Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Art of Pitch Inflections

As I mentioned in my Teaching Philosophy section, most of the posts in this blog will steer clear of things like scales and theory, and focus more on the inflections that are crucial to jazz. This music was originally an aural tradition, and I feel we have moved a bit too far away from that in recent years as more and more people begin to look to books for instruction. I’m all for having an organized jazz curriculum, but as educators, I feel we have to find more ways to incorporate listening and imitation into the learning process. It’s also important to look at the cultural context of jazz. Jazz is an African American tradition, and the musical inflections used by its greatest players - from Louis Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard - were distinctly African American. Like all great music, jazz now belongs to all humankind. But if you want to honor the tradition of this music, you have to address its musical inflections.

Inflection is one of the things that give the music its spirit. Without it, your solos are doomed to sound sterile and antiseptic. I like to use language as an analogy for this. Imagine Martin Luther King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech in your mind’s ear. Now imagine that someone who had never heard this famous speech was handed the written speech on a sheet of paper. Do you think that person would be as moved by the words as someone who had heard it in person? Of course not! It was Dr. King’s delivery that elevated these pretty words on paper into a transcendent experience. The inflections and cadences he adopted from the African American church tradition gave the words an emotional depth that can’t be conveyed on a piece of paper. It is this emotional depth that speaks to something deeper in all of us, and without it, the most cleverly written speech will never make it past the brain to the heart. In the same way, the jazz solos of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis contain essential emotional information conveyed through things like articulation, rhythmic feel, and vibrato. These inflections are subtle and highly complex, and cannot be represented by notes on a piece of paper any more than the passion of Dr. King’s speech can be conveyed merely by writing down the words.

Since my last post had to do with Louis Armstrong, I thought I would talk about shaping (or bending) notes, a technique of which Louis Armstrong was a master. I’m not talking about extreme half-valve bending from one octave to another, which is usually used more as a novelty. I am talking about the subtle bending that all great jazz musicians employ. While pitch-bending goes all the way back to West Africa, it is one of the defining characteristics of all Black American Music (to use the apt moniker by Nicholas Payton). In the early development of jazz, musicians took European musical forms like marches and applied an African American aesthetic to them by incorporating vocal aspects of the blues and church music among others. On stringed instruments such as the guitar, pitch bending is easy, but when it came to the trumpet, musicians had to find creative ways to make it happen.

First, a little bit on how the trumpet works. The trumpet is essentially a glorified amplifier for the mouthpiece. However, it has one other important function. Unlike the mouthpiece, which doesn’t lock the player into any particular notes, the trumpet locks the vibration of the lips into distinct pitches called “partials,” which are basically the notes of the overtone series. The overtone series is the series of sympathetic pitches that make up any vibrating object. As a trumpet player, you can move up and down the partials by holding the same fingering and adjusting the vibration of your lips until the horn kicks up or down a note in the series. This happens because the vibrations of your lips are locking into place with the acoustics of the horn.

But what happens when you purposefully and artfully play “out of tune”? Early jazz players learned quickly that you can add expressiveness to your playing by lipping up so just enough so that the note doesn’t lock in with the horn, but not so much that the horn goes into the next partial. Suddenly, the possibilities of the trumpet opened up. In one instance, it could be an instrument capable of playing precise technical passages like the Carnival of Venice. The next moment, it could be a fluid instrument capable of imitating the human voice. Louis Armstrong in particular was the greatest at switching back and forth from these two roles. Just compare his highly technical introduction to West End Blues to the very vocal way he plays the melody. In this way, he gets the best of both worlds, the clarity and precision of an instrumentalist and the liquid expressiveness of a vocalist.

