FAQ: Understanding Jazz Chords and Symbols

(EDIT: This post's content seems to emphasize harmony without context, but I can assure you that this is most definitely NOT how harmony works. If you're reading this for some clarity on the means behind chord symbols, you've come to the right place. But understand that I've presented these symbols and meanings without regard to functionality.) I recently had a student ask me to recommend a book that would be a good resource on jazz chords and, more importantly, how to decipher the symbols for each chord.  My immediate thought was, “Book?!  There’s no book on that!”  Of course, I’m sure there’s probably a few hundred that deal with that particular topic in great detail.  However, I’m in no mood to go looking through book after book after book for good examples.  So, I went immediately to Google to find simple guides online.  There were plenty, but only a few stood out for their clarity, thoroughness and simplicity.  My main complaint was the spelling and labeling methods for each chord and the tendency of most guides to get bogged down in technicalities (i.e. intervallic structures and alterations).  People need a SIMPLE guide to this topic without being hit over the head with a ton of theory.

My guide to the CORRECT spelling and labeling of simple jazz chords: Basic Jazz Chords

If you feel like knowing a bit more, here’s a guide to deciphering lead sheets (borrowed from an article by Keith Felch in JazzEd Magazine): Deciphering Lead Sheets

Simple, right?  I’ll create a more extended guide with chord extensions and further alterations for my next update.

FAQ: The New Jazz Standards, Part I - History

A question I often get asked is, "What are the new jazz standards?"  In fact, I ask myself this question quite often!

If you're not a musician, or just unfamiliar with the term "standard" as it applies to jazz music, you might need some filling in. Standards usually refer to those songs written in the golden age of American songwriting, between 1920-1960.  Most of these songs are considered part of the Great American Songbook, consist of composers from Tin Pan Alley and the large majority were written for musical theater and movies.  Composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Jimmy Van Heusen are regularly associated with this field. Because these songs constituted the popular music of the day, they had a strong influence on the current musical trends of the time. Songs such as "All the Things You Are," "Summertime" and "Night and Day" are prime examples of this period. There are great lists of these compositions at the site JazzStandards.com (ranked by popularity) as well as Wikipedia (organized chronologically).

How then did we arrive at the term "jazz standards"?  It depends on who you ask.  Remember when I mentioned that these songs were the popular music of the day? Well, it's no coincidence that these popular tunes infiltrated other styles and genres, such as jazz music, which was still blossoming in the 1930s.  Also, most of these tunes were written in the jazz tradition that had grown in popularity in the previous decades. By the 1930s, many composers were interested in jazz music as a vehicle for the popular songs that they were employed to write for Broadway musicals.  This led to the development of popular songs having many jazz-influenced chords and harmonies, which in turn influenced jazz music to incorporate the popular songs into the repertoire of jazz music. It's a sordid mess, since jazz and popular music of the 1930s through the 1950s were so closely related.

However, during this same time period, there were some new compositions being written exclusively for the jazz idiom.  This is broadly defined when an instrumental tune is written first with the lyrics added later, or without lyrics at all. Although they have gained immense popularity over the years, they were originally written as instrumental vehicles for improvisation and NOT popular songs. A lot of Duke Ellington's works ("Solitude," "Caravan," and "Cottontail"), "Take the 'A' Train" by Billy Strayhorn, "'Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk and "Take Five" by Paul Desmond fit this definition.  Each became widely popular despite starting out as jazz instrumentals.

This is why people differ on their definition of the term "standard" as it applies to music. To some, a "standard" is only one of those popular songs contained in the Great American Songbook. These people would also insist that a "jazz standard" needs to be exclusive to the jazz idiom and largely based on improvisation. Others, such as myself, put them all together. To me, if it's a popular song, instrumental or not, it's a standard.  Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" deserves as much recognition as Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" to be considered a standard.  Of course, it must be from 1920-1960 to be really called a "standard" by my definition.

So what about after 1960?  Well, that's the whole point of this series of blog posts.  As music genres became more specialized from 1960 onward, it is harder to define what the future of the standard really is.  Before getting that far, though, I'll try to define in musical terms what a standard entails. I'll go beyond the historical significance of the topic and look into the theoretical qualities of the popular standards. Part II - Musical Analysis: for music theory geeks only!

FAQ: Hiring musicians

Hiring live musicians can be tricky - especially if you have never done it before! In my attempts to both educate the general public and promote the merits of live music, I’ve decided to compile an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) that I have encountered over and over again in this business. This is designed for you, the non-musician and potential client, to read and consider before deciding to hire live musicians for your next big event. Also, I’ve decided to categorize the FAQ into a “What should I ask myself?” section and “What should I ask the person (or group) I’m hiring?” section. I hope you find this useful!

“What should I ask myself?” Things to consider before deciding on live music

1) What type of event do I want? What overall mood do I want for my event?

Whatever the occasion, live music can give your guests the experience you desire - but you have to know what you are looking for first. Do you want an upbeat, swingin' reception or a moody, soulful dinner set? Too often, event planners don't think about what they would like from an event and end up trying to direct the band during the event, leaving them no time to enjoy their party. Know what mood you want to set and let the professionals you hired take care of the rest!

2) Where am I having my event take place? Local or out of town? Indoors or outdoors? Do the musicians need a stage? Is there a convenient way to load and unload equipment?

This is one of the most important, but least remembered parts of booking live music. If your event requires musicians to travel out of town, then their price quote will certainly reflect that travel time! Also, there are too many things that can go wrong while traveling to ensure that everyone will arrive on time. Maybe it would be best to hire musicians from the area that you will be traveling to in order to save money, in addition to the fact that those musicians already know the area well and (hopefully) won’t get lost.

