Four Techniques in Jazz Improvisation That Aren’t As Cool As They Told You in High School
OK, a disclaimer before we start: teaching improvisation to middle and high school students is one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to do as a pedagogue. Further, when I’m teaching students at this age, it’s primarily at summer camps – where participation is voluntary and costs money, and typically only the most interested and engaged students are going to attend. So in the public schools, with interest and ability levels varying wildly, to try and teach something as esoteric and nuanced and with as few absolute rules as improvisation to teenagers is a truly Sisyphean task. My friends in the profession who are doing this (lookin’ at you, Scott Hensiak, Alex Toepfer, Dave Herdan, Will White, Mike Fuller, etc. etc.) are doing yeoman’s work, and my appreciation and respect level for what public school music educators do couldn’t be higher. So don’t interpret my uncomfortably Buzzfeed-y headline as a dig. It’s not.
That said – to try and explain something as abstract as jazz improvisation to a beginner sometimes requires deliberately over-simplifying certain concepts. It’s a necessary evil. The issue that I see sometimes with intermediate improvisers is that they are still clutching to some of these introductory devices when they should be outgrowing them, or at least relying on them sparingly. It’s akin to an adult using bumpers at a bowling alley – those certainly served an important purpose at one point, but it’s time to move on!
Here are four musical devices in jazz improvisation to reconsider.
1) Scoops, falls, and growls
I remember early in middle school jazz band having a teacher demonstrate all of the cool musical effects that could be accepted in jazz that wouldn’t be welcome in concert band rehearsal. It was awesome! I loved how liberating it felt to have creative license to try and approximate some of these sounds. And, man, what 8th grader doesn’t love the sound of a trumpeter growling into a plunger? Wah wah wah WAH wa-wah. I get it. But if we study recordings of masters, I think we notice that the use of these ingredients is sparing. I love Bubber Miley and Johnny Hodges and Cannonball, but even in the playing of great players who use these expressive techniques comparatively liberally, they still aren’t strictly a default setting. Think of scoops, falls, and growls like icing on a cake, or sriracha on your favorite Thai dish. A little can go a long way; too much is obnoxious and hardly palatable. And dumping a bunch of hot sauce on a poorly constructed dish, without much content, is going to give you a really spicy but poorly constructed bowl of not much content.
2) Imitation between a soloist and rhythm section
Hear me out: the best and most gratifying thing that can happen on a bandstand is the spontaneous dialog that can happen between sympathetic musicians in the moment. It’s a rush unlike any other; and while it certainly can happen in my classical recital performances, the opportunities for this to happen in a jazz setting abound in a way that not many other art forms can match. But all-too-often when I see clinicians or band directors work with jazz ensembles, I hear vague suggestions to the rhythm section about how important it is to “respond” to a soloist. There are a few issues that I have with this: one is that in almost every young rhythm section I’ve ever encountered, there are dozens of more important issues that need to be addressed before we can really talk effectively about being spontaneous. If the piano player is holding down the sustain pedal and playing 3rds and 7ths in the wrong octave, the bass player’s quarter note is actually an eighth note followed by an eighth rest, and the drummer is pounding the bass drum on all fours, talking about an interactive experience is like putting new hub caps on a Ford Pinto with a busted engine. Another is that young and intermediate players, in an effort to contrivedly manufacture this “interaction” element, resort to mimicry. A soloist will play a rhythmic motif, then the pianist will start comping with that rhythm, and then the drummer notices, and to show that he or she is listening, will join in. Then the bass player gets confused because now he’s the only one at the business-casual party wearing a tux, and he joins in, and now we’re all just playing a different tune or have left the jazz planet entirely. This happens with startling frequency (OK, well not literally – I have not seen intergalactic space travel at a high school jazz festival yet).
Think of this interaction element kind of like you would a human conversation, but more like a conversation where one party (the soloist) is “venting” a little bit, and the other is interjecting here and there but mostly lending a sympathetic ear (the rhythm section). If you were playing the latter role, would you lend a sympathetic ear by repeating what the person just said back to them? It would kind of seem like you were mocking the person, right? Instead, try and wait for the spaces and interject something complimentary, that acts as counterpoint to the soloist, vs. just mindlessly repeating the idea they just shared.
