I’ll be presenting a short talk for the Canadian Jazz Composers Workshop on September 18, 2021. I’ve always been very interested in the processes used by composers and arrangers in any genre. I’ll be talking about my own processes within the general headings of Getting Started (some of things I use), How to Keep it Going (maybe the hardest part?) and Finishing (editing and more editing and then realizing that the work is done).

 

A significant number of jazz composers and arrangers I know and admire have credited Russ Garcia and his book, “THE PROFESSIONAL ARRANGER COMPOSER – Book 1” with having had a significant impact on their development as writers. I have owned a copy of this landmark, and hugely influential book for decades. I’ve looked through it casually from time to time, but recently, I spent some quality time revisiting the information-rich pages. I also read the Wikipedia entry for Russell Garcia and learned that he was ‘self taught’. (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.) Amazing. Not everyone who teaches themselves is so successful (if you don’t know about Garcia’s accomplishments as an arranger/composer, check out the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Russell_Garcia_(composer)&oldid=1011691281). Don’t be fooled by the self-published look of publication. (The text appears to be typed in all caps on a manual typewriter (younger readers might have to look that one up) and the examples appear hand copied with a music pen.) The contents are solid gold. In my teens my parents gave me Henry Mancini’s “Sounds and Scores”. Those two sources were practical and complimentary. The Mancini book is particularly helpful with orchestration, which the Russo text does not address significantly.

I am currently (re)reading “Bird Lives” by Ross Russell. First published in 1973, this book is considered by many as one of the gold standard jazz biographies. In this case, the biography is of Charlie Parker who died just months shy of his 35th birthday. He was a genius of the first order; an incomparable artist. He was loved for his art, but also loved by many close friends and family. He was also utterly self-destructive. Unable to control his inner demons – the ones that drove him to every possible excess: food, alcohol, drugs, sex – to barely start a list, his life was cut short by poor health. He simply burned through the life he was given, at breakneck speed.
Since his art was mostly improvised, we are lucky that his unique and astonishing body of work was recorded. (Can you imagine if we were able to listen to Beethoven, for example, improvising on a melodic idea given to him by a party goer or a rival?) There are notated versions of many of Bird’s compositions and many transcribed (notated) improvised solos. These creations were mostly short (in clock time) and brilliant. Thousands of saxophonists have studied these solos, learned to play them, sing them, and commit them to memory. He developed his own ‘vocabulary’ and used his prodigious technical command of the saxophone to it’s fullest degree.
His music, commonly referred to as Bebop, is now “out-of-date” in some ways. The music, the technique of the saxophone, and the artistic approaches to playing jazz have all evolved over the many years since his death. And yet, his influence is still strongly felt, particularly among alto saxophonists, but certainly by all jazz musicians.
I was 7 years old when he died. I find it kind of amazing to think he and I were on the planet at the same time, and I wish I had been old enough and in the right place to have heard him live. The famous Massey Hall concert of May 15, 1953 happened in Toronto less than 20 miles from where I grew up, and while I suppose a five year old might have been allowed in, that event wasn’t on my parents’ radar, nor of course, mine. Still it is marvellous that we have that wonderful well-documented concert to study and enjoy forever thanks to Charles Mingus’ recording the event with a tape recorder he set up to archive the event. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. Suggested further reading on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jazz_at_Massey_Hall&oldid=982145870.
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bird’s birth. Yet another artist whose life was too short, and difficult in so many ways. His legacy is rich beyond all imagination. If you haven’t read the Ross Russell book, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of Bird’s life, but it also relates, vividly, the history of jazz in Kansas City in the 30s and 40s and a window into the world Charlie Parker inhabited so briefly.

The New Normal

There are times when I hear people write or say, “When will we find the new normal”. Usually in the context of hoping for an earliest possible end to the current pandemic.

So I start wondering about “normal”. What ‘normal’ are we hoping to resurrect? Being able to go to the grocery store without a mask or without worrying about social distancing? Being able to hug your children or grandchildren? Of course. But will that be the “normal” state of human interaction and activity?

