Teaching Tradition, Innovation, and Practicality at New England Conservatory

(I have just started at NEC as a jazz piano teacher. Since my touring schedule keeps me from being at the school every week, I also communicate with my students through email. The following combines three pieces mostly written on airplanes. In the original emails, complete transcriptions of Horace Silver and Albert Ammons were attached; here I’ve included a sample page.)

In some of the most important jazz today, the blues is kind of a lost aesthetic. But for almost all the great jazz that made the history books, the blues was a vital component, as basic to the music as counterpoint was to the lasting European music of the baroque era. 

There can be a kind of smokescreen or mystery to the blues: that it is a wholly ingrained or natural aesthetic, that you need to be poor, or black, or whatever. That you can’t learn to play the blues. 

I wouldn’t dare say that the blues isn’t first and foremost an Afro-American thing. But I also think that you can learn something about the blues no matter who you are or where you are from. 

When Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and other later composers wanted to keep growing, they went back to Baroque counterpoint to deepen their music. I’ve personally found that the more I go back to the blues, the more interesting my modern jazz performance becomes. 

The first instruments of the blues are the human voice and the guitar. Blues piano has always been a little more distant, a little more mechanical, a little more European. (To start with, you can’t bend notes on a piano.)

Because the piano is a little distant, we are actually able to jump in pretty easily. A good starting point is Horace Silver. Horace was one of Miles Davis’s favorite pianists because of how Horace played the blues. Horace also helped create a whole genre of music: hard bop, which was conscious effort to make bebop more bluesy.

According to Horace himself in his autobiography Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, Norwalk, Connecticut wasn’t a particularly soulful part of the African-American community. His father was recently 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. 

The point is simply that Horace himself had to study how to play the blues by listening to the best blues records and practicing. 

A standout track from Horace’s first album in 1953 is “Opus De Funk” with the marvelous Percy Heath and Art Blakey. The title is amusing and absolutely relevant to this discussion, because it is a European and “studied” kind of name for a blues!


One of the reasons I ask students to consider “Opus De Funk” is for the feeling of the eighth note. While it remains heavily accentuated and folkloric, the eighth note line is about as straight is as you can get without being straight. This gives the line “rub,” not sitting exactly with a triplet or an even-eighth.  

In addition to all his threading bebop lines, Horace plays many phrases that are simply blues quotes. When learning to play the blues, simply playing the correct blues quotes is an important first step. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell,  John Coltrane, and McCoy Tyner all play many blues quotes.

I asked Cedar Walton why he played some blues quotes in his otherwise incendiary all-bebop fury of “I’ll Remember April” on Live at Boomers. He replied, “Just striving to stay in the right place.” 

A very hip answer!

Another kind of blues myth is that all blues pianists (or guitarists, or singers, or saxophonists) have unlearned or bad technique. That being a “primitive” is required for real blues. 

There’s a grain of truth to that myth. Some early pianists who specialized in the blues had an undeniable “primitive” quality. Two personal favorites in that more country vein are Cripple Clarence Lofton and Cow Cow Davenport, who just smack that piano around. 

However, this is not to say that their music is primitive emotionally, as the end effect is very artistic. A big part of the African-American aesthetic is appropriating and redoing European techniques for personal means. In no way is it easier to play like Cripple Clarence Lofton than to play a Chopin recital.

An obvious aspect of playing the blues at the piano are “bent” notes. Thelonious Monk was a great master of the “bent” note. Monk’s technique has been called primitive, but I find Monk and Stravinsky kindred spirits, with constant harmonic cross-relations and a specific set of tools that they use for every situation. If you call Stravinsky primitive I will accept you calling Monk primitive as well. 

Jimmy Yancey is another idiosyncratic master sometimes thought as primitive but Yancey’s relationship to the keyboard is actually quite refined.  The way he plays every ending in E-flat whether the song is in C, F, B-flat, E-flat, or A-flat: Is this primitive or modernist? 

All pianists of any genre bow before supervirtuoso Art Tatum, who played the most extraordinary “bent” harmony on his classic recording “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.”

Monk, Yancey, Tatum: This a high bar. A more approachable blues pianist with comparatively conventional piano technique is Albert Ammons. Ammons was a Chicago musician who could play in all sorts of styles (and fathered jazz tenor great Gene Ammons), but his particular gift for boogie woogie propelled him to a national career during the boogie craze of the Forties. 

