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Bluffers Guide to Playing Jazz

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Notes about playing jazz; a fun guide to this inventive music.

Yup, notes are the problem. How many to play, which ones, and at what time.

Guitars
Guitarists are known by their desire to play one or two extra notes on their instrument after the song has ended. This works well in the early part of the gig, but sooner or later the drummer notices what happens and will cover their final odd notes with a short flourish on the drums. Later still, the alto player joins in. In the hands of professionals this becomes an extended improvised coda which surprises everyone since it bears no relation to the song at all. Guitarists try to sit next to drummers but a long way from pianists. There is no known reason why. Perhaps it is because pianists can use all ten fingers at the same time.

Ending songs
This is one of the most difficult bits in jazz to do properly. Some bands are on record as not knowing how to do it at all, and once the final melody has been played out, someone then strikes up with another solo. (True) This makes for fascinating and meaningful social interaction within the group. This is one reason why audiences prefer to watch jazz players rather than listen to them.

Starting solos
Knowing where the 1 is tests the mettle of all soloists. For some of them, listening to the music itself is of little help, and they need someone to nod them in on time. Singers are particularly prone to starting problems and frequently offer themselves to band leaders who look after them in this regard.

Playing duff solos
If you play a duff solo it is because you have forgotten where you are in the song, or forgotten what key you are supposed to be playing at that moment, or because you are out of it anyway. After you have finished everyone goes quiet - although everyone knows where you went wrong and will talk about it behind your back. The thing to do is to ask the band loudly, "Did someone cross the beat at bar 23?" The band will look at the drummer, who will say "Sorry" and you are off the hook.

Drummers
Drummers usually take up the instrument as part of an anger management course. You can't play as many notes as a drummer plays and worry about what key you are in as well. There are too many jokes about drummers, too often told in public announcements for them to feel totally at ease at all times. A bit of tlc to drummers pays off.

Double bass
Double bass players have feelings of insecurity, and carry their instruments to gigs as self-abasement. They feel bad because they always play far fewer notes than anyone else but receive the same money. They are given occasional solos to play because the rest of the band want a lift in the van going home afterwards. The bassist will love it and will smile shyly if you tell him that his is the most important instrument in the band. This has the advantage of being true, unlike everything you say to everyone else about how good they sound. Sincerity needs to be practiced.

Classical musicians playing jazz
Jazz players all have feelings of self-doubt when they play with classically trained players. Jazz workshop groups sometimes attack classical newcomers immediately by advising "Just follow the 2-5-1 progressions, dropping down to a minor third in the bridge." They then destroy the classical player by taking their music away from them, and immediately starting in the count in. Professionals raise their game here by saying, "Let's do it in Gb" and then starting the count in, in double time.

The way for classical musicians to get their own back is to suggest that the piano or guitarist plays the melody. These people can only read chords and not dots so they are cooked.

Pianists
Pianists are up against time. They know too much. They know about harmony and chord progressions. They have to make a decision between 786 different chords and voicings, plus substitute chords, they have ten fingers to use and the possibility of using any of seventy-four scales. They are also the only people who can see every note they are going to play, which somehow contrives to make the problem worse. A fast swing piece at 240 bpm with two chords in each bar means they have 0.5 of a second to decide whether to play the altered chord, or the diminished chord, or the straightforward dominant 7th or maybe even a flat sixth triad in the upper structure and how to voice it and which inversion to use. (Which fingers on which notes) In addition they have to do something interesting with the fingers of their right hand. This all may seem a bit technical but it indicates why there is so much turmoil going on inside pianists heads and why they all end up playing by ear like everyone else after the first four bars. It is little wonder that they are bald and introverted. It is also the reason why they are so condescending to the rest of the group.

Saxophone players
The problem here is that they are recruited and trained by other saxophone players. Personality tests shows that they are exhibitionists, first and foremost. Some of them are social contrarians who will play in a scruffy T-shirt with We Love Atlantic City on the front. These people will always play with a very dirty instrument. But a dirty instrument many also be a much loved archeological find. They are taught that their aim in soloing is to play as many different scales as possible at a very fast pace and never to acknowledge that the rhythm section is telling the audience, and them, where the music is in reality. Later on in life, saxophone players realise that they really need to know more about chords and progressions so they buy a small keyboard in order to see the notes. Then they find that there is a lot of mental effort involved in learning about progressions and so on, so they end up playing the blues scale 99.9% of the time.

Trumpeters
Trumpeters are nearly always male and are in it only for the sex. If they play loud, and very high they can attract women from miles around. Not for nothing was triple tonguing invented by a trumpeter.