Does the ‘new normal’ include exploding warehouses in Beirut? The elections of tyrants? The ongoing battles to stabilize or destabilize political activity?

Does it include heinous crimes against humanity (pick one). Does it include the creation of a masterwork?

Nothing is normal about human existence. All we can predict is the fact that lives begin and eventually end one way or another.  Maybe I should say that everything is normal.

Humans love with passion and hate with rage. Normal.

Humans are selfish and philanthropic to extremes. Normal.

Humans try to believe, to be faithful and hopeful.

Humans are cynical and pessimistic.

Normal.

When the pandemic ends the ‘new normal’ will be just the same old normal. Greed and love. Kindness and brutality. Hopeful and helplessly discouraged.

But we won’t be wearing a mask. At least not a visible one.

 

The power of human imagination is tremendous, when one chooses to use it. For me, this is important and even essential while composing music. You imagine specific players playing in a specific situation and in your inner ear you hear their sound and you can imagine the situation to great advantage (when all your circuits or spark plugs are working well.)

The human imagination can be loads of fun. Today I’ve been imagining, with astonishing success. Astonishing to me that is. Imagine actually being Neil Armstrong, for example. In this example, I  start with an experience I know first hand (breathing using SCUBA gear) and then using whimsical flights of fancy, I add props…like putting on a motorcycle helmet (imagined only), and a big bully winter coat with fat mitts. I can hear my voice, not tinny and phone-like as humans on earth were able to hear, but my real voice inside the helmet saying “one small step”, as I put my big fat snow boots on the ash and dust below the bottom step. And then adding the rest, “One giant leap for mankind”. If that’s what he actually said. I know there is some argument about what was actually said. Imagine that. I mean, IMAGINE that was YOU doing that.

And saying….”One giant leap for mankind”.

Then an interesting development can take place. You can start to consider the situation in a real context. What was actually happening? Man’s first footprint on the moon was history with a capital “H”.

But was it? I mean, “a giant leap for mankind”? Maybe it was no more important than the first time a human jumped over a horizontal pole 7 feet off the ground. Unassisted. Or when Beethoven completed the final draft of the 9th symphony. Or when the first West African slave ship came ashore in the southern USA.

Maybe it WOULD have been a giant leap if Neil had found some ash or dust or even a rock up there that turned out to be a cure for all cancers.

Other experiments for the imagination. Imagine being the first person ever to ride a bike. Or set fire to something. Put yourself there. Imagine the astonishment. the sense of achievement. You probably would have wanted to run around shouting your word of choice (assuming eureka hadn’t already been taken, you certainly could shout that – or you could shout eureka anyway). How must have it felt for Wilbur Wright to experience the first moment of lift in the early part of the 20th century? Eureka!!! Bloody hell!!! Holy SHit!. I’m pretty sure the word, fuck was not used back then, but,…maybe?

There have been so many firsts. So many PROFOUND firsts. Some astonishingly beautiful or horrific. Some so destructive that their effects will never die away. Some so magnificent that human life will forever be the richer.

Just imagine!

 

Who was Gordon Delamont?

A major figure in Canadian music history, Gordon (Gord) Delamont was a great and influential teacher. His list of notable students reads like a Canadian jazz composer/arranger all-star team. Wikipedia lists the following partial list:  Peter AppleyardGustav CiamagaRon CollierJimmy DaleHagood HardyHerbie HelbigPaul HoffertMoe KoffmanRob McConnellBen McPeekBernie PiltchPaul ReadFred StoneNorman SymondsRick WilkinsMaribeth Solomon, among others.

He was also a composer with a unique voice. Regrettably, few are familiar with his music. Wikipedia mentions his  “Three Entertainments for Saxophone Quartet” which is published by Kendor Music. While it bears his personal stamp, the composition is not, and let me be clear this is a very personal opinion, his best or most representative work. From my perspective, his three-movement suite commissioned by the Ontario government for Expo ’67 in Montreal is quintessential Delamont. The orchestration is clear, simple, varied and rich. His use of serial techniques, which he taught us, is expertly and musically on display. The melodic lines are strong, the rhythms swinging and the harmonies fresh and engaging. The suite was recorded by a-list Toronto musicians and played on a loop at the Ontario Pavilion in Montreal in’67. Not only did it sound great on its own terms, but it captured a distinct Canadian vibe. It sounded like Canada!

