What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook: "What is jazz?" Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they'd opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches. At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!” In Light of Today Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all. Though, is that really the case? I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no. It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It's not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days. You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you. Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not? The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that's not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now "What is jazz?" can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion. In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry "What is jazz?" as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter. (To be continued.)

Gigs: One Trick Pony Tonight; Seasonal Grille Tomorrow

A quick reminder to my West Michigan friends that I'm playing with Francesca Amari and band tonight and tomorrow night. Tonight's gig is from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. at One Trick Pony in downtown Grand Rapids. If you're from around here, you know where it is. Tomorrow's gig runs from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Seasonal Grille in Hastings, right across from the courthouse square. Address is 152 West State Street. Besides Francesca and me, the lineup consists of Dave DeVos on bass, Bobby Thompson on drums, Wright McCargar on keyboards tonight at the Pony, and Mark Kahny on keys tomorrow night at the Grille. You can count on good food and a good time. Make it if you can.

Live Saxophone Jazz Friday at The Seasonal Grille in Hastings

Tomorrow night keyboardist Bob VanStee and I join forces to play for the one-year anniversary of The Seasonal Grille in downtown Hastings. I feel honored to be a part of the celebration. Justin Straube and his crew are great to work with. They appreciate their musicians, genuinely enjoy the music, and all around are just plain "good people." In other words, this place is a pleasure to play at. Justin has turned out a first-class dining establishment that gives his patrons far more than their money's worth. The ambiance is comfortably elegant, the kind where you can dress up or dress down and feel good about either option. As for the food and the prices, it's hard to believe that culinary creations of such superb quality can be so ridiculously affordable. You'd have to look far and hard in order to find meals of comparable gourmet deliciousness that cost so little. Frankly, I don't know how Justin does it. I think a large part of it is, he simply wants to give people a good deal. Anyway...Bob and I play tomorrow (Friday) from 6:00–9:00 p.m. Come on out and get a plateful, a beerful, and an earful. I might add, this is a great date-your-mate location! Here's the info:
  • The Seasonal Grille
  • 150 West State Street
  • Hastings, MI
  • Time: 6:00–9:00 p.m.
  • Phone: (269) 948-9222
Some of my storm chasing friends will be coming out tomorrow to hang out with each other. Maybe I'll see you there too.

The Giant Steps Scratch Pad: As Crass a Plug as You’ll Ever Encounter Anywhere

BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! Never mind the rest of the gobbledegook on this page--just go to the bottom and start clicking on shopping carts. As for you less impulsive types: Gosh, I hope I'm not being too forward. In real life, I'm the retiring, wallflower type who would never think of grabbing you by the lapels and shaking you wildly about while protruding my eyeballs at you and screaming, "BUY MY BOOK!" Never. The marketing methods I use to get you to buy The Giant Steps Scratch Pad--available in C, Bb, Eb, and bass clef editions--are far more subtle. I prefer to drop discrete hints, such as sending out glossy, full-color mailers that say things like, "This Father's Day, give Dad the gift that says 'I love you!' Give him The Giant Steps Scratch Pad." Low-key is best, that's what I say. Ummm...did you get the mailer? Well, no matter, because here is your reminder that now is the perfect time to get Dad, or Mom, or your Aunt Bronte who plays the crumpophone, or maybe even your little old self, a copy of the Scratch Pad. Why is now so perfect a time? Because now is such a totally in-the-moment time, and jazz improvisation is such an in-the-moment art form, and Coltrane changes typically fly by at such an in-the-moment, near-light speed, that, overlooking the utter pointlessness of everything I've just written, you really should cough up $9.50 and BUY MY BOOK. Do it. Not only will you be keeping a starving artist in Ramen for a week, but--seriously now--you will also be getting a truly unique and valuable practice companion for jazz improvisers. If you've ever wanted to master Coltrane changes, this book will do the trick. To the best of my knowledge, it's the first practical, hands-on resource for jazz instrumentalists of every kind that helps you develop the technique to play Giant Steps changes. You can find plenty of material on Coltrane's theory, but very little that you can actually wrap your fingers around in the woodshed.* The Giant Steps Scratch Pad fills that gap, taking you beyond theory to application. Here's what you get:
  • * A brief overview of “Giant Steps” theory
  • * Insights and tips for using this book as a practice companion
  • * 155 licks and patterns divided into two parts to help you cultivate facility in both the A and B sections of “Giant Steps”
  • * 2 pages of licks using the augmented scale--the "universal scale" for Coltrane changes
Click on the image to your left to view a printable page sample from the Bb edition (for tenor sax, soprano sax, trumpet, and clarinet). Print it out, take it with you to your next practice session, and get a feel for what the Scratch Pad has to offer. Each line takes you through the first four bars of Giant Steps changes. Transpose the pattern down a major third for the second four bars. AVAILABLE IN C, Bb, Eb, AND BASS CLEF EDITIONS, AND BOTH IN PRINT AND AS A PDF DOWNLOAD. 32 PAGES. Instant PDF download, $9.50 C edition Add to Cart Bb edition Add to Cart Eb edition Add to Cart Bass clef edition Add to Cart View Cart Print editions--retail quality with full-color cover, $10.95 plus shipping: order here.
PRAISE FOR THE GIANT STEPS SCRATCH PAD "Ever since John Coltrane recorded 'Giant Steps,' its chord progression has been a rite of passage for aspiring improvisers. Bob's book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad presents a practical approach to Coltrane changes that will challenge advanced players and provide fundamental material for those just beginning to tackle the challenge of Giant Steps.'” --Ric Troll, composer, multi-instrumentalist, owner of Tallmadge Mill Studios "In this volume, Bob has created an excellent new tool for learning how to navigate the harmonies of 'Giant Steps.' This is a hands-on, practical approach with a wealth of great material that will be of assistance to students of jazz at all levels of development." --Kurt Ellenberger, composer, pianist, jazz educator and author of Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation
------------------------------- * Unless you're a guitarist. For some reason, I've found a modest offering of good, practical material available for guitar players. You'd think that tenor sax players would be the prime audience for lit on Coltrane changes, but not so. Guitarists are the torch bearers. Sheesh. You string pickers have all the luck.

