John Miles Foley, Founding Editor

Jazz Musicians and South Slavic Oral Epic Bards


Martin Langford

WF Can you explain what you do when you improvise?

ML —starts with tempering choices to audience composition in order to achieve the most consonance with listeners: styles;

Improv means quick decision-making:

  1. chord changes
  2. rhythms
  3. tempo
  4. kinds of notes—scale leading tones want to go up; dominants want to go down.

WF What rhythmic/melodic patterns do you rely on, if any, during improvisation?

ML Yes. Licks. Incorporate a beat or two of a lick when I have to. You know, when—mistakes happen in the process.

WF A beat or two? Not much, is it? How much material in a lick?

ML —Licks are usually 2 to 4 bars. I rely on “licks” in a pinch. From twelve 2-bar licks, one can incorporate a beat or two from other people. Lick = sentence; bar = word. —Length of lick depends on frequency of chord changes. —Longer licks = more time to think. —Mirror interval distances and rhythms at beginning or end of melody.

WF So, is a particular lick not made up of same material every time you play it?

ML No. ...unless used under same circumstances. —like signature’s shape/ on flags or curves of a letter, S/F. Never has to be exactly like original. Improv not yours; there’s just this shape out there—you grab it when you need it and make it over how you like, how you need to.

WF You said before “improv means making several choices, quickly. Chord progressions, leading tones . . . .” Other choices?

ML Melody and chord progressions under it. Not conscious decision; done at the moment based on what I hear. —mirroring top/bottom of tune —mirror rhythms —double- and half-time

Mirroring and Inversion

“Rhythms themselves are characteristic of different jazz style. For example, you could characterize all of 1920s jazz with the rhythm”: [Martin sings 1920s rhythm pattern]

1920’s Jazz Rhythm - Cole Porter

David Salge

WF How much of a number is improvisation? Does it happen mostly in cadenza-like sections, or can a whole piece consist of improv?

DS First, there’s melody; say, in violin, trumpet, or clarinet. Next, as vocalist sings, instrumentalist adds figuration. I don’t know that I’d call what I do “improvisation”; I think of it as “figuration.” Finally, figuration becomes looser as song goes on.

WF Do you use variation of the melody as much as variation of harmonic progressions?

DS Yes—in cadenza moments.

WF Do you pick up new material often? —really new stuff, or music that reflects someone else’s style?

DS Mostly in cadenzas, yes; but I frame them in the preexisting harmonic structure.

WF How long is a standard lick for you? Do licks have a certain structure— arpeggios, for example, or modulation, or rhythmic variation?

DS Maybe I’m not aware of playing licks. I can recognize the chords of other players in their licks. My figurations are always hung on the harmonic structure, especially the basis. Then I usually ornament with scalar melodies.

WF Do you string several licks together in a series to make a solo?

DS Yes. But it’s spontaneous; no time to think. It’s ingrained, internalized. Charlie Parker: “First you master the instrument, then the repertory. Then go play.” (Later edited by David Salge to read: “First you master the instrument, then you master the repertory, then you forget all that shit and just play.”)

WF How much of jazz improv is “traditional,” that is, handed down from one player to another over the years?

DS All of it is traditional. To go outside the tradition is to no longer be Klezmer.

WF Are there any good jazz musicians who learned to improvise without being able to read music?

DS Benny Goodman was a Klezmer player first. It’s kind of a myth, you know, that the first jazz players were musically illiterate. There was this golden era, supposedly, when these new rhythms and harmonic progressions started happening. But, you know, it’s not real—I don’t think reading music or being able to read music or not had any real bearing on early jazz.

WF During improv, you have to “fit” licks into the section of music, right? Not just tempos and rhythms, but harmonic progressions, too; right? Do you know ahead of time how long your lick of solos will last? What tells you the duration you’ll need for a solo or lick?

DS No. Just take the lead. The lead sheet will show chord progressions generally – others – tremolo or –

WF How do you gauge the audience’s likely preferences?

