From Mozart to Marsalis –
From Bruckner to Heavy Metal –
Mini-Music 200
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Mini-Music  Q & A

What is This Thing Called Jazz?
Prof. Gordon Foote

1 – Are there challenges for musicians who "crossover" from jazz to classical or vice versa?

There are always challenges for people crossing over from “classical” to “jazz” and vice versa. If we think of playing music as being similar to speaking a language, the earlier we start a new language the better chance we have of sounding like a native speaker. If you have spoken the “classical” music language all your life, it becomes difficult to master the language of “jazz” without having a recognizable accent. Another challenge of going to “jazz” from “classical” is the aspect of improvisation. This is extremely intimidating to people who have always learned repertoire from sheet music. The notes, melodies, rhythms, harmony, voicings, phrase markings, dynamics and keys are all written down on the page. In jazz there is not the comfort of having all of those elements pre-determined. In jazz, much of it has to be created by the performer. When going from “jazz” to “classical” the elements are all given, but often the reading skills are not as good and of course the ability to interpret the music in a “classical” style is also difficult.

2 – If one plays a melody on the piano with the left hand, how does one improvise using the right hand?

Usually the left hand on the piano is used to “comp” (short for accompany and also to complement). Comping is where the piano player takes the best notes of a chord (giving the most characteristic sound of the specified harmony) and puts that into various rhythmic patterns. This gives a rhythmic and harmonic foundation, leaving the right hand free to improvise above the comping. The left hand is now rhythmic and harmonic, while the right hand is free to play melodies and improvised lines. It isn’t common to play the melody in the left hand, while the right hand improvises.

3 – When a musician plays jazz, how does he or she know the progression of the music without a score to read from?

Jazz players learn to hear chord progressions. “Standard” jazz tunes have very typical kinds of harmonic directions. For example, many standards go to the IV chord in the bridge, or perhaps might go from the major key to the relative minor (or vice versa). After you learn one or two tunes that go to these places, when you hear other tunes that go to those places, it is a familiar sound and you know where it has gone. A difficult task at first is to be able to “keep the form” (not get lost during the course of the tune) while improvising at the same time. It becomes a test of technical skill, theory knowledge and improvisational ability, combined with the ability to hear a process the sounds and time.

 

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