Going Beyond the Music

Last night's rehearsal for our June 11 concert at the Buttermilk Jamboree with Ed Englerth, Alan Dunst, and Don Cheeseman was much more than a shared creative time with three of my favorite musical droogs. Life has been pretty intense lately--financial pressures, Mom recovering from a knee replacement, Lisa struggling with what appears to be a ruptured bicep, physical concerns of my own--and I'd be lying to say that I've born it all with a smile on my face. I haven't. I've felt weary, discouraged, and depressed. So reconnecting with the band and working on Ed's music gave me a badly needed release. I needed to just forget about the rest of life for a while and play my horn with some friends with whom I've shared a love of music for many years now under the auspices of Ed's songwriting. Speaking of which, the guy just keeps getting better and better, and so does the band. Ed's upcoming CD may be his best effort yet, which is saying a hunk considering the benchmark set by his last CD, Restless Ghost. I hope to finally hear the final master tonight, and then I'll know for sure which album is my favorite. What's certain is that we pulled out a few extra stops in the studio with this project, including the use of multiple sax tracks to create the effect of an entire sax section. Also, in an unprecedented departure from my die-hard devotion to the alto sax, I played my soprano on a couple tunes. I may have even played it in tune; I'll find out soon enough. But I was talking about how much I needed to tune up, blow some notes, and forget about the rest of life for while. Music is as much a part of life as anything else. In my case, it's a very good part and a very large part, and I needed to be reminded of that. When I forget what "normal" looks like, nights like last night help me draw back to the center of who God created me to be and reclaim some parts of myself that I sometimes lose track of. It seems that I wasn't the only one. Don and his wife have been going through a difficult, hugely demanding time with their new baby son, who has Down Syndrome and has struggled nonstop with acute allergies. Ed has been dealing with the advancing, age-related health problems of his beloved mother- and father-in-law, who reside with him and his wife, Panda. Alan was the only guy who didn't seem to have heavy stuff going on in his life at the moment, or if he did, chose not to share. But he's been through his own fires. We all have, and last night at least three of us were feeling the heat. So it seemed that the right thing to do, after we had finished practicing, was spend some time talking and praying together. It's so easy to just pack up the instruments and head home without ever thinking to pray. But there's power and healing in the honesty, faith, earnestness, and hope of collectively conversing with our heavenly Father. I would go so far as to say that a band of Christian musicians that bypasses the opportunity to get real with each other and with the Lord is missing what may well be the most vital part of their time together, more important even than the music (though that's important). Real is what the four of us got last night, and it was good. I left feeling not only connected with God and with the guys, but also reconnected with myself. Something about standing humbly and openly in the presence of Jesus has a way of doing that, of reminding me who and Whose I really am. The gloom lifts, the lies and warping influence of the world's nonstop millrace lose their grip, and I discover once again that quiet place where I can hear God speak. It is a place of peace and a place of power. When David spoke in Psalm 23 of God as the one who restored his soul, I understand what he meant. I think, I hope, that all of us last night discovered the potential of prayer and our need to incorporate it into our rehearsals more often. More even than the songs we play and the creative passion we share, the Spirit of Jesus Christ draws us together, and it's the thing that can take our band to the next level--possibly the next musical level, but more certainly the next level of what God has in mind for us. Lord, I thank you for last night's blessing of connecting with you and with my brothers Ed, Don, and Alan through the gift of heartfelt, down-to-earth, unpretentious prayer. Please look after each of my friends. You know their needs and you know mine. Care for us and our loved ones as a shepherd cares for the sheep of his pasture, for that is who you are: The Good Shepherd. Give us to hear and treasure your voice--for in it, and it alone, is life.

