Cart 0

Learning the Language Redux

David Berger



Sure enough, I got a number of responses from my previous column, Learning the Language. Surprisingly, it wasn't schoolteachers who disagreed with me, but several of my professional colleagues.  Their concerns were to do with saving time in rehearsals, and control.  Basically, I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of rehearsal time to involve the players more deeply in the creative process.  


It's always a great thrill for me hearing how musicians interpret my music. When I was 25 years old, Chuck Israels told me that great music can be interpreted many ways. Chuck and I have remained good friends since then. Curiously, he writes many more details in his music in order to limit the players' interpretation and ensure that he gets the sounds he heard in his head when writing the music. 


Granted that Chuck and I are of a different generation than most or in some cases all the performers of our music, and the younger players will have different perspectives than ours, but I'm curious to hear what they think. 


It's been pointed out that I've led my band for a very long time, and the players have learned my music and what I like. Actually, half the members of the band were originally students of mine. 


After reading some comments left in response to the previous blog, I thought of the old adage: Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime. How about: Teach a man the principles of catching fish, and maybe he'll invent a way to fish that's even better than your way. 


Duke Ellington said that his goal was to inspire performers to be great. He was not concerned if they played his notes, as long as they were great. When he wrote you a melody, you were free to play something better, but if you couldn't think of something better, you always had Duke's melody to fall back on. 


Jimmy Hamilton told me that his audition with Duke consisted of Duke playing some chords on the piano and Jimmy improvising. Duke was testing to see if he had a good ear. Ellington didn't write chord symbols for the horn players. Your part would just say "solo 32 bars." Jimmy would ask Duke to write out the changes for him, and Duke would say, "Then you'll play all that stuff you practice. I want you to play my song."


Of course, Duke had a steady personnel and as much rehearsal time as he wanted, but even beyond that, he was willing to let the music sound bad for a while if that was what it would take to get to his desired goal. He described his music as being in the process of becoming. 


I've seen thousands of pages of band parts from the Ellington book. There were no piano or drum parts, and only sketchy bass parts. He never wrote dynamics or articulations. When a player was handed his part, it was now his part, not Duke's. Duke was the ultimate arbiter, but the saying in the band was, "The music seeks its own level."


He rarely was specific in describing what he wanted. If he wanted vibrato, he would say, "Give me some personality." For no vibrato, he would say, "Dead tone." 


I was at a recording session that included some of Ernie Wilkins’ charts. One of them started with a quarter note on beat 4 tied over to a quarter note on the downbeat of the next measure. Ray Nance was playing 4th Trumpet and kept playing the wrong rhythm. Ernie explained it to Ray, but Ray kept coming in on the downbeat. Ernie sang it, but to no avail. Finally, in frustration, Ernie turned to Duke for help. Duke looked over at Ray and said, "Raymond, don't you remember The Skronch?" That's all it took. Ray played it perfectly after that. The Scronch was a song of Duke's from the 1937 Cotton Club Revue


Rather than use musical terms, Duke liked to use descriptive words or phrases, or even tell stories. Clark Terry tells how Hey Buddy Bolden from A Drum is a Woman was recorded. Clark was given no music. Duke told Clark that he was to be Buddy Bolden. Clark told Duke that he didn't know anything about Bolden other than that he was a New Orleans trumpet player at the beginning of the 20th century. Duke explained: Buddy Bolden had a sound that was so big, he could be on one side of the Mississippi, and you could hear him on the other. He would run up and down diminished chords. He was a flashy dresser and a real ladies man, and so on. Clark said, "After a while, I thought I was Buddy Bolden."

Older Post Newer Post

  • Kuldeep on

    I’m would have rather not uncovered this site page. I expected to thank you in your time for this, especially perplexing read !! I genuinely without question delivered an impression of paying little mind to the full scale it and from having you saved to fav to check out at new information for your site.

  • Navya Singh on

  • Kenny Berger on

    Great work Dave. So many interesting points.Your reference to learning Hebrew reminded me of a controversy in that area similar to the one regarding notation. The traditional way of writing Hebrew included no symbols for vowels. When I entered Hebrew school ca.1960 they had recently begun using a system of vowel symbols below the original letters and my grandfather, an orthodox Jew born in Poland in 1899 was outraged by this, considering it a bunch of lazy, superfluous shortcuts.
    I tend to adjust the amount of extra information in parts according to the musical style and the orientation of the intended player(s). When writing conventionally for jazz pros I find that a minimum amount of extra symbols is fine since these people can be assumed to have already learned the language. Manny Albam used to say that when writing big band music, the rhythmic ideas should be notated clearly enough that good players should be able to guess the basic tempo and feel without a tempo marking.When writing music intended for non-jazz oriented players, especially if the music is jazz oriented,I tend to use the most precise notation possible especially in terms of articulation. This is analogous to my original point about the Hebrew vowels. Being required to read Hebrew without actually being able to speak it, I was dead Kosher meat without those vowels.
    I am also a firm believer in using plain English rather than resorting to overly fussy notation particularly in rhythm section parts. I also find a generation gap in these areas since many younger musicians use computer notation having little or no practical knowledge of the rules and conventions of handwritten notation thinking they can trust all the grunt work, including accidentals and transpositions to the computer. Here’s big news kids: if you hand me a baritone sax part without a key signature and the first note is a written F-flat,having no psychic ability whatsoever, I instantly know that you used a concert key score, didn’t proofread the parts and your instrument is likely to be piano or guitar.

  • Tony White on

    I love both sides of this story. There are no wrongs or rights when it comes to our music. Being there for in public education where I see it all. Being able to do it all and to improvise is the ultimate!! Bravo!!

  • Emil Viklický on

    Correct comment Lou got is:
    “Find your own note!”
    iPhone is changing lines, sorry.

Leave a comment