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The Lasting Value of Jazz Transcription

Kevin Schoenbach | May 2012

   Most young students struggle to play with correct jazz style because of limited exposure to the music. I remember studying in college that babies learn to speak through imitation, not detailed instruction. The words and tone that parents use will have an important effect on how a child speaks. The same concept applies to jazz.
   As teachers we can give students all of the right information, but if they never listen to jazz, they will not make a strong connection between what they have learned and how the music should sound. We cannot expect students to play with good style without providing a concept of how they should play it. Our job becomes easier when we realize that the most important learning occurs outside the rehearsal room. Transcribing jazz is one way for students to listen actively to the music. It engages them and helps them identify the elements of great music that are difficult to teach.
   Although there are several methods of transcribing music, I have found it most effective for students to figure out the music on their instruments. While there are enormous benefits to working out each rhythm on paper, students gain a better understanding of the correct style by recreating the music on their instruments. In jazz students may play every rhythm and chord change correctly but still have the style sound completely wrong. When students imitate good players, they start to play with correct style. It gives them a tangible goal to strive for in their playing. As they listen to professional recordings they should identify ways that their playing is different.
   I like to start with melodies when teaching students to transcribe. To get their ears working, I might start with a familiar song like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We find the first note and talk about intervals. Even if students are unable to identify that the first interval is an ascending octave, they all know it is a big jump. We talk about melodies moving by step or by skip, and students have the skills to figure out what notes are played.
   We go slowly until most students get the gist of it. Then I give a different starting pitch for the same tune. This encourages them to think about the relationship between the pitches, an essential skill for transcribing effectively. Initially, students should play melodies that are mainly diatonic. The aforementioned “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” works well because it is based almost entirely on the major scale.
   Another useful activity is to give students a melody on paper, possibly  from a Real Book or something out of the Aebersold catalog. Then, I will have them listen to an all-time great on their instrument and practice playing along with the recording. One of my favorite players for this activity is the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon. He has a unique way of playing with the time that is tough to write down, but not too difficult to play along with if you listen critically and look at the music. His album, Ballads, contains expertly crafted solos and some of the most beautiful melodic interpretation in jazz history. Students are instructed to write the chord changes over the measures they are transcribing. This gives a blueprint of the notes the soloist is playing over. Not all of the notes will fall in there, but the notes of the arpeggio are a great place to start.
   Once students are ready to start transcribing solos, the sheer amount of music available can be daunting. Without further direction, the chances are miniscule that students will follow through with transcribing a solo. Especially in the beginning, it is essential that students work on solos that will lead to success with the activity. You crawl before you can walk, and you have to learn the blues before having a shot at transcribing Coltrane’s Giant Steps. For inexperienced directors with limited jazz knowledge, the prospect of finding solos that are easily transcribed can be scary and time consuming. Here are some solos that I recommend for beginners.

• Miles Davis’s trumpet solo on Freddie Freeloader, from the Kind of Blue album is frequently the first solo suggested by jazz musicians for players learning to transcribe. Miles has a way of saying a lot with few notes, and no one has ever done it better. Like a great blues musician, he plays for a few measures and rests for a few, giving jazz novices an easy introduction into transcription. His use of space is unparalleled.

• Curtis Fuller’s trombone solo on Blue Train is the title track of the classic Coltrane album. The first chorus is easy for students to follow and gives beginners quite a few leading and non-chord tones to get their ears working.

• Kenny Dorham’s trumpet solo on Una Mas, from the album of the same name has many bluesy lines, and even the faster lines move stepwise. The solo directly following (by Joe Henderson on sax) has a first chorus that is easily transcribed as well.

• Dexter Gordon’s solo from Daddy Plays the Horn, from the album of the same name is full of licks and small chunks of tasty melody that work great in any key. Young players can work out the solo in all keys.

• Gene Ammons’ tenor sax solo on Seed Shack, off the album Jug is a slow blues tune with tons of great material. Rich Moore, sax professor at Northern Illinois recommends this recording. Ammons plays with a lot of space, inflection, vibrato, and other nuances that are difficult to notate, and gives students a phenomenal opportunity to play with some expression.

• Miles Davis’ solo on Autumn Leaves, from Cannonball Adderly’s album, Somethin’ Else is another good choice. I could suggest dozens of Miles solos for their ease in transcription. I particularly like this one because while there is a lots of space typical of Miles, there are also longer lines that are mainly scalar. It also contains lots of that dorian minor sound (major sixth on a minor scale) that is great for young students to hear and learn to use when appropriate.

   When my high school director first introduced transcription, it was a group project. He split the band in two, put us in different rooms, and we worked as a team to figure out Miles Davis’ Freddie Freeloader solo. That small competition made the activity fun and hooked me and many other students. Modern technology has added some valuable tools to facilitate transcription. There is a great app for iPhones and iPads called Amazing Slow Downer. This fabulous tool takes any of your songs in iTunes and lets students reduce the tempo to a quarter of the speed while keeping it in the same key. All of a sudden, solos that would have been too complex become fair game. Once the solo has been written down, you can speed it up incrementally to learn it at the real tempo.
   With a busy schedule of contests and festivals, making a commitment to improvisation, listening, theory, and transcription can seem like a waste of time and resources, but these activities make a band better. Directors should devote time to listening and transcription; in the long run this will improve overall musical skills and less time will be needed learning correct style. Their improvisation will improve, and students will not only hear tangible differences in their playing, but they will understand why it is better.