Altered Major Scales for Secondary Dominant Chords

Some months ago I shared a table of non-diatonic tones and their common uses. This morning I found myself thinking once again about non-diatonic tones, and specifically about an effective way to practice them, one that could quickly translate to actual jazz improvisation. The standard bebop scales came to mind. The insertion of one extra note into a scale--typically a raised fifth in a major scale, and a raised seventh in a dominant (Mixolydian) scale--does more than allow a soloist to move through a scale with ease and land on an octave. It also creates new harmonic possibilities. That principle can be exploited by inserting other tones that also suggest secondary harmonies. Click on the image to your right to enlarge it. You'll see three scales. The first two contain a single added note. Scale #1 includes a raised first, and scale #2, a raised fourth. The interpolation of these notes adapts a basic major scale for use with two commonly encountered secondary dominant chords: the V7/ii (or VI7) and the V7 of V (or II7). In the key of C, which these scales are written in, those chords are A7 and D7. These scales are as fresh to me as they are to you at the time of this writing. Not that I've never played them before; I just haven't made a conscious point of focusing on them as actual scales to invest my time in practicing. I see two benefits to doing do. The first is, obviously, developing technical facility. The second is raising one's awareness of the added notes as harmonic devices, with an eye on the secondary chords that they apply to. Each added note serves as the major third--a critical identifying tone--of its secondary dominant chord. So when you play scale #1, remember that it works readily with the VI7; and likewise, scale #2 pairs with the II7. Many playing situations feature both of those secondary dominants, and often the VI7 moves directly to the II7, which in turn moves to the V7--in essence, coasting around a segment of the cycle of fifths. The third scale incorporates both the raised first and the raised fourth, making it a kind of granddaddy scale that accommodates both secondary dominants. Now, don't look at these scales as magic harmonic bullets.. Rather, look at them as resources that allow you to judiciously select certain tones when you need them as well as furnishing you with good linear resources. It's not all about your fingers mastering the technique of the scales. It's also very much about applying your mind to grasp the uses of the introduced tones. In other words, build harmonic awareness, not just digital dexterity. To assist you, I've included an exercise for each scale that will help you hear how each added note implies a certain harmony. Play these exercises on the piano so you can chord along with the melody line, or else get a keyboard player or guitarist to comp for you while you play the different lines. Have fun! And if you enjoyed this post, drop in on my Jazz page and check out the many other exercises, articles, and solo transcriptions.