I have been studying Gordon’s work lately and my first task (underway) is an analysis of the Ontario Suite. I will need permission to publish the paper because it contains score excerpts, and also, I need to track down who owns the performance rights. Hopefully permissions will be obtained soon, and I will be able to bring some well-deserved attention to this historically and artistically important composition.

How I Discovered Gordon Delamont and became his student:

When I was in my early-teens I had already been taking piano lessons (in the typical European tradition – largely German and French composers). I hadn’t played much contemporary music and if there were any Canadian composers present in my studies, I can’t remember any. Not surprisingly (as I look back) my teacher, Edith Goldthorpe, offered no opportunities to play music from the American ‘popular’ songbook or jazz of any kind. We marched down the Royal Conservatory path, playing the pieces in their graded curriculum. But Edith, to her credit, did supplement these pieces with a healthy dose of Beethoven, Kuhlau, Czerny and a few others. But my interests had already evolved. I started to hear a bit of Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and then Herbie Hancock among others. These master players were heavily influential, but so were their compositions. I began to really want to write my own music. I listened to lots of ‘classical’ recordings (my dad’s small collection). Also, I had started paying attention to film/tv music composed by Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, and others. Oliver Nelson’s tv music killed me, on top of his jazz recordings. So many of these musicians could play and write as well. And that is what I wanted to do.

So, I started off improvising at the piano. First, I slowly worked out some familiar tunes at the piano using my ear. Then I started to copy a few things I heard on records. My ear improved, and I wrote a few short piano pieces (nothing to write home about, as the saying goes). I was hungry to learn and my parents, recognizing that I was eager and needed help, bought me a copy of Henry Mancini’s “Sounds and Scores”. That was a game changer because Mancini showed score layout, the importance of learning to write and read transposed scores, orchestration both typical and atypical. I started to write out individual parts for some of the scores and I started to write for 3 horns and rhythm section. (I had joined a band by that time). My efforts were well-intentioned but much more training and education were required.

When I was 18, I contacted (the late, great) Doug Riley who I knew as a young and highly successful pianist, organist and arranger/composer. I remember thinking Doug was doing what I would like to be doing, so I asked his advice. He immediately responded. Call Gord Delamont.

Ok, I asked myself. Who is Gord Delamont? Some digging around and I found out that I had been steered to one of the most important and successful teachers in the country. He had published books on harmony and orchestration and taught many of Canada’s most respected and successful jazz musicians. That lead to my contacting him to ask for lessons and he agreed to see me for an assessment. I recall the trip to his home in the northern part of the city and being quite excited and anxious. He was kind, but business-like in that first meeting. He administered some ear tests and we spent some time talking about my musical aspirations and experience. He explained his approach to teaching and also laid down the ground rules for attending my lessons and completing assignments. I was relieved and excited when he said he would take me on as a student. But there was a wait list. In my case, that turned out to be about 6 months.

A bit of context is needed here. I had already begun my undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. It was challenging and I was learning a lot, but I knew, once I was into it, that I was not going to get instruction in jazz at all. And I really wanted to study jazz composition and arranging. The only answer was to add supplemental studies with Delamont. Prior to my studying at the university I had studied harmony and counterpoint with Canadian composer, Walter Buczynski and had passed the required examinations to qualify for studies at U of T. So, I wasn’t brand new to theoretical studies.

Finally, Gordon called, and lessons commenced. I learned quickly that his approach was going to be very detailed and thorough. He took into account my previous studies but insisted that we start from scratch and work quickly (but thoroughly what I had learned or partially learned from other teachers and in university courses taken to date.

…to be continued.