So let’s talk in more detail about how to actually do this. To get started, take a look at Figure 1 below. Imagine the horizontal bar as the sound of the third space “C” as dictated by your trumpet. In trumpetspeak, we call this “slotting.” Within this slot, you have some wiggle room in which the trumpet will allow you to play some version of a “C.” If you buzz in the center of the bar, the note will sound in-tune. Buzz a little high and it’s sharp. Buzz a tad low and it’s flat. Think of the lines at the top and bottom of this “C” is the threshold to the next note in the overtone series. Buzz any higher and the trumpet will kick the note up to an E. Buzz too low, and the trumpet will play a G. The trick is therefore to play around in the area of “C” without going past these thresholds.

Begin by playing a long tone on third space C, as you would in a classical piece. Imagine playing in the dead center of the pitch (as represented below in Figure 1) so that you get a nice broad sound. Next, play the C again and slowly buzz up to the next note, and then buzz back down to the center again (as in Figure 2). It will help to adjust your tongue position from the open “aaah” syllable to the “eeeh” position. As you practice this, you’ll get a feel for just how far you can push the note up before you go past the threshold line and the trumpet wants to kick up to the E above. The trick is to know what that threshold feels like. For help, listen to the audio clip below Figure 2. I’ll start by playing an open long tone “correctly” if you will, and then lipping up to create this effect.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Play Audio Clip

Let's hear how this actually used in music. We’ll start by checking out another clip of the master himself, Louis Armstrong. Listen to how he shapes each note of his solo on “Back O’ Town Blues”:

Now let’s break this down. In the clip below, I’ll play a lick in concert Ab (our Bb) similar  to one Armstrong used in the clip, first with no inflections (Figure 3), and then with some note bending (Figure 4). See Figure 4 for a visual representation:

Figure 3

Figure 4

Play Audio Clip

Again, this is all done by lipping up or down within the note as dictated by the trumpet. There's no half-valving involved. As you can see, I only lipped up on the first C#. On the second C#, I made a full arc pointing down to the last Bb. Lastly, I added some vibrato, which is basically the same technique done in fast motion. Some people prefer a hand vibrato, but that's another debate for another time.

This technique gives the phrase a sense of emotion and forward momentum that it does not have when it’s played in the traditional classical sense. As in the example above, you’ll find this type of bending works great on the “blue notes" of the key center, that is the b3, b5 and b7. I am always hesitant to call these “blue notes,” because the feeling of the blues happens not from the notes themselves, but from the space between these notes and their upper chromatic neighbors. The tension that comes from bending or reaching up from the dissonance of these notes to their consonant upper neighbors, the 3rd, 5th and 7th degrees of the major scale, creates a musical sense of longing that is totally unique to the blues. And while the blues has come to define the black experience in America, the music itself speaks to all people, because it conveys a sense of emotional struggle is part of the human condition.

Probably no other trumpet player in the history of this music has mastered the inflections of the blues better than Clark Terry. We’ll talk about some of the other techniques he employed such as tonguing techniques and growls in later posts. But for now, check out the clip below. No one could touch Clark Terry on a slow blues.

As with any idiosyncratic technique, there are always pitfalls. The technique of adjusting your pitch should only be used with a solid foundation of trumpet fundamentals. In other words, you should also be doing long tones and exercises that reinforce good intonation. If you don’t keep up with your fundamental trumpet technique, you’ll eventually lose your concept of “home base,” that is, the center of the note where it resonates best with the trumpet and is in tune. If your focus on being expressive to the exclusion of your basic trumpet skills, you’ll eventually find yourself playing sloppily and out-of-tune. So be warned!

It is also worth mentioning that certain horns have more room inside the note than others. The “slotting” as we referred to it earlier, is often loose on horns by makers like Martin Committee or Inderbinen. While this allows for more expressiveness, the tradeoff is that you have to be that much more accurate as a player to play classical or ensemble passages in tune, as the horn does less work in directing the pitch. It can also make fast passages sound kind of flubby. On the other hand, I have found that horns by makers like Yamaha are often too slotted for my tastes, and have less room for expressiveness, but sound very clean and precise in other styles of music. I prefer Bachs as they are a good middle-of-the-road horn in this respect.

