Unit 2 Performance/Interpretation Practices

                                        Miles Davis Quintet.jpg

pictured above: The Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1965, Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums),Ron Carter (bass), Miles Davis (trumpet), not in picture: Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone)

Target Objectives

  • Student (teacher) will be able to explain the role of each instrument.
  • Student (teacher) give at least one example of a significant contributor to that instrument's practice.
  • Student (teacher) will use adjectives to to constructively give their interpretation of a presented musician's style.

Jazz performance techniques

In the previous lesson we focused on the question "(what) songs do jazz musicians play?" In this unit we will focus on the question "(who) is doing which?" The answer is more complex than one might think.

First we will focus on the role of each instrument, accompanied by a very brief history of the practice of each in performance. Next, we will experience authentic performances and to provide discussions for synthesis. Finally we will see an example of "I Got Rhythm" that shows these roles in use.

The "Front Line" and the rhythm section

Much like a sports team, there are specific tasks within each player's role as each player is part of a structured task "section." The first of both sections discussed now is the one audiences notice the most, the "front line." The front line are those that stand in front of the others, the woodwind or brass players. Other musicians such as singers or more ancillary instrumentalists (harmonica and violin for example) can be considered front-line. Vocalists for the most part are always giving prominence before the front line.

With the lifting of Prohibition in 1933, smaller venues such as bars and nightclub resurged and so did the use of small combos in jazz, leading to the diminishing of the big-band community. For obvious reasons, nightclubs tend to be smaller than that of the ballroom, where the big band thrived in it's era. Therefore, club owners were more inclined to hire smaller groups (3 to 6 band members) as a way to have entertainment that could easy fit in a smaller setting and be less expensive to pay than a big band. This, including the cost of keeping a big-band financially stable has lead in the past fifty years to small groups being the primary contributors and practitioners in jazz.

The three main instruments of the front line are the trumpet, the trombone and the woodwind doubler...


The nature of the trumpet's design allow for exciting interaction. Because it is relatively small (approximately a foot and a half long) and is completely straight it's sound points directly at the listener's ears. It's tightly wound brass tubing allows for note production in the highest possible register. Some of the most notable jazz trumpet players include Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) (the first most widely influential), John "Dizzy" Gillespie (1917-1993), Wynton Marsalis (1961-) and Miles Davis (1926-1991), who is also well known for his mastery of using the trumpet mute (a cone shaped device inserted into the trumpet's bell to mute the trumpet's overall volume. The trumpet player may also be seen performing on related brass instruments such as cornet, flugelhorn pocket cornet. As you listen to each excerpt from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, constructively describe each players approach to improvisation. The focus during this listening is to find adjectives to describe the moods, personality traits or emotions that each solo conjures in your imagination.




The trombone is a brass instrument significantly larger than the trumpet. Because of it's size it is only capable of reach notes just lower than that of the trumpet. It's different pitches are created not from pressing valve keys but by sliding it's tubing in and out to change the length of the instrument, thereby changing the pitch. Very prominent trombone players include J. J. Johnson (1924-2001), Julian Priester (1925-) and Wycliffe Gordon (1967-). Trombonists can also be seen playing the valve trombone (same size as the slide trombone but the notes are created by pressing valves) or the bass trombone. As you see Wycliffe Gordon solo in the following clip discuss what adjective you could us to describe his playing.



The majority of woodwind players in jazz have the saxophone as their main instrument. The three most used saxes are the alto, tenor and baritone, from small to large respectively. Some prominent alto saxophonists include Charlie Parker (1920-1955)(it first and still most widely influential practitioner), Julian "Cannonball" Adderley (1928-1975)and Ornette Coleman (1930-). Prominent tenor saxophonists include Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane (1926-1967)and Branford Marsalis (1960-). The baritone sax is the less commonly employed of the three. The "Bari" sax, as it is called, is significantly larger than the alto and tenor. Some significant contributors to that instrument are Nick Brignola (1936-2002)and Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996). All saxophonists, to increase their professional versatility, "double" or become as proficient on their secondary wind instruments. Some prominent saxophonists who are famous for their secondary instrument capability include Yusef Lateef (1920-)(flute and oboe), John Coltrane (soprano saxophone, and Sonny Simmons (1933-)(English Horn)

As you watch this clip of Charlie Parker with Dizzy Gillespie you will witness that they together were the inventors and greatest practitioners of the style developed in the late 1940s known as Be-Bop. All subsequent forms of jazz are considered extensions of Be-Bop...


