Jazz improvisation is a challenging concept for undergraduate, non music majors to grasp. One can either offer vague descriptions of expressing the soul or attempt to simplify complex patterns of harmony. Neither angle proves satisfying, as non majors have difficulty relating to the process by which a self-taught musician channels emotions with convincing melodic gestures and a thoroughly-trained musician sequences complex chordal structures with ease. Professional musicians are either uncannily talented or exhaustively schooled in music theory.
But I am convinced that non music majors can try their hand at improvisation as well. And it is important that they engage in the behavior of solo and group improvisation to fully appreciate the creative process that defines jazz. Group performances of modal jazz changes, the scale-based form found in Miles Davis’s “So What” from Kind of Blue, make this opportunity quite accessible. Not only do students piece together components of the jazz ensemble, they have an ability to shape their own creative voice through several phases of improvisation. A comprehensive knowledge of jazz harmony and standard changes is not required and not really necessary for non music majors. Students in this exercise are protected from playing “wrong notes.”
The modal changes in “So What” are relatively simple. The “head” is in D dorian and the “bridge” is in E-flat dorian. Each chorus is a conventional AABA, 32-bar cycle. In even simpler terms, the white keys of the piano form the basis of “A” and the black keys of the piano (plus F and C if you really want) form the basis of “B.” Several rhythm section practice tracks (with a walking double bass and drum set) are available for these modal changes, or you can have students use Garage Band on iPads to construct a walking bass line and basic swing pattern on the ride cymbal.
The exercise is broken into 4 phases before free improvisation can take place within the ensemble. In phase 1, a piano soloist explores rich harmonies using the notes of the modal scales. I instruct students to “comp,” that is to freely articulate chords from any notes in the scale, that is any notes they want from the white and then black keys of the piano. Students are encouraged to spread their fingers in order to shape extended harmonies with wide voicing rather than the dissonant tonal clusters that result when their fingers are closed. In phase 2, students engage in variations of a thematic motive. They develop a short melodic gesture of 4-8 notes from the scale then attempt to vary it with slight changes in pitch, length, and rhythm. Some even advance their technique by using inversion, parallel harmonies, or imitation between the right and left hand. Again, as long as they know when to shift from the white keys to the black keys within the form, they avoid unpleasant notes. In phase 3, students employ a hybrid of chordal comping and melodic motivic variation to convey two contrasting moods, tranquility for the head and agitation for the bridge. Students tend to employ soft dynamics, slower rhythms, and light or legato articulations for tranquility and loud dynamics, quicker rhythms, and accented articulations for agitation. In phase 4, the final phase, two student soloists engage in a conversation, a technique jazz musicians often refer to as “trading twos.” Student A introduces a short melodic/harmonic gesture on one piano and Student B answers with something complimentary or contrasting on another piano. In some situations, a student playing a walking bass line on the iPad may also participate in the conversation.
Although this is a rather simplified reconstruction of “So What” changes, students have an opportunity to engage in the behavior of improvisation, both individually and collectively. Despite some resistance from a few individuals who do not want to play in front of their peers, the exercise yields a positive response in the classroom. Many students are surprised when they hear how well they sound along with the rhythm section. I require a post jam session discussion and ask that students reflect critically on the behavior of improvisation. How does jazz engage members of the ensemble in creative collaboration? What messages can a jazz soloist communicate to attentive listeners? What are the roles and responsibilities of each member of the rhythm section? What are the aesthetics of evaluating convincing solos?
I tend to converse at two opposite extremes: either I dominate the conversation (i.e. I am lecturing to my students) or I remain silent as I thoughtfully take in the ideas of others…or just plain tune out. Recently I was reminded of an etiquette game for children on the art of conversation. While sitting in a circle, children take turns sharing ideas and listening by tossing around the conversation ball. The lessons in this activity are that no one dominates the conversation, that everyone participates, and that it is as important to listen as it is to speak. The playful ball tossing is also a reminder to keep the conversation moving. From time to time I should brush up on this activity in both my professional and personal life.
College students could also stand to practice conversational etiquette. Usually the professor or a handful of students dominate conversation in the classroom. And while this structure may present some presentational benefits to learning, we should be doing more to prepare students for a highly transferable skill: the ability to engage in conversation on an unfamiliar topic with people other than their familiar network of friends and family. We have unrealistic expectations if we expect discussion-based learning to occur where the fundamentals of conversation are absent.
I truly believe in the Music Appreciation Class and my ultimate goal is that students will learn to enjoy having rich conversations about music from active listening habits. In a summer version of this class–Jazz and the American Spirit–I capitalized on my low enrollment in order to give the old conversation ball a try. While listening to Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas,” the students and I actively conversed, discussing everything from tempo and instruments present to the distinct timbre of Rollins’s tenor sax and his motivic exploration during solos. Some students even chimed in with acute observations of the drum beat and comparisons to the styles of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. In small groups, this exercise pushes students to draw on background knowledge (whether limited or extensive) and remain in the conversation. In a sense, students have to improvise on the spot and remain in step with the other members of the group much like the jazz musicians they are describing. Note to self: with my larger classes this fall, I will need to break the class into several small groups.