play!! (Learned from every great composer and arranger whose music I’ve had the pleasure to play, including Duke, Sy Oliver, Mingus, JJ, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, David Berger, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, Darcy James Argue, Miguel Zenon, Sufjan Stevens, et al.)

This seems like such an easy thing to do and, really, if it’s foremost on your mind throughout the creative process, it can be! However, with so much to think about and to consider while composing and arranging, I find that this lesson, (which in my mind is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to creating quality music), is oftentimes the first to get overlooked. It’s important to define what I mean by “fun”. I DON’T mean the music has to be tongue-in-cheek or sound like cartoon soundtracks. Sometimes, by just simply providing eight measures of solo improvisation you can make your music fun and satisfying to one of your performers. Fun music means music that is rewarding to play. And, when writing for a highly trained jazz musician, this means music that challenges yet still allows for a performance of swinging, grooving, beautiful music that sounds easy and natural. I’ve played plenty of music that is extremely challenging yet, even when you and your bandmates nail it, the music that results still doesn’t feel good, and probably doesn’t sound all that good either. This brings up an interesting challenge because the ideal solution I’m suggesting is not to simplify what you’ve written or eliminate the more challenging passages. Instead, this challenge is best addressed by singing or, even better, playing through the passage in question while listening for those moments of uncertainty. Once you’ve identified the problem spot it’s usually pretty easy to find a more natural alternative, and that allows for the preservation of the larger musical idea. Other ways I’ve found to make music more “fun” is to incorporate improvisation in non-soloistic ways (see #3 below); write for each instrument using prototypical techniques and phrases; avoid extended periods of rest for the same person; write music with rhythmic nuance (see #2 below); or write music to be performed at a Halloween party for pet owners and their pets (that is my horrible attempt at a joke and also an actual gig I played once…!)

2. Rhythm is Everything (Also learned from every master jazz composer and arranger.)

Whether its swing, straight 8ths, 80’s pop ballads, or Venezuelan 5/8 merengues, this lesson still holds true. Rhythm should always be first and foremost on your mind. And what about rhythm should one think about? That’s easy. One simple question can be your guide throughout the creative process: Does the rhythm FEEL good? It’s important to note that this question and process relies on the composer possessing a certain baseline level of fluency in the musical language and genre within they’re working. Assuming this is the case, the ability to FEEL a rhythm’s personality is of the utmost importance when performing and composing good music. A few specific compositional techniques that I have found to help in creating a rhythm of quality that feels good are a balance of syncopated and downbeat-oriented rhythms; rhythms that contain unexpected moments of movement or elements of surprise; rhythms that contain patterns, both simple and complex; and rhythms that reflect the rhythmic language of the genre.

Something else I often think about is striving for rhythms that sound like they were improvised or rhythms that have a unique personality. Imagine the way Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane would play the melody of a jazz standard. Almost every phrase will have personalized changes – primarily rhythmic variations – making the final product sound a whole lot different from the way it’s notated in a Real Book. (Oh, Real Books. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!)

3. Strive for Balance Between the Composed and Improvised (Learned from David Berger)

My definition of a jazz composer is someone who writes music that balances the pre-composed with improvisation in their music. This is something very much on my mind these days given that the more improvisation one organically incorporates into their arrangement the more fun the musicians will have playing it (full circle back to Lesson #1 above!). Here’s something I wrote in 2015 that demonstrates how improvisation can be incorporated into a jazz arrangement in unorthodox and creative ways. I’ll let you figure out how much of this is improvised, but as a hint, I’ll tell you that with the exception of the intro from 0:00 to 1:35 most of what the band plays is improvised (and even this section we now improvise during live gigs). Yet, you’ll notice that there is very little “solo improvisation.”

“I Thought I Knew” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

And now, here is the trumpet part to give you an idea of what was pre-composed and what the brilliant Mike Rodriguez added. (Which is always way more hip than anything I could have come up with!)


4. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions (Learned from Maria Schneider)

So much of what we’re taught in jazz education deals with details. How to properly notate a chord, the best scale to use over a certain chord (a chord that lasts for all of one measure!), how to feel a 4 over 3 polyrhythm, etc. As a result of this attention to detail, many jazz musicians are challenged when it comes to really hearing and appreciating those big picture aspects of music. One of those aspects is how a composer/arranger travels in real time from one unique musical moment to the next. A great example of the importance of transitions can be heard in Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, perhaps her best-known work. So much time is spent studying Maria’s orchestrational techniques, maybe because these are things that are more easily written and discussed. However, I can tell you first-hand that Maria’s primary focus when work-shopping a new piece are the transitions in her arrangement. And there are many different types of transitions – harmonic, rhythmic, metric, timbral, etc. Below, I’ve highlighted just a few of the magnificent transitional moments from Maria’s Hang Gliding.

“Hang Gliding” – Maria Schneider

Transitions occur at 1:05-1:12; 2:38-2:50; 3:36-3:42; 4:10-4:20; 5:48-5:52 and 6:48-7:03 (and that’s just the first half of the piece!). I hope students will spend some time studying how and why these moments are so important in addition to the other brilliant but more quantifiable aspects of Maria’s musical language.

Below is a piece  I recently composed that came to me in one of those magical moments of clarity as an almost fully formed song. The entire piece was written in just one afternoon of improvisation at the piano. However, I found the arranging process to be quite difficult as I struggled with how to turn one chorus of a song into a fully formed arrangement for my band, Catharsis, to perform. It took finding the proper transitional material that allowed for this piece to finally come to life.

“Become the Water” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

5. It’s All About Counterpoint (Learned from Sufjan Stevens and Pedro Giraudo)

This can mean many different things since counterpoint exists in at least three different general forms: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic. This lesson really made an impact on me, so much so that I formed a band called Catharsis to focus almost exclusively on counterpoint, or on the interaction between individual musicians all playing single-note instruments. While melodic counterpoint is the type most familiar to musicians (thanks to years of academic coursework!), I find that rhythmic counterpoint is equally important when it comes to composing or arranging in a jazz context. The beauty of counterpoint is that it inherently creates a sense of layered complexity which allows the composer to streamline each single idea thus making for music that is more natural and fun to play (see Lesson #1 above). In fact, with counterpoint, sometimes the simplest of ideas can provide enough interest.

Here’s a great example of the power of counterpoint even when using simple musical ideas over a simple chord progression.

“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens

And, here’s another great example of a more traditional Bachian contrapuntal approach in a Latin jazz setting from the brilliant musical mind of Pedro Giraudo.


6. Create Your Own Language (Learned from Gil Evans)

I think it goes without saying that every definitive composer AND performer, from all genres, possesses a unique voice. This is something for all aspiring composers and performers to be aware of, but it’s also something that can present a clear and present danger when one consciously tries to force the issue, typically leading to unnatural or dishonest music. I hear quite a bit of this nowadays with young musicians thinking they’ve created a unique sound by combining different influences, genres, instruments, etc… I think Mark Twain said it best: “There’s no such thing as a new idea.” But more importantly, quick fixes are rarely, if ever, meaningful and enduring. The most beautiful and astonishingly unique voices in jazz are those who find their language by drawing from the tradition without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. In my opinion, there is absolutely no arranger with a more definitive voice than that of Gil Evans and yet there is very little he did that hadn’t been done before! Nevertheless, the way in which he takes the tradition and puts his own beautiful magical spin on it all still leaves me breathless. The level of detail; melodic, harmonic, AND rhythmic sophistication; and sheer musical beauty sets Gil’s arrangements apart from all others I’ve played. And as you might expect, the capacity for this music to inspire and impart wisdom seems almost infinite and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. After playing his music a great deal over the past 10 years, it seems to me that it is, in fact, those details that give Gil’s music so much color, so much beauty, integrity, and in the end, such a unique personality.

7. Focus on making your MUSIC good before arranging and orchestrating (from Miguel Zenon)

No matter how great your arranging and orchestration chops, the MUSIC has to stand on its own in order for the final product to delight and satisfy. This might sound obvious when you hear it but it’s such an easy thing to overlook when one begins with the details rather than with the big picture. Before jumping into things like orchestration, instrumentation, mutes, and countermelodies, be sure to remember to focus on how the music makes YOU feel. As the composer, you should feel a deep emotional connection to the music you’ve written. I learned this first-hand when the musical genius,  Miguel Zenon, created a big band a few years ago. Miguel took music that he had composed for his quartet and then arranged those same tunes for big band. Starting with music that he had already perfected –  both on paper and for performance –  allowed for an easy adaptation to big band. He didn’t have to change much of anything when it came to arranging, and simply reorchestrated the music in efficient and smart ways. You can hear one of these songs, Same Flight, first in its original quartet form followed by his big band orchestration below.

Miguel Zenon Quartet, “Same Flight”

Miguel Zenon ‘Identities’ Big Band

8. All Good Music Tells a Story (Learned from Maria Schneider and so many others)

Music can be as simple as a brief moment of tension and release or as complex as a 20-minute Stravinsky masterpiece, but all good music does the same thing that a good poem, novel, movie, dance performance, play, or visual art piece does: It engages the audience in dramatic ways on an emotional level. When you think about common themes between genres or between artistic disciplines you start to notice similar techniques in how quality (versus non-quality) art tells its story. These include memorable beginnings and endings, subtle yet complex characters, thorough yet not over-indulgent character development, moments of surprise, moments of tension and moments of stability. This list could go on and on and I encourage those young aspiring composers and arrangers to focus on learning from other artistic disciplines, including dance, photography, written word, etc.

To exemplify both Lessons #7 and #8, I’ll finish with a music video that my band, Catharsis, recently released. This is our cover of the Bob Dylan protest song, The Times They Are A-Changin. The song has stood the test of time, primarily on it’s lyrical merit, but the melody is infectious and the harmony is simple yet poignant. It is this good music that allowed me, as the arranger, and Catharsis, as the performer, to get creative in our interpretation. It also tells a story not just on a lyrical level but also throughout the development of our arrangement, which mirrors the story that the video director, Claudia Bitran, tells in the moving image.

On a final note, please remember to support recorded and live music in any and all ways you can. There are live music venues, jazz clubs, and performing arts centers around the country, and world, which need support! Not everyone studying jazz in school is going to become a professional musician, and that’s even better because music education is beneficial no matter your path (a topic for another blog post), and creates educated ears and supportive audiences who can decipher between good and great art.   And we need that support now more than ever. Streaming music is not a sustainable model for musicians, and by subscribing to Spotify or Apple Music (and YouTube is even worse) you are hastening the end of musicians’ ability to earn a living by creating music. I hesitated to even offer the above examples on YouTube, given that much of this music is available for purchase in recorded format – so after you get a free taste, go out and buy it! Musicians, artists, and creative individuals play a critical role in fighting the ignorance and greed being spewed from many of our government leaders, most especially from the current administration. The times really are a-changin and we need to do all we can to ensure they change for the better.

“The Times They Are A-Changin” – music by Bob Dylan, arranged by Ryan Keberle

About the Author:

Few musicians have managed to navigate the richly varied avenues of New York City’s abundant music scene with the same passion and adaptability as trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle. Since his arrival in 1999, Keberle’s diverse talents have earned him a place alongside a staggering array of legends, superstars, and up-and-coming innovators.

Leading his pianoless quartet Catharsis or arranging for the little big band setting of his Double Quartet, Keberle draws upon lessons learned playing alongside masters of a multitude of forms, from jazz legends to indie rock ground-breakers, R&B superstars to classical virtuosos. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rock songwriter Sufjan Stevens and with the ground-breaking big bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue; he has accompanied soul hitmakers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis; he’s been heard on movie soundtracks for filmmakers like Woody Allen and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Keberle’s own music integrates those wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal jazz language that pays heed to tradition while searching out fresh and original pathways. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Keberle was surrounded by music from an early age.

Both of his parents were music educators, his father a jazz trumpeter and professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University, his mother a piano teacher and longtime church music director. Keberle started out by studying classical violin and piano before adopting the trombone as his primary instrument; classical music remains one of the many components of his arsenal, as he continues to perform with brass chamber ensembles. He also followed in his mother’s footsteps, serving as music director at a Manhattan Catholic church for several years.

Keberle moved east to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of renowned trombonist Steve Turre, as well as composers Mike Abene and Manny Album. He was the sole member of his graduating class chosen to receive the William H. Borden Aware for musical excellence in jazz. In May 2003 Keberle became a member of Jazz at Juilliard’s first graduating class, having studied with Wycliffe Gordon and David Berger, whose big band he has worked with over the ensuing years.

In 2007 Keberle released the self-titled debut of his Double Quartet, a malleable, brass-heavy octet that showcased his deft composing and arranging skills, The band’s second disc, Heavy Dreaming, was released in 2010 and garnered rave reviews and slots on year-end lists from magazines like JazzTimes and Stereophile.

Early 2012 marked the debut of Keberle’s latest group, the pianoless quartet Catharsis, comprising some of the music’s most compelling young voices: Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Eric Daub (drums). Keberle’s writing for the band reveals his more melodic and emotional side on pieces driven by groove, the blues, and Latin jazz, with which all four members have extensive experience. Keberle has worked with the Pedro Giraudo jazz Orchestra and with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and was named Latin jazz trombonist of the year by the Latin Jazz Corner website in 2008 and 2009.

Both his own compositions and his arrangements of works by other composers evidence Keberle’s expansive tastes, which encompass Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, and Ravel, among countless others. His work in the indie rock world, including a world tour with Stevens, has provided the newest fork in what has been an unpredictable career. It has also afforded him the chance to return to the piano, as he has with the singer/songwriter Nedelle Torrisi of the band Cryptacize. But he has also performed with the Saturday Night Live House band and with “Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane. His music has taken him to venues across the globe, throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.

The sum of these eclectic travels is the distinctive, original voice of Ryan Keberle, Whether performing in any one of these vastly different contexts or leading his own band, Keberle continues to evolve into one of the most intriguing and vital musicians of his generation.

Artist Blog

Adam Benjamin: Some Thoughts on Listening

Hello again! Since I wrote one of the first blog posts for ISJAC about a year ago, all sorts of people that are way smarter and more experienced than I am have told you all the real stuff about life and chords and concerti and stuff. So I’m going to steer clear of those areas so as to not embarrass myself. Let’s talk about Listening.

So, there’s this tendency that has is present throughout approximately 100% of human history. This tendency is that as Young people become Middle-Aged people, they tell the new Young people that they’re doing things wrong. This helps Middle-Aged people feel like they are Smart and helps them feel better about not being Young anymore. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but most of the time it’s worth considering what they are saying. Young people, use your own set of values and ethics to determine if they are right or wrong. If they’re wrong, be nice about it, they have enough to worry about already. Someday you, too, will be Middle-Aged person! So be kind.

This tendency is exaggerated in times of great change, like now. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on the topic of Listening to Music, there is much Kvetching on the part of Middle-Aged people regarding the habits of Young people. I, myself, have Kvetched about this! But, I am one of those Middle-Aged people that still likes to imagine that somehow deep inside I am still Young, so I shall try to mitigate this tendency, and not get too preachy. Here is my attempt at an honest and impartial Listening Guide.

1) Do It

If you are not listening to music at all, that is bad. How much listening to music you should do is up to you. Everyone is different. I can’t listen as much as most people because when I listen to music I am emotionally, cognitively and spiritually overwhelmed approximately 100% of the time. It’s just how I am wired. But I still need to engage, even when it hurts.

2) Listen to Not Music

2a) Have you heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea Of North”? There’s a part where he makes connections between Bach counterpoint and the multiple simultaneous conversations occurring in a diner. That blew my mind when I was 10, and I still love the idea. Right now I’m in a coffeeshop beside a river and there are people talking, and the whooshing and grinding of coffee machines, and footfalls, and keyboards clicking, and on the stereo, “Summertime” is being played quietly on a soprano sax (well actually, being played loudly but turned far down in the mix) over some generic world percussion sounds. Most of the individual elements are pretty awful actually, but the way all the different sounds in the room blend together is somehow pleasant. Listen to this! 

2b) Think about the physical space you are in, the materials it’s constructed from, and how it changes the sound. Maybe there was an architect or acoustician who even did it on purpose! Really listen, actively listen. I find it useful to imagine a visual meter of the kind you see on mixing boards (back when those were a thing). Frequency is on the X-axis and Amplitude on the Y-axis. What frequencies are present, and missing, in your room / world right now? Which are loudest? How is it changing? If you really want to trip out, add a Z-axis for time and see if you can visualize the patterns (rhythms) in 3 dimensions. Whee!