Boogie woogie is not usually thought of as relevant to modern jazz, but I disagree. Hank Jones recorded a boogie. Bill Evans played a lot of boogie as a kid. Keith Jarrett frequently plays a kind of boogie in his solo concerts. Horace Silver writes of impressing his classical teacher with flashy boogie woogie. 

One of the great Ammons tracks is “Shout for Joy” from 1938. From a European perspective, Ammons’s piano technique is spectacular. Even more important: Ammons’s beat is irresistible. He could have played this way for a couple of hundred swing dancers in a ballroom on a Saturday night and the dancers would have accepted it. 


Students might try adding in a bit of “Opus De Funk” and/or “Shout for Joy” to their practice routine and see if something good happens to their jazz improvisation. 


When teaching at NEC, the practice rooms can be a bit intimidating. One time I was in there at 9 am, drinking coffee and talking about the changes of “Stella by Starlight,” while one young tiger was thundering out the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto to the left and another was blazing through the Elliott Carter Piano Sonata to the right. 

The head of the NEC jazz department, Ken Schaphorst, has said that Jazz Education is in its infancy, and I think he’s right. Indeed, the best music to study at college may still be European classical. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. They know how to do it. It is material that makes sense out of textbook. 

Learning that stuff is not going to stop anyone from dealing with black music, the blues, or anything else. It will just give context for all sorts of song form and harmonic modulation. 

The last time I performed with Ron Carter, he had already done a jazz record date earlier in the day. In between the session and the gig he listened to Beethoven in order to, “Clean out my ears and get me ready for B-flat seven again.” (Ron Carter studied European music at Eastman.)

There seem to be references to a kind of European-based modernist classical music in many NEC jazz players. If the blues is the mother of jazz, European classical music is the father of most avant-garde improvised aesthetics. 

An easy-to-understand repository of modernist ideas is Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, where he tells you exactly what his compositional gambit is at the top of a short piece.

I’m going to offer a kind of small “Mikrokosmos on ‘All the Things You Are,’”  but before I get to the fun stuff, let’s take a step back and look at some principles of voice leading for jazz. 

If I ask students to make a “Nelson Riddle Chorale” of whatever jazz standard they are playing it’s because I want them to show me that they know the correct basic notes for a four-part harmonization of the song.

(Nelson Riddle was Frank Sinatra’s arranger and a great model for anyone involved with harmonizing a standard. His most famous arrangements are vibrant and ornamental, like the colorful fantasias of “All or Nothing at All” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” but he also always offered a basic, classic sound. The right kind of harmony for a convincing interpretation of the Great American Songbook. Riddle certainly wrote plenty of “footballs” (whole notes) for strings and choirs over the course of all his years as a top call cat for singers of varied ability…)

The added-note harmony of American music has less stringent voice leading compared to earlier European music. “Stringent” sounds helpful, so let’s go back even further. The undisputed heavyweight champion of voice leading is J.S. Bach. The old collection of 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies with Figured Bass edited by Riemenschneider remains a worthy purchase. 

Reading though all of Bach’s chorales and all of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos will give anyone a solid grounding in whatever you need from European music for jazz. I guarantee it. An additional theory course isn’t even required; one can learn it all just from making the sounds.

In no way is this esoteric information. Undoubtedly most of the major jazz pianists and composers since 1950 have had copies of Mikrokosmos and Bach chorales in their personal library.

“All the Things You Are” is something I never tire of. For all its familiarity, this standard of standards is actually a tricky composition to voice-lead well, simply because the essential outline is a relentless sequence of major or minor thirds over the root (as shown in example 1). 


In Kern’s original piano arrangement, those long sequential consonances are supported by significant internal activity. 


Early vocal recordings frequently have even more internal activity. More than once I’ve heard chains of dissonant/consonant thirds behind the singer creating a texture reminiscent of Debussy. 

Stripped of that kind of gauze, it gets harder to make a basic harmonization of “All the Things” without many bald parallels in the voices. 

Let’s start with playing the melody in the right hand over simple harmony in the left. 

