The shape of jazz to come? July 2010
First published in Jazz Changes, the magazine of the International Association of Schools of Jazz, Autumn 2000.
In the absence of an official transcription and publication (about which more below) the panel was transcribed by Graham Collier and published in Jazz Changes.
Allan Chase - saxophonist, teacher at the jazz studies and improvisation department, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston.
Graham Collier - composer and educator. Head of the jazz programme at the Royal Academy of Music, London, for ten years.
Ed Sarath - flugel horn player, head of jazz and contemporary improvisation studies, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Graham Collier I have a quote here which I came across purely by chance yesterday in Jazz Times. In the middle of a review of two of the Academy’s annual CDs it says: ‘the institution's goal of developing the students’ creativity as well as an understanding and appreciation of the jazz tradition is obviously being met’. I take pride in that but it seems to me an odd thing to have to say. I would have thought that every institution should be trying to do exactly the same thing: develop the students’ creativity and make them very much aware of the tradition.
On a personal level, in Australia last summer I was praised in a review which said: ‘it's good to hear a bandleader who has absorbed Coleman and Coltrane as well as Basie and Kenton’. Again, I take pride in that but, surely, now that we are in the year 2000, everybody should be doing this. Coleman and Coltrane have been around for a long time. This is an illustration that an awful lot has happened in jazz that is not being recognised by many people in jazz education.
One of these is, of course, early jazz. As far as I can see there’s not much authentic early jazz happening in a lot of jazz schools. Neither is there a lot of free jazz, or modern jazz, or whatever you want to call it, happening in many jazz schools around the world, which I have extensive knowledge of through my travels.
What is interesting is that there is a direct connection between the past and what we can call the present. The tone-colour of the individual musicians in the early days, the way that they actually used their instruments, made them very recognisable as that player on that instrument. By using different timbres, different shapes, different sounds, they expressed themselves as individuals. That came back into jazz after the Kind of Blue/Ornette Coleman ‘revolution’ in the late 1950s. We need to remember that there is this connection between the two. I think that jazz has got stuck in some terrible way in the middle.
How do we teach this in our schools? Not just by playing free. There have been cases I know of in schools around the world where they have appointed a modern, free, contemporary jazz musician, whatever you want to call it, and they have let that style dominate the programme. This has been to the programme’s disadvantage and is also wrong. We have to absorb free jazz into the whole education of the student. Absorb it and use it and not ignore it. We should use it in our history courses. History didn’t end in 1945 or 1955. It’s still going on and we should try to draw the connections between the various aspects of the music. Collective improvisation, for example, has come back into jazz from the early days, but that is still not properly recognised. This kind of thinking, the broad view, should be part of the ethos of a course. Of course, bebop and swing must be included, but get the students to play early jazz and get them to play free jazz also. Get them to realise that there is a continuum in the music.
My stance as a composer involved in this area is that we have to start from somewhere. Evan Parker, the British free jazz saxophonist, says he starts from where he left off last time. That’s an interesting approach, but it’s not what I want to do. I like to start from something. Get the musicians to develop what they are given and to understand how they can add themselves to that starting point. The whole idea is that every time the piece is played it’s different and surely that should be our aim as jazz musicians: to make the piece different on each performance.
I believe that there are three kinds of improvising. This is nothing new and I am not saying that I invented it. They are present in all jazz, but by articulating it I developed my own ideas which have served to help quite a lot of people. The three kinds of improvising are, first, the normal solo, where somebody stands up and takes a solo. The second is textural improvising, what the rhythm section does. These techniques can be developed into the orchestra. Instead of the band sitting there silent behind a solo, they can help. They can play pedal notes, they can play parts of chords, little figures. In essence, do what bands such as Count Basie’s did with head
Interaction is a very important word. Interaction between the composer, the director, the players and the music. And it’s this interaction that makes the performance If you take any normal jazz tune, you don’t play it straight, you interpret it, the rhythm section interprets it. I would like to see this kind of thinking applied to any jazz. The music should develop its potential to be different from performance to performance.
One or two examples: if you take a note, a concert G, say, and people play it ‘as written’ it sounds very pure. But if you colour it, use re-attacks, make some noise with it, make it individual, it suddenly becomes different. It appears bigger and actually becomes a different note. These devices can be used in introducing a standard song; it doesn't have to be some special composition. Another technique I have used is ‘thickening’; where, for example, a one-bar riff is started in unison. The players use the same rhythm but with different notes and it can build up into an enormous wall of sound. I’ve even used this device on ‘C Jam Blues’. It’s such an easy riff that everyone recognises it, no matter what happens. The riff stays the same but the actual texture changes. These methods are also extremely useful in getting those who don’t know about improvising into it. They are constrained in one way with the same rhythm, but they are choosing their own notes and reacting with the others around them to construct something.