2c) Also, listen to birds.

3) Feel It

Lost in many discussions about how we, as musicians and composers, should listen to music, is Feeling it. This makes sense because we have to Study music as well as Feel it. We have to take our beautiful lover and Dissect him on a clean and sterile surface, under a bright light. Yuck! But, not Yuck, because we find amazing things in there, and we learn so much, and we can put him back together afterwards. But all this Learning is useless if we become unable to Feel music. So in addition to all the Dissecting we must also be Immersing and Loving and Living. At some points in your life, this is so easy for you, that you don’t even realize it’s a thing. At other points, it must be gently or forcefully rekindled. How to get there is up to you. Listening to something you don’t Understand is a good method. Maybe listening to the things you loved when you were 16. Maybe listening on headphones on top of a mountain.  Maybe you need to be totally alone for like 3 days. Be careful, but do what it takes. If you’re not Feeling, things get out of whack.

4) Don’t Mistake the Information for the Music

This is related to #3. As trained musicians, we can hear what Notes are being played and what Time Signature a song is in and whether the bass player has bad intonation in thumb position. This is fine but it is not Music. Think of everything that has been written about Coltrane, how much that music has been studied. Do we really know its secrets? To be clear, studying music is crucial for performers and composers, and musicology is a beautiful thing. But don’t forget that we are only studying the structural attributes of a force that we deeply, fundamentally, do not understand. This is not a science. Don’t forget this. Our brains are so well-trained to decipher all the different levels of Information, that sometimes we must turn our attention away from the Information, and towards the Music.

5) Listening is Consumption

Remember that if you consume a recording without remunerating the creator(s) of the recording, you are saying that either (1) you will pay them later, (2) someone else will pay them, (3) they have enough money to keep making recordings, or (4) you don’t care if they can keep making recordings. I’m not going to lie — I sometimes use YouTube, and Spotify, and Apple Music, and Tidal, even if I know it’s bad for artists. I think the accessibility of music on the Internet is too wonderful to resist, and is an incredible tool, especially for students and others who simply cannot afford to remunerate the creators. But please, keep in mind that counting on people creating great content for you to consume without you paying them is a bad idea. Maybe we will move towards a patronage system, or greater institutional support, or better deals with the corporate gatekeepers, but none of that is in place now. Please don’t create a future in which only rich kids can make albums.

6) I Am A Middle-Aged Person

6a) From approximately 1951 to approximately 2006, the standard format of a piece of recorded musical art was an “LP”, which usually lasts somewhere between 35 and 72 minutes and is usually divided into somewhere between 4 and 20 parts, or “songs”. There is nothing objective about this format, and it was the direct result of the technological innovations and constraints of its time. But it was the format in which these pieces of recorded musical art were conceived, like chapters of a book, photographs in an exhibition, or movements of a symphony. Playlists are great and singles are great and shuffle is great and remixes are great and outtakes are great. But, please, spend at least some of your listening time experiencing these works in the format in which their creators conceived of them.

6b) Maybe you think you can’t tell the difference between 256k mp3s and 512k MP3s and AIFFs and WAVs and CDs and OGGs and FLACs, but you can! You totally can. Please consult #4. Just because no Information is missing, or the missing Information is deemed to be insignificant by Technology Corporation, does not mean that you don’t Feel the difference. Maybe the part of “A Case of You” that makes you cry is located at 28.5khz and when that gets flattened you don’t cry the same way. Every device sounds different, every format sounds different. Also, the way we experience music depends on our relationship with the device that plays it for us. Do you really want the thing that sends you annoying work emails and depressing eHarmony results also being your source of spiritual sustenance?

6c) Liner notes are so important. They made every album an interdisciplinary work. Don’t trade that in for an indistinct thumbnail image.

6d) Hey! You’re doing too much stuff all the time, too much stuff at once. You’re training your brain to not be at peace, to not be able to focus on something and fully engage it. Think about how often we “check” something — check the news, check our email, check our texts. You don’t need to “check” stuff so much, everything is going to be fine. The part of your brain that was designed to tell you if a bear is going to eat you is being hijacked by Technology Corporation and retrained to obsessively check your Instagram comments. Dude — Technology Corporation is making Hell Of Money! And now you can’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Use your music-listening time as an opportunity to focus 100% on one thing.

7) Context

I’ve noticed that for every little teensy bit I learn about Art, and Film, and Art Theory, and Philosophy, and Literary Theory, and History, and Linguistics, and Mathematics, my ability to understand, enjoy, and access various musics expands tenfold. Don’t shut out the rest of the world, it makes music richer and funner and more beautiful.

8) I Could Go On

There’s so much more to say. I’ve omitted basically everything. I was gonna talk about Paul Motian and Aphex Twin and trees. But I have to walk my dog, and a storm is rolling in. Just remember, the whole point of Art is that is makes people Feel things. That’s approximately 50% job of creator and 50% job of listener. So! Put all the time and love and focus and joy that you put into making music into listening to it, and we should be good. And, stop checking your phone — the bear is not going to eat you.

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

Artist Blog

Bob Mintzer: The Ever Evolving Writing Process

My first experiences as a composer/arranger probably began when I was somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years old. I would sit at a piano for countless hours on end, experimenting with combinations of notes, chords, sounds, rhythms, and things resembling songs I might have heard on the radio, television, or an LP. Through trial and error I would stumble onto a chord progression and perhaps a corresponding melody that fit with that chord progression, playing it for a long time in wonderment. These early explorations were quite naive and not particularly well informed. Yet that spark of interest and drive to find nice combinations of notes was the catalyst that has pushed me to listen/learn/compose with great enthusiasm to this very day.

Our influences as composers/arrangers are, to my way of thinking, environmental. The music we grew up listening to, the bands we played in, the tunes that coincide with profound life experiences all help to shape our individual sound in our writing. This is somewhat like a recipe we’ve made many times, ever evolving as we alter the ingredients a little at a time.

I’ve always spent a good deal of time trying to recreate music that moves me on the piano, sometimes on the guitar, and ultimately on the saxophone. I would try for emulating as much detail as possible. Being that I was very curious as to how the “whole picture” worked, I would inevitably pay careful attention to what each individual instrument was doing; piano voicings, piano comping, bass lines, drum patterns, and some understanding of how the whole band fit their individual parts together. To me it seemed like an incredible puzzle that beckoned one to take apart and re-assemble.

Playing through the great american songbook on the piano was another integral part of developing a compositional vocabulary for me. This inevitably led to expanding upon traditional versions of these great tunes through expansion of form, some reharmonization, and integrating various rhythmical side trips within the form. Becoming comfortable with playing tunes on the piano ultimately led to an ability to conceptualize the instrument without actually having to physically access the piano during the writing process.

My first large ensemble writing experience happened on the Buddy Rich band. I had the incredible opportunity to write my first 6 big band pieces for this great band, to record them and play them every night. On Buddy’s band I had the good and bad aspects in each pieces staring me in the face on a nightly basis, and was able to adjust my approach with each subsequent venture. What a crazy great situation! I hadn’t had the time to study arranging up to that point, being that arranging for big band was not yet on my radar. Little did I know which way the road would turn.

In hindsight I realize that if an aspiring arranger spent time playing piano, learning the jazz language, going on from there to explore various voicings, combinations of notes, rhythm possibilities, and melodic development, and then sat in a big band for an extended period of time, they would have much of the machinery in place to fashion a decent big band arrangement. Without knowing it, I constructed a piece that had development, variety, and shape, qualities that I had been exposed to via playing the great arrangements in the Buddy Rich book. Being confronted with the opportunity to write that first big band piece forced me to consider the various musical qualities associated with any compelling piece of music: a story line, form, motion, variety, and texture. While my orchestrational abilities were in the beginning stages, I never the less could access the sound of the big band that was in my head, melding

this sound with ideas that I had found on the piano earlier. Also inherent in this initial experience was the thinking of what Buddy would like to hear, and how I might create an environment in which I would enjoy playing with him. These first few big band attempts were just that: attempts. But they definitely framed what lied ahead in terms of developing a sound and process.

I went on to write some for Mel Lewis, the Sam Jones Tom Harrell small big band, did some orchestrating for television (not really for me) and in 1983 put my first big band together. Hard to believe that in the last 34 years we’ve recorded 20 big band projects. Between these projects and various european radio band experiences, I’ve written close to 500 arrangements. I still feel like there is plenty to learn and plenty of avenues to explore. What all this writing has afforded me is a certain level of fluidity and confidence.

One of the most critical components of fashioning a big band or other large ensemble arrangement is having a set of parameters already in place. I generally think about who I am writing for, what kind of groove may be appropriate, what key best fits the intent of the piece, and sometimes a particular scenario that the music might underscore. Also to be considered is what kind of form may be utilized. What then follows is a sketch of the piece where I establish much of the above mentioned. I usually start with framing the form by inputting primary themes and perhaps some harmonic information. If various orchestrational devices occur to me I may write a description in words of what that orchestration might look like, and keep moving. (unison trumpets-tutti saxophones) If I can sketch out most of the piece it gives me a good head start on the writing. Often times I will program a drum loop in Sibelius and then add a bass part and then piano/guitar parts. This creates a nice bed to set horn parts on top of. With each subsequent pass through the piece, I add a little more detail, usually leaving the major voicings and detailed orchestrational devices for last.

Since I am generally writing for a recording project or some sort of production that involves 8-12 tunes I wind up working simultaneously on all the pieces. It makes things go more smoothly when I toggle between pieces, and things are less likely to stall in this scenario. The mantra is “keep moving”. The other plus with working on multiple pieces simultaneously is that you get a sense of how the full program of tunes will work together.

Frequently I have heard a piece of music that inspires me, and manages to spark a sound in my head that borrows from the groove or some aspect of the harmony or melody of the piece. If you take one of the three as a foundation (rhythm, harmony, melody) and then build on top of that, more ofter than not you wind up with something that sounds nothing like the original inspiration. I think the primary effect in these cases is that the excitement of hearing a moving piece of music gets the creative juices flowing, and makes you want to write something.

A great way to get a new piece started (on top of listening to all kinds of music) is to sit quietly and imagine what the piece you are going to write sounds like. You might hear general shapes of sound that translate nicely into a sketch, one that can be developed later in terms of detail. I frequently hear a sound, a rhythm or bass line or melody when I am walking. Something about that form of rhythmical bodily movement inspires musical ideas to emerge. If the initial idea comes from something other than you playing an instrument, as in your imagination, you are far more free to hear something well beyond what you might play.

Another approach for me is to improvise freely on either piano or saxophone, and wait for something compelling to emerge. Once I detect something of interest, I play the idea repeatedly, elaborating on the initial idea a little at a time. Once it seems like a fairly complete sentence I move on the perhaps a complimentary section with a new melody or progression. Little by little a composition emerges. Some of the better compositions come quickly and are not terribly complicated. Simple is allowed! With simplicity there winds up being room for complexity used in a strategic manor to create tension/release and a general sense of variety.

Aside from grabbing ideas from pre existing pieces of music, there is a lot you can do in terms of moving things around at the piano. Take a 1-4-5 three note voicing and move it around in a variety of ways, whole steps or minor thirds apart, for example. Try different bass notes against this voicing. Have the top note of the voicing form a melodic shape while simultaneously having the bass line create a melodic shape of it’s own. Utilize contrary motion between bass line and chord voicing. Take a 1-4-5 voicing and move it diatonically through a variety of scale qualities (1/2-w diminished, altered dominant for example). There are an infinite number of devices of this kind that can spin off into a potential composition. And seemingly if you start to operate this way the ideas manage to come more quickly, where one shape leads to an offshoot of that shape, and onward from there. Patterns are a great device for planting a seed for a new composition.

There is far more to discuss as far as process. Being a self taught arranger much of my process involves “making it up as you go”. There is definitely an improvisatory thing at play when writing and arranging, where one idea leads you to the next. I generally have no shortage of ideas. Being fairly active in the music scene usually primes the pump as far as generating ideas go. Once the idea emerges, then the real hard work begins. Fashioning a well constructed, compelling piece of music involves much editing, re arranging, and refining. This part of the process never seems to end. I can always find ways to improve, or at least update anything I have written. Small tweaking of articulation, voicings, and melodic lines are all part of the journey to arriving at a good piece of music. That journey is why I get up in the morning.

The final piece of the puzzle of composition/arranging is getting you music performed, hopefully by a group of great musicians of your choosing. This is the wild card that inevitably takes the music to places you never thought existed. Hence it is critical to leave lots of room for the personal input of each player, where every member of the ensemble contributes to the musical conversation in their own particular way. This is the basic premise of jazz music. As a composer/arranger it is my roll to stay out of the way of the conversation by way of leaving room in the writing for interplay and conversation.

So much more to learn, so much more to write. So many gems in the classical repertoire to draw upon. Many interesting rhythms and textures in indigenous music from all corners of the globe. Keep searching, keep putting the puzzle together. Stay current as far as what young players/writers are up to. Write yourself into the picture as a player, an instigator, an orator. Keep moving!

Mintzer Big Band examples

Get Up!

Truth Spoken Here

Civil War–U&list=PLZkh-aQshNIPQBNEKW9PwoTGmEaZ1NWYU&index=15

These three tunes from the MCG Jazz cd “Get Up”

Please visit for more examples.

About the Author:

Bob Mintzer, born January 27, 1953 and a native of New Rochelle, New York is what’s known as a triple threat musician. He is equally active in the areas of performance, composing/arranging, and music education. While touring with the Yellowjackets or his own quartet, or big band, Bob is busy writing music for big band, various small bands, saxophone quartets, orchestral and concert band music.

Bob is also on the faculty of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles along with long-time cohorts Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Vince Mendoza, and fellow Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante. where he teaches jazz composition,, saxophone, directs the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, and conducts a jazz workshop class for incoming freshmen and sophomore jazz students. He also does workshops all over the globe, writes books on a variety of musical subjects, plays on countless recordings every year, and is summoned to be guest conductor and soloist with large and small bands all over the world.

Bob has played/recorded with a wide variety of artists ranging from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, James Taylor, The New York Philharmonic,National Symphony, American Saxophone Quartet, Art Blakey, Donald Fagan, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, Kurt Elling, to Jaco Pastorius, Mike Manieri, and Randy Brecker.

“Music chose me at a very early age” says Bob. “I was completely taken by the 12 tones, whether hearing music played on the radio, television, recordings, or live concerts around the New York City area. I was not only struck by the emotional outpouring of great musical performance, but also found myself completely consumed with how the music fit together in all its glorious detail. I could spend hours sitting at a piano, trying to replicate the songs I would hear others play.

“Jazzmobile, an organization that sponsored jazz performances around the greater New York metropolitan area, sent a quintet consisting of Dr. Billy Taylor, Grady Tate, Ron Carter, Harold Land, and Blue Mitchell to the New Rochelle High School in 1967. I was a sophomore at the time. I think it was then and there that I decided that music would be my calling. Later that year I was taken to the Village Gate to hear the double bill of the Miles Davis quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. From that point on I went to as many live performances as I could on the budget of a 16-18 year old. During my formative years I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Sonny Rollins, Miles, Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many of the jazz greats play around New York.

“In 1969 my folks had the foresight to encourage me to audition for the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. I received a scholarship to attend this great school for my senior year of high school. My classmates were Peter Erskine, Danny Brubeck, Elaine Duvas (principal oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in the film Amadeus). This year provided the inspiration and information that was to establish my practice and training regimen for years to come. I was studying classical clarinet, playing guitar and piano, learning how to play the saxophone and flute,learning songs and writing tunes for the little combos we would put together.”

In 1970 Bob attended the Hartt College of Music in Hartford Connecticut on a classical clarinet scholarship. Jackie McLean had just started a jazz program at Hart, and Bob spent time with Jackie while working on a multitude of skills.

“I was very interested in all kinds of music and was attempting to learn how to play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, piano, work on composition, and get my school work done, Bob explains. “I played clarinet in the orchestra and various chamber music groups. I also played early music in a small group for a while. There were some crazy rhythms in much of early music that paralleled what jazz improvisers were doing as far as playing over the bar line. It was all fantastic! After school I would listen to jazz recordings and go and sit in with local jazz musicians. There was a pretty vibrant scene at that time around Hartford, where one core group of musicians were working 6 nights a week in different joints.”