As you will soon learn, the front line function as solo instruments as the rhythm section provides accompaniment...


The piano (or organ) serves a dual function in the jazz ensemble, that of soloist AND accompanist. As you will learn in subsequent listening examples, the pianist must be keenly aware of the musical interaction between the front line and his/her fellow rhythm section players. The pianist provides the bridge of improvisational communication between the horn players and the other rhythm section members. Some prominent jazz pianists include Keith Jarrett (1945-), McCoy Tyner (1938-) and Herbie Hancock (1940-). Watch this clip of the great pianist Bill Evans (1929-1980) and his trio. See how he is in the role of soloist and that of accompanying the bassist in a dialogue at the same time.



The electric guitar has a dual role like the piano, that of soloist and accompanist. The guitar however, with it's capability of tremendous volume also can be seen in the front-line. Because of the influence of rocker Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), there are two main styles of guitar, those who play strictly in the jazz guitar tradition and those jazz guitarists equally influenced by Jimi Hendrix. Watch the first clip of the great Joe Pass (1929-1994), a master of jazz guitar and then watch a clip of Pat Metheny (1954-), influenced by Jimi Hendrix. Clearly both are playing jazz but think about the guitar sound and the phrasing, and overall mood created by their playing. Feel free to jot down your thought and later encourage your class to discussion the different and similar characteristics of each style of guitar.



To further explore and deepen the discussion, given that both guitarists are performing "All the Things You Are" written by Jerome Kern and a key contribution to the harmonic development of Be-Bop, if creating a painting what similar or different materials would you use to create a visual portrait of each performance?


In jazz the primary instrument is that of the upright bass. Adapted from the orchestra setting, this instrument is a accompanying instrument. Although bassists most certainly solo in a jazz piece, their solo is typically unaccompanied. The major role of the bassist is to provide what is known as a "walking bass line." The walking bass line is a steady rhythmic performance of a consistent quarter note rhythm. The notes played with these rhythms outline the chords as they happen in the given composition. A typical jazz chord contains four or five notes (the 1st, third, fifth, along with an altered seventh ninth or eleventh scale degree). The bassist plays any of those notes within the chord at his/her will. In order to provide a clear harmonic foundation the bassist most often will play the first, third or fifth note of the chord.

Some notable bassists include Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960), Charles Mingus (1922-1979) and Christian McBride (1972-).

From expertvillage is a good demonstration of playing a walking bass line...



Of the many percussion instruments that exist, the drum set has and is the major provider of pure rhythm accompaniment in jazz. The jazz drum set is also the one instrument of all whose basic function has changed though the years. The heavy use of drums by the "Swing" era drummers to power a big band in the late 1930s gave way to increased emphasis on the cymbals for timekeeping to keep up with the extremely fast tempos of Be-Bop. The later movements of contemporary jazz allow for a complex blurring of recognizable beat-keeping altogether.

The main components of the jazz drum set have remained constant. Included are the ride cymbal (the large one keeping time constant) the snare drum, the bass drum (on the floor tapped with a pedal), and the hi hat (two smaller cymbals attached by a pedal)

Watch this clip of great swing drummer "Papa" Jo Jones (1911-1985), the level of showmanship he displayed was common for that era...


As you listen to Billy Higgins (1936-2001) playing drums with another co-inventor of Be-Bop, Thelonious Monk, note how you don't hear the drums more than the cymbals. The drums are used in this style for accents and to create excitement, not strictly to delineate the pulse...


Finally, the greatest proponent of contemporary jazz drumming, Tony Williams (1945-1997). Compare Tony's accompaniment style to Billy Higgins, understand the basic pulse is there but it is blurred by complex subdivisions of rhythm at a very fast rate...


Now that we have learned "who," in the next unit we will learn about the "when" in jazz...

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