Playing with Another Horn Person

Last night I moseyed over to Noto's in Cascade and sat in with Kathy Lamar, Bob VanStee, and Bobby Thompson. Kathy is a fantastic vocalist, and with Bob on keyboards and Bobby on drums, she has a rhythm accompaniment with abilities equal to her own. In recent months I've popped in a few times and joined in, and I've always enjoyed myself, but never more than last night. It had been a while since I'd made it out to Noto's, and I thought I'd call my friend Dave DeVos and see if he wanted to join me out there. He did, and when I walked through the door he was already there, setting up his electric bass. Even better, Dan Jacobs was there with his fluegelhorn, which created a format I'm particularly fond of. This was my first acquaintance with Dan, but I'd heard of him and had touched base with him on Facebook. Dan is an accomplished player, and sharing the stage with someone of his caliber is a joy. I love to hear what another capable instrumentalist is doing; that fresh influx of inventiveness and technique tweaks my creativity, suggests new ideas to try, and overall kicks me in the butt. Best of all is the interpersonal exchange, the trading fours and switching back and forth between melody and improvised counterpoints, that kind of thing. As an alto saxophonist, I think I like sharing the stage with a trumpet/fluegelhorn player even more than with a tenor sax player. The variety in sound and approach is greater, and even visually the contrast is striking and, to me, more interesting. Of course, there are some challenges. At least I find there to be. The main one is to play with that other horn person without overplaying. Often enough, I'll just bow out, and I noticed that Dan did the same last night. Actually, I find that approach enjoyable. It's nice to just put down one's horn and enjoy what the other guy is doing. We usually learn more by listening than by talking, and that maxim can certainly be applied to jazz, provided the person we're listening to has something to say. Dan does, and it was really nice to hear him last night and get a chance to make a little music with him. Dan, if you happen to read this, you're great! Thanks for the melodies. I look forward to next time.

A Fun Jazz Night at Noto’s

It has been a long time since I went to a lounge where a group of topnotch musicians was playing and sat in with them on my sax. Tonight I took the plunge and headed over to Noto's in Cascade, where keyboardist Bob VanStee, vocalist Kathy Lamar, and drummer Bobby Thompson were performing. I'm glad I went! I had an absolute blast. I've known Bobby for a couple years now and enjoy him both as a player and as a person. I'm just getting to know Bob VanStee, but I've known OF him since my college days, when he was well-known about town prior to his taking a 15-year hiatus from music from which he has only recently reemerged. As for Kathy, I'd heard her name but never met her until this evening. Holy cow! What a fantastic vocalist and charismatic entertainer! I love playing side man to a good vocalist, and Kathy is an absolute joy to play alongside of. It really did me good to jump in with this trio and provide some horn work. While I brought my fake books, I wound up not having any use for them. Vocalists frequently sing tunes in keys different from the standard instrumental keys--a good reason for jazz musicians to become as fluent as possible in all twelve tone centers. I like that kind of challenge; it forces me out of my comfort zone. For instance, I've woodshedded "How High the Moon" in its contrafact incarnation, "Ornithology," to the point where I can pretty well shred it in its normal key, concert G. I've also been working on it in concert A and F#, and bit in C. But playing it in Eb tonight took me places I wasn't used to! Sure, Eb puts me in the nice, easy alto sax key of C, but the tune quickly modulates from C to Bb, then down another whole step to Ab. Navigating the key of Ab makes life nothing if not interesting. Aebersold CDs and Band-in-a-Box are great assets for getting one's chops together. But the real joy is in playing live with real-life musicians in a spontaneous framework. That's the essence of jazz--musicians listening and responding to each other in a way that brings coherence and beauty to collective improvisation. It was wonderful to spend some time this evening with three superb talents who know what that's about.

The Giant Steps Scratch Pad: NOW PUBLISHED!