Jackie eventually pushed Bob to consider moving down to New York City and jump into the jazz community down there. He took the suggestion and transferred to Manhattan School of Music in 1973. At that time there was a lot of playing going on in the lofts, which were commercial spaces newly converted to living quarters, and very affordable.

Bob’s contemporaries during the period were Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Richie Bierach, John Abercrombie, and countless other musicians. “The musicians I encountered in NYC in the early 70’s were all about the music,” Bob remembers. “Rents were affordable, and guys would get together in the lofts to play and compare ideas. Everyone’s aspiration was to land a gig with a working jazz group. In the interim I paid the rent doing whatever would come along, from subbing in broadway shows, to doing odd recording sessions or club dates.

In 1974 Bob was recommended to Eumir Deodato by a Manhattan School of Music classmate. Bob toured with Deodato for one year, playing large venues all over the world. “Eumir had a hit record with his rendition of the Strauss Zarathustra melody. He was a teriffic arranger! Check out the arrangements he did for Sinatra and Jobim on their duo recording in the 60’s. I met several musicians on that band that took the time to show me things about all kinds of music. Rubens Bassini, former percussionist with Brazil 66 took me under his wing and showed me many things about the rhythms of Brazil.”

During that same year Bob started playing with the Tito Puente Orchestra. This was a steady gig around the New York area. This music had a lasting impact on Bob’s writing and playing for years to come. He later played with Eddie Palmieri and Mongo Santamaria.

In 1975 Bob joined the Buddy Rich Big Band and spent two and a half years playing every night with Buddy, except for a week off at Christmas time. “On Buddy’s band,” Bob explains, “we played in every small town in the U.S. as well as in other countries. I was so thrilled to be playing every night and seeing new places all the time. We would go out after the concerts and find a place to sit in with a local band. If there was no jazz club we would play with whatever band there was. I remember playing with a cowboy band in El PasoTexas one night. I also learned how to write big band arrangements on Buddy’s band. He was very gracious about letting me write for his band.”

While on Buddy’s band Bob also wrote music for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and did a brief stint with the band at the Village Gate in NYC. He also did a tour with Hubert Laws playing a utility reed chair.

Bob left Buddy in 1977 and settled down in New York to work on his writing and playing. He played with Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla, Tom Harrell, Teramasa Hino, Sam Jones, and began to do some freelance work in the studios, with symphony orchestras, and in Broadway pit orchestras. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. He also became a member of the band Stone Alliance (Don Alias, Kenny Kirkland, Gene Perla) that year.

In 1981 Bob joined Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band with Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Don Alias, and Othello Molineaux. He played tenor sax and bass clarinet in that band as well as doing some arranging for the large ensemble version. Three recordings and a video document this music and show Bob to have quite a unique voice on the bass clarinetist. Around this time Bob was also playing with Mike Manieri and Randy Brecker. He also did his first two solo recordings for the Pony Canyon Label in Japan. (Hornmanand The Source)

In 1983 Bob put a big band together to play at the club owned by Mike and Randy Brecker called Seventh Avenue South. In NYC. It was a one-off project initially to showcase the various musicians that had been playing in the club with their own bands. Dave Sanborn, Mike and Randy Brecker, Don Grolnick, Peter Erskine, Lew Soloff, Will Lee, Barry Rogers were all on board. The band became an instant success and did a recording for CBS Sony in Japan called Papa Lips.

Around that same time Tom Jung started an audiophile jazz label called DMP Records. After hearing the band play at Seventh Avenue South. Bob and Tom Jung embarked on a recording relationship that lasted for 22 years and produced 13 cd’s with 3 Grammy Nominations(One Music, Departure,Only in New York) and a Grammy win for the Homage to Count Basie CD.

For the rest of the 80’s Bob worked with his big band; playing the Berlin Jazz Festival, playing the Village Vanguard in place of Mel Lewis’ big band when the band was on the road. Kendor Music (the publisher that published the Thad Jones and Gil Evans series) stared the Bob Mintzer series. School and pro bands around the world started playing his music, which had a fresh signature sound and blended the jazz tradition with a variety of other influences. Bob also joined the faculty of the jazz department at Manhattan School of Music, where he resided for the next 25 years.

During the later part of the eighties Bob was doing a fair amount of studio work, playing recordings by Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Queen, James Taylor, and Steve Winwood. He also became a member of the American Saxophone Quartet and performed regularly with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, and American Composers Orchestra. As a composer/arranger Bob wrote for the St Lukes Orchestra, ABC, NBC and the academy Awards show.

Bob recorded several small bad projects in the later 80’s-early 90’s including 2 CDs for Owl records in France (N.Y Jazz QuartetLonging) , two CDs for BMG (I Remember Jaco and Twin Tenors w/ Michael Brecker) , and a cd for the TVT label (Quality Time). His quartet CD, One Music for the DMP label was nominated for a Grammy.

1990 was a pivotal year for Bob He was asked to record with the Yellowjackets on the GRP CD Greenhouse, which was the start of a twenty plus year stint with one of the premier bands in jazz music. The band has received 13 Grammy nominations, has been voted best contemporary jazz group almost every year in the jazz magazine readers polls, and continues to play major jazz venues all over the world.

Yellowjackets is a leaderless band where each member is called upon to write, arrange, play, and make decisions as an equal partner. The band has consistently demonstrated that four people from diverse backgrounds can work together and create an art form where the whole is far greater than the separate parts.

In 2005 Bob began a relationship with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG Jazz)resulting in the recording of 3 big band recordings: Live at MCGOld School New Lessons, and Swing Out. Kurt Elling sings on all three of these cd’s. Bob also recorded a quartet CD, In the Moment for Art of Life Records with Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson, and John Riley.

In 2008 Bob and his family moved to Los Angeles, where Bob joined the faculty of the University of Southern California. He put together a big band in Los Angeles and plays regularly at Vibrato Grill in Bel Air. Bob maintains a busy touring schedule, playing with the Yellowjackets, his quartet, big band, and as a guest conductor/ soloist with college and pro bands.

Bob’s latest small band recording is called Canyon Cove, and is a swingin organ cd with Larry Goldings and Peter Erskine.

Artist Blog

Fred Hersch: A Composition Exercise to Try Today

In 2001, during my second composition residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, I was completely stuck with my writing.  I had come to the Colony to work on what I had hoped would be a chamber-opera-type-thing – only to find right before I left that I would not be able to procure the rights to the novel I wanted to adapt. I felt rudderless, taking frequent naps and spending an inordinate amount of time reading novels by the resident fiction writers.

It was also extremely cold – February in New Hampshire is no joke – so I was in my cottage going a bit stir-crazy. Then I got an idea by looking at a baseball cap that I had with me in my studio.  I cut a piece of paper into 12 one-inch squares – each square representing a note of the chromatic scale.  I put the squares into the baseball cap, shook them up, and got a “pitch”.  Then I set a timer I happened to have with me to 45 minutes – this I determined as ideal since it is the length of a typical psychotherapy session.  For example, if the “pitch” was Bb it meant either: Bb major; Bb minor; or starting on the note Bb.  So I had a starting place and turned on the timer.  The challenge was to write a tune (in scribble as no one but me had to read it) and complete it within the 45-minute interval.  So I was composing as close as possible to the speed of improvising – and the deadline meant that I didn’t have forever to wait around for divine inspiration to descend from the heavens.  I just used whatever came first and worked it out from there.

This process over the years has led me to compose many of my best and most durable compositions.  Jazz compositions these days – with computer notation programs and the fluency of younger jazz players in odd time signatures and complex structures – often have too many elements in them. They don’t leave room for the player to interpret them or add their personality and point of view to the theme or the harmonic structure – and many of them are simply not memorable. I was 24 years old and a very experienced jazz pianist who knew hundreds of tunes before I dared to write one of my own.  I figured “what could I write that would be better than Wayne Shorter or Billy Strayhorn or Kenny Wheeler or Ornette or Monk?” – so why bother?  Then I realized that all of these tunes I loved had only a few simple elements – a great progression, a durable melody and a particular rhythm or vibe.  So I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel after all – just write a short-form tune that is memorable and distinctive. (Richard Rodgers did extremely well with just the notes of the diatonic major scale). And, most importantly, simple isn’t easy. Everything that Monk wrote fits on about 100 pages, but each tune has its own beautiful logic and specific world and they are fun and challenging musical problems to solve over and over.

I have a beloved and banged-up kitchen timer that is always by my piano.  When I am stuck, I write a “kitchen timer tune”. Best case, I come out with something I really like – and can tweak later. Worst case, I only wasted 45 minutes. My “batting average” has gotten pretty good over the years when I set my mind to it. Maybe you will give this a try?

About the Author:

Fred Hersch is a 10-time Grammy nominee as jazz pianist and composer; he was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition and was named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and 2016 Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. His memoir Good Things Happen Slowly will be published by Crown Books/Random House in September 2017.

Artist Blog

Asuka Kakitani: My personal perspective on composing

Although I don’t talk much about the process of composing with my fellow composer friends or anybody, I enjoy reading about other composers’ processes when I get a chance, so I will share mine here hoping someone would enjoy reading it. This is not technical but more of my personal perspective.

I started studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music when I was twenty-six years old. I would imagine many people would start much earlier studying something like that, but I actually wasn’t really interested in composing before I attended Berklee. Soon after I started classes there, I had to compose for some school projects and I quickly fell in love with the freedom of composing. At that time, I was trying to play piano like Bud Powell, and it was struggle for me being constrained by my own idea of how I should sound. On the other hand, composing, it was a discovery of a new playground. I loved to tell my stories through my composition, which I even didn’t know I would enjoy so much. I just felt so free.

Telling stories is an important part of composing for me. Sometimes composing is my tool to tell a story. I almost always have a story in my head before I start writing. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic one; it could be an ordinary day of summer in the garden. Nature is usually a great inspiration for me. I think composing is like taking my camera and going outside to look under a leaf or inside flowers with a macro lens. There are lives and dramas that we cannot see with our naked eye. There are so many details, which are delicate, colorful, and vibrant. That is how I want my music to be, too.

One of my teachers at Berklee, Ted Pease once told me that melody is the most important thing. That stayed with me for a long time, and most of the time, my piece starts taking shape and firming its character with some melodies. I sing (terribly) in the street, on the subway, in the shower, waiting in line, in the woods, or in front of piano to find the magical melodies somewhere in the air. Sometimes I would succeed to catch them and write them down on manuscript paper, but I fail a lot of the time, too. Singing works best for me so far because then I can be free from my hand habits on the piano, I do not play any other instruments, and I do not want to write something that I cannot sing. When I luckily find a succession of notes I’m happy with, I quickly and carefully write them down on paper without key signature or time signature to not have any constraints to shape a melody I found. I would sing and play it on the piano many times until it feels right, and then I figure out the best time signature for the melody. Often times I won’t have enough rehearsal time with a band, so it is crucial to have the clearest and easiest way possible to read. I stopped using key signatures at some point, so I even don’t bother to think about it.

It takes a lot of time. Every time I almost cannot believe when I complete a piece.

Since I had my daughter in 2014, it has been even harder to find time to sit and work. Although parenting is a wonderful and incomparable experience, it is a 24-hour commitment. I suffer from lack of time and sleep and being unfocused. Finding five minutes to sit in front of the piano here and there, staying up late or getting up early, or staying up late AND getting up early depends on her sleeping schedule – scavenging for time to write and stay focused has been a real challenge for me.

Sometimes I cannot write anything for a few weeks. And one day I think I hear something, and write it down, and the next day I think it does not sound as good as I thought yesterday, and after two weeks, I would come back to that melody and feel it is pretty nice. Three days later, I would say, “This is awful!” I would be stressed out, feel miserable for a few days. Then a “good day” comes and I am able to catch a few magical notes in the air. That makes me so happy until I become miserable again, which would be the next day. A “good day” does not come so often. But despite my agony, “bad days” are necessary to endure in order to have a “good day” from time to time. After feeling gloomy from not being able to write any notes for many days, I suddenly find myself lost in the music that I am writing. It starts to grow its own personality and follows me around all the time, and I feel as if I am with someone who is very close to me. I feel a connection with the piece, and we are attached to each other until it changes its mind and starts acting as a stranger again.

Although I love the freedom of composing, and composing makes me feel that I am free to create what I want to, it is very easy to settle in with an idea or phrase that I feel should work. Once I get trapped in the “this is going to be a masterpiece” syndrome, I start circling, and I notice that I stop trying to hear those magical melodies in the air anymore. There are many obstacles to overcome: feeling the need to utilize certain “cool” techniques, not being able to let go of an idea that does not work in context, and the pressure to finish a piece by a deadline. It is a perpetual struggle to escape from all the things that tie me down, and to keep pushing myself to step out from my comfort zone. For me, composing is an endless journey for finding something real. In order to keep pressing on, I would continually tell myself that music does not need to be impressive, but should be completely honest. It might not end up being so great of a piece of music after all, but the experience of writing absolutely honest music is the most precious thing to me. And more times than not, but utilizing this process, the end result is something I’m truly satisfied with, and sometimes even love.

About the Author:

Asuka Kakitani is a composer, arranger, and conductor. She is the founder of the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra (AKJO). Their 2013 debut album ”Bloom” was selected as one of the best albums on the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, All About Jazz, Lucid Culture, and DownBeat Magazine. Her awards include the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, and artist grants from the American Music Center, Brooklyn Arts Fund, and the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum.

Artist Blog

Terry Promane: Give Me 5

At the time of this writing, I had just attended an arranging clinic by John La Barbera who was the spring visitor at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto where I teach.  He outlined 5 cornerstones of arranging for our students that were his guide and the basic fundamentals of his pedagogy.  Coincidentally, a week or so before, I was approached by Paul Read who suggested I write an article for the ISJAC Blog discussing my favorite arranging tactics.

Most of these ideas have been compiled over 25 years of teaching at U of T and playing on countless recording sessions and concerts, mostly with Toronto based jazz artists. 

To be specific, I’ll present ideas here that have helped me develop a good sound as well as saving time and aggravation in the studio or preparing music with few rehearsals.  With the ever-changing sensibility of the current music business (meaning, not many players are free to rehearse all day as in days gone by) things need to be correct and clear. 

  1. Give Me More

I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and writing for some serious players. When  the chance presents itself, I will check out other writers’ scores and parts and check the level of detail in not only my part (the trombone part) but also the rhythm parts.  I’ve seen charts with everything possible included and others with virtually nothing.  The most economical example of drum part writing (as VJO drummer John Riley points out) is the 3 bars of crayon from Thad Jones on the original “Little Pixie ll” drum part.  Legend has it that Mel Lewis had a photographic ear and only need a once-through, rarely opening the book.  Others writers like Maria Schneider fill up all the parts with detail. 

For me, too many parts with slashes are a problem.  Over the years I have developed into a control freak needing to dictate as much of the texture as possible.  From years of not getting what I wanted, and then learning how to get exactly what I want, this seems to be the approach best suited to my needs. 


Bass gets the most slashes, but considerable suggestions are included on the page.  Many of my ideas these days are based around ostinatos and straight 8th grooves in various time signatures, so dictating that information is important.  Straight ahead swing material gets the standard 4 slashes and chord symbols with the occasional push here and there. 


In my charts, the guitar rarely sees slashes except for open blowing sections.  Most of the melodic content is backed up by guitar voiced in unison or octaves with other sections.  I’ve heard players comment that they know it’s a chart of mine because of the wall-to-wall guitar cues.

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive considering the clichéd reputation of guitar players as not being able to read well – so I email them copy days ahead of the session.  They are always appreciative.  Thankfully, Toronto is loaded with very talented guitarists who are exceptional readers.


Years ago, while handing out parts in a rehearsal I put down a typical (swing with slashes) piano part in front of Don Thompson (who loves to play…everything!)  He looked at me and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Since then, moving forward, I now include as much material as possible in all of my piano parts.  They are more like 2 stave conductor’s scores including all melodic cues and harmonic rhythms. 

The resulting piano parts are enormous, but the piano player is directly connected to the entire scope of the piece.  In Don Thompson’s mind slashes meant nothing in that situation.  Considering the guitar is often busy with melodic content, the sole role of the keyboardist becomes to intelligently comp in and around the rest of the band.  A detailed piano part helps the keyboard player do this effectively.

A different approach is to give the pianist a master rhythm part. In this situation all the rhythm section players play from the same detailed part.