DS Some Klezmer audiences ask for specific dances. Otherwise, just start with what you think will be good then change. Don’t have the infamous sign: Requests $5, Feelings $50, Proud Mary $500.

WF Are there specific rhythms associated with styles? harmonic progressions? lengths of licks?

DS Klezmer is sort of like Eastern Europe meets the Andrews Sisters in Yiddish. Dance rhythms dictate traditional Klezmer. Mickey Katz.

WF What does “improvise” mean to you? Do you think “improvise” – look ahead – appropriately describes the process?

DS —Start with a backbone, i.e., a tune or “a head” – 16-bar chord progressions – create new melodic material over that framework.

Larry Slezak

WF What is a “lick”?

LS What you mean by “lick” is a word YOU like to use. There is interpretive association. Like a Brooklyn accent: “Hey, what’s happening?” [or the Bronx: “Get outta heah.”] Lick = “up the stairs,” “around the corner.” You like to use these words. You have a lick you like, but you might have to change something to make it fit. Like language, there are general concepts.

WF Is improvisation governed strictly by rules; that is, rules that apply to all improvisation and all styles?

LS General concepts that can be changed: “to the corner” or “around the corner.” Both mean same thing; use the one you need when you say it. Melody is something worthwhile you gotta say—you put it in your own words, licks, but stay within established framework of chord progressions. Harmony = foundation which DOESN’T change. Improvisation is a different melody to the same harmony. Take A Train. An improviser is first a melody player. Simple variation is not improvisation.

WF What abilities does a good player have that a not-so-good one lacks; that is, assuming both players have good technical command of the instrument?

LS I know what you mean. In some measure, there’s a connection between hand and ear. A good player has to have a concept of melody and has to have a vocation for melodies. A player must have a sense of derring-do linked to a personal confidence. It’s like bungee jumpers: the exhilaration is in not knowing what will happen.

WF Are you ever required to abruptly change the direction the music’s going? For example, if you notice the audience getting restless, or for any other reason?

LS Sure, that’s why they hire players like us—like you and me. That’s where good players make the difference.

WF Are there any differences between jazz dialects (local traditions) as in, say, New Orleans jazz, Kansas City jazz, Chicago jazz, or Harlem jazz?

LS Yes. New York drummers = aggressive. West Coast jazz is mellow and works by insinuation. “Texas tenors” is a way of playing, a kind of tone. High hat rhythm/ragtime rhythm.

High Hat and Ragtime Rhythm

—environment not “essential,” but makes it harder to learn the style. Dotson: Dennis Dotson, from Rusk, Texas, learned jazz only from listening to records. He got caught up, though, once he got to Houston and started hearing live music. The environment in which music is created cannot be obtained from recordings. As a white guy growing up in New York City, I put myself in the environment—Harlem.

—Music is the result of people in an environment—audiences, neighborhoods, bar owners. These guys were pretty tough. If they didn’t like your music, they would tell you to get off the stage. Lifestyle nurtures music.

—My learning was more complete because of these experiences, but with effort, one can always catch up later. Music is only one aspect. People used to invite me to their homes for dinner because—One guy even offered to buy me a new set of clothes so I would look the part.

—After World War II, jazz became more of an “art form.” People like Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie began to give concerts. There was no more dancing.

—You remember, Billy Taylor’s remark—jazz pianist in the 60’s—that jazz is America’s classical music.

David Winn

(email text from a fourth interviewee [not used for this paper] who addresses related issues)

DW: Here is a copy of part of an answer to some questions from Wake Foster in Columbia, Missouri, which I thought I’d pass on to y’all.

What is improv to me?

Well, alternate melody, I guess. Given a frame of a chord or chord structure, what melodies can you think of to fit in that frame? Can you do it so well that each idea blends with the next so that together they form a large melodic idea or, carried through a lengthy solo, make each framed solo relate to the previous solo? Good improvisers can do that, guys like Dennis Dotson or Larry Slezak or Tom Cummings. Like a series of paintings by Corot showing a sunrise to mid-day to sunset, hung on a wall in identical frames, each of the same scene but with different lighting as the day progresses, a good soloist can tell a melodic story that relates the first part to a middle and an end. Like a good book, except you don’t get to take anything back – no editing.