Ed Sarath I should say that a couple of years ago I had the pleasure of playing in Graham’s professional ensemble at the London Jazz Festival and it really was a gas. Not just the performances but putting together the music. Basically, everyone gets the same part and then Graham shapes the piece out of that.
The approach to improvisation I use in the group has grown out of the straight-ahead improvisation teaching I was doing, which kept expanding its boundaries kind of organically. I thought it might be nice to have an ensemble that does some of these things in public, because at times the music that would come out was interesting. Not always, though!
I remember in the early days the most workable situation would be to divide it into small ensembles. I gave them a lot of exercises covering basic elements like density, timbre, texture and silence. Every once in a while we would attempt some large ensemble improvisation and it was usually disastrous. However, the students liked this kind of thing quite a bit and as time went on a conflict arose. They wanted to do more and more collective free improvising and I couldn’t stand it. So I started writing some things for the group not so much different from what Graham is doing, though the instrumentation is somewhat different. We’d have a head arrangement with improvised sections, even a soloist playing with a rhythm section, and we’d have free interludes, a cello improvising with a saxophone, something like that, connecting one area to another. That was one format which I became quite fond of because it became kind of safe. The risks we were taking came within a certain framework.
But still there was this undercurrent in the group which wanted to do more free playing and at one point there was almost a revolt in the ensemble and I had to do some soul-searching myself. I decided that in that particular term we would do completely improvised concerts. We did three concerts and we had some amazing breakthroughs. So now we kind of alternate these two formats. At the last concert of the old millennium all 20 members were up on the stage for an hour and 15 minutes and improvised the entire concert, nothing set forth in advance. Where I used to sit in the audience and be just terrified as to what was going to happen, and making a list of who I hoped hadn’t come to the concert, in recent years I’ve become a little bit more comfortable with this completely improvised format. And at the December concert, it was just amazing what happened. It's almost like some external force overtakes the ensemble and guides the orchestration, creative decisions, formal sections, etcetera. But there’s no middle ground to this kind of thing. I joke with some of the other ensemble directors: ‘Describe the worst rehearsal, the worst concert you can imagine with your ensemble. Multiply that by a hundred-fold and that’s what my ensemble can do. We can extend the boundaries of bad beyond belief!’ In the other direction I have to say that when it works it becomes one of the most profound things I have been involved in. Something takes over the group. We’ve all experienced this in smaller group situations but there are 25 people up there. No conductor. No format at all and you have to tune in to whatever that force is that is going to orchestrate the thing, deal with formal proportions, deal with transitions. It’s an amazing thing and its terrifying. It still is.
I want to go back to Graham’s idea of the continuum of possibilities. This ensemble is in the continuum of what we have at the University of Michigan. We have about eight terms of improvisation. We have Jazz Improvisation one through four and at the beginning of that I do a kind of improvisation-based approach to basic musicianship which starts with the very open approaches that I use with the large ensemble. Then we go into modal things, then straight-ahead tonal things and after that the student goes into the regular jazz sequence. We also offer a Masters-level version of the same approach which starts again with open kinds of things but the restraints are a little more challenging, more chromaticism, that sort of thing. I like to think of our entire programme as inclusive; inside and outside things all work together, and students can weave their own pathways through this.
I think that most people who deal with this kind of music deal with it as a kind of continuum. There’s a recent interview with Anthony Braxton and at the end he was asked what were the last records he bought and he said: ‘The collected works of Frank Sinatra.’ For him it's an inclusive thing. What interests me is not only the musical yield of some of these marginalised areas but how this feeds back into certain straight-ahead stuff. What excites me is when I see students who’ve come through our system, how it feeds through into their playing of what we might call mainstream stuff. And the mainstream stuff feeds into the more open kind of experience also.
We’ve inherited a kind of conditioned view of history, which I think we’ve gotten from the classical musicologists, which says that to really become a creative artist that we must follow the footsteps of the people that have been successful. And these footsteps mean that somehow we shut out the developments of the present, shut out our times. And we get to some point where we start marching through the footsteps of history in a very ‘proper’ manner. But when you try to find even one player who did that it’s actually very difficult. Take somebody like Coltrane. The question is: what was Coltrane doing when he was 20 years old? One things for sure is that he was not going 50 years back. That much is very clear. We know his practising was legendary, so he was working on the kind of craft that you need, but chances are that after practicing his scales and arpeggios he just sat in a corner and sort of took off. That’s what improvisers do. Many of those who now say to an 18-year-old that they should forget all this other stuff and practice only older music: when you actually pin those people down to when they were 18 years old, there was an exploratory aspect to what they were doing also. I think in my own development that those times were just as important as the really focused practice of the chord scales and the traditional stuff. They work together.
