March 29, 2010

Improvisation 101

I’ve had music teachers and adults compliment me on my interaction with students, saying that I have a good way of teaching improvisation. I don’t take a lot of credit for it. It reminds me of the Jon Hendricks story talking about Count Basie being interviewed by the English journalist, who said “Mr. Basie, you seem to play with a great deal of economy of notes.” And Basie said “I can’t play no mo.” So perhaps there’s an advantage to not having your head filled with too much theory because it doesn’t cloud your thinking and you can see the forest AND the trees.

In this case, the forest is creating the improvised melody. The trees become all those scales, licks, phrases, enclosures, modes and ideas that can be applied, and that can be of use, but applied too early they only tend to obscure the forest, the idea of creating a melody. That’s why I think it’s a good idea when working with a kid who seems to have any interest at all in improvising, you work with a scale and a little call and response, and then THEY give the call and YOU respond, and all it is is a little rhythm. Then divide the rhythm between two different notes, and then three different notes if you want, where we set a beat and we make up little phrases from the scale we’re working on. This is not a jazz exercise per se. Sometimes we’ll do a march beat and we’ll be in a G scale for example. Play any notes in the G scale, let’s play something people could march to. Or let’s do a waltz — let’s play in 3/4.

I had a recent conversation with a music teacher who was about to retire, as he had been teaching nearly thirty years. This conversation made me realize how some basic things may not be a part of a person’s teaching arsenal. Though he may have played music for a long time, it was a revelation to him that I simply told him that on the flute when he is improvising he could play an E flat against a C chord. His comment was “yeah but that’s dissonant, because the C chord has an E.” I said, no, that’s the blues, that’s what makes blues sound like blues. His honest reaction was “wow, that’s really interesting.” Even though he played in a jazz group, he didn’t know that.

He also had numerous questions regarding a microphone and its proper use on the bandstand. He was surprised to learn that a microphone does not make you sound better, it only makes you sound louder. He didn’t seem to believe that. And that is an arguable statement. Because a microphone connected to all the possibilities (reverb and sound enhancement) can make you sound better, in a way. But you still are amplifying the sound you put into it. And if you put in a lousy tone, a tentative tone, an unconfident tone into a microphone, it will make that unconfident tone a loud unconfident tone.

School districts who hire me tend to have me return year after year to work with groups of kids. I often do guest spots before the audiences in the evening when I perform with the school bands. One particular administrator likes to call on me to do something a cappella before the audience. Every year I try to do something different. One year I played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one year I did “St. Louis Blues,” and this is always on solo saxophone. I always arrive at the stage with very little pre-planning. I do some thinking about it, but I’ve learned to trust my own instincts and rely on observation and intuition during the day or leading up to the event. A recent night started out where the music teacher had some other guest, he had a fairly good band that was there who was traveling through the area. They played a little thing for the kids and then they were going some Q & A. They were asking the kids about their listening habits. One guy asked junior high kids if they had ever heard of Louis Armstrong. One girl raised her hand and said yes, he played trumpet and he sang “What a Wonderful World.” They were glad to get that answer. So I registered that, and then I had a long break between the afternoon and the evening performance. The kids who I had seen at the same school last year, who I had been able to spend the day with, a whole year later these kids had remembered the little blues lick that I taught them a year ago. Not only had they remembered it, but they had taught it to the grade that came in this year, who I had not seen the previous year. It wasn’t a hard melody, but the fact that they remembered it a year later and taught it to the other kids, and recognized that they could put it into this arrangement they were doing called “A Bunch of Blues,” because luckily it happened to being the same key. But they recognized they could play this melody in the middle of this chart and it fit. And they asked the director’s permission to use what they called “Monk’s Blues,” and they did. So that was a rewarding moment.

In the evening, I decided to play “What a Wonderful World,” for the audience and I verbally related some of these things to the audience before I played it. I played it by myself. The room had a nice sound, a sort of “gym reverb.” I milked the song, but with the words in mind as I played it. I think it worked very well. Afterwards a grandfather came up to me and wanted my autograph and said it was the most beautiful rendition he’d ever heard of the song and how special it was. Then the kid who had originally answered the question about Louis Armstrong came up and she was thrilled that I had done that. I told her it was prompted by what she said, and I said that I shared her enthusiasm for the song.

In a session for prospective Arts in Education teaching artists (TA’s). I decided to do a little exercise that on one side of the page it says “TA work is…” and on the other side said “TA work is not …” and encouraged them to put down some obvious things. TA work is not an opportunity for you to display your technical prowess on your instrument … TA work is challenging … I put down TA work is rocket science, and I also put TA work is NOT rocket science because I feel you can apply the same concept to improvising. It certainly is hard, but the hard part is figuring out how to learn all that stuff but forget it. It helps to know it, but you need to figure out ways to transfer it and filter it into language and concepts and activities that display the ideas rather than talk about it. And it’s not about exclusive language of your discipline. It’s about being able to share your joy, fascination or insight about something with others who don’t share it but could share it, but you have to figure out a way to make it palatable, to make it and safe for them to experiment with and user-friendly. It’s the same with improvising. You have to create a safe environment for people to try things and teach them the idea of a mistake changes from one kind of music to another, that mistakes can be dealt with, and that mistakes are not your deadly enemy.

