Artist Blog

Chuck Owen: The problem with approaching composition from an improvisational perspective

When I first started composing & arranging seriously for jazz ensembles as an undergrad at the Univ. of North Texas (then NTSU), my interest was focused primarily on exploring the rich harmonic world jazz embraces – studying and experimenting with voicings and orchestration to create colorful and evocative settings.  Odd meters and complex, disjunct (particularly funk) rhythmic figures?  Loved them too!!  But as to melody??  Well, I largely viewed that as something that I could extract quickly, simply, and intuitively from the harmonic structure.  I mean, that’s what we do as improvisers, right?    And, form?   Frankly, there just didn’t appear to be much to wrestle with; as the strophic use of song form was (and is) ingrained throughout the jazz tradition.  So, most formal considerations seemed pretty codified; with variations limited largely to whether to employ an intro or coda and when/where to use background figures or a sax soli.

As you might expect, my vision of what jazz composition is  . . or can be . . . .has changed a bit since that time . . . . as has my compositional approach.  For the last 25 years, at least; my energy, focus, and struggles (and I have a LOT of these!), seem to have coalesced precisely around those 2 areas – melody and form – that I tended to toss off early on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love orchestrating and creating evocative voicings as I believe anyone who listens to my work will readily recognize; but I see these now existing in service to advancing the melodic and formal development of the composition. 

Why the change? 

I use analogies to the other arts a great deal in my teaching – particularly literature, film, and architecture.   While comparing a melodic idea to that of a character in a book/movie is certainly not a novel concept, it is an apt one.  If the reader or movie-goer isn’t able to develop a relationship with the main character. . . .and the more personal, the better . . . . they’re typically not invested in the story.  There simply HAS to be at least one character (if not more) that is unique, relatable, intriguing, and evolving.  Stop for a minute – read that list again!!  Unique . . . relatable . . . . intriguing. .  . . . and evolving!  Wow – what a challenge to create a melody in that vein!! 

Likewise, form can be seen as essentially the plot or narrative structure.  If it’s too predictable (or too convoluted for all that matters) we tune out!  I’m guessing we’ve all read books or watched movies in which every scene seems telegraphed from the outset (often just a rehash of another plot) and no matter how many buildings/cars/politicians are blown up, or how stunning the cinematography or prose is, we leave with little we (want to) remember.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine our listeners would be most intrigued by a formal structure that involved both a logical progression/evolution of ideas as well as a few unexpected twists or turns along the way.

While many of the students I work with seem to greatly admire composers/works which I feel embrace the values just set forth; I’ve often been struck by their resistance to really wanting to spend time (or possess the patience) to fashion the strongest possible melody or work on formal and melodic development beyond largely formulaic practices.  While it’s all too easy to dismiss this as mere laziness on their parts (and sometimes it is!); for the most part, I think that assumption misses the mark.

Actually, I think it’s our background as jazz musicians/performers that often leads us astray!

Oh, that will probably raise some eyebrows . . . and, admittedly, I’m being somewhat purposefully provocative.  However, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the oft-heard adage “improvisation is spontaneous composition”, I’d like to clearly and unequivocally state that “jazz composition is not and should not be confused with improvisation”.   

Composers are endowed with two things the improviser (by definition) does not possess – time and reflection!  Our ability to improvise can (and should!) prove extremely advantageous in coming up with melodic ideas; but the jazz composer must resist the desire to accept the very first phrase that comes to her/him as if its manna from heaven.  Challenge it!  Seek competing ideas.   Evaluate its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.  Is it open to being transformed over time and, if so, how?  Tweak it, live with it . . . how does it sit two days later??  These are all luxuries the composer has that the improviser does not.  Take advantage of them!! 

It’s equally important for the composer to recognize that many of the formal structures and devices used to this day on the bandstand are historical constructs of convenience and necessity – devised explicitly to facilitate gigs, impromptu performances, and improvisational settings where musicians are not only working without any notated music, they may never have even met each other before.  Here, there is a clear and compelling NEED to rely on conventional structures . . . to simply call the tune, count it off, and play!  There’s not enough time before each tune to discuss how an expansion of the form during the second solo might build intensity better or how a 13-bar restatement of the 2nd half of the bridge might be the perfect, elegant intro needed.  Strophic repetition of the song form for solos is not only tradition, it’s an absolute necessity . . . . . as are stock intros and codas.