Allan Chase All three of us up here agree very strongly that this music is important and since I recognise many of you I know that we’re preaching to the converted. But, hopefully, we can all go out and spread our points of view.
There are several reasons that people don’t include it in their performance curriculums more. Pretty much everybody teaches about it in jazz history, but in the vast majority of jazz education situations they don’t practice it in a hands-on way with students. One reason is that a large number of teachers don’t know any of this music that they really love, the way they love Dexter Gordon or Coltrane (up to Love Supreme, say) or the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1950s and 1960s. For many of us, our first experiences of avant-garde or free jazz were negative experiences: ‘Oh my God! How did I get stuck with this one?’ when buying a Coltrane record that didn’t sound like what you thought it was going to sound like. This happened to me, too, but I liked it more than some other people did, which is how I got where I am, doing some of the music that I am involved in today.
I did have negative experiences. I remember buying the album Bap-tizum by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, live at the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival, and thinking: ‘Well, I'm pretty much up for anything, but this sucks. This is terrible. There’s nothing happening here.’ Now I can listen to it, now that I know the Art Ensemble well. Any music is difficult to listen to when you have no context for it. If we put on some Korean court music we could all say: ‘Well, it’s not melodic and it’s not going anywhere. It has no form,’ because probably very few of us understand Korean court music, which is some of the most different music which I can think of right now. But if we understood that culturally, of course we would get into it. And this kind of jazz is only a little bit away from where anybody in this convention is as jazz musicians. It’s much closer to us than the music of a culture that has nothing to do with jazz and Afro-American culture
I gave out a list of suggested recordings and these are very personal choices of records which I liked right away and I could listen to a hundred times. I think they are historically agreed on and they would be in everyone’s list of 100, but everyone's list of ten is going to be different. I just wanted to give some suggestions to people who really aren’t familiar with this field at all of things that offer a good way into it and have a lot of musical value.
Allan Chase's ten listening suggestions for an introduction to free improvisation in jazz
• Beauty is a Rare Thing Ornette Coleman (Atlantic/Rhino boxed set) or any of the individual Atlantic CDs
• Thesis Jimmy Giuffre (ECM) with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow
• Spiritual Unity Albert Ayler (ESP) with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray
• The Magic City Sun Ra (Saturn: Impulse LP and Evidence CD reissues) A successful long big band piece
• The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 1 Sun Ra (ESP) Disciplined large ensemble improvisations
• Unit Structures Cecil Taylor (Blue Note)
• Interstellar Space John Coltrane (Impulse) Duets with Rashied Ali, drums
• People in Sorrow The Art Ensemble of Chicago (Nessa) Beautifully paced long-form group improvisation
• Fanfare for the Warriors The Art Ensemble of Chicago (Atlantic, 32 Jazz and Rhino Collectables reissues)
• Locus Solus John Zorn (Avant or Tzadik) Trio improvisations using a simple interactive game piece
Some links to these artists are given below
[Allan Chase continued] Besides not liking one’s first experience with free jazz, and the question of why people don’t work with it in the classroom, there is the question of assessment. Educators are very concerned with how to assess progress, how to measure results. That education now seems to be increasingly organised around measurable outcomes is troubling to me. I think that there are a lot of experiences that are difficult to measure but are really important. They can only happen in a school setting and won’t happen for kids if they aren’t led into it, but they are not easily measurable.
It’s really no different from letting students paint an abstract picture, or letting them write a story on a theme or teaching composition. It’s just as easy to measure the results of so-called free improvisation as it is to measure your composition students' progress if you teach composition in the 20th and 21st centuries. Or, imagine teaching abstract painting. I’m sure none of us do that, but there are things you can teach, ways you can critique a piece of work. There are suggestions you can make and there is a dialogue you can have with the students but it’s not easy to determine what the difference is between an A-minus and a B-plus. This can be a problem, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have this kind of improvisation in a classroom. It’s also difficult to measure progress and outcomes beyond the point where someone masters playing changes in the basic sense. They’re playing notes that make sense and resolving chords on time, but how do you go beyond that and say when somebody is a great bebop player as compared with an average bebop player? It starts to become subjective and difficult to measure. And the same thing is true with free improvisation, group improvisations, things like that. So I don’t think anybody should be afraid of including this in an improvisation curriculum because it's difficult to measure. I really hope that is not a barrier to teaching it.
