Friday, September 23, 2011

The Two Songs of Jazz


This post is an explanation of the general theme of this blog, the introduction to my book "Melodic Syncopation", as well as my personal philosophy about how to learn to play jazz.  If this is super boring to you, don't worry I won't be offended.  But if you think this is idea is interesting or relevant to what you are doing, please let me know! 


Butch Warren
“Jazz is playing two songs at the same time.”
-Butch Warren
   
The great drummer and educator John Riley divides the artistry of drumming into four basic elements: groove, technique, musicality, and creativity.  Groove is your individual sense of time and where you place the beat, technique is your physical facility, musicality is how you respond to your musical environment, and creativity is the spark of imagination that makes every drummer as unique and identifiable as a fingerprint.  This book is not intended to be a technique primer although it has many exercises that are technically demanding.  My main purpose is to help you put your technique into musical context, uniting it with groove, musicality, and creativity and thereby improving your overall musicianship.

The importance of this holistic approach is largely explained by the quote at the top of the page from legendary jazz bassist Butch Warren.  To successfully perform jazz music, you have to be able to juggle focusing on the foundational, pre-composed song (that is the chord changes, tempo, feeling, melody, lyrics, and form), and the spontaneously created song of your improvisation.  The skill you will be developing by splitting your focus between the two songs is to be able to imagine a musical environment for yourself, and then use that musical environment as inspiration for your playing.  Rather than thinking of your playing as something isolated or that you are creating from nothing, you will instead be responding to musical impulses from your own imagination.  In essence what you can eventually achieve is playing that feels more like listening then playing.  Playing in this fashion is the ultimate meaning of “playing two songs at the same time”.

The better you are at combining these two songs, the better the music will be.  Each of the four artistic elements plays a critical role in your ability to combine the two songs of jazz.  Groove is the underlying bedrock, and without this steady foundation, the music falters.  Technique is what removes the barrier between an idea and its execution while dealing with both songs.  Musicality allows you to respond to both songs, as well as to how other musicians are dealing with both songs, flexibly and organically. And finally, creativity is the source of your own unique treatment of the songs.  Every element of drumming artistry has to be developed and integrated with the other elements in order to successfully combine the two songs of jazz into a harmonious whole.  

To develop all these artistic elements, many jazz musicians organize their technical exercises around the melodies of jazz standards.  This melodic approach to technique goes beyond simply developing physical facility.  Putting technique into a melodic context encourages the musician to maintain a steady groove, and to respond to the tension and release of the melody with musical sensitivity.  In addition to the benefits to groove and musicality, this approach plants melodies so deeply in the creative imagination, that improvising soaked in the feeling of the jazz tradition emerges.  As a result of this melodic approach and of the holistic interrelation between the four artistic elements that it cultivates, musicians are better able to seamlessly combine the two songs of jazz.  

Unfortunately, because drummers are not required by their instrument to be intimately involved with melody, often no such connection between technique and the other artistic elements exists.  Instead of using melodies as the basis for technical exercises, many drummers use arbitrary rhythms that bear little resemblance to the elegance or sophistication of a melody.  Because of this narrow focus, drummers have become notorious for a sort of athletic approach to playing that is divorced from any musical feeling.  This book works to bridge the gap between the rhythm-centric world of drummers and the melody-centric world of other musicians by organizing its rhythmic content around the melodies of jazz standards.