Moores School of Music Jazz Department is online

I'm proud to (finally) announce that the University of Houston Moores School of Music Jazz Department had finally gone live with a new website. You can find it at UHjazz.com. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @MSMjazz on Twitter for updates, news and events relating to jazz at MSM. Our goal is to keep a good amount of content coming your way with contributions from faculty, staff, local professionals and students in the name of jazz history, pedagogy, listening and other referential material. We're VERY excited to finally have something available to the public directly!

Tell Me a Story

It's commencement day at the University of Houston.  That means we're unleashing a whole new batch of young and energetic college graduates into "the real world".  Regardless of their major, age, interests or skills acquired while in college, I encourage these new graduates to continue to focus on a bigger goal: communication.

Whatever it is that you want to do in life, it's important to know that you can't get there alone.  People need people, and building a supportive constituency is critical. So please, work on your communication skills in order to spread your ideas and goals to people outside of your immediate circle.  In 2008, Robert Krulwich over at WYNC's Radiolab gave what I consider to be the best advice to a graduating class at California Institute of Technology. Do yourself a favor and give his speech a listen.  It's worth every minute you have.

[audio http://audio.wnyc.org/radiolab_podcast/radiolab_podcast072908.mp3]

Transcription: J.J. Johnson

It's a bit of a (much needed) slow week. The semester's practically over and now I'm getting prepared for summer projects. I figured it would be good to post this transcription that I did years ago. From the 1954 album, Jay & Kai, the recording features J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Billy Bauer, Charles Mingus and Kenny Clarke. It was one of the first solo transcriptions that I ever completed, and features some great techniques, licks and basic chromatic ideas typical of Johnson's playing. In addition to being a superb blues solo, it's also a good teaching tool. Enjoy!

JJ Johnson-Blues for Trombones
JJ Johnson-Blues for Trombones

The Remington warm-up for jazz band

If you're a wind player, particularly a brass player (and ESPECIALLY a trombone player!), then you are probably aware of the Remington warm-up method.  It's probably the most used warm-up method and tuning exercise for band students.  But, just in case you are NOT aware of this method: the idea began with Emory Remington trying to teach his trombone students how to play 1) in tune, 2) with good sound and 3) with a good legato articulation.  Eventually, he developed this exercise (expanded and published by Donald Hunsberger): [slideshare id=1798433&doc=theremingtonwarmupstudies-090801081739-phpapp01&type=d]

Simple, eh?  That's why it's used so often.  The idea is that by limiting the notes to those on the same harmonic partial, the trombone student focuses solely on articulation, sound and slide positioning (tuning).  Because it's an incremental exercise utilizing descending half-steps, it should be easy for a student to hear and understand when each interval is in or out of tune.  At the University of Houston Moores School of Music, the wind ensemble program uses a similar warm-up based on the descending F major scale, a method popularized, and probably initiated by, Director Emeritus (and Texas band legend) Eddie Green.

That being said, you can imagine my challenge directing a bunch of wind ensemble students for their first outing in a jazz ensemble.  In wind band, these students usually only encounter the major, minor and diminished chords; so they're only used to hearing the I-3-5 and sometimes 7 or 9 chord tones.  My goal was to get 15 horn players to start hearing the extended jazz harmonies that rely on 7-9-11-13 chord tones and their varying alterations.  So as a transitional tool, I wrote out the Remington warm-up harmonized in a jazz context.  It's my gift to you, the jazz band directors of the world:

It has proven to be quite useful.  It not only gets the students to hear extended harmony, but it also allows the the rhythm section to participate and work on getting around the keys.  I tried to keep the exercise simple, with each written note occupying only a 1-3-4-5-7-9 chord tone.  This way, it's not too hard a stretch for the horn players to hear how the chord progression relates to the written "melody".  It's also endlessly variable:

  • The exercise can be re-harmonized infinitely and there are numerous substitutions for the chords written here (but I do stress that each variation maintain a chord progression rather than unrelated chords back to back)
  • Sometimes I would have the lower instruments play the roots to even out the balance of 15 horn players to 4 rhythm section players
  • I would often substitute a rhythmic idea for the whole note to work on articulation, style and phrasing with the horns
  • It's also great for music theory pop quizzes: "What chordal tone are we on now? How does this chord progression function?"

I hope this helps, and best of luck to anyone who uses this exercise!

A musician's tools

A lot of people identify improvisation in music with speaking a language. I wholeheartedly agree with this metaphor, but it may be a bit over-used at this point. Instead, I like to think of improvising (and playing music in general) to that other favorite pastime of mine: carpentry. Consider the following:

A carpenter is often encountered with problems that must be solved by building things. Sometimes this involves building something new, from scratch. Sometimes this involves fixing something broken, with both old and new materials.

A carpenter uses tools to create the visions he sees in his head.

A carpenter uses technique to control the tools to do the job that he wills them to do. Good technique allows him to vary the force, angle, speed and precision of each tool he is controlling to get the appropriate result.

A good carpenter never allows the tools to control what he does or how he works.

A carpenter is often working with materials that must be shaped into various forms and permutations so that they may work with other pieces of the puzzle to be completed. If one piece doesn't fit, then it must be adjusted to work with the rest of the pieces.

The final product is the only thing that matters. If a carpenter's tools and technique are in good working order, then (and only then) will the completed work look appealing. Good tools do not guarantee good work, and good technique suffers if the tools are insufficient.

This philosophy of solving problems cleared up many doubts and questions in my mind when I finally figured it out. Many young musicians are initially frustrated by the amount of tools and technique needed to perform well. This is understandable and quite common, but everyone must acquire the necessary tools and skills in order to create a competent musical idea. Likewise, many players become obsessed with the idea of the tools and techniques as the final product. This is unfortunate. If I were constantly infatuated with my hammer's design, I would never accomplish anything as a carpenter. If I were constantly fascinated by the way that I was able to cut crown molding at a particular angle, all I would have to show for it would be many separate pieces of wood cut at various angles. It wouldn't add up to anything meaningful or significant. You must have both in order to complete the final task, which is the only thing that has any real value.

Have you been to a Home Depot lately? Have you seen how many tools are in that place? How many do you have in your arsenal? How are you using them?