We’ll that’s it. As I mentioned, this basic concept has been used in a million different ways by all of the great jazz trumpeters, but hopefully this will serve to get you thinking about how the pitch is manipulated when you hear a solo. Remember, it's not just the notes that are important, but how they are played!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Louis Armstrong House and the Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

I know. I know. It's been over a year since my last post, but a lot has happened since then. First and foremost, I got married! That took a lot of planning on its own. Between gigs and my day job, it hasn't bean easy to find time to blog but I'm happy to be back. As I have a backlog of jazz trumpet-related things I've been meaning to write about, I thought I'd combine a couple of them into one. Since moving to NYC three years ago, I have made a point to check out as many jazz landmarks as I can. In this post, I'll be talking about two separate trips to opposite ends of the city.

My first trip might seem a little morbid at first, but it actually proved to be pretty interesting. I'm talking about my trip to the Woodlawn Cemetery. One beautiful summer afternoon, I decided to take the 4 train up into the Bronx to the last stop, which happens to be right near the entrance of one of the largest cemeteries in New York City. At over 400 acres, Woodlawn Cemetary and is the resting place for more than 300,000 people, including some very famous jazz trumpeters. The most well-known gravesite probably belongs to Miles Davis, and it is a mecca of sorts for many jazz fans. I don't need to go on about Miles's contributions to 20th Century American music. I will say that it is worth coming to to visit this site if you are looking for a peaceful day of contemplation. The gravestone is located in a shady area just a few feet from Duke Ellington's grave. From what I have been told, the music on the bottom of the tombstone is from Davis's solo on "Solar".

But today's blog isn't actually about Miles Davis. It's about two of the most important trumpeters in the history of jazz. Both grew up in the Big Easy and made their final resting place in the Big Apple. I'm talking about Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong. As we all know, Joe Oliver was the mentor to Louis Armstrong. He was personally responsible for bringing Armstrong to Chicago, putting him in the national spotlight, and starting him on the path to stardom. But Oliver was a monster player in his own right, and is integral to the history of jazz.

The Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

The reason I mention Oliver is that I had been told he was buried at Woodlawn. Imagine my surprise when, after searching for an hour to find his grave, I came across a small inconspicuous headstone in a back corner of the cemetery. There I saw the name Joseph "King" Oliver on the same marker as a 5-year-old boy who died 13 years earlier named Godfrey Emmett Moody. Who was Godfrey Emmett Moody, and how was he related to Joe Oliver? I had to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The story begins in the last years of Oliver's life. Still in New York City, Oliver continued to lead groups and record, but dental issues made it painful to play the cornet. To make things worse, he eventually lost his entire life savings to a collapsed bank in Chicago during the Great Depression. The final straw occurred when his tour bus broke down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Oliver didn't have money for repairs, so he called his friend and booking agent Frank Dilworth, Jr. to pick him up. Dilworth brought Oliver to Savannah, GA, and he ended up settling there until his death. By that point, he had lost most of his teeth, was unable to play the cornet, and had to work wherever he could in order to make ends meet. This included selling produce from a fruit stand, and even working as a janitor/attendant at pool hall. Sadly, Oliver died in a rooming house on April 10, 1938 at the age of 52 of arteriosclerosis. His condition was exacerbated by the fact that he had stopped taking his blood pressure medication due to a lack of money.

So how did Oliver end up in Woodlawn Cemetery? Cut to the 1990's when Bruce Gast, Treasurer of the New Jersey Jazz Society, took it upon himself to find Oliver's final resting place. He had heard that Oliver was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. After some investigation, he discovered that Oliver's wife (who was separated from him at the time of his death) was able to pay the transport and burial costs from Savannah to New York, but could not afford a separate grave or a headstone. As a result, he was buried in the same grave as a young child who had died years earlier. A gravestone already existed for the child, but the cemetery would not allow two stones per grave. Generously, the family of Godfrey Emmett Moody agreed to allow the New Jersey Jazz Society to remove the original headstone in 1994 and replace it with one that would include both names. (For more information on this fascinating story, click here.)

