Jazz Professional               


Swing for Beginners (Part One)

Why don’t we try swinging, Stan?
Al Porcino to Stan Kenton
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       When Leonard Bernstein wrote the score for West Side Story he knew that its concept had to be clear to everyone playing the music. In New York the orchestra was composed mainly of classical, in London mainly of jazz musicians. The jazzmen would be able to handle the straight sections, but how could he make the strings, horns, oboes and bassoons swing the jazz passages? Leaving nothing to chance, he wrote the wild, jazz–oriented Dance at the Gym in 12/8. Example 1 shows a couple of bars of it as they would normally be written for a jazz player (a), then, as Bernstein wrote it in 12/8 for the straight man (b). When played by both musicians the result was the same.

Why is that?

It is because those two bars alone reveal the secret of jazz phrasing: the Golden Rule, in fact. This is something the professional musician is often asked to explain, but rarely manages. The simple explanation given above makes it look too easy. Like most rules it has its exceptions and variations.

Take a look at Example 2 (a). A jazz player would make these two bars sound like those of 2 (b), right? A classical horn or bassoon player would swing the last two bars along with the jazzer. Right again?

Actually, he may not. It all depends on the tempo. And there you have the first exception to the rule. At  a quarter-note = 120 and less it would be correct. Played at a quarter-note = 240 it would sound ridiculous and drag everything down. At that speed the eighth notes have to be played more evenly. They would still not be exact, though. The player would give them more of a da-ba-da-ba feeling, rather than a straight da-da-da-da. Slower he would make more of a punk-a-punk-a-punk-a rhythm out of the phrase. This is an ideal phrase to have in mind: each punk being two thirds of a quarter note.

That is not all, for, in fast tempos, the player will also gently accent each eighth note falling on the beat slightly, ie notes 1,3,5 and 7. The off–beat notes will be ghosted, rolled back into the throat until they are still hinted at, but barely audible. This contributes to the swing effect when such passages are played at speed. All rests must be then given their exact value. At a fast tempo the final eighth note of the first bar of 7 (a) has to be played right in its slot, no 12/8 feeling whatsoever. The length of the note plays an important role, too. Obviously a quarter note, consisting of two eighth notes tied together, is going to sound a lot longer in time and space as the tempo decreases. Regardless of the tempo the quarter note following in the second bar of 7 (a) should still be twice as long as the note preceding it. This may sound like nit–picking, but tiny things like this separate the professional ensemble from the amateur.

Examples 3 through 5 show various ways of writing a common phrase. All are, alas, in use, but 3 (a) leaves no doubt as to the composer’s intentions. Example 6 (a) demonstrates the swing method, just in case you’ve forgotten. I’ve done away with the triplet markings to avoid cluttering up 6 (b). Try thinking in 12/8 as you sing this phrase. In fact: thinking in 12/8, or in eighth note triplets in common time, will help you to keep dead on the beat at all times. Count a slow 4 into Example 7 (a) and attempt to wake the neighbours with those two notes. A little early on the second one, perhaps? Not if you use the 7 (b) method.

Example 8 (a) is a type of phrase you will often come across. 8 (b) is how you might play it at a quarter-note = 120 unless the composer tells you otherwise .

Example 9 (a) is how 8 (a) should really have been written if the off–beats are supposed to be short. 9 (b) and 9 (c) are variations. The style of 9 (d) went down with the Titanic. If you are lucky you will never be confronted with anything like it.

The pro musician, when seeing things like this for the first time, knows what to do, and will adjust his phrasing to the tempo and rhythmic style of the piece. He may also get some help from the title. If it happens to be Gloomy Sunday he is hardly likely to go belting it out as if it were Primal Scream.  Yet more often than not there will be few markings over the notes, and if he is doing a one–off dep in a pickup band, he’ll probably discover that the rest of the guys are ignoring any marks and dynamics that might be present, anyway.

Scoring music with a computer, and listening back to the midi files created from the notes we write shows us just how much is taken for granted when writing for the jazz musician. Regardless of how you may want it to sound, a computer will play back everything exactly as it is written, right or wrong. Imagine that the guy playing your music will be just as relentless, and write it so that there can be no doubt in his mind as to how you want it. No more wandering around, crying: ‘That note has to be short, slur the next one, lay back here, wing it, stab, roll it, dot it, push it, bend it, stroke it, hit it,’ and all the rest of the dogma we have gathered over the years.

Computer engineers have now decided what it is that makes a jazz musician swing. According to one scoring programme: A percentage amount is used to define how far forward the notes are to be moved.  50% is equivalent to saying half the distance between beats--which translates into no swing.  The default is 66.7 but any value between 50.0 and 75.0 can be used. (Encore).

Now what have I just been telling you! 66.7% is as near as we can get to two thirds of our eighth note triplet. Remember well: the percentage increases in slow, decreases in fast tempos.

So much for the technical side of swinging. Now for the big secret. In order to really swing you need one or two other things, and they are: soul, feeling, passion, love, sadness, emotion, anger, inner fire, a sense of beauty and much, much more. Put them in any order you like. Some people have it, some don’t, and some never will. But, as Duke said: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

  Ron Simmonds