2.  Caught in the Middle

Middle C was the first note I learned as a 5 year old during my first piano lesson.   Conservatory piano lessons were what the kids in my family did, although I know that this is clearly not everyone’s experience.  Today, with the proliferation of guitarist, bassist, drums and vocalists in most post secondary music institutions, middle C or the grand staff for that matter, may be mysterious concepts for non-keyboard players.

The age old question of why are so many trombonists have become great arrangers and composers remains.  One reason is that trombonists have a firm understanding of that note and how middle C feels and sounds!  (I’ll put piano players on that list as well).

The concept remains quite simple.  Above middle C is where the majority of melody rings and below middle C is where arrangers need to be careful voicing.  I toured extensively with Rob McConnell in the Boss Brass and then, much more frequently, with the Rob McConnell Tentet.  On the rare occasion that Rob would actually talk about writing, he did divulge one secret.  We were on a plane and for whatever reason he was describing his favorite Ab 13 voicing of Duke Ellington – and then out of the blue he says “ you know TP, I rarely voice a tri-tone above middle C, then went on to another topic.  Most likely ordering another bloody Mary!

That was a serious light bulb moment for me and gave me a firm understanding why Rob’s sound was indeed Rob’s sound.  Tri-tone at or below middle C with the melody above middle C supported by a triadic formation that rarely included the 3rd or flat 7!  That is a general statement to say the least, considering all of the ?/V7 variants available, but I’m sure you get my drift!

I show my students a demonstration using 2 hands – in the left, tri-tone and in the right, melody tension, tension (and in many cases, another tension).  With both thumbs on middle C, the arranger can feel where all the action is going to happen – between the hash lines – to use a football example.  In my experience, the close voicing is rare and if used is mostly in cluster voicings or to depict a classic “Supersax” sound.

Understanding middle C will help young writers avoid the pitfalls of writing melody that is too low or too high, and voicing below safe low limits.

Without meaning to linger too long on voicings, I feel that a modicum of “arrangers piano” is required to advance to the next level.  I was certainly guilty of dead voicings until Frank Mantooth gave me a copy of his jazz piano method book, “Voicings”.  This book hammered home principals I still teach today including balanced right/left configurations and what Frank called symmetrical 6/9 Miracle Voicings.

3.  Don’t Forget Your Pencil

As a freelance musician I sadly break the cardinal rule:  Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  I never have a pencil, but as a writer, I always use a pencil.

I just turned 55 so I started writing in the early 80’s.  We used pencil and score paper and copied parts by hand.  I began writing (as many of you have) analog style, well before digital.  The organic process of putting pencil to paper has become vital to my process – it’s free from, right click, left click, shift/command/M/4….command Z…command S…..

John La Barbara and I both agreed that there was something special about the writing process with a piano.  There is a tactile connection to the sound that stimulates ideas that does not exist while composing at the computer.  Check out a book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon.  It’s a fun read by a young writer who supports the idea of stealing from the masters (in a good way – you have to read the book), but also having some separation between the use of the pencil and the computer to stimulate your creative juices.  Most of my ideas are hatched on a lead sheet with melodic variants and chord substitutions.  It’s very remedial looking, but it keeps me on track when I get the computer going.  A double stave rough sheet for elaborate orchestrations is best for me.

Maria Schneider was a distinguished visitor at the University of Toronto a few years ago.  She set up shop in my office for the week complete with a 32 stave score pad on the piano, no bar lines (you’ll know the one if you’re old enough) and sketched ideas with no restrictions to the melody, harmony or meter.  It’s a great format (although I’ve never had enough solid ideas to fill up 2 staves)!

4.  The Long and the Short of it!

From the biggest most elaborate film sessions to the tiniest demo – the one thing that can kill the clock is a lack of attention to detail – specifically articulation.  This also applies to rehearsing new material with professionals who have little time to waste.  Eating up recording or rehearsal time putting in articulations in a killer!  You won’t realize your potential regarding feel and accuracy if you fail to go the extra mile.  My students pay for this as a minus 10% but in professional circumstances you’ll feel it in your pocket book. 

I’ve sat down in studios with charts with no indication of long/short/loud/soft and it’s a signal that things are going to go badly…and it goes real bad, I’ve seen it countless times.

Attention to detail shows the professional player that you know what you’re doing.  From articulations, to formatting parts, correct rehearsal numbers and dynamics is a subconscious signifier that you are on the case.  Without these vital ingredients, there is a good chance the orchestra will give you right back what you deserve.

5.  Make it hip, not hard!

Over the years, I’ve written some pretty unmusical material.  Over time, I’ve realized that there was something to be said for writing music that feels good, sounds good and is easy to play.  Good music that great musicians want to play – it’s a no-brainer.  The tipping point was when I decided to emulate my elders in Toronto.  Here is a quote from the liner notes I composed for the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet Volume 1.

This CD embodies what many have called “The Toronto Sound.” This is not a conscious effort, although Toronto jazz composers, arrangers and performers have been a part of an unconscious musical movement akin to the Group of Seven painters.  This goes back further than my memory, but Dave Young was on the ground floor with Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Rick Wilkins and Ron Collier, all pillars of the local and our national jazz consciousness.   

The Toronto sound is complicated, but generally relies on a few crucial ingredients; exciting, well crafted and uniquely voiced arrangements, a distinctly Canadian musical sensibility, impeccable tuning, flawless execution and world-class solos.

What I didn’t mention is that Rob McConnell et al really knew how to write great sounding stuff that was easy to play!  Sure there’s going to be some high notes, and some blistering sax work, but it’s not the main event!  It’s all part of the story, the big curve of the piece.  When I started in the McConnell band I couldn’t believe how easy it was…I mean, it was soft, no high notes, great intonation and it swung like hell.

In the end, it’s all in the details.  Pay attention to inventive melodic composition, and harmony and stay away from gimmicks.  Write what you hear and make it accessible to a wide range of abilities and your music will sound great! 

Terry Promane,

Toronto, Ontario CANADA

March, 2017


Editor’s note: Please check out one of Terry’s composition, this time for jazz 12tet, “The Icemaker’s Mistress”. This is a track from the CD, “Trillium Falls” which can be found at

Both full audio and pdf score are included here:

The Icemaker’s Mistress

Click here for the full score

More info about the highly acclaimed University of Toronto Jazz Program along with lists of other recordings, please go to www.

About the Author:

TERRY PROMANE is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto specializing in jazz trombone, composition, and orchestration. He is a member of many of Toronto’s most prestigious jazz groups including the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet, the Rob McConnell Tentet, The Boss Brass, the Mike Murley Septet, the John MacLeod Big Band, the Dave Neill Quintet, the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, and the Carn/Davidson 9. He was twice named ‘Jazz Trombonist of the Year’ by ‘Jazz Report’ Magazine, and nominated for three consecutive years as the National Jazz Awards’ ‘Trombonist of the Year’ and ‘Arranger of the Year’. As a freelance musician, Promane is a first-call session player who can be heard in countless feature films, documentaries, jingles, and in pit-bands for dozens of hit musical productions.  He has performed with Holly Cole, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Holman, Tito Puente, Dave Valentine, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Gonzalo Rubacalba, and Hilario Duran.

Artist Blog

Paul Read: Minor and Major Seconds, 1959, Transcribing, Score Study and other Reflections

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:

Released 1958
Recorded March 13, September 9 to October 14, 1957
Length 44:36
Label Columbia
Producer Irving Townsend

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:

Click Here for a PDF version of the Solitude Excerpt

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.

2. Transcribing

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!

Click here for a PDF version – Butch and Butch” PDF excerpt

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.

Formal Study

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: 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.

For ANY public domain ‘classical’ music score, visit 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 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.

-P. Read



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: 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.

Selected Recordings:

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:


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:
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.
Artist Blog

Florian Ross: Cooking & Eggs

You’d like to cook? OK. Why? Is it because you like food and would like to prepare it yourself, or maybe because you would like to impress someone? Perhaps you would like to become a famous chef.

All of the above are good reasons to start cooking – and there’s an abundance of more good reasons. In fact, I don’t think there are any bad reasons to start cooking, as long as there is at least one.

So, please make up your mind about why you’d like to do it. This is not a permanent decision and it might change rapidly during the course of your experiments. Still, make up your mind for now. Write your ideas on a piece of paper and put them somewhere safe.

There are many ways to start. You could just wander through your kitchen, pick up some things and throw them together, heat up the stove and go for it. Things might work or it might not.

The next thing you are probably going to do is either watch or ask a friend, mother, or grandpa how and what they cook. At first, you will most likely choose a dish you love and would like to make it yourself. Maybe granny isn’t around at the time when you have a craving for pancakes? That also might be one of the reasons you

If you don’t know anyone who can cook a little, you might have to start searching for someone or something that could help you reaching further than your first attempt of boiling toast and ketchup. That something could be the first cookbook you pick up from a bargain bin at your local bookstore. It might read something like: 50 Delicious, Simple Dishes for Absolute Beginnners.

You might succeed or you might not, but if you’re still into it, you are bound to upgrade your knowledge. You might take a cooking class, buy more advanced cookbooks, cook with friends and exchange ideas and knowledge. This is going help you take a great step forward.

Soon you’ll be interested in not only recipes, but detailed information about the chemical and physical processes involved in cooking, why some pans stick and others don’t, and why you shouldn’t work with sharp metal tools in a non-stick pan. Where and when certain produce grows and where to get the freshest fish might be other great things to find out about.

You will analyse recipes, watch friends cook, travel and take down ideas from other chefs, be aware of certain styles, cultures and countries. You will learn about them and start combining ideas from Japanese cuisine with Peruvian styles.

Now, you’ve come far from your initial attempts and years will probably have passed.

If you keep this up, and you still have the piece of paper that tells you why you wanted to cook in the first place, you will realize that you have come a long way. Your goals may have changed, but you will be able to see, from what you originally wrote in your notebook, why you want to start cooking and to keep doing it.

All is well.

What could go wrong?

Of course, a lot can go wrong, but one of the saddest and dumbest things that can go wrong, is that you lose track of the initial reason why you even started.

You read many books about molecular cooking, about complicated, weird ways of chopping fish. You’ve learned so many rules, you have analyzed and tried to understand everything. You even spend some time in China and Italy to learn from master chefs. You studied, you took courses, you practised…, and?

You forgot why you are doing it. And suddenly all the things you’ve learned replace your original incentives and why you wanted to learn how to cook in the first place.

You were told that you cannot combine milk and lemon – so you don’t. But have you ever tried making paneer? You have checked out Malaysian and Austrian cuisine, so you might combine coconut milk and fish sauce with apple strudel – because you think it’s hip and new and interesting.

But, do you step back and check if this is what you want? Is this the taste you like? Is this part of your goal? Probably not.

So step back and rethink why you do all of this. What do you need in order to achieve which goal? Which techniques do you need? What should you focus on? Ever ordered from a take-out that offers Chinese-Grill-Italian-French-German-Taiwanese-Crossover? Did you like it?

Ask yourself these questions:

Why did you want to learn to cook?

Why did you want to understand how to cook?

Why did you copy chefs?

Why did you experiment?

If you reach a point where you feel any confusion , I’d recommend focusing on eggs for a while. Scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, fried eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes with eggs, eggnoodles, egg on steak, egg nog, foamy eggs, real pudding made of eggs, sauce hollandaise, spaghetti carbonara…

That should get you back on track.

Cook away!
Florian Ross

About the Author:

Florian Ross Pianist, Composer

Florian Ross is a musical explorer.

His journey into the many lands of jazz began with studies in Cologne and later London and New York, where he honed his skills both as a pianist and a composer. Florian’s special area of devotion and expertise was post-bop, which flowered into his remarkable ability today to handle all forms of contemporary and improvised music.

His first album as a leader appeared in 1998. Now he has a dozen to his name, with more on the way!

Florian’s music comes from a deep synthesis of heart and mind, of feeling and intellect. This is why he can so effortlessly span the realms of improvised and composed jazz. His gifts as a piano player prevent him from being seduced into the abstract theory of purely intellectual composition, while his instincts as a composer enables him to steer clear of self-indulgence on the keyboards.

He leaves to others the boring arguments about traditional jazz versus the avant-garde. Florian’s too busy making music.

And it’s music of a breathtaking variety. The diversity of formats he works in is simply dazzling. Just listen to the samples to hear Florian casually excel in every combination from solo, duo, trio and quintet right up to big bands and string orchestras.

He has taught at many German universities and academies and is currently teaching Piano and Composition at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Köln. He has also been involved in teaching clinics and workshops all over the world.

He has played, composed and arranged for many orchestras across Europe including the Metropole Orchestra, WDR and NDR Big Band. Florian’s international awards for playing and composing are too numerous to list, but among them are the coveted first prize in the Danish Radio Big Band International Thad Jones Competition and the prestigious WDR Jazz prize for composition.

– Andrew Cartmel, Spring 2014

Artist Blog

Rick Lawn: Lessons I’ve Learned

I guess when you begin to see your runway getting a little shorter you think more about the things you’ve learned over many years of teaching and writing. These moments of reflection also prompt you to want to share this information with others and begin to document your findings, conclusions, and lessons learned. I was happy to accept the invitation to contribute to the ISJAC blog and have this opportunity to share just a few of these lessons I’ve learned. Notice that none of these observations and suggestions has much to do with the mechanics of writing e.g. chord voicings, form, orchestration, and so forth, but have more to do with my view of writing from 1000 feet.

Lesson I: Don’t be too eager to compose original music.

Reflecting back many years to my undergraduate years, I had great teachers. For example I had Joseph Schwantner for beginning orchestration class before he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and Rayburn Wright for jazz arranging courses and related jazz curriculum. Who could have asked for anything better? They were very open to whatever projects I chose to do, even though they sometimes fell outside the intended guidelines of the assignment. I often preferred to write original music rather than arrangements, though I did write several arrangements as I recall. Years later as a teacher myself I offered the same latitude to my students. But it was many, many years later that I realized how allowing this kind of freedom might have actually been a disservice to my development. For some reason much later in my career I began writing arrangements, carefully analyzing them first, deconstructing them, re-harmonizing, reconsidering style, tempo, key, meter and so forth. In creating a number of arrangements of both jazz classics for my 10-piece band Power of Ten such as “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” and “Bass Face” along with remakes of pop tunes I grew up with, I found that my writing was suddenly moving in new directions. I was learning more from myself and by myself. Perhaps this growth and further maturity in my writing was going to come about anyway as I grew older, wiser and more experienced. But I have to believe that my growth was in part due to working with other composer’s materials and discovering how I could make it my own. As a result, I found that my own compositional efforts were advancing. The lesson here is that arranging with an eye (and ear) towards transforming someone else’s material is a very valuable process in the path towards developing as a well-rounded writer. I learned, for example, that typically the meter dictates the rhythm of the melody.  On the other hand, reversing this relationship by letting the rhythm of the melody dictate the meter, can lead to some interesting outcomes.  Working on assignment from Danny Behr at Walrus Music I had a great deal of fun transforming tired old public domain pieces like “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I honestly feel that while I continue to compose original music, some of my best work recently has been in the form of arrangements.

Lesson II: Don’t rely too much on the computer to do your creative work.

Computer notation and sequencing software has revolutionized the way we can work. These applications have in some ways provided a new resource in our toolbox, removing some of the guesswork and tedious aspects of writing. But don’t let this tool become a monkey wrench that works against creativity. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I have always been a technology geek so embracing the technology was fun and enticing, especially when the young student writers came to their lessons with their scores on disk. In some ways they made me feel behind the times as I was not using computer sequencing and notation software to the full extent that they were. I decided I needed to catch up and started a new original score, working almost solely at the computer and MIDI keyboard. I brought the new score for reading by the UT Jazz Orchestra and it was the worst piece of music I had ever written. After spending some time with it in rehearsal I asked the band to pass it in and I threw it out. I had never done that before, always keeping things that I had written for possible use at some later date. After doing some soul searching I began to conduct an informal survey of much younger writers who I admired, for example Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider. I was interested in learning about their creative processes, and particularly how they used computers. Surprise, Surprise…..they didn’t! They still relied to a great extent on using pencil and paper, the piano, and their own instruments. They only introduced computers towards the end of the process or as a means to perhaps check something they had written and could not easily play at a keyboard. This age old approach to creativity hasn’t changed nor has it been improved.