The composer, however, is not constrained by such pragmatism.  We get to dream bigger!  In dealing with form (ultimately, a much, much longer conversation!), recognize how it can be used, effectively, to help the listener understand the context of the musical ideas.  Repetition, in and of itself, is not problematic.  It can be highly effective in giving the listener a sense of grounding and in reinforcing important ideas.  But it should not be employed simply for the lack of anything better to do  . . . .or because of convention.  Even more critically, it is through careful and imaginative use of form that the composer has the opportunity to profoundly influence the flow, contour, and proportions of the piece – creating an actual story rather than merely staging an event.  (I’ll briefly draw your attention to the use of the word “influence” rather than “control”.  While an appropriate subject for another blog, I believe strongly that good jazz composition embraces an improvisational sensibility and seeks to provide those performing the music with creative input and opportunities even in the most highly scored works.) 

So, having read to this point, you might be surprised to learn that I continue to use song form as the basis for almost all of my composition.  It’s the jazz tradition I grew up with – and a jumping off point I still find very fertile compositionally.  If viewed not as a rigid pre-fab structure but as a foundation that can support an infinite variety of expandable/collapsible walls, windows, doors, and a few cozy nooks – you’ll understand my comfort level with it. 

I’m attaching a formal outline to “Warped Cowboy” from my last CD “Whispers on the Wind”.  You’ll note both its expansiveness (the piece is over 14:00 long and is comprised of two major themes – each of which employs song form) and, hopefully, its economy.  The solo sections’ chord progressions are based on the prior song forms (primarily the “Cowboy” theme) but have been altered to create not only a better solo environment but to allow for the story to breathe and evolve in a manner that is both logical and continually fresh.  You’ll also notice they differ not only from their original iteration – but from each other as well.  As Stephan King likes to say, “The world moves on.”   You’ll also note the absence of any section marked “Transition”.  In my mind, every moment is a transition of some sort.  By understanding where we are headed we can fashion these moments so that the final arrival or climax feels inevitable, even if not completely expected.   

If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper, study scores for “Warped Cowboy” as well as a number of my other recorded works with the Jazz Surge are available on my website store: along with the CDs and full charts. 

Listen to Warped Cowboy:

Click here to download the Formal Analysis for “Warped Cowboy”
Click here to download the Motive Sheet for “Warped Cowboy”

About the Author:

Chuck Owen is Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida.  A nationally respected educator, having established USF’s acclaimed jazz program, he is recognized equally for his unique compositional voice; one steeped thoroughly in the jazz tradition but drawing on a diverse array of additional influences from contemporary classical and American folk/roots music to Latin styles, funk, hip-hop, . . . even country!  The result is an evocative, thoughtful, and frequently quite playful/joyous body of work.

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five GRAMMY nominations, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the: Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Jazz Orch. (Denmark), Scottish National Jazz Orch., Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and numerous others. 

Owen’s primary creative outlet, however, is his own 20-piece Jazz Surge.  Founding the ensemble in 1995, Owen serves as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of its six highly-feted CDs, including:  River Runs (2013), a stunning 5 movement genre-bending work Rufus Reid described as, “.  .   . . .a tour de force of contemporary orchestral composition” and the Huffington Post called, “a masterpiece of aural sounds”, and  The Comet’s Tail (2009), critically acclaimed as “riotous and joyous” (JazzTimes), “muscular” (Downbeat), and “deserving of universal attention” (All Music Guide).  Both recordings garnered Grammy nominations with Chuck individually honored in 2014 with Grammy nominations for both Best Instrumental Composition & Best Instrumental Arrangement.

The Jazz Surge’s most recent project, Whispers On the Wind, expands on the American folk and roots leanings of River Runs enlisting the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gregoire Maret, and an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen.  In it, Owen has created a sound that is drenched in atmosphere – at times buoyant, playful, and triumphant . . . .  at others, melancholy, mysterious, and intimate – but always coming straight out of the American heartland.  Feted with four 2018 GRAMMY nominations (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Jazz Solo – Sara Caswell) the reviews have been similarly glowing: 
“creative, poetic . . . . wildly personal” – Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“ an impressive melding of Montana and 52
nd St.” – George Harris, Jazz Weekly
“ episodic, dramatic, and picturesque.” – Scott Yanow, NY City Jazz Record
“. . . an impossibly winsome combination of slow burn with spontaneous combustion. 
                    Reality on a sizzling hot silver platter.” – Carol Bank Weber,

Owen presently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).  Previously he has served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education, as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist (Chair) for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.  The Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble for 30 years, he has led the group in performances at international jazz festivals as well as with renowned guest artists. He is the recipient of the USF President’s Award for Faculty Excellence as well as both the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and Outstanding Research Award.

