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Learning the Language

David Berger



I know I'm going to get a lot of flack for this column, but I think it's important. A few weeks ago I got a phone call from a friend of mine who manages a big band that had just rehearsed a couple of charts of mine. She said there was confusion because of my limited use of notated articulations. 


Her husband, a fine trombonist in the band, called me when he got home and explained that he was experienced enough to know how to interpret the music, but that several others, including the leader, were clueless. He went on to say that I would have more success selling music to school bands if I would mark every note with an accent, a short or long and a dynamic. He went on to say that high school band directors generally don't know much or anything about jazz, and will need this information. He has a good point, but here was my response.


When we learn how to read English in first grade (Dick and Jane books for my generation, Bob's Books for my grandkids), they don't have phonetic spelling for each vowel. Kids are taught the pronunciation of certain words, which are committed to memory pretty quickly through repetition. Then these brilliant young 6-year-olds begin to recognize the same patterns in other words, and before long, they can read English. 


Of course, none of this would be possible if they had never heard English spoken. As infants, they heard their parents and older siblings speaking English, and they strove to emulate them, and then to express their needs using the words they learned.  This is the natural way that languages have been passed down for millennia. 


Similarly, jazz was passed down the same way for generations; we listened to it, we imitated it and then we learned to read it. In order to make the music readable and afford players some creative license, articulations and dynamics were kept to a minimum. It was assumed that we knew how to speak the jazz language, and we would apply our knowledge to interpreting the written music. 


It was assumed that we knew when to swing eighth notes, which notes to accent, and which to slur. Quarter notes were generally played short, and eighth notes were full value except when followed by rests. Crescendo as the line goes up and diminuendo as you descend. All this can be taught in 15 minutes. It's not rocket science. Playing an instrument at a virtuoso level with sensitivity and great emotion—that's more like rocket science, especially if you are improvising at the same time.


When I was a kid, I attended Hebrew school for three years. We learned how to read the language and we absorbed a limited vocabulary, which included all the prayers we encountered in our various religious services. In temple we would read from the prayer book, and we understood what we were reading. 


On the opposite page was a written transliteration of each prayer for those people that couldn't speak Hebrew and couldn't read the Hebrew alphabet. Those poor souls would read phonetic English letters and say approximately the Hebrew prayers, but with absolutely no understanding of what the words meant. This always seemed absurd to me. 


Now I see this same absurd situation in jazz. Musicians and students who are too lazy to learn the language want it spoon fed to them, so they can sound like they know what they are saying, but of course, they don't.  


If I were to become an opera singer, the first thing I would do is move to Italy and learn to speak Italian like a native. How else could I ever be convincing playing a role in a Verdi or Puccini opera? Since those are my favorite operas, it would be a labor of love to learn the language.  


There are no shortcuts to greatness. There are no fakers at this level. We want to hear the authentic, real McCoy. I know some jazz educators will disagree with what I've said, but I'm not in the business of handing out a trophy to every kid on the team or awarding diplomas to students who don't pass the final exams. Jazz is fun, but it takes hard work and practice or you're just pretending. God knows when you're pretending, and so does the audience.

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  • Paul Bridson on

    Ha! I’m famous now!!

    Another great article. :-)

    I actually agree with you about articulation markings. I get super tired of modern charts with markings all over them. Hard to read!!

    My point was made from the viewpoint of a marketer: I believed you might sell more if you sold a product that “looks like” what a lot of young directors are familiar with. after our conversation I did a lot of thinking, and you’ve brought me around. Heck, I learned the correct articulations just playing dance gigs in high school. Nobody EXPLAINED any of it. Listen and learn. And if an idiot like me can do it, there’s hope all around!

    Keep the faith my friend :-)

  • Michael Kilpatrick on

    A very good post, David. And just to make the point: with my own band – which has the luxury of rehearsing reasonably regularly – I put in front of my musicians an almost completely unedited version of the original Duke Ellington manuscripts. I not only try to teach the musicians to understand natural jazz phrasing, I teach them how to interpret the note durations of the earlier Ellington. This is actually a step further. It does, however, make it difficult to have deps playing without a certain amount of studying. Also, because the note duration interpretation (for example, an off-beat note written as a quaver tied to a crotchet but still a short note!) is reasonably systematic, putting this in front of people is a form of intelligence test. There are a few musicians who just don’t get it. But it isn’t actually rocket science.

  • Hans Jacobs on

    When I joined a swing big band for seniors about 15 years ago, many (if not most) members had concert band experience but lacked swing experience. It reminded me of how my music teacher used to say “let’s pretend you’re all in the same band”, because consistent interpretation was so lacking. Eventually, motivated by frustration, I prepared a twelve page manual on the basics of how to play swing for the band and offered it to the leader, who thought that handing it out would embarrass some members. So… we carried on with everyone “doing their own thing”, and the band never got any better. Bottom line from my experience: it’s best to provide whatever will help the musicians interpret the arranger’s intentions correctly.

  • Heinrich von Kalnein on

    It might be worth noting that the same thing happened during the development of music between baroque and classical times: „father“ J.S.Bach didn‘t use any articulations, while his sons wrote out almost any ornament, trill etc. I assume that Bach‘s contempories new how to execute the music, while the generation after seemed to need exact information of how to interpret this music. Since, at least for me, jazz moved to the „classical“ stage this situation makes perfectly sense for me and seems to be typical for the times we are in.

  • Chuck Israels on

    This may be a more far reaching issue than this answer implies. Of course, understanding and pronunciation of language improve with familiarity, but communication with an intended audience also depends on the speaker/writer accepting the limitations of that audience on some level. I speak differently to someone whose English is limited than I do to those who are comfortable in my American English idiom, and I don’t consider it a significant compromise to the integrity of my message. All written language is an impoverished version of spoken language. That’s a given. What time may be saved in detailed decision making in marking a score can end up costing (sometimes with interest) in rehearsal time. Of course, the music score is only a “script” in a sense similar to the script for a stage play or movie, and there are practical limits to the possibilities of including details in each of these instances. But there is a practical range available that each composer/arranger can consider on his/her own. I chose most often to err on the side of saving rehearsal time, and my players still find things to question that might easily have been clarified with a marking or two. I don’t mean this to be a definitive response. My own experience (particularly away from the place and time of general agreement on interpretation that existed in my early years) encourages practices I find practical. It’s a balance.

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