There is something much more linear about having pages of manuscript in front of you, all visible at once that provides a better sense of flow, pacing, musical evolution, and the dramatic aspects of your score. I found that the computer didn’t provide the same essential insight during the initial creative process, and I had let the computer actually replace my own creative muse instead of helping it in the tedious, repetitive aspects of writing.

The computerized musicians inside that box never have to take a breath, never falter or tire, never complain about playing an impossible passage or something at the extreme ends of their ranges. Computers remove the essential need to create space in a score because they can play anything and do anything you ask them to do, but of course this is entirely artificial. I’ll pursue this a bit more in Lesson III that follows.

Computers also tend to diminish the composer/arranger’s need to internalize the sound, range, timbre, special characteristics and technical capabilities of the instruments. Without a personal awareness of these attributes arrangers can find it difficult to develop their own sound and may even create music that tires the listener. I believe it orchestration that defines a significant aspect of an arranger’s identity.

I have found that students can be mislead by computer software which tends to bypass the need to internalize things like instrument ranges, timbre in certain ranges, transpositions, the sound of mutes, instrumental combinations, saxophone sub-tone, and how difficult it might be for a real instrumentalist to execute a particular passage. I decided to help them by creating a software tool that provides a quick easy reference for nearly all the instruments that are typically found in an extended jazz ensemble. I call it The Orchestrators TooKit and it offers aural feedback on nearly every pitch possible by these instruments and it features REAL instruments not samples. It also provides useful information on transpositions, idiosyncrasies, special effects including the sounds of brass mutes, possible instrumental combinations, and so forth.  It is Mac and PC compatible and I’m offering it here exclusively at no charge. Click or copy the link below and paste it into your browser.

Download the compressed .zip file of your choice (Windows, Mac or Linux) which will keep the download file size down. Extract the program from the .zip file once you’ve downloaded it to your computer. All I ask in return is to let me know if you find it useful to you or your students and how it might be improved.

Of course the controlled recording studio circumstances make the samples somewhat unreal by comparison to more acoustic, live performance situations, but you still might find it to be a useful tool as some of my students at UT did.

Lesson III: Evaluate your work through the ears of the listener.

As I suggested previously, it is all too easy to over write. I think it was Sammy Nestico that suggested our best friend is the eraser.  While cutting and pasting is easy at the computer, be careful investing too much creative time sitting in front of one. I found that some of my students fell into this trap. I remember an occasion sitting at the piano with one of my graduate students who, some time later, won the Brussels Jazz Orchestra composition contest. We were reviewing a print out of a score he was working on. At one point I asked him if he had any idea how much time had elapsed during a section of the score. He looked at me puzzled and I could tell he had no idea. I then explained the simple formula to compute how much time elapses from one point to the next.  Understanding your music at this basic level helps to determine if you’ve dwelled too long on a section using the same orchestration, or at the same dynamic level, or before something significantly new is introduced. I then explained to him that by multiplying the number of measures times the number of beats per measure and dividing that total by the metronome marking, he could determine how much time had elapsed. For example, 80 bars of ¾ meter times 3 beats per measure equals 240 beats divided by the metronome marking of 100 equals 2.4 minutes or 2 minutes 24 seconds (.4 x 60 = 24). In that way it is easier to begin to disconnect as writer from the score and begin to get a better impression of what the listener hears, helping to avoid ear fatigue or boredom. This is a simple guideline but one that is very easy to overlook.

I found in analyzing some of my favorite ballads, for example, that a good arrangement often featured significant changes every four measures. In that short time something usually changed  orchestrationally, or perhaps in others ways. Four measures isn’t a long time, but it is when the tempo is only 60mm!

Lesson IV: Learn to recognize the appealing “hook” in your music and make the most of it.

While some of you might find it demeaning to use the pop music term “hook,” I find it a useful term to describe that kernel in a score that helps listeners to remember a piece, follow the composition, and want to hear it again. It’s important to remember that unlike other art forms, music is not visual and is quite ephemeral. The hooks become tangible objects that provide listeners with something concrete and reoccurring that guide them through a piece. The hook usually appears multiple times in the score, possibly reoccurring each time with a slightly different variation. If we aren’t careful during the creative process we can easily not see (or hear) a great hook that can be influential as we develop the score. The hook can actually be the initial creation that then spawns the rest of the composition. Hooks can appear in the form of a harmonic progression, a melodic line, and particular rhythmic figure that might have slightly different melodies or harmonizations each time it reappears. Hooks provide a form of gravitational pull or grounding for the listener. They are a target or a goal that helps to provide glue to all of the other aspects of your composition. As small as these kernels might be, they often provide the musical DNA that one associates with a particular writer. We can often successfully guess on first hearing who might have written an unidentified piece based on the hooks we hear.  They can range from relatively simple figures to more complex. Hooks can also provide valuable material when we search for the elusive way to end a piece, or begin it. Many of my favorite contemporary jazz composers use this device to great affect, and it is an ingredient I frequently make use of in my own writing.

You can hear a few examples of how I’ve used hooks in my music on YouTube:

Click here to listen to these tracks on YouTube

Particularly listen to “Hopscotch” for the 4-note melodic/rhythmic gesture that serves as the basis of the A section of this chart. You’ll also hear a hook appear in different ways and for different purposes in “Quiet Please!.” It first can be heard from 1:56-2:18 and it reappears throughout the chart in various ways. Multiple hooks can be heard in “Retrospect.” The first occurs at 00:40-00:42 as a 4 –note phrase that either ascends or descends and is used many times and in different ways throughout the chart. The second hook immediately follows it from 00:54-1:17, occurring several times throughout the chart. Lastly, I used a similar reoccurring device with variations in “Never Too Late.” The first occurrence is heard from 1:03 to 1:13.  I guess I should thank whoever illegally uploaded these tracks to YouTube without my permission as it’s made sharing these examples easy!

I hope these few lessons I’ve learned, having more to do with the process and art of writing than the mechanics, will make sense to you and offer something to consider passing on, or perhaps benefit your own work. The older I get the more I find I have to learn!


About the Author:

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn has received several significant composition grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and, as a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet, has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal and Equilibrium labels. The Sea Breeze record label issued “Unknown Soldiers,” a CD recorded by the Third Coast Jazz Orchestra that features his compositions and arrangements including his arrangement of “Donna Lee” recorded by Bobby Sanabria’s New York Latin big band on his 2001 Grammy nominated CD. In fall 2011 his Philadelphia based little big band Power of Ten10 released Earth Tones that includes his original compositions and arrangements. The CD received coast-to-coast radio play and favorable reviews.

Kendor Music, CL Barnhouse, Walrus Music, Concept Music, Alfred Music, eJazzlines, Warwick Music, Dorn, LawnWorks Publications and UNC Press among others publish his music. Rick’s books entitled The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (in its 4th edition), Jazz Theory and Practice in its 2nd edition (that includes interactive ear training software) and Experiencing Jazz now in its 2nd edition have become staples among jazz educators and students.

Rick’s performing experiences outside his own ensembles include extended engagements with Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Austin Symphony others. He has performed in back-up orchestras for Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Natalie Cole, Marian McPartland, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dianne Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.

Richard Lawn is the former Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now Professor Emeritus and part-time faculty member teaching jazz history online. He also teaches online for VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Recetly Rick has become involved with the International Society of Arrangers and Composers. Formerly, he was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin serving as Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for academic affairs. Visit his Web site at:

Artist Blog

Bill Dobbins and Concerto for Jazz Orchestra: the Use of a Twelve-Tone Row in a Large Scale Jazz Composition

(Click here to hear Concerto for Jazz Orchestra)

From the time I became the principal director of the WDR Big Band in the fall of 1994, I started thinking about the possibility of composing a multi-movement concerto for jazz orchestra specifically for that band. I decided that, if it was to be for a jazz orchestra, it should be written expressly for the special qualities of the particular musicians in the band and should also showcase the skills of the individual sections as well as the full ensemble. However, it wasn’t long before my interest in the immediate projects at hand and the excitement of writing for a wide range of internationally known guest soloists kept my creative imagination occupied and the idea of the concerto was forgotten. For some unknown reason, my attention returned to it during the spring of 1999, while looking forward to a good deal of free time in the summer months just ahead. It seemed like the time was right, and I planned to compose the piece in time for one of the band’s fall programs.

The idea of a concerto for jazz orchestra was initially inspired Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of my favorite pieces of music since my college days in the mid and late 1960s. In terms of overall dimensions, Bartók’s scheme of five movements also appealed to me. It seemed to me that five movements could more completely display the exceptional ensemble and solo skills of the WDR Big Band and also allow for maximum range of tempos, expressive moods and orchestral colors. I eventually decided that the outer movements would be relatively fast swing in 4/4, with the slow movement in the middle, also in 4/4. For contrast, the second movement would be a medium tempo jazz waltz and the fourth would be a toccata of sorts, in 12/8, with even eighth notes and an Afro-Cuban character.

As I began to think about melodic and rhythmic ideas, I found myself coming back to the thought of organizing a twelve-tone row, primarily for melodic material. My first twelve-tone jazz piece was a blues called Blues for Anton, inspired by the symmetrical rows of Anton Webern during my undergraduate years as a classical piano and composition double major at Kent State University. At that time I was very impressed by George Russell’s writing that featured pianist Bill Evans, and was fascinated by John Carisi’s use of a twelve-tone row in his composition Moon Taj, from the Gil Evans recording Into the Hot. The ability of these composers to employ chromatic and polytonal concepts to jazz compositions and arrangements without abandoning either the swing rhythmic feeling or the spirit of the blues really inspired my own search in composing, arranging and improvising.

During the 1980s I was invited to compose an original piece for a recording project of trombonist Jim Pugh and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (The Pugh/Taylor Project), involving an instrumentation of two saxes with woodwind doubles, two violas, two cellos, rhythm section and the two trombonists. I took that opportunity to write a more ambitious piece in which a twelve-tone row was used as the main source for the thematic material and some of the harmonic structures, while returning to the blues form for the main themes and solo choruses. The piece was entitled Still the Blues (After All These Years), reflecting my enduring conviction that some connection to the feeling of the blues is an essential element of all great jazz.

From this earlier experience working with twelve-tone techniques, I felt that the use of a row as a source for thematic content could provide a self-imposed limitation that would enable my strongest musical influences to come through in a personal manner, while also providing an important unifying melodic element throughout the five movements. One of the final aspects of the large-scale structure of the piece was the decision to organize the five movements in keys that symmetrically divide the octave. Since there were to be five movements, it seemed that minor third relationships would be best suited. I decided that the outer movements would be in the key of C, with the inner movements in the keys of Eb, F# and A, respectively. I left the decision about major or minor modality to the more specific organization and development of each movement, with the assumption that all movements would have some connection to the blues, whether in actual form, melodically, harmonically, or simply expressively.

The twelve-tone row that I constructed strongly suggests blues relationships. The first seven notes of the original form consist of an enharmonic C7 chord with the blue third (Eb), blue fifth (Gb) and lowered ninth (Db). The first seven notes of the inversion form consist of an Ab7 chord with the blue third (Cb), raised eleventh (D) and thirteenth (F). The last five notes of the original and inversion forms consist of a Dm6 chord with the blue fifth (Ab) and an A7 chord with an enharmonic lowered ninth (A#). The first seven notes and the last five notes of both forms contain a diminished seventh chord, which relates to the minor third relationship between the main keys of the five movements of the piece. Of course, numerous harmonic structures that are commonly used in jazz have the notes of a diminished seventh chord within larger combinations of five or more chord tones.


(Ex. 1)

Another final aspect that was decided before any actual themes were written, was that the first and final movements would begin with the same introductory material, primarily introducing the row in it’s prime form and setting the overall emotional tone for the piece. One of my favorite jazz compositions is a three-movement work that Bill Holman wrote for the Australian Jazz Quintet in 1957, Jazz in D Minor. The outer movements begin with the same thirty-measure introduction, which includes all the motivic material to be developed through all three movements. I was awed by Holman’s ability to follow the same thirty measures with two completely different pieces, each of which is equally compelling. Furthermore, having a lengthy introduction at the start of the outer movements, Holman balanced this with a much longer coda to conclude the final movement.

Of course, the work of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bob Brookmeyer, Clare Fischer and many other jazz composers, as well as that of classical composers from Bach to Shostakovich have informed my own music through the years, and is a constant source of inspiration. The language of chromatic tonality is, arguably, western culture’s most unique musical gift to the world, and it is primarily jazz musicians who continue to use this language, enabling and encouraging its ongoing evolution.

My usual procedure in composing and arranging is to allow my ear and intuition to lead things. I only use techniques and theoretical knowledge in a conscious manner when I get stuck. The concerto opens with a majestic brass choral. The four melodic gestures of the lead trumpet line resulted from trying different rhythms with successive groups of notes in the row. The lead trumpet line in bars 1-9 presents a complete statement of the row, beginning on Eb. Although the first four notes suggest the actual key of the movement (C blues) the bass line and harmonic motion remain ambiguous until bars 15-21, when the progression leads to D7alt. and, eventually, G7alt. in subsequent measures. Although some of the brass voicings are bitonal, the voice leading is convincing as they move to more conventional harmonies at the end of the phrases. Strong voice leading is the most essential skill for achieving clear and colorful harmonic content.

The second statement of the row in the lead trumpet line in bars 10-16 is on A, a tritone lower than the first statement. Although the first two voicings are simply a transposition of the opening statement, the subsequent voicings continue in a contrasting manner as the row is divided into two long phrases, rather than four short phrases. The saxophone responses in unison octaves relate to the lead trumpet line and use some intervallic content from the row, but in a free manner. I simply heard what was suggested by the context of the brass material.



(Ex. 2)


The main theme of the first movement plays with the blue third and blue seventh in a bitonal context of two solo instruments (trumpet and baritone sax, played by Klaus Osterloh and Jens Neufang, respectively) accompanied by bass and drums.  While the baritone line clearly suggests the home key of C blues, the imitation by the trumpet is in Ab blues. I like this relationship because the first and fifth scale degrees in C (C and G) suggest the third and seventh scale degrees in Ab, which give the Cb and Gb in the trumpet line a strong blues color.

The first four notes of the baritone melody are the first four notes of the opening choral melody. However, by moving down from Eb to C instead of up, an entirely different melodic meaning is conveyed. When the two horns join each other rhythmically in the pickup to bar 37, the trumpet line clearly takes over the melody from the baritone. The trumpet’s four-note group, G-G#-B-C#, is the retrograde of notes 2 through 5 of the opening choral melody (C-Bb-G-Gb) transposed up a half step. The baritone line here was developed freely, but still uses some intervallic content from the row.

After the opening four bars in C blues, bars 37-44 suggest motion from B7 to Em9, A7 to AbM9+11, C#13sus. and F#9sus., which resolves deceptively to G7+9-9. This leads back to the key of C blues in bar 45, where the content of the small group is presented by the large ensemble.



(Ex. 3)


The large ensemble statement of the main theme is cut short in order to keep the listener’s attention by developing material heard in the small group statement into a ten-bar transition to the second theme. While bars 37-38 are continued in a simple sequence in bars 39-40, bar 51 resolves the B7 chord to EM9-5 instead of Em9. Instead of completing the sequence heard earlier, a new starting point occurs. As a two-chord vamp is set up, the half note in the saxophone melody of bar 49 is lengthened, while the eighth note figure of bars 49-50 is shortened from six notes to five. Once the two-chord vamp has occurred twice, the eighth note line is stretched out by a full measure of eight notes, after which the vamp returns as the harmony moves from Eb7+9 to D7+9 in bar 59. This leads to the short second theme section, which begins with a pentatonic figure (F-Ab-Bb) whose shape is found in the first three notes of the inversion form of the row. The texture of this section is contrapuntal and, although the bass line and some of the melodic content clearly convey G blues, the lines are sometimes in a polytonal relationship.

I sometimes like to use classical formal relationships in jazz pieces, both to add another self-imposed limitation to work with and to acknowledge the rich European tradition of chromatic tonal music that many jazz musicians still draw from. In the classical sonata form, the second theme section is often in the key of the dominant, in relation to the main theme. Here, the main theme in a C blues tonality is followed by a second theme in a G blues tonality, established by the D7+9 chord. Note that the saxophone melody note is Db, enharmonically the major seventh, but also a blue note in the new key of G. Duke Ellington clearly heard that blue notes often sound convincing because the ear hears them as “right notes” in blues melodies, even if they are “wrong” notes in relation to the accompanying chords. According to Ellington, “If it sounds good, it’s good music. If it doesn’t, then it’s the other kind.” In this case, the Db recurs in the trumpet line of the second theme, where it is resolved up a half step (where the ear wanted it to go).