Chuck’s most recent compositions for jazz ensemble are available on his website:   Other publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines. 

Artist Blog

Bill Mays: The Delaware River Suite

When Paul Read asked me to contribute something to this blog I asked what my focus should be: my arranging, my composing or performing? He said, “Whatever you’re interested in, whatever you want to share.”

I’m very interested in, and quite in love with, a place in Northeastern Pennsylvania where I spend several months of the year. I’ve had a house there for 30 years and in 2007 wrote a suite dedicated to the Delaware River, several places that border it, and my small local town, Shohola (“place of quiet waters,” according to the native Lenape people). I’m a real water person: born an Aquarian, a Navy guy, an avid swimmer and sailor. In fact, I got the concept for the piece while soaking in the Jacuzzi (which is where I am now writing these introductory notes)!

Basically I have a couple of ways that I start compositions. My usual approach is sitting at the piano, noodling some ideas that turn into motifs, that turn into phrases, that end up part of the final result. Another favorite way is sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, imagining a concert stage with the ensemble I’m writing for on that stage and just start jotting down the first things I hear coming from this imaginary band; that gets the ball rolling for me. For this piece I knew I would be writing for piano, trumpet and cello.

The river suite is probably the closest thing to a “theater piece” I’ve ever written. Preceding page one of the score is a map of the Delaware River Basin. Then there’s an opening prologue with pre-recorded river sounds over which my voice sings the praises (think Garrison Keillor) of the Delaware and other bodies of water I’ve spent time on. There is even spoken, countrified dialogue from the trio, based on local lore, in one movement. Even before I wrote a note of the music I knew I would write a multi-movement suite that would start with a fanfare, conjure up the excitement of white-water rafting, the serenity of the “float,” address Shohola’s history, reference the Delaware Water Gap and Philadelphia, and a finale that would salute the Atlantic, where the Delaware empties its waters. So, unlike my other compositions, I had a programmatic shape and the general flow already on paper before starting to compose. Secondly, it was a great treat to write for specific people: me on piano, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn, known as the Inventions Trio. I had a broad palate with Marvin’s improvisational talents, his ability to wear the hat of an orchestral player, and flugelhorn doubler. In Alisa I had a cellist with a big sound and a singing tone, as well as excellent rhythm and some beginning improv skills. And both of them were wonderful ensemble players. The end result (commissioned by Drs. Frank Osborn and Howard Horn) was the Delaware River Suite.

I. Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep
II. Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls
III. Float
IV. Shohola Hoedown & Campfire
V. Rollin’ Down the Water Gap
VI. Philadelphia
VII. Toward the Ocean

I’ve pointed out some salient features of each movement with sound and score samples below, with the complete score and recording of the piece at the end.

Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep: I suppose Aaron Copland was over my shoulder when I decided the fanfare that opens the piece should primarily consist of the interval of a fifth, should be short and to the point, and majestic.

Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls: Fifths occur often throughout the piece, as in the piano accompaniment figure and in the  melody of Rapid Ride:

   Following the theme each instrumentalist improvises over a four-chord, four-bar pedal, with accompanying figures that echo the movement’s introduction:

Float: If you’ve ever been in an eddy of a river and heard and seen the pops and plops of bugs and fish you know how fascinating a sound it can be. I wanted to convey that random, plopping sound, so I chose a twelve-tone row to start the journey. I tried many rows, finally settling on one simply because it sounded pleasing to me; it happened to contain several half-steps.

Seven iterations of the row occur, passing the row between instruments and using rhythmic and octave displacement. Later in the movement the three instruments, in rhythmic unison, choose their  own notes in an atonal free-for-all.


Shohola Hoedown & Campfire:  Here’s my Garrison Keillor moment! The Hoedown kind of wrote itself, it just fell out of me. A typical “fiddler’s-fifths” opens the tune, then Alisa has the melody, after which she provides bass “slaps” under Marvin’s melody. Country meets jazz for some choruses of trumpet and piano improv. Meant to be fun and humorous there’s even a horse’s (trumpet) “whinny” and a “Yee-haw” from the group.   