For events that are outdoors, you must first consider the climate and type of instruments that you want outside. This is a big factor for classical instruments such as strings and woodwinds. Humidity and extreme temperatures can put a lot of stress on the wood of those instruments. If you insist on having music outdoors, most musicians will require that you provide a covered, cool and shady area for them to perform under.

Finally, it’s time to weigh the venue capabilities against the size of of the ensemble that you want to perform for your event. If you want a small three-piece group, then this is normally OK in most any venue, but trying to fit a 16-piece big band into a small space meant only for 3-5 performers can be problematic!

3) What is my budget?

This is another important one. Having a rough idea about what you are willing to spend before going into this can save you a lot of headaches and frustrations when trying to book a specific act. As one agent I know always puts it, “Expensive flowers and food are great, but they don’t sing and dance.” In other words, it’s important to prioritize what you want out of your event. More than likely, you and your guests won’t be talking about the dessert in five years, but you’ll certainly remember when the band played your favorite song as a request. Be willing to spend the necessary money on a quality act if you have decided to have live music. This isn’t the area to try and save money!

4) Should I use a talent agency or hire a group directly?

You always want to have recommendations, references and testimonials on your side. A safe bet is to hire through an agency, as they thrive on this system. However, I would personally recommend hiring a band based upon good reviews from people you trust. The bottom line is this: Make sure that you are able to hear the music before you commit to anything. Good recommendations are still opinions, and your tastes may differ from another person’s.

Furthermore, if you should encounter any difficulties in communicating with your potential musicians leading up to the event, that should set off a red flag in your mind. If they are already difficult to deal with before the event, then how can you really know what to expect when the big day arrives? Good music may be left up to personal tastes, but bad business practices are universal. Be aware before you sign any contracts!

“What should I ask the person (or group) that I’m hiring?” Things to know about live music for the uninitiated

1) What is your instrumentation? What style of music do you play?

For the non-musician, this can be tricky. Instrumentation is the group of instruments within a given ensemble. Do you want strings, horns or just an acoustic guitar? This guide from the New England Conservatory does a great job to explain each instrument family and their applications for different genres and styles.

2) Do you have a website or any demo recordings?

Hopefully any act that you decide to hire is professional enough to have something put together to sell themselves to potential clients. If they have no packaging readily available, then it’s probably best to move on. Try to deal only with professionals.

3) What equipment do you provide? What equipment do you need?

Depending on the type of music and instrumentation, a musical group’s needs can vary dramatically. For instance, if you decide to hire a classical ensemble for a wedding ceremony, usually nothing will be needed due to the fact that classical music uses all acoustic instruments. Generally, no amplification will be required for this, but if it is in a large hall, then you may want to consider a microphone and PA system. Usually, the biggest concern for acoustic instruments is in regard to the piano. Will there be one provided at the venue? If so, is it in good working order? Is it in tune? Otherwise, the piano player may need to acquire a keyboard, which then requires electric power.

On the flip side, a rock band will need LOTS of power for guitar, bass and keyboard amps, their lighting system (if they use one) and the PA system for all microphones for other instruments, including vocals. Most professionals will provide this equipment, but if you need to rent any of this equipment for your own event, then the price tag just went a little higher.

4) How long are your sets? How long do you need for a break?

Every musical group needs a break, usually followed by one hour of continuous playing. My standard rule is that a group requires one 15-minute break per hour played. Of course, this is all contingent on the time line and schedule of the event. Things ALWAYS stray from the plan, but it’s important to keep a loose schedule in order.

*Another point to consider: Will the musicians need a break area? Do they need to be fed? If the event is four hours or longer, these things need to be provided. Any etiquette book will suggest the same answer - treat your musicians like guests. Make sure to ask if background music can be provided while the musicians rest. It should be no problem for them to provide some tunes for you while they break!

5) Do you have a contract? Do you require a deposit?

Contracts are good. You’ll know that you’re dealing with a professional group when you encounter a well-written contract. However, make sure that you read it over well and look for any funny stipulations. For instance, if the band has to cancel at the last minute or even worse, doesn’t show up, will you get your deposit back? Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but I still urge people to be cautious about such things.

As far as deposits are concerned, they are a way for any group to put your event’s date down in ink. This means that your event is now officially in the gig calendar, and is a guarantee on your contractual promises to hire said musicians. Deposits are usually required for larger ensembles that require extensive legwork by a manager to book, so this is a very necessary step. It simply means that your event’s date is now set in stone, but (as I stated above) be sure to read the conditions on how to get your deposit back in case of a screw up on their end.

6) Do you take requests? How much advance notice do you need to prepare a certain song?

Most bands will take requests. However, each band knows a limited number of songs off the top of their head. If you REALLY want a particular song to be played (such as a first dance) then you need to tell the band leader as soon as possible. There are many things for a group to consider when learning any new song, so they need time to work it out. A minimum of two weeks before the event is a sufficient amount of time for any ensemble to get a new song together.

You may encounter some unforeseen roadblocks, however, such as paying an additional fee for your song to be played. This varies depending on the band, and each group has their own reasons as to why they need to be paid more to learn something new. Also, if a band has a song list available for you to view, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can play all 5,000 songs at any given moment. Instead, these are the songs that they are capable of playing with some advance notice.

Here are some other helpful links: Top Tips from Soho String Quartet: Your Complete Guide To Hiring Musicians New England Conservatory: A Helpful Guide to Hiring Musicians Oberlin Conservatory: Hiring a Musician Made Easy How to Hire and Select a Music Ensemble Suggested questions to ask Musicians before Hiring