(Ex. 4)


The second theme is followed by the closing section of the exposition, with stop time exchanges between the ensemble and the soloists leading to improvised solos by trumpet and baritone. The harmonic form for the solos combines blues and modal harmonies with G7+9 and Eb13+11 lasting for eight bars each. This is followed by a two-bar harmonic rhythm lasting eight measures, with backgrounds recalling the two-bar vamp figure from bars 51-52. At the end of each solo, the stop time exchanges from the end of the exposition return.

I decided to start the recapitulation with the second theme material, but in a higher, more climactic register. This soon descends to a lower register for a bit more contrapuntal development, which gradually builds to a cadence on a highly chromatic G7 chord that announces the return of the main theme. The brief coda features short exchanges between the soloists and the ensemble, ending on a Cm6/9 chord, but with unresolved extension of Gb, Ab and F in the higher instruments.

The opening of the second movement is my variation of the introduction to Stratusphunk by George Russell, as arranged by Gil Evans on the album Out of the Cool. The pyramid is taken from a retrograde of notes 1-7, transposed a minor third lower. It creates an octatonic voicing of Bb7, setting up the tonality of Eb blues. The solo bass trombone’s pickup, Bb-G, adds the eighth tone to complete the Bb half step-whole step octatonic scale. The Gb played on the downbeat of bar 6 clearly sounds like the blue third in the key of Eb.

The two eight-bar phrases from bar 6-21 each begin with the pitches Bb-G-Gb, notes 3-5 of the original form of the row. Each eight bars seems to suggest a harmonic turnaround leading back to Eb, although there is no rhythm section to clarify exactly what the chords are. At first, I tried following Bb, G and Gb with the three notes on either side in the row, Eb, C and Fb. I didn’t like the Fb, but substituting the Db next to it in the row seemed to make the perfect three-note response. From there on, I worked out the bass trombone line by ear until it sounded perfect to me. The two-beat cross rhythm in bars 10-11 and 18-19 definitely add momentum. Using a jazz waltz feel and a rhythmically developed bass trombone solo led the Stratusphunk reference into a totally unexpected direction, paying respect to the roots while creating a personal statement from them.

The second statement of the bass trombone theme is joined by a more active contrapuntal line that is bluesy in a less abstract way. This second line clearly suggests subtle chromatic motion away from the tonal center of Eb, to F# (bars 24-45), Ab (bar 26), Db (bars 27-29), C (bars 30-32) and F# (32-24), before concluding with a feeling of A (35-36). This second line was worked out by ear, although the sequence of intervals in the row was beginning to infuse the material with thematic unity s my ears more fully internalized the sounds.




(Ex. 5)


The second theme of this movement is more romantic than bluesy, mainly to create contrast and balance. From this point until the return of the main theme near the end of the movement, the saxophones all switch to clarinets. Jens, the baritone saxophonist, enjoyed playing the little Eb clarinet, an instrument I was thrilled to be able to incorporate since hearing it in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Clare Fischer. The second tenor saxophonist, Rolf Römer, played Bb bass clarinet and the rest of the section played the normal Bb clarinets. I will come back to this section later on, in order to point out connections between the second themes of the second and fourth movements.

Because the first movement emphasized blues elements so strongly, I decided to develop the chord progression for the solos from the more romantic second theme. However, some elements from the second line of the first theme section return in a dialogue with the second theme. With the exception of the last two movements, the chord progressions for the solos in the concerto are never simply a repeat of progressions we hear earlier, but incorporate some of the same or similar harmonies to create a feeling of development and continuity rather than repetition. While repeating basically the same progression in small groups actually results in a high degree of freedom to alter and embellish that progression and still stay together as a group, the process of playing written music enables composers and arrangers to come up with much more unpredictable multi-layered musical stories with subtle connections and references in relation to different parts of a piece. The featured soloists in this movement are bass trombonist Lucas Schmid, valve trombonist Dave Horler and pianist Frank Chastenier. Dave was the lead trombonist, but loved to play solos on the valve instrument. Material from the second theme is used in further variation for backgrounds and interludes.

Between the valve trombone and piano solos the ensemble states a harmonization of the opening bass trombone solo line, scored for 5 flugelhorns, three trombones and bass trombone, followed by a rhythmically altered and melodically embellished variation of the same line harmonized for the clarinet choir. After the piano solo, a transition section for the ensemble leads back to the first theme section and a brief coda. The movement begins with a variation of the opening octatonic pyramid, but now on an Eb7 chord with the bass trombone providing an extra low Eb as a final solo statement.

As the third movement is a ballad, I wanted to feature our lead alto saxophonist, Heiner Wiberny. He is not only a beautiful lead player and consummate soloist, but he has a gorgeous ballad sound that can go more toward Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, depending on the repertoire. I was definitely thinking Johnny Hodges here. However, to provide contrast for a truly lush alto melody, I made an extended polytonal bluesy introduction that vacillates between brooding melancholy and dark humor. When the alto solo begins, the sun starts to peek out.

The main theme section of this movement uses extremely chromatic harmony that I first encountered in the music of Clare Fischer, from whom I learned that it is a hallmark of the symphonies and string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, even in his first symphony that he wrote when he was nineteen years old. Voice leading is especially at the forefront here, and there are frequent nonharmonic tones that create tension, but they all resolved in a manner that is convincing to the ear. The alto melody is an inversion form of the row, transposed down a tritone. This melody is an exact inversion of the lead trumpet line of the chorale at the beginning of the concerto, although some pitches are repeated here for melodic interest and ornamentation. Although the alto line looks like it is in F in the first two measures, the key is actual Gb or F#, and the melody notes are altered tones or extensions.

Notice that, although the bass note in bar 24 is G, as in bar 16, the chord is C#m9-5 with G in the bass rather than a G chord. This begins a sequence of minor II-V progressions, which provide the harmonic content for the second theme. This theme features the expressive solo trumpet playing of Andy Haderer, who plays lead in the section. Most of the melodic content of the second theme is developed from the last two notes of the row used for the alto solo, E and G. Although the entire second theme is not shown here, bars 30-33 are mostly a sequence of bars 26-29, a whole step lower. The solo alto extends the second theme to ten bars with a two-bar extension that leads to the last statement of the main theme in the exposition, which is also extended from eight to ten measures.




(Ex. 6)

At the end of the exposition a short section of the melancholy introduction returns, which is extended to lead to a solo by bassist John Goldsby. To contrast the warm romanticism of the main and second themes, I decided to come up with a chord progression that emphasized tonic minor chord types, which contrasts with the mood of the exposition. This progression returns in the final movement as the harmonic accompaniment to the second theme, and will be shown later in reference to that movement.

At the end of the bass solo a short transition leads to a reprise of the second theme, but now embellished and orchestrated as a brass shout section with octave melodic responses from the saxophones. The solo alto again plays the two-bar extension, now stretched to three bars, leading to the final statement of the main theme. However, the theme is now played in a higher octave by the trumpets and leads to the high point of the movement. The solo alto takes over one last time in the seventh bar.  In this final statement of the main theme, which was originally eight bars and then extended to ten, it is stretched to fourteen bars. Introductory material returns with further development and leads to an unaccompanied solo alto phrase that ends on a bittersweet Gb6M7 chord with the blue third in the solo alto.

The drums establish the 12/8 Afro-Cuban groove in the first two bars of the fourth movement. The ensemble then comes in with a flourish, establishing the key of A minor. Although the introduction has little to do with the tone row, the rhythm section’s pickup measure in bar 8 is the retrograde of the same inversion form used for the alto solo in the previous movement. The form is like a rondo, with the feeling of a toccata.

The main theme is heard five times, each with a different orchestration. Where the second movement featured the saxophone section on clarinets, this movement features them on piccolo, flutes and alto flutes. As in a good portion of the second movement, I switched the trumpets to flugelhorns, preferring the darker sound for this movement, to contrast with the trumpets in the final movement. It is the flugelhorns that first state the main theme.

The primary melodic figure, E-D-B-C-A, comes from the retrograde of notes 6-10 of the inversion form of the row, transposed down a perfect fourth. The melody of bars 9-13 is simply rhythmic play with the first five tones of the A minor scale, especially the seven-beat cross rhythm from beat three of bar 10 through beat four of bar 13. The emphasis of the notes B and D moves the melody on to temporary resolution in bar 14. Once I had these first few bars, I eventually heard the rest, including the tonicization of IV in bars 14 -16 and the tonicization of III in bars 17-19. The use of the Ab on the A7 chord in bar 16 creates a pungent blues effect, but resolves convincingly to G before continuing on to the third and root of the D minor chord. The complete retrograde of the inversion form of the row recurs in bar 22, here as a pickup bar to the return of the bass vamp with colorful trombone chords announcing the next statement of the theme. On the repeat of the theme, the trombones contribute some counter lines and harmonic punctuation.



(Ex. 7)

The second theme in this rondo is developed from the second theme of the second movement. The group of tones, C-Db-Bb-Ab-G-E in bars 42-46 of the second movement, and G-Ab-F-Eb-D-B in bars 36-38 of this movement are transpositions of notes 3-8 of the retrograde of the inversion form of the row. I have included chord symbols here to save space, while giving some harmonic and rhythmic context to the use of this common material. The eight bars of harmonized brass content beginning at bar 36 are followed by nine bars of more active melodic development for the flutes and piano (unison octaves) with brass accompaniment, all leading to a flute solo by second tenor saxophonist Rolf Römer. The chord progression is taken from the second theme, with a few small alterations.

(Ex. 8)

The flute solo concludes with a brief interlude for brass and rhythm sections that leads to a statement of the theme by the trombones. Here the pickup material heard in bar 22 is played by the brass section, and the flutes and piano play the harmonic material heard in the trombones at bars 23-24. The trombone statement of the theme is followed by a short ensemble interlude that leads to the third theme of this rondo, a funky eight-bar blues form in the key of Ab that starts on the IV chord (Db7). This is, perhaps, the most extreme contrast in the concerto. For the only time in the movement, the feel changes from Afro-Cuban to that of a 4/4 shuffle groove, but still notated in 12/8. Here I decided to have a guitar solo by Paul Shigihara, and state the theme after the solo as a bridge to the next recurrence of the main theme. The melodic content of the blues theme comes from notes 3-5 of the inversion form of the row and notes 2-4 of the original form. The blues theme is played twice before a short ensemble interlude leads to the next statement of the theme. It should be noted that the interludes throughout the movement return to similar material that is reorchestrated or developed differently in each recurrence.

The next statement of the theme is made by the flute choir, with three flutes and two alto flutes. The flugelhorns play a counter line in the middle, and the entire ensemble comes together in a send off for a trombone solo by then second trombonist, Ludwig Nuss (he has been playing lead since Dave’s retirement several years ago). For contrast, I decided to start this solo off with a rhythmically open feel, still in 12/8, and sixteen bars of G#o7/A, which eventually leads to the chord changes of the second theme as heard in the flute solo. The trombone solo is followed by a short interlude that leads to a reprise of the second theme, exactly as heard earlier.

The movement concludes with a full ensemble orchestration of the main theme. Two flutes and two alto flutes double the harmony of four of the five flugelhorns, but an octave above, while a piccolo doubles the lead flugelhorn two octaves above. The trombones play the accompanimental material heard in the opening statement by the flugelhorns. A brief and slightly humorous coda ends with a diminuendo and a final statement by the trombone and rhythm sections of the opening five notes of the main theme: E-D-B-C-A.

The fifth and final movement starts exactly like the first, with the brass choral and saxophone responses. However, when the fast tempo begins, it is a bit faster than in the first movement. Here it initiates dissonant pyramids alternating with eight-bar drum solos. These lead to a polytonal vamp section emphasizing a G pedal, which serves as a second introduction before the opening theme is stated. While the fourth movement made references to material from the second movement, the fifth movement refers back to material from both the first and third movements. Here, the saxes develop a figure from notes 1-5 of the original form of the row, transposed down a major third. This recalls the Ab blues line of the solo trumpet in the main theme of the first movement (Ex. 3), again creating a polytonal texture.

(Ex. 9)

As the saxophone lines develop, the polytonal vamp starts to move up by half steps, with the implied key center of the sax lines moving along with it. This continues to build tension until the vamp reaches a B pedal (the leading tone in the key of C), which sets up a G altered dominant chord that leads to the main theme.

The theme is stated by trumpet and tenor saxophone, as the movement features trumpeter John Marshall and tenor saxophonist Olivier Peters, along with drummer Hans Dekker. The melodic content comes from the baritone melody of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3) Here, the twelve bar melody is divided into two six-bar sections, rather than the three four-bar sections of a blues. In the solo section however, the form sounds more like a conventional minor blues, with Ab9+11 substituting for Fm7. This move from tonic minor to the dominant on the lowered sixth degree of the key, and back to the tonic is heard in compositions from Duke Ellington (The Mooche, The Shepherd, etc.) to contemporary jazz composers. The last four bars (90-93) are a variant of bars 37-40 of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3).

In the repetition of the theme, the sequence from bars 90 and 91 to bars 92 and 93 is interrupted, recapturing the listener’s attention with the start of an eight-bar stop time transition. This is a variant of the material that started in bar 49 of the first movement (Ex. 4). Here, however, the stop time material continues in regular two-bar phrases, as I wanted to keep the rhythmic momentum going to set up the second theme, which begins in bar 102.


(Ex. 10)

The second theme is based on the chord progression used for the improvised bass solo in the third movement. This eight-bar progression emphasizes tonic minor chords, beginning with A minor. In this movement, going from C minor to A minor brightens things up as we move to a key that takes away flats (or adds sharps) to the tonic scale. Occurring rather suddenly, the key change is also a dramatic gesture. In the slow movement, whose home key was F# or Gb major, the move to A minor has a much different psychological effect.

(Ex. 11)

The final statement of the main theme in the exposition, which follows the second theme, leads to a variation of the earlier polytonal vamp. This time, however, it emphasizes FmM7 with the third in the bass. The saxophone material from the earlier vamp is further developed here, and eventually leads to a G altered dominant chord that sets up the improvised solo choruses for trumpet and tenor saxophone. In the bridge, or second theme area of the trumpet solo, the piano plays the harmonic accompaniment from the bass solo of the third movement, but in this fast tempo (Ex. 11). In the tenor solo, the same content is orchestrated for the ensemble. Both solos end by returning to the vamp material from the end of the exposition. At the end of the tenor solo, however, the harmony leads to the same vamp material a whole step higher, on GmM7 with the third in the bass. This heightens the tension, which is gradual resolved as the vamp material descends chromatically, returning to the earlier FmM7. The ascending quarter note lead lines at the end of this section emphasize minor thirds and whole steps, as in notes 1-3 of the inversion form of the row. This is followed by exchanges between the drums and the ensemble, with the melodic content coming from different transpositions of notes 1-5 of the inversion form. The ascending sequences build to a resolution on a powerful E altered dominant voicing that leads to a full ensemble statement based on the chord changes of the second theme.

Because there was so much harmonized material in this movement, I decided to orchestrate this ensemble statement as full ensemble unison with bass and drums accompaniment. Although Ellington used this texture effectively throughout his career, it is surprising that it has been used so seldom in recent decades. The melodic vocabulary is that of basic swing and bebop that just felt right as a contrast to the thick ensemble writing and harmonic tension. At the end of this unison passage, the G altered chord is extended for two extra bars in order to draw attention to the final statement of the main theme. The main theme returns in its original small group orchestration, leading again to the vamp on FmM7/Ab with the bluesy saxophone lines on top. A brief extension of this material leads to a powerful full ensemble G altered dominant chord that sets up the coda.

The concluding section begins with a loud descending statement of the first six notes of the original form of the row (Eb-C-Bb-G-F#-E) with high register trumpets and altos in octaves, together with low register trombones, tenor and baritone playing the inversion of the same line starting on C# (C#-E-F#-A-Bb-C). This is followed by exchanges between the drums and low register sax and trombone chords. In the final gesture, a harmonized statement of the retrograde of the original row form gradually ascends to a climactic Cm11 chord. The final descending and ascending gestures heard in the coda seemed like the perfect conclusion to the final movement and to the entire work.