Jazz singers
No one in a band can make the musicians change the usual key of the song except a female singer.

If the singer smiles at them and says thank you then the rhythm section will forgive her for not coming in on time, not finding the right note and for talking to the audience while the soloists are playing. Male singers have to stick with the key the music was written in.

Playing simple jazz.
The simplest way an amateur can play a jazz solo is to turn down the sound control on the amplifier. Afterwards you should ask if there was something amiss with the sound balance. Experienced amateurs realise that there are seven notes in each scale. (Actually there are eight notes in the diminished scale but only pianists know that.) Players can cut down the amount of notes they have to think about by 28% if they only use the pentatonic scales. (5 notes in each pentatonic scale, saving 2 notes. 2 notes saved out of 7 equals 28%. Music is very mathematical)

Theoretically, you can cut the number of notes used in a solo to four if you just use tetratonic groups. (This is the pentatonic scale minus one note). But very few people know this, and it has never been tried in anger. It is mentioned only by clever dicks who want to get one back on the pianist.

(Actually the chromatic scale has 12 notes in it - but this is so obvious that even Rover Scouts can work it out, and no one can use it for long before being thrown out of the band.)

Jazz teaching
Jazz teachers will tell you that there are no bad notes in jazz only "poor" choices. They say that if you can play immediately a semi-tone below or above your bum note you will get out of trouble. In theory this may or may not be true but by the time you've tried it the band has gone ahead with another couple of bars by which time the "corrected note" will now have become a bum note so no one has ever found out. Look behind at the motives of jazz teachers who say this kind of thing. Jazz teachers want you to like them and keep hiring them which is why they tell you this crap. You are their living after all. It is possible to make so many poor choices, that you get thrown out of the band.

Deps
This heading is to test you, to see if you know the "in" words in jazz. Band leaders hate it when people can't turn up for the gig. People always claim illness but it is usually because they have got another gig that night which pays a bit more. Sometimes band leaders insist on you providing and rehearsing your own deputy. ("Dep" - see it now?) Never ever bring a dep who is better at playing jazz than you are. Otherwise, in the long run you will have to go back to looking at the small ad cards in musical instrument shops. By the way the yanks don't say dep but sub (substitute) but that could be confused with tritone sub so stick with the English.

Avoiding copyright fees
No copyright exists if you wait 70 years after the death of the last surviving composer. You can bring this event forward by several years if you let the composer hear you improvising on his music. Jerome Kern hated jazz.

Copyright exists only in the melody, no one can copyright chords. This is how bebop was started by a bunch of crafty but poor musicians. They took the chords used in standard songs and then invented new melodies over the top of them. This is how Ornithology sounds so much like How High the Moon. You still have to pay the estate of the composer of Ornithology a copyright fee. I don't know who he was or when he died but no doubt several million jazz ancestor worshippers will e-mail in and tell me and I'd reply that any nerd can look it up in seconds.* *before you clever dicks start it was Charlie "the Bird" Parker, d 1955, the bird, ornithology, Birdland the famous New York jazz club, geddit? Did you know that they put a flock of birds into Birdland as a decorative feature, but they all died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out. Laugh a minute jazz is.

Real Books
For about £35 you can buy a Real book consisting of about 500 jazz song manuscripts with the words. This costs you 7p per song and looks like a bargain. But you'll never play about 450 of them in your lifetime. So it actually costs you about 70p per usable song. Still a bargain when compared to paying for downloaded music scripts.

Bandleaders have to buy Bb and Eb versions of Real books because you can never expect alto sax players and trumpeters to buy their own copies.

What the sellers of Real Books don't tell you is that the song the band wants to play is in a different copy of the Real Book - one you don't own.

No, I'm not going to tell you how to get an illegal copy of half a dozen different Real Books downloaded to your hard drive. But you can.

Playing by ear

You are not supposed to do it. This is what the old great jazz players used to do because there was no jazz music theory then. But how can you build a world of jazz music education if people just pop off and play by ear? As a trained jazz musician you are supposed to know what you are doing and why at any time. This of course is absolutely impossible and all professionals end up playing by ear themselves. Afterwards they'll tell you what they probably did in theoretical terms, but will be unable to reproduce it. "I was using D7 over C major, I think" they'll bluff.

You can tell when the pianist is at his wits end and is playing by ear. He will drop the left hand out and just play with the right hand. This means he does not know where he is in the song and hopes the drummer will give a big flourish at the end of the section. He is too worried to listen to the bass as he should.


This article first appeared at www.jazzenthusiasts.com a UK website for amateur players. It is reprinted with permission.


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