An exercise idea: have one member of the ensemble scat a one-measure rhythm. Then have all other members in the ensemble scat the rhythm, leaving one bar rest in between before repeating. Have the rhythm section keep time, and take turns going around the room having different people scat a “counterpoint” rhythm in the empty measure. Perhaps this might be a way to generate spontaneity in a way that doesn’t encourage mimicry.
3) The blues scale
You knew I was going there! There's no question that some of the most effective, hair raising, soulful moments in jazz involve tasteful use of material derived from the blues scale. As vocalist Carmen McRae says, “The blues in jazz is like yeast in bread - without it, it's flat!”
But the blues scale is not really the blues, anymore than barbecue sauce is barbecue (crushing it with the jazz/food analogies today. I'm hungry.). I am not advocating for leaving the blues scale out of Jazz education, but I do think it should only be treated as a subsidy to a greater understanding, vs. a centerpiece.
There are a few big dangers with the blues scale. Harmonically, if you teach this scale as though all six notes have equal importance, weight and function, you are going to end up with a lot of natural 11s over the IV chord, and sustained flat 5s and b9s that don't quite have the desired effect as a color tone. Secondly, even if the scale is deployed effectively, it is such a strong characteristic sound that it can get monotonous really quickly. Even a seasoned, adroit musician would have a heck of a time maintaining interest for more than a couple of courses of blues using only the scale. And third, and maybe most important, teaching the blues scale as a panacea reinforces the idea that a given set of chord changes can be navigated with the use of one parent scale. In practice, this is really almost never the case with the exception of compositions that were written explicitly to be easy to use for novices. I frequently have less-experienced college students bring in a standard tune or lead sheet from a big band chart, and ask "what scale should I use over this?" Well, often the appropriate scale choice changes almost every measure, and the "appropriate" scale choice might be up for debate. There might be several different equally good options depending on personal taste and the desired effect. So by giving young improvisers the impression that one row of note choices can be used to navigate an entire song form, we are fooling them into thinking this stuff is easier than it actually is. Yes, the blues scale is a good and easy and worthwhile place to start, but it has to be treated carefully, and there has to be a corresponding discussion of the I chord, the IV, the V chord, and probably the V/ii chord, their corresponding third and seventh, and different approaches to each. I also think that the "major blues" scale deserves to be taught concurrently (that's 1-2-b3-3-5-6, or major pentatonic with an added flat third). This to me is an equally characteristic sound over the I chord.
Rather than merely feeding the students the scale, I think it's very important to teach vocabulary, transcribed from establish masters, that make use of the blues scale. By absorbing these tried-and-true melodies, a student will ostensibly glean a better understanding of how to construct their own melodies using this sound, versus just memorizing the pattern of buttons on the instrument that "work" over a blues. I always advocate being able to accurately sing the pitches in a transcribed melody over a drone (or piano) set on the root before trying to memorize on the instrument and transfer it to different keys. This helps place emphasis on the aural aspect of improvising versus simply memorizing and regurgitating, relying exclusively on muscle memory.
Repeating an idea or a rhythm several times in succession is something that, for whatever reason, tends to get “house” – a reaction from laypeople in the audience. That can be very gratifying. But I find when younger players use repetition, it’s typically used as a crutch when better content fails them. Further, seguing out of these repeated motifs or rhythms are often clunky and awkward, like an ice skater that hasn’t learned how to stop yet.
I think the prevalence of repetition is borne out of an effort to produce interesting rhythmic ideas in solos. But there are better ways to incorporate rhythmic interest that aren’t as tedious. One possible suggestion: Pick a number between 3 and 6. Let’s say it’s 3. Now work on improvising a melody only using three notes at a time. Those three notes can be organized in any way – it can be a quarter and two eigths, three eighth note triplets, three quarter note triplets, two sixteenths and an eighth, three eighth notes, etc. The rule is there has to be space on either side of the motif, and there cannot be space in between the three notes. In terms of pitch, notes can be repeated or not at your discretion. This is a concrete way to generate rhythmic ideas and be creative within structure.
OK, jazz geeks – what did I miss? Leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or want to add to this list!