(Ex. 12)

In retrospect, I realize that the creation of this large-scale piece was a summation of my composing experience up to that point. I can hear the influences of all my major jazz and classical composers, brought together for the first time in a single work while being expressed in a personal voice and from a personal point of view. Because of this, I always look back on Concerto for Jazz Orchestra as one of the most satisfying pieces I have written. I’ll always be thankful to Wolfgang Hirschmann, the West German Radio and the WDR Big Band for providing me with the opportunity to direct and write for a world-class jazz orchestra for eight unforgettable years.


Concerto for Jazz Orchestra

Movement 1: Maestoso; Medium Swing

Movement 2: Jazz Waltz

Movement 3: Ballad

Movement 4: Toccata; Latin

Movement 5: Maestoso; Fast Swing

About the Author:


Bill Dobbins is professor of jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he teaches the jazz composing and arranging courses and directs the award winning Eastman Jazz Ensemble and Eastman Studio Orchestra. As a pianist, he has performed with orchestra and chamber ensembles under the direction of Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss and Frederick Fennell, and he has performed and recorded with such jazz artists as Clark Terry, Al Cohn, Red Mitchell, Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Gary Foster, Dave Liebman, John Goldsby and Peter Erskine. He joined the Eastman faculty in 1973, and was instrumental in designing both the graduate and undergraduate curricula for Eastman’s Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media program. Many of his students have been heard in the big bands of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Chuck Mangione, Maria Schneider, and Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra.

From 1994 through 2002 Mr. Dobbins was principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, and he headed the jazz studies department at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1998 to 2002. Concert, radio, television and tour projects under his direction with the WDR Big Band included internationally acclaimed soloists Clark Terry, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Gary Bartz, Kevin Mahogany, Art Farmer, Steve Lacy, Paquito D’Rivera, Mark Feldman, Gary Foster, Claire Fischer, Peter Erskine, Nicolas Simion and the Kings Singers. As guest director, he continues to write and direct projects for the WDR Big Band, the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Advance Music, Mainz, publishes Mr. Dobbins’ compositions and arrangements for big band, chamber music combinations and solo piano. Jazz education programs worldwide have adopted his volumes of transcriptions of classic jazz piano solos and jazz textbooks for use in their courses. These include Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Herbie Hancock: Classic Jazz Compositions and Piano Solos, and Clare Fischer: Alone Together/Just Me, Jazz Arranging and Composing: a Linear Approach, A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony, and Arranging for the Contemporary Big Band, and a DVD, The Evolution of Solo Jazz Piano. Recent CDs include J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, with the Kings Singers and the WDR Big Band, arranged and conducted by Bill Dobbins (Signum Classics) and Composers Series (solo piano) Volume 1: the Music of Clare Fischer and George Gershwin, and Volume 2: the Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (Sons of Sound).

Artist Blog

Rick Lawn: Remembering Manny Albam


I had the pleasure of studying with Manny Albam in the 1970s at the Eastman School of Music and considered him a mentor and a friend. I was among the many who mourned his loss in 2001 shortly after 9/11. For those of you who may not be familiar with his career, a short but accurate tribute by Peter Keepnews was printed in the New York Times at the time of his death: (

More detail about his career can be found at:

Manny was not only a gifted composer/arranger, as confirmed by his peers and several Grammy nominations, he was a wonderful human being and a joy to work with. Looking back, I treasure my time with Manny and his music that I had the pleasure to perform. I’ve come to realize how much his teachings influenced my own writing and philosophy about composing, arranging and teaching.

Recently I embarked on a project to digitize some of the videos I had collected over the years and especially those from my time as Director of Jazz Studies at The University of Texas where we had entertained many guest artists during my 21-year stay.  I discovered a recording of a seminar that Manny presented in “the jazz room” at UT while he was in residence. The residency in the early 1990s culminated in a performance of his “Nostalgico” featuring graduate student Paul Haar on alto sax (Director of Jazz Studies at University of Nebraska) and the UT Studio Orchestra. Throughout the first lengthy segment of this seminar Manny discusses, among other things, the importance of knowing why we compose, the stories we must tell, and how we tell them through music. He used movements from his Soul of the City Solid State recording to illustrate his points. He played examples from Soul of the City in the seminar and, while they are third generation acoustic recordings of substandard quality by today’s standards, they are sufficient to stimulate your curiosity and illustrate his points.

I know other composers will agree that looking back on Manny’s vast collection of work, this suite of pieces stands out as some of his very best work and fortunately is still available from Amazon or iTunes on a reissued recording entitled Sketches of Jazz – Music From the Book of Life (“Soul of the City is the first 9 tracks). Many of his other recordings, including West Side Story that Leonard Bernstein praised, are still available as reissues, often on non-American labels. I invite you to pick up a copy of these recordings while they are still available.

I think one of the amazing aspects of these nine tracks is that so much can be expressed in under 5 minutes and Manny was a master of the short form. I find it astonishing how much ground Manny covers musically in the course of one of these pieces that range from 2:48 to 5:56. By today’s standards these lengths might seem like introductions. In some ways we may have been ruined by digital formats that allow us to run on and on.  Manny was clearly a master of the 3 – 5 minute piece that communicates a great deal of music in such a short time. There may be a message and lesson here for all of us and especially students – try writing a piece that is 3 to 5 minutes long yet flows, tells a full story, provides ample space for soloist(s) and has all the earmarks of a well developed score.  It’s harder than you might think to work under these constraints.

While the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies archive offers a catalogue to Manny’s collection of scores and parts housed at the Institute, sadly the scores from Soul of the City and West Side Story are among the missing items. I have been working with his daughter in hopes of resurrecting these scores, and possibly others, so that they can once again might be performed and analyzed for instructional purposes. These pieces also offer an excellent lesson in writing for strings and augmented brass sections, especially French Horns. Nothing in the nine pieces that comprise Soul of the City could be considered outdated by today’s standards. It is timely music interpreted by the most outstanding musicians of the day (1966) including Phil Woods, JJ Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Richard Davis, and others.

Manny was so attuned to his surroundings and sensitive to the human condition that I have to wonder what he would be writing today. I wish we knew, but somehow I think he would find the humor in it all.

Links to the circa 1992 Manny Albam seminar:

Part 1 –


Part 2 –

Rick Lawn 10/9/16

As an addendum to the above, only days after writing this short introduction to the You Tube videos of Manny’s seminar I am happy to report that I have finally found the scores and parts for these classic pieces! I’ll keep the community informed about possible next steps.

About the Author:

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn has received several significant composition grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and, as a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet, has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal and Equilibrium labels. The Sea Breeze record label issued “Unknown Soldiers,” a CD recorded by the Third Coast Jazz Orchestra that features his compositions and arrangements including his arrangement of “Donna Lee” recorded by Bobby Sanabria’s New York Latin big band on his 2001 Grammy nominated CD. In fall 2011 his Philadelphia based little big band Power of Ten10 released Earth Tones that includes his original compositions and arrangements. The CD received coast-to-coast radio play and favorable reviews.

Kendor Music, CL Barnhouse, Walrus Music, Concept Music, Alfred Music, eJazzlines, Warwick Music, Dorn, LawnWorks Publications and UNC Press among others publish his music. Rick’s books entitled The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (in its 4th edition), Jazz Theory and Practice in its 2nd edition (that includes interactive ear training software) and Experiencing Jazz now in its 2nd edition have become staples among jazz educators and students.

Rick’s performing experiences outside his own ensembles include extended engagements with Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Austin Symphony others. He has performed in back-up orchestras for Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Natalie Cole, Marian McPartland, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dianne Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.

Richard Lawn is the former Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now Professor Emeritus and part-time faculty member teaching jazz history online. He also teaches online for VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Recetly Rick has become involved with the International Society of Arrangers and Composers. Formerly, he was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin serving as Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for academic affairs. Visit his Web site at:

Artist Blog

David Berger’s Answers to Common Jazz Arranging Questions

The following blog is an excerpt from the beginning of my book, Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging (available at Please excuse the obvious self-promotion but if you are interested in an arranging book that specifically deals with the art and tools of jazz arranging and composing, this is the book for you. I wrote it to answer all the arranging questions that I had when I was a young man. Included here are the most common and superficial questions. The rest of the book delves into the deep issues in-depth.

We Get Letters

Newspapers have featured advice columns for nearly 200 years, most famously Dear Abby and Ann Landers (actually twin sisters writing under pseudonyms).  In that spirit I’m going to answer the most asked questions that deal with general issues before we get to the details of arranging and composing.

1. Q: Should I become a musician?

A: No.  It will make your parents very unhappy.  Besides, if you had to ask, then you have already considered that you could get through life doing something else.  Music, like all the arts and the priesthood, is a calling.  When I was 12, I knew.  A few years later, an older musician I was working with said to me, “Being a musician is a curse, but not being a musician is a worse curse.

2. Q: Should I study classical music?

A:Yes.  You may never perform any Beethoven or Mozart professionally, but the experience of playing it as a student is invaluable.  As jazz performers, we need to play our instruments on the highest level.  The discipline of playing classical music gives us much of the technique you need to play jazz.  In order to write jazz, it is most helpful to draw on our experience playing jazz and other music.  Although I have not picked up the trumpet in over 10 years, my writing is informed by what I learned playing in bands and orchestras.

The best classical music will teach us strong musical aesthetics.  The principles are sound.  I have studied harmony and counterpoint from 16th century to the present.  I can’t say that I have consciously used anything I learned from the early music, but the harmony and counterpoint of Baroque music formed the foundation of what I do.  If you can take classes, start as soon as possible.  If not, then buy a few books on the subject and teach yourself.

3. Q: If I transcribe and study jazz soloists, arrangers and composers, will I wind up just copying them?

A: You’ll only sound like them if you really want to.  Do you sound like your parents when you speak?  You learned how to talk from them, but you went on to learn from many other people and eventually you found your own voice.  Sometimes I am hired to write arrangements in someone else’s style.  When I was young, I used to ghostwrite for a few of my heroes.  It was fun to try to emulate their style.  If you have more than one composer or arranger that you like, you will sound like a combination of all the things you like in their music, and ultimately discover your own musical personality that will grow out of that.

4. Q: Who are the most important jazz composers and arrangers to listen to and study, and where can I get their scores?

A:Of course everyone has personal preferences, but here are somearrangers/composers that I enjoy and have learned the most from (in no particular order) Horace Silver (2-horn writing), Benny Golson (3-horn writing), Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Jelly Roll Morton, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Sy Oliver, Quincy Jones, J.J. Johnson, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Wynton Marsalis.  I also love Benny Carter, Al Cohn, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, Gerald Wilson, Ernie Wilkins, Billy Byers, Manny Albam and many others, all of whose work is excellent but not as groundbreaking or influential as the first group.  If I need to recommend just one. it is Duke Ellington, hands down, for the greatest depth and breadth.  Jazz at Lincoln Center has published many scores by Ellington and several of the others.  If you are looking for something, and can’t find it, email me at

5. Q: Should I write at the piano or away from it?

A: I write at the piano.  So did Ellington and Stravinsky.  Strayhorn wrote away from the piano, and played the arrangement on the piano when it was completed.  Maurice Ravel said that if you write away from the piano, you will only write what you know, but if you use the piano, you will find new things.  I find this to be true for me.  When I write away from the piano, I tend to write more conservatively and more from my conscious mind rather than my subconscious (which is where the best art lives).  Then again, some pianists have told me the opposite.

6. Q: Do I need to write every day?

A: This is personal.  I tend to write when I am inspired or when I have a deadline.  I have gone months without even writing a note.  And then there are periods where I churn out a chart a day for weeks on end.  Billy Byers said that he wrote from 9-5 Monday to Friday.  I usually write during the day, but it is not uncommon for me to write late at night or very early in the morning, as my understanding neighbors will attest.  Find what works best for you.

7. Q: Should I use Finale or Sibelius?

A:Personally, I still use pencil and paper.  I grew up that way, and I am quick and effective.  I don’t need to change, so I don’t.  I see nothing wrong with writing at the computer as long as you are making the decisions and not letting the program make them for you.  Don’t believe the sounds you hear in playbacks.  These programs take no account for the registers and balances of the instruments.  The overtones are wrong.  There are sampling programs that are better, but even these can fool you.  Even when I play an orchestration on the piano, I have to imagine what the real instruments will sound like.  This comes from the experience of hearing music played live, playing lots of music in a variety of settings and hearing my own music played live and on recordings.

8. Q: What is the biggest mistake that arrangers make?

A:Overwriting.  Most charts have too many notes.  They are cluttered, so that the jewels get hidden.  So often when I conduct the work of other arrangers, I have the horns tacet certain figures and lines.  All of a sudden the chart becomes more focused and effective.  Similarly, many charts are too long.  They overstay their welcome and the audience becomes bored.  It’s as if the arranger was driving along the highway and missed the exit sign.  For me the arrangement should have ended, but the arranger was having too much fun writing and forgot the big picture.

One other consideration is that the more new material in the chart, the harder it is to get a good performance from the band.  This is especially crucial in situations with little or no rehearsal time.  Sy Oliver once asked me if I wanted to know the secret to being a great arranger.  He held up his forefinger (just like Curly in City Slickers) and said, “Just focus on one thing.  Keep it simple so your audience can understand what the band is doing”.

9. Q: What other arranging books should I read?

A:I started with Russell Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer, which was probably the best text available 50 years ago.  I haven’t looked at it since, but I would imagine that the advice is still sound.  It’s aimed at beginners and covers the basic issues.  Rayburn Wright’s Inside The Score analyzes scores by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer.  Ray was my teacher.  This book is fairly advanced, and is invaluable.  Bill Dobbins’ Jazz Composing and Arranging, A Linear Approach is the text for small group arranging.   The concepts are somewhat advanced.  Lastly Chuck Israels’ Exploring Jazz Arranging covers basic essential material and proceeds to a smattering of advanced concepts and techniques.

I studied classical composition for 2 years with Ludmila Ulehla.  Her encyclopedic text, Contemporary Harmony: Romantic Music Through the Twelve-Tone Row, is the seminal book on classical harmony.  The concepts presented apply to jazz as well as other Western music.

10. Q: What do I have to do to become a great arranger?

A: It sure helps to be born with talent, musicality and an artistic sense—these things cannot be taught, but if you have them, they can be nurtured.  Beyond this, a great arranger needs 5 things: an inquisitive mind, the need to put everything in order, a good ear, boundless love of great music, and the passion, patience and fortitude to write hundreds of arrangements.

About the Author:


Jazz composer, arranger, and conductor, David Berger, is recognized internationally as a leading authority on the music of Duke Ellington and the Swing Era. Conductor and arranger for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from its inception in 1988 through 1994, Berger has transcribed over 750 full scores of classic recordings, including more than 500 works by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in addition to hundreds of other classic jazz recordings. Several of these transcriptions in addition to a number of original arrangements are featured in the recent Broadway hit, After Midnight.

In 1996 Berger collaborated with choreographer Donald Byrd to create and tour the Harlem Nutcracker, a full-length two-hour dance piece that expands the Tchaikovsky/ Ellington/Strayhorn score into an American classic. The 15-piece band assembled to play this show has stayed together as the David Berger Jazz Orchestra. The DBJO actively performs Berger’s music on tours throughout the United States and Europe.

Berger has written music for symphony orchestras, television, Broadway shows and films and has composed and arranged for Duke Ellington, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Quincy Jones and the WDR Big Band. He has also arranged for dozens of singers including

Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Freda Payne, Natalie Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Madeleine Peyroux, Milt Grayson, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Susan Graham, Denzal Sinclaire and Champian Fulton.

Berger has taught jazz arranging and composition for 30 years in the New York City area at the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, The New School, William Paterson University among others.

Read more about David Berger at

For David Berger jazz arrangements, books and blog, visit

Keep your eye out for Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging: Volume II to be released in the coming months.

Artist Blog

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

Artist Blog

John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 2

Part 1:

Part 2.

“Since many of our contemporary songwriters can’t find middle C with radar, the first function, I think, of the arranger is to make order out of chaos. Once that order is achieved the real work starts. The arranger must build a structure that supports the song. The song is the thing, and the arranger’s function is to make it memorable regardless of one’s personal feelings.”