 

The Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and have started posting articles about the Faculty’s history. Today this article concerning the beginning of the Jazz Performance Degree Program in 1991 was published and brought back many memories. I was hired that year to design a new jazz curriculum, hire faculty and became Director of Jazz Studies. For many years prior to the formal jazz degree program starting, Phil Nimmons had been teaching jazz courses. When I was hired in 1991 we kind of moved in together in an office we shared for many years. Maybe 1991-2008. Thankfully, this shared office arrangement worked well, or maybe I should beautifully. We knew each other for years before that, but in’91 our relationship blossomed into one of the great friendships of my life. Phil and Noreen Nimmons and their family treated me and Trish Colter (my wife) like family. There were many great events and adventures (golf trips and other holidays) with the Nimmonses over the years. I am so grateful to have worked with Phil all those years. We are 25 years apart in age, but we never seemed to be aware of that. Conversations would often start with phrases like, “People our age…”. The part time faculty we had over the years was tremendous. All were working A-list jazz musicians with a special knack for teaching along side us. And the students who attended while I was there were inspiring and exciting to be around (most of the time :)) Many of them now teach at the Faculty and so many went on to do great things in music in Canada, the USA and elsewhere. /PR

The great Canadian trombonist, arranger, composer, educator, Terry Promane sent me an email this morning which mentioned the terrific book, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard”. I’ve read it and re-read many parts of it since it came out, as it references some of the most enjoyable,artful,and instructive (and SWINGING) music of my lifetime.

When the “Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra” (1966) came out on vinyl I was in my first year of university music studies. One of my mentors at the time heard the album and referred to Thad’s writing as “warmed-over Basie” (yikes!) and s/he was dead wrong and recanted shortly thereafter. As noted in the book, none of those involved foresaw a 50 year-long weekly gig at the Village Vanguard nor the tremendously influential writing and playing it produced.

I caught myself wondering a moment ago if 50 years from now (it won’t matter to poor old dead me), the Village Vanguard will still be standing. If there will be a Monday night big band. And if the music of Thad, Bob, Jim and others will still be performed regularly. There will be new writers by then and new sounds….but the music this band has made and is making right now has an eternal quality to my ear. Is that because I’m just feeling nostalgic? Of course I am, and that has to be part of it, but I find nothing trivial here. No ‘hit parade’ transience.

In the 20th and 21st century we (I realize that word begs discussion) continue to revere – and rightly so – music created in Vienna, for the most part, by a host of composers. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and so on. Great art. Period. Our lives are enriched and anchored by the music they created. Earth is a better place to be because of it.

Like Vienna in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, New York has been unusually important in music’s history. While reading Jan Swafford’s wonderful biography of Beethoven, I was struck by the similarity of musicians’ lives in the Vienna of the late 1700s-early 1800s and that of those writing and performing music in the New York City of today and many past decades. Beethoven was one of 300 A-list pianists then in Vienna, a city that had, purportedly, 6000 piano students. Work was hard to come by and there were simply too many musicians living there for the amount of employment opportunities available. Beethoven was at the top of his profession as a performer and was becoming more and more well known as a composer. An aside: at one point in his life he played solo piano in cafes to make ends meet. Can you imagine having a few beers or an espresso while some guy named Beethoven played in the background? Did people talk while he was playing? Or did they just do that during the bass solos? (I know…tired old joke…with more than a ring of truth.)

One attempts a fool’s errand in forecasting that any particular jazz composer or another will be recognized and remembered far into the future. Although, I suspect that the music of Duke Ellington isn’t going to fade anytime soon. But it seems that SO many composers in the jazz sphere cite Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer and, more recently, Jim McNeely as important influences. I find their music spellbinding and am moved, amazed and feel my spirit lifted whenever I hear it.

I recently interviewed the great bassist, composer, arranger, John Clayton for a blog (posted Feb 1, 2018 on the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers website. I asked him if Thad Jones had been an influence (I already knew what his answer would be) and he said, “HUGE”. (my caps). There isn’t time or room to list all of the writers I know who have found Duke, Thad, Bob, Jim to name four that come immediately to mind, profoundly influential. How did I not include Gil Evans? And of course there is Marty Paitch, Gerry Mulligan, and so on. List making is always a failed enterprise.

