I was not in regular touch with Ron Miles and found the news of his passing last month to be an unexpected shock.
For a season Ron and I were on tour when the Bad Plus played a concert arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. (Sam Newsome has a nice comment about that era.) Ron was a musical omnivore, perhaps not unlike myself: we discussed trumpet players from Don Cherry to Woody Shaw to Tom Harrell to Wynton Marsalis before playing through the Paul Hindemith trumpet Sonata together.
(Incidentally, we both gave high marks to Marsalis’s recording of this Sonata.)
I knew Ron had a lot of educational experience, so I asked him for advice when taking a job teaching jazz at New England Conservatory. Ron told me that it was hard to get students into the blues, and that Horace Silver’s “Doodlin'” was central to his curriculum, especially the piano solo.
“Doodlin'” was recorded in 1954 and is an early example of prime hard bop, produced at a moment when the best and the brightest were still connecting social and artistic sides of the music. One could find “Doodlin'” as a 45 single on the jukebox, especially in Black neighborhoods. Indeed, the forthright style of “Doodlin'” sits comfortably next to popular Black music of the era. Admittedly, Silver’s track is an instrumental and his melodies and harmonies speak of bebop, but, nonetheless, there is not a huge difference between “Doodlin'” and the biggest R ‘n B hit of 1954, “Money Honey” by Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters.
The legend goes that Horace Silver had to learn how to play the blues. In the autobiography Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, Silver writes that Norwalk, Connecticut wasn’t a particularly soulful part of the African-American community. His father was recently arrived from the island Cape Verde and his mother could pass for white. His nearest neighbors were hillbillies, and his most important teacher was a white classical pianist.
There’s surely innate ability in all sorts of ways, including an innate ability to play the blues. They call it Black music, and they are right to do so. But it is inspiring that Horace Silver himself had to sit and study blues music on records. The blues wasn’t an automatic part of his social system, but Horace learned those blues records so well he became one of the most influential blues musicians in jazz.
Many jazz teachers give out Miles Davis’s solos on “So What” and “Freddie the Freeloader” as entry level improvisations. That makes sense, for those solos are somewhat technically approachable. However, Miles Davis in 1959 is pretty darn esoteric. Strange to say, but some students miss the predominant blues coloring to the Kind of Blue texture.
You simply can’t miss the blues base of Horace Silver in 1954. Indeed, you can dance to that 45 of “Doodlin'” (and the flip side, “The Preacher”) in a way you can’t dance to Kind of Blue. Having some kind of awareness of “jazz as social music” can only help a student. The great Lee Konitz liked to tell of being a Jewish teenager in Chicago, singing the blues in front of a jump band. Apparently the many Black teen girls in the audience would make fun of him for singing the blues…but those same amused Black girls danced to Konitz’s blues vocals anyway. In the end, one thing that set Konitz apart from so many of his Caucasian followers was some basic professional knowledge of the blues, a knowledge that is apparent in any phrase Konitz ever played.
It was always in the back of my mind to follow up with Ron Miles and get a proper quote about teaching “Doodlin.'” Every conversation with Ron was valuable, and perhaps his “official statement” on this particular topic would have been notably helpful to me and others. I missed my chance, but, going forward, I am going to include a transcription of “Doodlin'” as part of the packet I give to my students.
“Doodlin'” may strike some as unsophisticated or even corny. This is incorrect. Each detail is placed just so, both in the composed section and in the three choruses of piano improvisation. If any one moment scans as a cliché, then step back and try to view the whole work as a finished art object.
Oscar Peterson is popular with talented student pianists at the high school level. Oscar can really play the blues, of course, but Peterson’s aesthetic is also relentless and occasionally rather superficial. Horace Silver digs into something more primeval and mysterious. The piano solo on “Doodlin'” climaxes with wild “shouts” that defy transcription. My comment in the score is simply, “This rhythmic notation is nonsense.” One must play with the record to understand what is happening.
There are two versions of the solo written out in my transcription. One is the basic piano part, which has a very light left hand, even lighter than Thelonious Monk. Stark and gorgeous.
The other version offers the right hand over Doug Watkins’s superb walking line. A novice might think that Silver is simply playing in time with Watkins and Art Blakey, but the truth of the matter is far more complex. Frequently the right hand is just a little behind the bass and drums. In fact, Watkins is usually ahead of Blakey while Silver is behind both. This gentle rub is a classic jazz feel, and part of what makes swing “swing.”
Seriously bluesy and swinging jazz commands a specific set of rules and rituals. In terms of learning how to do it, it’s no different than working on a Paul Hindemith sonata or anything else of a certain intellectual and technical rigor.
Ron Miles could seemingly play with anybody and in any genre, which is one reason TBP called him for Science Fiction. But Ron was right: Even if it is hard to get students into the blues, it is our responsibility as jazz educators to at least try. “Doodlin'” was Ron’s choice and I’m convinced it was a good one.
(If you want the pdf of “Doodlin’,” just sign up for my newsletter Transitional Technology (sign up is free) and email me back. If you already have the info for the dropbox with my educational handouts, “Doodlin'” has been added, so just look for that link.)