The last years of Joe Oliver's life is an almost cliche ending to the story of so many great artists who die in obscurity only to be celebrated decades later. Even in the modern era this story continues to play out. I am reminded of Frank Foster, who passed away only last year. When he suffered a stroke in 2001, he could no longer travel or perform. Even with the help of his fans and fellow musicians, he struggled to earn enough money to live at a time in his life when he needed it the most. NPR actually interviewed Foster about his financial struggles as an aging jazz musician. You can hear it in its entirety here. If you would like to assist other musicians who are in the same boat, I urge you to visit the Jazz Foundation of America website, as they are a national organization dedicated to helping elder jazz musicians.

The Louis Armstrong House

Part of the legacy of Joe Oliver is his role as a mentor to Louis Armstrong, which brings us to my next trip. After a long ride on the 7 train out to Corona Queens, I found myself at 34-56 107th Street near, the former home of none other than Pops himself. Known today as The Louis Armstrong House, this home belonged to Armstrong and his wife Lucille from 1943 until 1971 when he passed away. The home was given to the city for the explicit purpose that it be turned into a museum honoring Armstrong's life. The Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Without a doubt, the Louis Armstrong House is my favorite jazz landmark in the city. The home has been painstakingly restored to look just as it did when Armstrong lived there. When I first walked into the museum, I was greeted to a gift shop run by the museum's friendly staff. They also had a small exhibit in the back with memorabilia, including Louis's balanced action Selmer horn!

But the real magic happened when I entered the house itself. After purchasing my tickets, a curator lead our group up the front stairs and we entered Louis's living room. (I was instructed that there is no photography in the house, so I am unable to provide images.) To my surprise, the room looked just as it must have the day Armstrong died, complete with worn furniture. After a short introduction, the curator touched a button on the wall and I heard Louis's voice as it was recorded years ago in that very room. If you aren't aware, Armstrong loved to take his reel-to-reel recorder with him everywhere, and fortunately for us, he captured many hours of his personal life on tape. As I listened to his voice, I had the eerie feeling that I had walked into a time warp and that Armstrong himself might walk into the room at any moment.

We slowly made out way through the entire house, and in each room we heard a recording from Louis's personal life. Several of the rooms still had many of Lucille Armstrong's quirky design choices, including a walk-in closet with silver foil wallpaper and a Jetsons-like kitchen with turquoise blue cabinets. According to our guide, this color was chosen because of Lucille Armstrong's turquoise Cadillac. She loved the car so much, she ordered the same color paint directly from GM to use on her space-age metal cabinets. But my favorite room in the house was Armstrong's den. Unlike the state-of-the-art kitchen, the den was a small modest room with wood panelling and stacks of Armstrong's records and reel-to-reel tapes. It was clear that this room was Armstrong's personal space. I could just imagine him sitting in the den practicing with the window open as the neighborhood kids stood below listening.

In the end, the Louis Armstrong House confirmed my feelings on the importance of Armstrong's legacy as both a musician and a human being. Musical contributions aside, Louis Armstrong’s greatest legacy was the mark he left on the world as a human being. He devoted his entire life to traveling the globe to share his musical artistry and exuberance with people in dozens of countries and from all walks of life. He was a true musical humanitarian. The Louis Armstrong House is the perfect monument to a man who could connect with people from the entire spectrum of humanity, from the bawdy inhabitants of Storyville to members of European royalty. While he could have resided in a penthouse apartment, he chose to live with people in a working class Corona neighborhood. Although I didn't get a chance to visit it on my trip, it is also worth noting that Louis Armstrong was buried in Flushing Cemetery, which also contains the gravesite for Dizzy Gillespie.

To tie things all together, I leave you now with the interview below. In it, Armstrong talks candidly about his time with King Oliver's band. For a while, the lives of Armstrong and Oliver followed the same trajectory. Both worked their way from the rough streets of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago and New York. But the ultimate destinies of these two musicians could not have been more different.

The Louis Armstrong House
Woodlawn Cemetery