For the Campfire section I became film-scorer for a moment and wrote a plaintive (think harmonica) melody to kick off the first spoken story.

Rollin’ Down The Water Gap: I thought about cascading water with its forward motion and downward movement, and that gave me the idea of constructing the melody in descending half steps. The right hand of the piano doubles the trumpet/cello melody, with chords that include half steps and crunchy voicings, and this is set against an ongoing boogie-woogie pattern in the left hand (this was  lots of fun but my left hand almost fell off by the end of the movement!) The 24-bar melody is built on just four chords, and improvised solos are on a 24-bar blues

I was thinking like a big-band arranger when I gave trumpet and cello punchy rhythmic background figures behind the piano solo.    

 A “shout chorus” follows where I have cello, trumpet and piano playing in rhythmic unison. I wanted a crazy, fun effect so I have the right hand of the piano playing clusters with the palm of the hand, the cello playing “scratchily” with the bow and Marvin tooting on his mouthpiece, kazoo-style!   

Philadelphia: The city of Philadelphia, located along the Delaware, has always fascinated me. I kept intoning the word “Philadelphia, Philadelphia” over and over again and that gave rise to the rhythm of the melody (primarily based, again, on fifths), and probably suggested the jazz waltz feel. After a  short opening piano statement (which hints at the melody to come) the cello and trumpet each play the theme, followed by improv solos.     

Sometimes you realize, after the fact, the internal logic of a motif. I wasn’t sure where this little recurring background melodic segment had come from, but realized after recording it that it was based on the descending minor seconds in the preceding movement. Funny how the mind works…

Towards The Sea: Before the main theme, the piano (and cello) have a rhapsodic, rubato duet that sets the mood. Again, the interval of a fifth plays a prominent part, and the underlying harmonic scheme is a series of ii-V-I progressions. 

When the tempo starts it’s an undulating 12/8 groove, suggesting the feeling of being in a boat and  rocking gently. The melody (Ravel on my mind) consists of long, held tones over cello and piano 12/8 figures.

Throughout the movement several small snippets of previous themes briefly reappear. And I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished writing the movement, but I actually quote seven notes from God Bless America (in bars 69-71— “from the mountains to the oc-”), so thank you, Irving Berlin.

This composition was the centerpiece of the album, Delaware River Suite, and I was thrilled that Inventions got to perform it at some of the referenced locations: Narrowsburg, NY, Philadelphia and Delaware Water Gap, PA.


About the Author:

Pianist Bill Mays’ career as a professional musician spans the last 55 years and includes a multitude of musical endeavors. Following four years as a bandsman in the U.S. Navy Bill spent 15 years as a session player in the Hollywood studios. In 1984 he re-located to New York City, firmly establishing himself as an in-demand sideman and leader of his own ensembles. He has worked with jazz legends Benny Golson, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Frank Sinatra, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, and Phil Woods. His many recordings as a leader (solo, duo, trio and sextet) are well-documented on the Chiaroscuro, Concord, DMP, Palmetto, and Steeplechase record labels.

A prolific composer and arranger, Mays has written many extended suites for bass, flute, woodwind septet, and pieces for big band and orchestra (New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Turtle Creek Chorale, WDR Big Band, U.S. Air Force Airmen Of Note). His latest recordings include Phil & Bill (with saxophonist Phil Woods), Side By Side: Sondheim Duos (with bassist Tommy Cecil), Life’s A Movie (with cellist Alisa Horn and trumpeter Marvin Stamm), and Front Row Seat (solo piano). Mays’ songs have been used in the movies Anamorph, Burn After Reading, Hamlet, Looker, and The Fifth Estate. His keyboard work has been heard on hundreds of film soundtracks, among them Fargo, Fur, Godfather 2, Hail, Caesar!, Jaws 2, Julie & Julia, Rocky 2, Superman, The Big Lebowski,  and The Spanish Prisoner.

Last year Mays received rave reviews with the publication of his first book, Stories Of The Road, The Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years In The Music Biz.

Awards and Honors:

  • Arranger, pianist and producer on Grammy-nominated Bop For Kerouac (Mark Murphy/Muse)
  • Pianist on Gold Album Paradise Cafe (Barry Manilow/Arista Records)
  • “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in the piano category, Downbeat Magazine
  • Nominated for “Most Valuable Player” Award, Los Angeles
  • International Society of Bassists: “Friend Of The Bass”
  • Performance grants from Meet The Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, N.E.A., PennPAT