Mastering the Expressive Elements in Jazz Performance

March 18, 2009

David R. MarowitzSwing Defined
The term “swing” entails more than just swing eighth notes or a style of jazz music. There is another factor in the modus operandi of jazz musicians and ensembles that really swing. The glossary found on the Web site of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz (www.jazzinamerica.org/home.asp) defines this aspect of swing in this way:

“To swing is when an individual player or ensemble performs in such a rhythmically coordinated way as to command a visceral response from the listener (to cause feet to tap and heads to nod); an irresistible gravitational buoyancy that defies mere verbal definition.”

Renowned jazz innovator, Miles Davis described it this way:

“A mysterious, unexplainable quality in any music, but especially jazz, which makes one ‘feel that shit all up in your body.”

I fondly remember watching and listening to the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra as they performed one evening at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 1971. When the band began the first chart of the first set, the rhythm section played alone for a few choruses. They played with an astounding sense of swing, cohesiveness, and expressiveness.The audience reacted with amazement, big smiles, and many responded to the intensity of the music with hoots and hollers. To take the excitement to yet another level, the saxophone, trumpet, and trombone sections then made their entrance together, joining in with the rhythm section in like manner. It was about all the excitement the listener could take. Yes, the band was technically extraordinary, but still more, it was the way the band interpreted the music that made their performance an unforgettable experience. To put it succinctly, in general terms, it’s not just what it played, but how it is played that distinguishes the spectacular from the ordinary.

Jazz legend, Duke Ellington, in his immortal song expressed it thus:

“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing…
It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot.
Just keep that rhythm, give it everything you’ve got.”

Therein lies the magic that captivates a jazz audience. This article will address this and offer practice techniques that can help developing jazz musicians develop skill in this elusive aspect of jazz performance.

Expression Pursued in the Woodshed
The arts are ultimately about expression. It’s not just saying the “right words,” but how they say them, that make great orators masters of their art. This same principal applies to acting, and other art forms, not the least of which is jazz music. Students of this art form need to understand that in jazz performance, it is not solely playing the “right’ notes, but it is the way notes are expressed that make a truly effective improviser or ensemble performer. Expressiveness (“soul”) is something that can be pursued in the “wood shed” (a.k.a. the practice room). What is an effective way to do this? Answer: in like manner in which one learns to talk.

Expression Through Imitation
Before babies learn to speak, they listen to others. Motivated by their own desire to speak, they attempt to imitate the words, body language, accent, and expressions of others around them. As they continue to grow up, they are influenced by an increasingly wider range of people. Those influences make their way into their minds and then out of their mouths. In their pre-teenage years and beyond they may imitate or create some unique or original ways of talking and expressing themselves. Learning to play written and improvised jazz music can follow much the same pattern, ie. listening to others, imitating others, and then possibly developing a unique or even a trend-setting manner of expression, sound, and style. Even in early attempts to play this music, despite a limited jazz vocabulary, students can learn to perform with meaningful expressiveness much like a baby learning to speak. In the early 1980’s jazz composer, teacher (founder of Jazz Musician’s Guild), and author, Adolph Sandole, pointed out to this author that there are those among well-known jazz musicians whose improvisations are not very sophisticated as to complexity (eg. early New Orleans Jazz, other styles also), but nevertheless, they are effective and popular soloists due to the command, conviction, and the soul with which they play. One message that could be drawn from this is that those who play simply but soulfully and with command can connect with their audiences, even in earlier stages of development as a jazz musician.

Expression and Practicing the jazz tune
How can an aspiring jazz musician pursue mastery of expressive elements in their own performing? A good place to begin is to learn to play jazz tunes with expression. Students should choose and listen to a recording of an admired jazz artist who will serve as a model to emulate. It is important to choose a recorded track with a tune that is well within the students’ technical ability, so concentration can be fully on the expressive elements without being hindered by any technical difficulties of the instrument or voice. While listening and following along with a written copy of the tune, focus should be on sense of swing and expressive elements. These elements could include accents, articulations, dynamics, phrasing, as well as effects such as growls, glissandos, note bends, shakes, smears, trills, fall off’s, creative use of voices and mutes, and the passion with which the musicians perform. Students should then try to play the tune unaccompanied, and while doing so imitate expressive devices used as performed in the recording. When proficient at this, students can then play the tune along with the recording and then with a music-minus-one type of rhythm section background recording of the chord changes of the tune. This background recording could be purchased, a computer-generated one created with music software, or other means. Finally, the tune should be played with a live jazz combo. The learning process can be accelerated and more productive if students record themselves for playback and constructive criticism. They should be encouraged by progress while noting that which they can improve upon for application in the wood shed.