In the handout I gave ten suggestions as to concrete things you could do with an ensemble which I’ve done many times. A good way to start with students who don’t have much experience with improvisation is to do call-and-response as a group. You be the leader or assign one person who is strong and bold to be a leader and have the group respond as a group so the spotlight is not on any one individual who could say: ‘But how do I know what to play?’ They get a chance to experience something without being in the spotlight. That’s only one example. You can make up a hundred of these. If anyone wants to get some more suggestions or to have a dialogue on this I would welcome getting emails about it and talking to anybody who wants to experiment with this kind of music.
One final point. When you introduce this to an ensemble one of the most important things to do is to avoid having an apologetic attitude. Don’t say: ‘This is kind of going to be a little out, you guys. Hang in there with me, because it’s going to be weird. We’re going to do this weird stuff and it might be bad.’ That’s no way to start any piece of music. There’s no way you would give the downbeat for a Mahler symphony after an introduction like that. Or bring in a chart by Count Basie and tell people about swing: ‘You're going to do that dangdangdedang thing.’ So often I see people talk like this and it’s because they are uncomfortable with this style in an academic setting and I feel it sometimes, too. It’s very important to centre yourself and say: ‘We’re going to create a beautiful work of art’ and present it that way to the students. Or: ‘We’re going to go somewhere we’ve never gone before. Let’s do it. Let’s listen to each other and be sensitive and play like an ensemble and here’s a new idea of how to do that.’ Give a structure, a way to guide it, a way to end it so it doesn’t go on for the rest of the day. Then talk about it a little bit and do it again. Just like rehearsing any other music.
I wanted to ask my colleagues up here two questions. Firstly, and you both touched upon this a little bit, what reaction do you get from students? Is there resistance or is there immediate enthusiasm for group improvisation?
Graham Collier Because the Academy is a small school we can pick and choose. The students we choose are those we think to be more creative and they are generally open to freer forms of jazz. But I recently had troubles with a whole year who graduated last summer. They were hard-boppers, the hardest of hard-boppers you could ever find, and to get them to do anything else was almost impossible. They’ve all graduated now and one of them won both of the two young jazz musician prizes in the 1980s, so maybe I’m wrong!
The other thing I would say is that I do travel a lot to different bands and once a woman trumpet player in Holland came up to me and said: ‘I like Clifford Brown’ - just like that. When I said, ‘So do I,’ she replied, ‘Well, I don't like what we're doing.’ I told her that it would all be over soon and surely you should be trying different things to see whether they work or not. And tomorrow it will all be finished and you can go back to playing Clifford Brown. But that was 50 years ago, and today you should be trying to do something new for yourself. So there is some resistance. In the bands I work with there’s usually a trombone player, or two or perhaps a trumpet player who doesn’t like it. Not usually the saxes or the rhythm section, who are usually very keen.
Ed Sarath A few years ago we had this schism in our department where we had a contingent of kids, the bebop police or whatever you want to call them, challenging our students who were into more open improvising. As I said, I encourage the totality. In any case, I was actually happy about the debate between the two sides. We are relatively new and I thought that this was one of the signs that we’re now becoming a ‘real’ jazz school because we had this bebop versus free thing. Plus it stimulated some good dialogue. I find now that those boundaries are dissolving more and more and some of the beboppers are coming into my ensemble and having to react to the music itself. Right now the two best graduate violinists in the school are also in this ensemble, so that’s very nice. These people are coming from a whole different background. In my travels I’ve found, and this is more telling than working with your own students who if they like you will come into your class, a positive reaction. I’ve been in Brazil twice recently and I didn’t know what to expect. There are some incredible things happening in very small pockets but, with all due respect, not nearly as much as is happening in the States or in Europe. But the reaction to what I did was very very positive. It was like a thirst for real creative exploration.
Allan Chase To answer my own question: I think that a lot of students are attracted to New England Conservatory because we offer a thorough education in bebop, in playing changes and so on and also a lot of new music. There is the opportunity to work with people who are noted for their work in the freer and in-between areas of jazz, people like Joe Maneri, who are at the cutting edge of that field, are on the faculty. But the students sometimes surprise me. Some of the most traditional players, who are very interested in a pre-bop style when they come to the school, are signing up for the most avant-garde ensembles.
The other question is what about relations with administrators and colleagues when you do this kind of music. Is there any difficulty in convincing them that this is a valuable thing to do?
