Category Archives: Education

Can’t talk. Busy.

It’s been a busy semester, which may not actually make me special (no matter how much I think it does), but I’d like to take some time out to chart this fall’s ups, downs and everything in between.

 

Teaching

I’m still rehearsing the MSM Jazz Ensemble, but I’ve also added to my load with a music appreciation class this semester. Instructing a class is a lot of work, even my little class! While I never thought I’d be on the other side of the grade book, I have found it to be an enjoyable experience. Teaching students how to comprehend music has been an exhausting challenge, one that I hope I’ve been successful at. The learning curve has been difficult, though. Preparing lectures, organizing materials for presentation, handouts & guidelines for assignments, grading those assignments takes a lot more time than expected.

My big goal has been  to offer solid, practical advice on understanding jazz music as an art form. The ability to communicate one’s thoughts are critical, and I only hope that I’ve sharpened some students’ skills when it comes to expressing their opinions more clearly. It’s a lofty goal, I know. But one that I’m interested in seeing accomplished, if only marginally. Between the classroom and the rehearsal room, I’m constantly telling people that they need to be clear in their message. My days are filled with a longing forclarity. This is most certainly a metaphor for my life, I just haven’t pinpointed exactly what yet. Too busy.

There have been some great moments, however. My favorite comment from my class this semester has been from this listening journal entry (in reference to this video of the Stan Kenton Orchestra):

It’s the first time I’ve seen a big band drop all of their instruments and sing together with June Christy. The sound is good but honestly the lyrics ruin the song I think. It’s almost like they are complaining about all the cheap products in Mexico. Nobody likes a complainer. June Christy’s voice is good though. Malaguena >Tampico

And my favorite quote from another jazz history class: “Jazz is more profound when it doesn’t help pay the bills.”

JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology

Speaking of jazz, history and jazz history…did you know that the Smithsonian Folkways label is releasing an updated collection of jazz recordings? It’s about time, since their last update was nearly 30 years ago. With it, there is a revised track listing and several [drumroll] NEW recordings! There’s a better representation of the last 60 years, especially, with a more diverse selection of cool, hard bop and avant-garde artists. It seems that they could have done a better job with newer material from the past 15 years, but I appreciate the inclusion of newer artists all the same. Maybe a completely new set featuring jazz music from 1970 and onward? Just a thought.

As part of their marketing campaign for the new set, Smithsonian Folkways has posted a jazz history listening test for all 111 tracks. If you’re on limited time (like me) you can also take the shortened 25-track test. I’m pleased to say that I named all 25 fairly easy: usually identifying the artist better than the song title.

Infographic Madness!

The Beatles are the J.S. Bach of popular music. Their output is both prolific and incredibly influential. More than any other pop group EVER. Time well tell, but I’m fairly certain that I’m correct in this assumption. Which is why there are so many analytical and historical reports on the guys. As a musician, though, I get totally excited whenever I see study of their musical compositions, like this infographic:

Click to enlarge

Michael Deal did a great job of compiling several strains of information (from song keys to lyrics to collaborations) on the Beatles, resulting in this fantastic page of graphic goodness. For a complete musical analysis of their output, I suggest reading The Beatles As Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology by Walter Everett.

winter Project

I’m loving the recording of “Love for Sale” by the Miles Davis Sextet on The ’58 Sessions album. Especially noteworthy is Cannonball Adderley’s solo. I need to transcribe this and use it in an arrangement for big band. I’ve never spent a lot of time listening to The ’58 Sessions, but if my Listening to Jazz class has done anything for me on a personal level, it’s been a joyful revisiting and rediscovering of jazz classics.

Teaching a class: some thoughts

So my big news this month is that I’ll be teaching a new course that I developed with a colleague at the Moores School of Music. You can read all about it at the new UHjazz.com site. In the process of gathering and organizing information to teach people how to listen to (and appreciate) jazz music, I’ve discovered a couple things and formed opinions that I did not previously hold. In other words, I really need to unload my brain.

Assembling a YouTube playlist

As part of the course, I’ve decided to implement a journal for students to record their listening habits and tastes as a means of developing their “active listening” skills. To help with this, I’ve started to build a YouTube playlist for each student to remotely access and write about. (Remember less than 10 years ago when copying CDs for playlists could be such a hassle?) In a recent post by another Houston jazz artist/advocate, I noticed the phrase, “Isn’t it funny…how YouTube has become the world’s largest free music jukebox?” This is so true, and yet, I’m a little apprehensive about the notion of assembling a large playlist of videos to obligate students to write about.

First:

Should I program their listening selections? They will already be responsible for knowing a handful of truly great landmark recordings for exams. Is it smart that I should try to continue to cram this stuff down their throats? Would that give me or the student a more honest depiction of their habits and observations? At first, I thought that maybe I should instead open up the listening journal to all musical styles, but this seems counter-productive. After all, I’ll need to be reading these entries and I don’t really need to read 20+ entries on hip-hop or country music or whatever else. Instead, I’ll just try to include as much significant jazz music (and jazz-based music) that can be had on YouTube, whatever I feel will be relevant to the course. I just hope it doesn’t discourage anyone from exploring a new realm of music, something I consider to be the most exciting aspect of listening.

Second:

YouTube has those darn user comments. Do we really need to be subjected to some anonymous person’s pretentious and/or racist remarks on ANYTHING? I just read a great CNN article on this. My vote? Eliminate these completely from YouTube.

Future of Jazz?

Here’s another good read on the future of jazz, or better yet: jazz today. I’m really looking closely at the history of jazz music in the United States, its cultural impact and its significance. I’ll have to be teaching this to people who I assume will have had little to no encounters with the music in their past, and if they did, it was probably unpleasant. Because of this, I’ve been reassessing all those big artistic questions that need to be answered in order to explain and defend anything deemed “relevant” or “important”. I have no problem doing this and I think it’s something that a lot of artists should do more often, especially in the 21st century. (For instance: “cool” ≠ “art”)

I have yet to watch Icons Among Us, but I speculate that it’s a worthwhile documentary that appeals to both the jazz enthusiast as well as the newbie without being shackled by the pre-conceived notions of historical conventions of the art form. And really, that’s my goal for this course. I want new people to appreciate a music that has played a crucial role in the development of our country, in addition to understanding why it’s still significant and NOT dead. While you must acknowledge the history and the classics, you cannot also lose sight of the present and future.

I just hope this works. (crossing fingers)

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.


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!

Jay’s solo begins after the interlude at 2:15.

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):

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!