Now, there is a school that wants to drop those frame restrictions, somewhat like some in classical music wanted to drop the restrictions of the period before. Sometimes it works – like Ravel and Debussy, and especially Stravinsky – and sometimes it doesn’t, as in Berg or Schoenberg (this is very subjective here). But I think the desire to want to do something different leads to new ways of thinking and is good, especially in jazz, which should be an ongoing revolution in musical thought.

However, insofar as jazz is concerned, I have long felt that it is mired in old ways. They are nice ways, and I like them. But it seems like I hear a lot of play-by-the-numbers from a lot of talented players. Most of the great jazzers I know seem to be more concerned with the music and less, or even not al all, concerned with themselves. This is a difficult state to reach. How would I go about learning to improvise?

I would say that the first step in improvisation is the desire to do it. Hearing someone else do it and wanting to join in, hearing someone doing it badly and wanting to do it better, or maybe just hearing a song or piece of music that you hear an alternate melody to. It could be a classical piece. There are no real restrictions to what can be improvised. After all, many classic and romantic pieces asked the soloists to improvise a cadenza, and I’ll bet that Mozart never played any of his piano pieces the same way twice in a row, any more than Oscar Peterson would. you still would know it is Mozart or Peterson, of course. The music IS them. The style of playing is them, like their voice pattern/thought pattern.

I’m reminded of another classical story, one about Beethoven. As I remember the story, Haydn gave Beethoven a melody and asked him to write 12 or more variations on it in one hour. When he came back to the lesson an hour later, Beethoven had written over 200 variations. That’s using a given melody as a starting point and improvising, essentially, a bunch more melodies. The difference in most jazz playing is that it is played right now, even while practicing. And if it is written down, it is written down after the fact, usually from a recording.

This is not always the case, however, Paul Desmond was said to write out his solos and memorize them. I remember reading that somewhere. If this is true, he wrote them really well. I should add that I have a difficult time believing that story. But a lot of the best and most thoughtful jazz players do write out riffs and exercises off of chord changes and practice them to use in solos.

So, listening to others who can improvise is good instruction and inspiring; copying what they do is more usual than not.

So, how does one get a start in improvisation?

First off, I might suggest that they just put on a record – any record – but one that they like and just sing along with it. Make up words or sounds or just hum but get grounded with the tune and then play around with notes here and there. You’ll hear the ones that don’t sound good to you and you’ll learn. Also, you won’t wear out a good reed.

Or go to a piano and play some common chord progressions. Again, it can be classical or chords from a popular song. Hell, it can be one chord, done in a rhythmic style of one sort of another, a repeating bass, maybe. And sing something, whatever comes to mind, while keeping the sound of the chord and rhythm going. And when you can do this somewhat by singing, get your oboe and do the same thing. Betcha can’t do it the first time, but betcha can if you keep at it. Sing first, play later. Good ear training, at the least.

Or play or sing a melody. Then play it again, only do it like Frank Sinatra might sing it or Janis Joplin or Miles Davis. Of course, you need to know how each of these people performed. The way Miles Davis plays Surry With the Fringe On Top is a lot different than the way Curley sings it in Oklahoma. And I can’t even imagine what Janis Joplin would have done with it. Wish I could.

Also, sing a couple of bars of a melody you make up, and then try to play it on the oboe or whatever instrument you have – filled Coke bottles, chimes, window panes, whatever – just so you start to get the connection between what your brain thinks and your fingers respond to on your instrument. For oboe players in particular, listen to Juseff Latiff. You really can’t listen to too many good players. Copy what you hear, try to play along with them, sing along with them. Be loose but structured. If it embarrasses you, you have too much ego involved. Drop it and get on with the music.

- From an e-mail message dated June 8, 2002.

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