Graham Collier No, partly because I was in charge and I said what was happening. But we do find that some of the bosses do not like the more modern music. I had a big battle last year. We always launch our new CD in the first part, very short, about half and hour, of the annual Early Jazz concert, which is always sold out. Last year they wanted me to drop this and do an all-Ellington concert because there were sponsors coming in and all that sort of stuff. I said: ‘No. I've done it for five years like this and if they can’t sit for half an hour then let them wait and come in at the interval. I don’t care. We’re going to do the concert in the same way we always have.’ They all came, they all sat there, and we got more plaudits and sold more CDs in the interval than we ever have before. I think that it’s a good idea to put on some old stuff alongside the new, just like many classical orchestras do. Get them in for the old music and make them listen to something new also.
Ed Sarath I’ve been fortunate. When I was hired the dean wanted something off the beaten track. He didn’t really know what it was and that’s probably why I got the job in the first place. But it is a problem taking this kind of music before the public. If I as ensemble director was terrified before each concert, you can imagine what the take of the administrators might be. But after a while you realise, and it was the students who taught me this, that there is something very deep happening within that. And the fact that we had some classical players, some of whom were actually winning prizes outside the school, and they would say that this ensemble was the most transformational, the most important thing that they had in their training. When that kind of talk starts coming from the students it’s much more powerful than anything I could have done. And because of this the Creative Arts Orchestra is one of the things that our dean talks about quite a bit. But he’s never been to one concert yet!
Allan Chase I feel in a very privileged position with this because I have a very supportive administration right now. Improvisation is seen as part of the mission of the school and they are looking for ways to include more improvisation. To touch briefly on one other thing. Let us never exclude vocalists from this experience. It’s definitely a direction that they should go in. I see Jay Clayton here, a leader as an educator and performer, who goes into this in her new book. Our vocal teacher Dominique Eade does this kind of work with a capella ensembles. It’s a great way to get singers away from the standard with rhythm section idea into group improvisations where they are on equal terms with other instruments.
[As Allan Chase said at the time, there was little opportunity for questions and discussion because not only was the panel at the furthest place at the earliest hour, but there was a group knocking at the door to take over the space. However, there was time for two contributions from the floor, both from Berklee teachers, which raised interesting points.]
Laszlo Gardony I am glad that you are doing this panel as I think it is very important in any type of jazz education. I teach one-to-one lessons. Obviously, the student doesn’t come in and say: ‘I want to spend this lesson improvising freely.’ They come in with specific questions and some of these questions can easily lead to this subject. They may come in with a question about players like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. I suggest that they go back in time to the period when those people started playing and they will find that they were involved in freer forms of music, and that perhaps the student should go back there to find the source of their inspiration. The other thing I find is that some students struggle with their sound, their groove, or let’s just say their improvisational skills. I tell them to just start playing - to play anything. At first they may feel that they don’t know how to do this, what to play. When they get over this and start to play I will put a tape in a tape recorder and record what they do. And every single time I’ve done this, the sound improved, the touch improved. So I can then suggest to them that they can start playing like this and it may lead into the tune they want to play, which happened a lot with the Miles Davis band. Then perhaps I will play with them and that can work well. If you listen to them they will listen to you.
Dan Smith I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Japan on a fellowship and I got to do some teaching. The system there is very rigid, particularly at high school, but that’s also something of the case at college. I remember doing a master class in Kobe and I said: ‘We're just going to play free.’ I grabbed four students out of the audience and said: ‘Here’s your opportunity. You can play whatever you want, the only constraints are that you have two minutes only.’ The most difficult thing to do in that situation was to get them to start. But when they did they were wide open and it was some of the most beautiful music, other than gagaku court music, that I heard while I was in Japan. That experience was really phenomenal and I urge those who don’t do this kind of thing to do it in your schools. And I also laud you guys for doing this panel. It’s one of the first free things at the IAJE ever.
July 2010 GC adds: It would seem that this panel was also one of the ‘first ever’ times that the IAJE did not record and transcribe the results for their conference papers and cassettes. But, as the organisation is now long departed any question of paranoia must remain unanswered.
In due course more will be posted on the collapse of the IAJE and a tongue-in-cheek query as to whether paying more attention to such artists as Cecil Taylor may have saved it
More on Allan Chase
More on Ed Sarath
Ornette Coleman at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Jimmy Giuffre at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Albert Ayler at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Sun Ra at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Cecil Taylor at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
John Coltrane at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Art Ensemble of Chicago at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
John Zorn at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
Photo of The Art Ensemble of Chicago © Jacky Lepage’s Virtual Gallery
Photo of Cecil Taylor uncredited