Expression and Practicing The Recorded Improvised Solo
Students can practice recorded improvised solos in a similar manner as with jazz tunes. The first order of business is to choose a recorded solo to study, and acquire a notated copy of the same. Copies of improvised solos may be purchased in published form, downloaded for free or a fee from the Internet, or they can be transcribed from the recording (see ‘Suggested Resources’ below). To aid in transcribing, computer software is available that will slow down recorded music without changing the pitch (www.ronimusic.com). Students should begin by following along with the written music as they listen to the improvised solo on the recording. Attention should be given to soloist/ rhythm section interaction. Next, the solo should now be performed unaccompanied, imitating the same expression devices that the soloist uses on the recording. At first, it may be expedient to concentrate on one phrase at a time, while endeavoring to play/sing the solo expressively in its entirety. When proficient at this, the student should play along with the artist on the recording, next with a rhythm section background recording of the song chord changes, and finally with a live combo. Again, recording, playback and constructive criticism will accelerate the learning process.

Expression and Improvising
Many years ago, as a college student, I attended a jazz improvisation clinic given in New York City by the jazz trumpet great, Clark Terry. The clinic began with the rhythm section playing a blues progression as Clark played an improvised solo using only one pitch. He played each and every note with great expression and command, and it was easy to tell that he meant every one that he played. Clark used a plunger mute, and expressive devices such as those mentioned above. All in attendance were amazed at how spellbinding a solo he played with just the one pitch. This makes for an effective practice routine in which students of jazz can simultaneously learn to improvise and develop soul in their performing. They can begin by using one pitch to improvise to the accompaniment of a background recording of a simple blues progression.

The rules of thumb are: never play anything more complicated than can be controlled in terms of keeping good time, know where you are in the chord progression at all times, and aim to be creative and expressive with command and conviction as if “telling a story.” As students apply this practice routine in the woodshed, a heightened sensitivity and skill with regard to the expressive elements of jazz music will doubtless find its way into their performing. This practice technique can then be applied with two and then more pitches. As confidence and proficiency increase with the simple, there can be a gradual expansion in the use of expressive elements and other musical materials (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic). This exercise can be done with a live jazz combo and include musical interaction such as creative use of rhythmic motifs in musical dialogue between musicians.

Expression and The Jazz Ballad
Developing jazz musicians should aspire to become proficient in playing the jazz ballad. Students choose a recording of a ballad that is well within their technical performing ability. While listening and following along with a written copy of the tune, attention should be given to the jazz artist’s manner of interpreting the tune. The liberties that are taken with regard to rhythm, melody, and addition of improvised fills should be observed. Students can then play the solo alone while imitating the soloist on the recording. The next steps are to play along with the recording, then with a background recording, and finally with a live combo. Recording and listening back for constructive criticism will prove to be invaluable to progress.

Expression and The Instrumental and Vocal Jazz Ensemble
The principles covered thus far have their application to instrumental and vocal Jazz ensembles as well. A discerning listen to the Count Basie Orchestra or New York Voices will reveal that it is not swing eighth notes alone that make these ensembles swing, but the expressive elements. An arrangement is only as good as an ensemble’s ability to interpret and express it. As a rehearsal technique, jazz ensembles can listen to professional recordings of arrangements that they are technically capable of playing and imitate the way that the music is interpreted. It is best to first listen to a recording of an arrangement enough times to be thoroughly familiar with it. When the ensemble has conceptualized what they have heard, they can then begin to emulate the interpretation that they heard on the recording. Recording and playback for self assessment will give ensemble members a clear understanding of rehearsal needs, objectives, goals, and make for more focused, intelligent and productive rehearsals. The principles learned in this process can be applied to other arrangements and will elevate the students’ level of musicianship.

Expression and ongoing listening to established jazz artists
Listening to a variety of jazz artists live and/or via recordings is essential to grasping and assimilating the aspect of jazz performance discussed in this article. A convenient way to view and listen to Jazz artists regularly is on www.YouTube.com. In addition, many Internet websites provide the opportunity to listen to a myriad of jazz artists as do jazz radio stations. Instrumentalists would benefit by listening to great jazz and blues vocalists like Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and others in order to glean and apply principles of interpreting and making songs come alive. Likewise, jazz vocalists can glean from instrumental jazz artists as well as vocalists. This is historically consistent with the musical development of great jazz musicians throughout the history of the music.

Concluding remarks
Finally, I have a word of advice for developing jazz musicians. They should resolve to enjoy the stage of development that they find themselves in, as they pursue their musical goals. This can be achieved by recording themselves as suggested above, labeling the recordings with the date, and saving them for future listening and comparison. At any stage of development, a true artist is a student at heart, always pressing forward, experimenting and growing. If students are able to form a jazz combo, in other words, if they can find others to walk this journey with, all-the-better. Who knows? Maybe their combo will become) another “Austin High (School) Gang” which launched the music careers of such notables as Bud Freeman, Jim Lannigan, Dick and Jimmy McPartland, Dave North, Frank Teschemacher, and Dave Tough in Chicago in the 1920s.

David Marowitz has worked as an arranger, trombonist and euphonium extensively in the commercial, jazz, and classical fields of music including Lionel Hampton as a trombonist and Buddy Rich as a recorded arranger. He has taught music in the schools since 1977 and is currently doing so in the Toms River Regional Schools (N.J.).

Suggested Resources

Jazz History Education:

Jazz Links Resource:

Jazz Radio Streaming Online:

Jazz Tunes:

Jazz Theory:

Ear Training:

Transcribing Solos:

Free Downloadable Transcribed Jazz Solos:

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