But back to my musing about the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones orchestra (now the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and its past importance and potential impact on future audiences and musicians. There was a time when no one knew how long the music of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler or Bela Bartok would be remembered. As years go by we gain clarity about which work can be considered a masterpiece and the ‘importance’ of one musician or another. After 50 years, I think I’m ready to make a guess that the music coming out of the Vanguard on Monday nights will have far reaching impact.

Get the book. You’ll love it.

PR

When my early musical training was at its peak (1965-1973) I was listening to a lot of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones Big Band, Oscar Peterson, and many others. I though the Hanna/Fontana band was pretty cool. Under my father’s influence (his record collection) I listened to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. And because of a friend of mine I also listened to Henry Mancini’s soundtrack recording for “The Pink Panther”. Some great musicians on that one (Plas Johnson, Dick Nash, and others). I adored Bill Evans “Trio 65” and tried to play some of that – I wasn’t that successful. Although I did pick up a few voicings here and there.

But I listened to hardly any John Coltrane (as a leader) except for the Ballads album. No Charlie Parker, no Dizzy Gillespie, No Dexter Gordon or Hank Mobley. That came along as time went by and I became obsessed with bebop and more modern styles.

So that is what I tried to play. (Maybe one might not start right away by emulating Oscar, I guess – requires huge hands, incredible technique and stamina. But I tried anyway. And I couldn’t believe how that music SWUNG).

Eventually my writing started to develop and I took formal lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Walter Buczynski, and starting in 1967, I studied with Gordon Delamont, who painstakingly took me through a slow paced and detailed course in harmony, voice leading (with a modern twist) and eventually melody writing, counterpoint, 12 tone technique, and arranging.

Somewhere along the line I read or heard two very important pieces of advice: “Don’t fall in love with what [everything] you have written”. And “Don’t get stuck in the past. Or someone might say, “Do you really like your writing, or do you like the way people are writing nowadays?” OUCH!!!

The messages were clear. Don’t get stuck with current and past practices. Listen to, and accept/embrace change”.

Today I listen and try to learn from as many musical sources as I can. Everything has continued to evolve, as it has all along the way. I’m certain that it is important to hear, and absorb current music. And important that I bring my own aesthetic in contact with it. What comes out when you take all your past knowledge and training, all your listening to older styles of music (thousands of them) and marry it with what I hear as current directions (at least those that appeal to me).

I recall vowing in my early twenties that I would stay current. I wouldn’t get stuck in the music I heard when I was in my teens through to my twenties. Harder to do than to say.

SO I am trying to listen and study the melodic practices of contemporary composers. And RHYTHM. Harmony isn’t as much in the foreground as it was for me at one time. I’m less interested in voicings than at any time I can remember.

Also, forms. AABA, ABAB, ABCA and so on were relevant and remain relevant, but there is so much new thinking. So much more freedom.

More later…

I found these on one of my hard drives today. Not sure of the source, but the words are pure gold:

Billy Strayhorn – 1962

” I have a general rule about arranging. Rimsky-Korsakov is the one who said it: All parts should lie easily under the fingers. That’s my first rule: to write something a guy can play. Otherwise, it will never be as natural, or as wonderful, as something that does lie easily under the fingers.

Duke and I approach everything for what It ls. You have the instruments. You have to find the right thing · not too little, not too much. It’s like getting the right color. That’s it! Color Is what it Is, and you know when you get It.”

Thad Jones – 1977

“I have never formally studied arranging. The things that I have written I have acquired through experience, but talent is not all. You have to work at it. Having somebody like Ellington as a guideline certainly didn’t hurt. Unconsciously, I guess, I have patterned myself after him, but at the same time I know I must express certain thlngs for myself. That is the area I try to focus my attention on, trying to bring out the best that’s in me.

I spent a lot of time listening to European music as well as jazz. I study music of European composers, their technique and their creativity. It gives me a flow and balance, effect, harmonics, a sense of the dramatic. Now when I sit down to write a composition, I have an idea of the form the piece will take. I believe that when you write something that you should write fully wherever the line takes you. “