© Henry Mancini 1982 (Letter to John La Barbera)

Yes, the “song is the thing” and one must recognize what exactly comprises the song.  Obviously it’s the original melody and chord changes, rhythm, and this is VERY important: the audience.  No matter how sophisticated or amateur an audience, they need a reference, and that’s the song.   The next step is to “make order out of chaos ” as Hank has mentioned.  This can be taking a tune that has minimal chord changes or rhythmic value and cleaning it up.  Nothing too drastic, but just enough for it to be allowed in public without disguising its original style, or intent.  Now state this cleaned up original first.  This is extremely important, state the original in a state that is as close to the original as possible.  After that, you can manipulate it as much as you want and they, the audience, will get it.  One of the advantages of age and experience is having observed listeners’ reaction to a given arrangement and understanding why it worked or failed.  And, if one looks at the breadth of an arrangement, the thread of what is the  audiences’ focus is the song or what substitutes for that song.  For introducing students to the art of arranging, I tend to use the melody as an equivalent of the song to get them going because to quote an old Broadway adage, “people don’t leave a show whistling the chord changes!”

Think of the original song/melody as the “before” picture and after you’ve remodeled it (made it memorable) we have the “after” picture.  Without the original the improvement has little impact.  A good example of this is an arrangement I originally wrote for Buddy Rich on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”  This was in the very early 70’s and I was still finding my way in this arranging game with plenty of technique and ideas but lacking in the finesse department.  Buddy turned it down and I was confused as to why he would do that to such a great chart (I thought).  As I matured I finally realized why the arrangement really didn’t work with a typical audience…it’s the customized car/hot rod without a picture of the original.  Had I started it out with even just a piano solo of the original melody and chord changes, what follows would have really worked for a general audience.   I recorded it on my first big band CD “On the Wild Side” just the way I originally wrote it and it should give you an idea of what I mean.  While we’re on the subject, once you’ve done a chart and have it played, fix any obvious mechanical mistakes and then leave it alone.  Know what you would do differently and then write two new charts.  I’ve known students who are still working on the same chart they did years ago and musically, haven’t grown an inch.

So let’s get down to the “real work” and break down the components of a typical arrangement and identify the song/melody.  We’ll “build the structure” using a big band jazz chart as our first example.

I like to think that there is a consistent thread that flows from the beginning to the end of a chart that represents the melody, implied melody, or the principal focus of the chart that is easily followed by the listener. For instance, in a short, traditional AABA form (“I Got Rhythm” changes for instance) big band swing chart of a standard tune, we start with the intro.

The lead trumpet plays the melody of the intro as the top line of a full ensemble scored in block voicings (spell-check hates that word).  This is original material the arranger creates as a piece of “support structure” Hank talks about.  Then we present the actual melody of the song using the original chord changes with unison saxophones for the first A, then soli saxes for the second A.  Unison bones pick up the melody on the B section and the last A section melody is scored for full ensemble once again with the lead trumpet presenting the melody.  So far a consistent thread that gives our audience a reference with which to compare what follows.   It’s been my experience that an audience actually absorbs what is originally stated no matter how unsophisticated idiomatically they may be.  They may not understand melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic concepts but the song does become embedded somewhere in their being.  I’ve also observed the reaction of intonation and dynamics on an audience.  As a body they can’t say “the clarinets are out of tune in the upper register,” but they sense something is wrong and either fiddle in their seats or lose interest in what’s going on at the moment.  The same is true for dynamics or lack thereof.

Getting back to our chart, we copy and paste that introduction as an interlude being careful to change it slightly (see “Nuts & Bolts” below).  Let’s say this time it’s lead alto playing the melody down an octave from the way it was first presented in our intro scored in block voicings with the bones.  Though somewhat customized, that melody is immediately recognized and becomes reinforced in the minds of the audience and in a sense, becomes part of the song.

Then we may have an improvised trumpet solo for the full AABA form…that is the melody now.  The backgrounds behind the solo (usually non-like instruments, saxes & bones) are subservient to the improvisation and should stay out of the way…they are not the melody.  We’re not selling the backgrounds, we’re selling the melody. (We’ll address this further later on)

O.K.  Let’s reuse that intro/interlude as a send-off or buildup to the shout chorus.  But let’s make sure to change it so it isn’t predictable.  How about starting with unison bones with the original intro melody and then have it pyramid by adding the saxes and then trumpets.

Now a fully scored shout chorus using a slightly augmented version of the melody.  The audience already knows this melody and immediately recognizes that the full ensemble is “playing around” with it.

Now let’s bring the volume way down by having the piano play the melody of the B section with the rest of the rhythm section.  Then let’s give the last A to the bones playing the melody in thirds.

And finally let’s “bookend” the whole thing with that intro/interlude/sendoff melody re-harmonized  to imply a modulation to a last full chord.

Though rather formulaic, this gives us a good representation of how a melody progresses throughout the arrangement.  Also, this is a very good schematic to get students stared on building their first big band chart.  Stay away from blues and 16 bar tunes at first, the shorter forms demand more skills.  Now for some nuts and bolts.

Nuts & Bolts

Make sure you know all of the basics.

Watson, describing Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet.”  (Trust me, this is going somewhere)

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge… That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled ’round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.  Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.  He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.  It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.  Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.  It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

WHAT you say?

Well, one should have all of the information committed to memory that is needed on a regular basis to keep the music flowing.  If you have to look up the transposition or range of an alto or tenor sax, you’ll never get the flow necessary to produce a seamless piece of work.  Know all of the mute possibilities and as many performance nuances (false fingerings, bends, slurs, etc.) as you can.  Score layout for all plausible ensembles is a must, as is part layout.   And don’t trust those “out of range” flags from your notation program, they aren’t always correct.  However, you probably don’t need to commit to memory the range and transposition of an oboe d’amore so why let that clutter up your brain.  When you’re standing in front of 6 or 60 musicians asking questions, you better be sure you have all of the basics committed to memory.

Trust your ears and inclination.

“The computer playback of an arrangement, no matter how sophisticated the samples, should not be totally trusted. It is not an acoustic instrument!”  

If you fail to heed this warning you might discard some wonderful voicing or orchestration choices and have an end result that sounds less than vibrant.  The beauty of any combination of pitches of an orchestration lies in the overtones produced by same.  Without them, a true digital reproduction is impossible.  If you heard a playback of any of Gil Evans’, Thad Jones’, or Bobby Brookmeyer’s scoring with the best of computer generated sounds, you’d more than likely think them unacceptable.  You have to see it on the page, hear it in your head, and believe it.

“Copy & paste is your best friend & worse enemy”

Copy & paste is to computers as col  (come sopra) was to our hand written scores in the old days… “let the copyist do the work.”  All well and good, but it invites one of our enemies, predictability, into our work.  Even the slightest change to a block of copy & paste satisfies the requirement to “make it memorable.”  If you use your introduction as an ending or interlude/sendoff, change it slightly…add a few more measures, change a rhythm or harmony, change the meter and it will add continuity and avoid redundancy.

More on this later on.

“Never use your principal instrument to work out ideas.”   

Those who do tend to migrate to the same tonal centers, clichés, implied harmonies; it stifles new ideas.  Use your head for all of your initial work, your brain has no melodic limitations, no chop problems, nor anything else one might encounter on his or her principal instrument.  If you can, at first, stay away from the keyboard and just use your head.  This may seem impossible to some but with practice it’s something I think everyone can develop with varying degrees of success.  At the student level, non-wind players, especially pianists, have the most difficulty in becoming successful arrangers…they don’t have to breathe!  Quite often they tend to overwrite and their work sounds too busy.  Typically the left hand block chords become the trombone section and the right hand becomes the saxes or trumpets.  Space is the key here…let the players and material breath.

“Everything we do in arranging is dictated by tempo.”

Length of introductions, types of voicings, orchestrations, interludes, length of solos, all should be dictated by tempo. The number of measures needed for brass and strings to change to and from mutes and the saxes to change to and from doubles are all dependent on tempo.  So too for the note length of your backgrounds and also number of chord changes per measure.  It seems obvious but this isn’t always considered as a major tenet of arranging but it is.  In general, faster tempos demand longer note durations for your background notation and slower tempos the reverse.  If you think about it, the vertical voicings in a ballad are more strongly reviewed by an audience than those of a fast sax soli… tempo, this is key!  Again, we’re talking about audience perception and the more time they have to dwell on any individual event, the more unique and precise it must be.

About the Author:

John La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose work spans many styles and genres. His studies at the S.U.N.Y at Potsdam, Berklee College, Eastman School of Music contributed to his love of writing and strengthened his skills for a career in composition and arranging. He went on to play with and write for many renowned jazz artists and is now one of the most respected composer/arrangers in jazz. His works have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme’, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. Though his major output has been in jazz, he has had works performed and recorded for symphony orchestra, string chamber orchestra, brass quintet, and other diverse ensembles. Most recently, Mr. La Barbera was chosen from among dozens of applicants to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA. As a result, John was one of sixteen composers commissioned by the JCOI to compose new works that incorporate jazz and symphonic music. “Morro da Babilonia” was the resulting work and was recently presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University’s Miller Hall.

John’s Grammy® nominated big band CD “On The Wild Side” along with “Fantazm” and his latest “Caravan” on the Jazz Compass® label, have been met with tremendous artistic and commercial success and are on the way to becoming a jazz big band standards. Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, NMPA, American Composers Forum, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.

He is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for The Arts award for Jazz Composition and has served as a panelist for the NEA in the music category. His career has recently been profiled in “Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience” and in dozens of publications and encyclopedias. John’s published works are considered standards in the field of jazz. education.

Article Copyright © 2016 John P. La Barbera
All Rights Reserved

Artist Blog

John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 1

“…recognizing that an arranger can be as much a creative force in jazz as a composer or an improvising soloist. Like a composer, an arranger gives an original shape to a piece of music, creating unity and contrast through a variety of musical elements, including, harmony, rhythm, form, tempo, texture, and timbre. Like an improvising soloist, an arranger takes existing material… and uses it as the framework of fresh, new conception.”

© 2005 Jeffrey Magee, used by permission.

Most arranging books on the market today don’t really address the actual art or practice of arranging. I have most all of them (beginning with the Lang book from which Duke got a lot of his early techniques) and they are all wonderful references for beginner and pro alike but fall short of the real goal, explaining and teaching how to arrange. This shouldn’t be a surprise because as a true art, arranging is an intangible like painting and dance and a very difficult process to tackle in print. Techniques can surely be addressed but not the true art of expression that make us unique in this art form.

I’ve been asked by more than a few teachers, “How can you teach arranging? Other than transposition, ranges, form, etc., I hit a wall. I play examples from the classic combos (Blakey, Silver, The Jazztet) and big bands (Basie, Herman, Rich, Kenton, Ellington) but that’s where I get stuck.”

As with any discipline in the arts or humanities, one’s success for creating something new or adding positively to the canon, is to know what has been done before. How can you teach someone about color or light variants if they, the aspiring students, haven’t seen the vibrant shades of a Monet compared with the brooding sidelights of a Rembrandt? In music, there is no substitute for a listening background. Plain and simple. If you haven’t listened to a specific genre’ like big bands or combos, you’ll be spending a lot of time reinventing the V7 chord and 4-way voicings. In the art-form of jazz we are fortunate because our art, in recorded form, is a span of less than a century and we can pretty much absorb most of what we need in less time than one exploring the visual arts or other traditional art forms. However, basic arranging techniques are not unique to jazz so one must have a listening background in all forms and genres of music to be successful.

If you’re in this situation as a teacher or, as a student, and want to explore the art yourself, do so by understanding the most important periods of jazz writing. Understand that throughout the decades of small bands and big bands alike, the basic tenets of arranging remain constant: a primary melodic statement is supported with an answer from a voice offering a counter line.

When I started writing professionally all I needed was a box of “King Brand” pencils and a few pads of score paper. A lot has been added to the arranger’s tool box since then but the techniques haven’t changed. At the risk of sounding like I’m leaning toward the Luddite camp, I can still write faster on a score pad with pencil and feel it gives me an edge in hearing the chart. However, today’s technological advances have made certain aspects of our art a little easier and I strongly suggest one embrace every tool available, electronic or otherwise.

What should you have? Well, to begin, an up to date computer (these days this means nothing older than 3 or 4 years), notation software (Finale or Sibelius), sequencing software (MOTU Performer, Cakewalk Sonar, Logic, etc.), a good portable digital recording device, MP3 player or CD player and a few other goodies we’ll talk about later.

Let me make some general statements now that I’ll be repeating frequently, like a patient parent, throughout this text. These are things I know to be true and, hopefully, will keep you from getting bogged down in your work and therefore be more productive.

“Arranging Is Telling A Story”

Think about it. When one offers musical ideas to an audience in the form of an arrangement, it is similar to telling an old familiar story or fable but with a unique point of view. I liken it to having a conversation with musical ideas, usually between two persons telling a story and a listener or listeners. Sometimes there can be three talking but usually two, never one. Why?, because the listener can stay focused and not be distracted by extraneous comment or bored by only hearing the one voice. A single idea is fine but is really a speech not a dialogue. Let’s say a couple are recounting their recent trip to Europe. The principal story teller will outline the main content of the trip with side comments from the companion. When the principal storyteller pauses, the companion adds some comments or a rhythmic “yes” and, if they respect each other’s right to comment, the story gets told and understood in a seamless presentation. Yes, sometimes a pause or two and sometimes some minor but minimal repetition but depending on how skilled the speakers are, the listener will have a thorough representation of the trip. Can you see the parallel in a good arrangement? The audience knows the song (an old standard) and it’s up to you to make it fresh and keep it musically alive and interesting. The melody is presented by a principal instrument or instruments and is supported by a counter line. When there is stasis in the melody, the counter line becomes more active to keep the flow of musical content and the two become one. It has been shown scientifically that there is no such thing as true multitasking.1“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that ” for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said. “You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.” Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain. “Think about writing an e mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” he said. “You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks,” Miller said. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.” Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they’re trying to figure out the details of what’s going on. The brain can only fully concentrate on one thing at a time. So an average audience can only follow a single line and hopefully the musical statements and counter lines will become a seamless stream depicting that single line. Listening to vocal arrangements is a very good way to start, especially Nelson Riddle arrangements for Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

HERE is a routine I’ve used to give students an easy roadmap to follow and in doing so, to think about the linear flow of an arrangement. Basically I have them use five (5) different devices to get them going with harmonizing the LAST tool to use.

I break it down to

ECHO Echo the melody.
ANSWER Similar to echo but not as strict.
LINE Guide tone line used under very active melody.
RHYTHM Rhythmic punctuations or pedal points between melody statements.
HARMONIZE Vertical harmonization.


I could have had a cute little acronym, HEALR, if the order of use weren’t so important. However, the order of use is important and it really gets students to realize how a simple counter line can add to the strength and flow of a piece and not get bogged down in vertical harmony plodding.

Here’s just a small example of line/counter line from my composition “Roman Notes” from my latest CD Caravan. The echo/answer is obvious:


Blog Illustration Revised 7-14-16

Here’s a video of the score & recording. This example starts in the middle of page 4.



Next time, the real deal: concrete arranging guidance for all styles of music.

Part 2:

About the Author:

John La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose work spans many styles and genres. His studies at the S.U.N.Y at Potsdam, Berklee College, Eastman School of Music contributed to his love of writing and strengthened his skills for a career in composition and arranging. He went on to play with and write for many renowned jazz artists and is now one of the most respected composer/arrangers in jazz. His works have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme’, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. Though his major output has been in jazz, he has had works performed and recorded for symphony orchestra, string chamber orchestra, brass quintet, and other diverse ensembles. Most recently, Mr. La Barbera was chosen from among dozens of applicants to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA. As a result, John was one of sixteen composers commissioned by the JCOI to compose new works that incorporate jazz and symphonic music. “Morro da Babilonia” was the resulting work and was recently presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University’s Miller Hall.

John’s Grammy® nominated big band CD “On The Wild Side” along with “Fantazm” and his latest “Caravan” on the Jazz Compass® label, have been met with tremendous artistic and commercial success and are on the way to becoming a jazz big band standards. Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, NMPA, American Composers Forum, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.

He is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for The Arts award for Jazz Composition and has served as a panelist for the NEA in the music category. His career has recently been profiled in “Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience” and in dozens of publications and encyclopedias. John’s published works are considered standards in the field of jazz. education.

Article Copyright © 2016 John P. La Barbera
All Rights Reserved


1 “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that ” for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said. “You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.” Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain. “Think about writing an e mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” he said. “You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks,” Miller said. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.” Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they’re trying to figure out the details of what’s going on.