March 26, 2010

Jake Hanna: "Have A Ball"

Sorry to report that another of our interviewees recently passed away, drummer Jake Hanna. Some interviews immediately started in a manner that told me right away I was in for a treat. Jake Hanna was one. Jake passed away on February 12 at the age of 78. He was a versatile musician, having spent significant time with the Marian McPartland Trio as well as the Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd big band. He also spent ten years as part of the Merv Griffin TV house band, and held down the drum chair with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Jake was well known for his quick wit and often outrageous humor and it was on display right from the start of our conversation. Picture Jake’s voice with a James Cagney “you dirty rat” delivery in this brief exchange at the start of our interview:

MR: We are in Aspen, Colorado, filming for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. And I’ve been waiting for this for quite a while now. We’re filming with Jake Hanna, one of the great jazz drummers and conversationalists.

JH: Conversationalist, yes. I love your name, Monk. I’m going to start using that name, Monk Rowe. I’ve been using Sneed Hern for years. But Monk Rowe, that’s a hell of a name. I never heard a name like that either. Thelonious Monk was far out, but Monk Rowe.

Jake went on to tell me that two of his heroes were both “Kings of Swing.” One of course, clarinetist Benny Goodman, dubbed the “King of Swing” after he brought big band music into the consciousness of the general public in the late 1930’s. His other King of Swing was a ball player, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, one of the all-time great hitters in the history of baseball. He was equally enamored of both of them, although he admitted, “Benny never liked me.” Jake was part of a large club in that regard.

Most of the men in his generation spent at least two years in the service. He pointed out something to me that affected musicians, doctors, and other professionals who were drafted or who enlisted.

MR: At what age were you inclined to think, hey maybe I can make a living as a drummer?

JH: Well I never did anything else. So I never thought of it, never thought of it. Just loved it. I never thought of ever doing anything else. Ever. I just loved it. When I went in the service, I figured well I’ll go in, I’ll be a gunner, you know. But they eliminated them gunners, in the 50’s, they eliminated it, everything was electronic. And they came up with the jets then, jets were invented. So they wouldn’t let me handle a gun anyway, you know. But if you played a musical instrument they put you right in band play, and if you were a doctor or in medicine they pulled you right into that area and gave you a commission. You can’t train a musician in four years. You just take somebody off the street and say all right you’re in the service? Oh, you’re going to be — I need two drummers over here — forget it, you can’t train a guy you see? Who plays the drums? You do? Over here. A doctor? We can’t train a doctor in four years. So you’re automatically in when you go in. That’s automatically what you do. Most people, they can train you. Infantry, everybody can shoot a gun.

MR: That’s true. I never even thought of it that way.

JH: No they have to have specialists, and you’ve got to go right away. They can train guys in dots and dashes and radio people, they can get that done in six months you know. But not a musician. Play a march and then play a little dance job and play a show. In fact most musicians can’t do all that you know, really.

MR: It’s true. So you got to play during your service?

JH: Oh yeah, yeah. In fact I went in to do that. Because I wasn’t good enough to play outside. And out of high school I really didn’t know how to do anything. So I says I’ll go in the service, see if I get in the band, you know, took a chance. I couldn’t read [music] you know. Eventually I learned to read off of trumpet parts and things, and the guys in the new band I was with in Texas, they showed me how to read, and quick. I learned how to read in a couple of days, really.

Even though he had a Type A personality and a high energy level, he was not a drummer who felt it was his responsibility to make people swing. In fact, he was most happy when he was, as he put it, “just following, just tagging along, that’s all, have a ball.” The ten years with the Merv Griffin house band probably kept him financially solvent, but like many musicians it was a double-edged sword. Jake described the work, which was often linked with playing behind the popular musicians of that time.

He goes on to describe the video he must have seen that showed the process with Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are The World” project. Like many musicians of his generation, he did not recognize talent in the same manner that the younger generation did.

MR: Well how did you like working a steady thing, a TV show every day?

JH: Oh, I hated it. Just hated it. The money was lousy in New York believe it or not. And we went out to the coast, and he more than tripled it. So we made good money out there. But it was even worse. It was awful. It’s a Sonny & Cher world out there, that television. It was people with no ability at all and no talent at all. Did you happen to watch the thing the other day, Quincy Jones trying to teach Bruce Springsteen and the poet/singer, what the hell’s his name, Dylan?

MR: Bob Dylan?

JH: Trying to show them a song. These guys, well you might as well try to talk to that wall to get these guys to hear, they’re totally deaf. It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen. “Honey come in here. Watch this.” And my wife started laughing, I started laughing, we called up people, “watch these two idiots.” Millionaires, billionaires these guys. They can’t do anything. God they were awful. Then poor Quincy, he just said okay, fine you know. We’ll just do it your way. Showing them the melody, they just couldn’t get the melody. And so he goes “sing what you’re singing. That will be the melody” you know. Poor Quincy. He’s dealt with these fools for years. And Phil Ramone is in with them too. You know he’s the best sound engineer there is. I don’t know what he’s doing with these guys. Making a lot of money I guess. But he did a lot of great stuff with Woody you know. Great stuff. He’s a hell of a nice guy too. But yeah, it was awful that stuff they were doing. And that’s what used to appear on the show all the time. Monty Rock III. The Lovin’ Spoonful. And what was a couple of others. Peter and something or other, no, when the Beatle thing was going on.

MR: Peter and ... Chad and Jeremy ‑ oh Peter and Gordon.

JH: Peter and Gordon. Oh, man, I mean they were awful.

Jake was definitely a memorable personality, a versatile musician, and he made friends easily. If you’d like to read more about Jake you might like to find Marian McPartland’s book All in Good Time. Marian’s thoughts on Jake got a whole chapter.