You read right: The Giant Steps Scratch Pad has finally hit the streets! I hadn't wanted to give further updates until now because it seemed that I kept running into snags and delays. That kind of news gets embarrassing to write about after a while, and no doubt it's tiresome to read. But all the hurdles have finally been crossed, and I am extremely pleased to announce that my book of 155 licks and patterns on Giant Steps changes is at long-last published and available for purchase. Let me quickly follow with this caveat: The Eb edition is the one that is presently available. However, with that trail finally blazed, Bb, C, and bass clef editions are all in the works and will be following shortly. I finished editing the Bb edition earlier today, and I hope to complete the job tomorrow, so look for it in a day or two, or at least sometime this week. After that will come the C and bass clef editions. (UPDATE: ALL FOUR EDITIONS OF THE GIANT STEPS SCRATCH PAD ARE NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE. SEE BOTTOM OF PAGE TO ORDER. CLICK AND ENLARGE IMAGE TO YOUR LEFT TO VIEW A PAGE SAMPLE FROM THE Bb EDITION) If you've ever wanted to build the technique to blaze your way through the changes to John Coltrane's jazz landmark, "Giant Steps," this is the book to help you do it. It's truly a one-of-a-kind. Here's the cover copy for it:
Build Your Technique and Creativity for the Giant Steps Cycle Looking for a practice book to help you master “Giant Steps”? The Giant Steps Scratch Pad will help you develop the chops you need. Plenty has been written about the theory behind Coltrane changes. This is the first book designed to help you actually improvise on John Coltrane’s benchmark tune. In it, you’ll find
  • * A brief overview of “Giant Steps” theory
  • * Insights and tips for using this book as a practice companion
  • * 155 licks and patterns divided into two parts to help you cultivate facility in both the A and B sections of “Giant Steps”
“Giant Steps” isn’t innately hard. It’s just different and unpracticed. This book gives you a wealth of material to help you take Coltrane’s lopsided chord changes and make music with them. Choose the edition that fits your instrument—Bb, C, Eb, or bass clef—and then get started today. "Ever since John Coltrane recorded 'Giant Steps,' its chord progression has been a rite of passage for aspiring improvisers. Bob's book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad presents a practical approach to Coltrane changes that will challenge advanced players and provide fundamental material for those just beginning to tackle the challenge of Giant Steps.'” --Ric Troll, composer, multi-instrumentalist, owner of Tallmadge Mill Studios "In this volume, Bob has created an excellent new tool for learning how to navigate the harmonies of 'Giant Steps.' This is a hands-on, practical approach with a wealth of great material that will be of assistance to students of jazz at all levels of development." --Kurt Ellenberger, composer, pianist, jazz educator and author of Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation
I'll of course be putting up an advertisement for the book on this site. But no need to wait for that. If you're an alto sax or baritone sax player, you can purchase the Eb edition right now! Trumpeters, tenor saxophonists, soprano saxophonists, and clarinet players (did I miss anyone?), the party is coming your way next, so keep your eyes open for the next announcement. It seems strange to me that something like this book hasn't been done before, but as far as I know, The Giant Steps Scratch Pad truly is unique. It has been a lot more work than I ever anticipated, but I'm really proud of the results. Major thanks to my friend Brian Fowler of DesignTeam for creating such a totally killer cover for the print edition. But there's more to this book than good looks alone. I trust that those of you who purchase it will find that its contents live up to its appearance. If you're ready to tackle Coltrane changes, this book will give you plenty to keep you occupied for a long time to come. NOW AVAILABLE IN C, Bb, Eb, AND BASS CLEF EDITIONS, AND BOTH IN PRINT AND AS A PDF DOWNLOAD. Instant PDF download, $9.50 C edition Add to Cart Bb edition Add to Cart Eb edition Add to Cart Bass clef edition Add to Cart View Cart Print editions--retail quality with full-color cover, $10.95 plus shipping: order here.

A Fun Gig at the Boatwerks

One of the things I enjoy most is playing jazz with friends whose musicianship I respect and whose company I enjoy. Interpersonal dynamics make such a difference. The format does too. My preferred habitat is the small combo, which offers a maximum amount of spontaneity and creative interplay, and allows me to stretch out as a sax soloist. All of what I've just described was the setting today out on the patio at the Boatwerks in Holland, Michigan. The musicians were Paul Sherwood on drums, Wright McCargar on keyboards, and Dave DeVos on bass--guys I've played with quite a bit over the past few years and whose abilities I trust. This gig was my introduction to the Boatwerks, and it was a delightful one. The Boatwerks is situated on the south side of the channel that connects Lake Macatawa to Lake Michigan, across from Holland State Park. It is a lovely setting and today's audience was an appreciative one. The only improvement I could have asked for would have been to dial down the temperature and dewpoints by about 10 degrees. Unfortunately the weather doesn't take requests, and me being a sweaty kinda guy, my face quickly began perspiring like a sprinkler system. Kiss any images of being a cool jazz musicianly type good-bye! That was just a minor detraction, though. This was the kind of gig I love to do: three hours in a beautiful location outdoors on the waterfront on a pleasant summer afternoon. I had really been looking forward  to it, and I was pleased with how my chops rose to the occasion. They've been feeling great lately. The practice I've been doing in the keys of F# and Eb seems to be paying dividends all across the board. Between Paul and me, we did a few vocal numbers as well as instrumentals. I love to sing, and while it has taken me time to muster up the confidence to do so, it turns out that I've got a pretty decent voice. It was nice to be able to sing "Days of Wine and Roses" and "My Funny Valentine" and then follow up the lyrics with a sax solo. The Boatwerks is a great place and I hope we'll get an opportunity to play there again soon.