Example no. 2 above is very bad. I hope all my students experience the same gut-twisting horror I do when looking at that travesty. (However, I admit this is exactly the kind of incorrect grammar that Alfred Schnittke can use to such marvelous effect.)

Example no. 3 is better, although if I were offering a lyrical rendition I would be more careful about managing the parallel octaves. On the other hand, we are making American music, so we don’t have to sweat it all too much. Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and especially McCoy Tyner can play progressions with surprisingly bald parallels, albeit usually for special effects connected to a more African kind of sound, and not in something like a straightforward version of “All the Things You Are.”

Let’s now make the hands equal partners and try a few “Nelson Riddle Chorales.” From note to note, the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass all have better or worse choices.  In “All the Things You Are” you will end up with many doubled thirds — too many! — which is why more ornamentation would be inevitable in a final arrangement. Still, here are three unornamented options (lots of “footballs”) that I’d stand behind. As staff arranger at Capitol Records, I can hand any of these to the manager or copyist or bandleader working with the vacant singer who’s trying to make a hit as a crooner. Strings, keyboards, choir, whatever: the voice-leading works for all occasions. (Recording included below score.)


I love to debate note choices in a “Nelson Riddle Chorale.” Simple and correct can be harder than more ornamented and avant. In bar two of the first harmonization the tenor could be C, not Db. That’s how Bill Evans would do it. But would the vacant singer accept it? What about his manager? The devil is in the details…

Leaving the basics behind, take a look at “Some of the Games There Are.”  (Recording in two parts included below score.)


Like Bartók in Mikrokosmos, I gave myself little equations to follow, in this case for making progressively more outrageous chorale harmonizations of Kern’s opening phrase. Stravinsky is a bigger influence on me than Bartók so I appropriate of Igor’s language more than Béla’s. There’s not really any Schoenberg or Berg here either; I love them but don’t use them much. I do see some Charles Ives, though, and the brief Henry Cowell cluster quote is obvious. 

Not everything comes from classical music; the “diminished suspensions” bit is a tribute to Red Garland and his best student Cedar Walton. The final diabolical harmonization made me think of Steve Coleman.

If you open it up to to non-chorale type of arrangements, the options become limitless. I can improvise a “Nancarrow player piano/Ligeti insects” kind of texture under any tune at the drop of a hat. For a while I did too much of it, and Tootie Heath started calling me “Frankenstein.”

How does this translate to actually performing a 2017 jazz version of “All the Things You Are?” Well, that’s the trick, of course, and here’s where I actually don’t want to have much influence on my students. That’s for them and their personal taste to figure out together.

According to Alvin Singleton in a recent DTM interview,  the great composition teacher Hall Overton said to students, “You should learn broadly and exhaustively, but compose intuitively. You have to really trust your subconscious.” 

As far as I am concerned, that is exactly the right advice to give an improvisor as well. 

Indeed, getting back to top of this page, the blues is what we really need to practice. No one can sit down and play a boogie woogie or a slow stomp without getting it together first. 

Absorbing and appropriating interesting harmonic information seems easy in comparison. At least, that’s been my own experience, and I suspect that has been the experience of the jazz greats as well.

McCoy Tyner comes to mind. We know he played straight-ahead jazz and the blues perfectly as a kid in the 1950s. Then, one day he discovered a fourth chord. I don’t know where. Maybe he found it himself. Maybe it was out of Hindemith, whose theory books were common currency at midcentury. Maybe it was Coltrane’s idea: In his Coltrane biography Lewis Porter suggests Trane was listening to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which has a lot of quartal harmony. At any rate, the fourth chord is a modernist effect. And look at the vast innovative and influential universe Tyner created with it! 

Herbie Hancock’s European master was Messiaen, whose octotonic inventions are to be found everywhere in classic Herbie solos. (Herbie says he was inspired by Messiaen’s writing on music as well.) Andrew Hill claimed to have studied with Hindemith in person. Chick Corea offers nods to Ravel and Scriabin. Muhal Richard Abrams still teaches the Schillinger system. The parallels of Cecil Taylor to extreme modernism are obvious (compare a Taylor solo to the 40’s and 50’s piano sonatas of Boulez or Barraqué), although Taylor’s effusions are not solely due to European influences but spring from more purely internal and African source: it’s wrong to think of Taylor as only being influenced by European music. This comment is doubly true for McCoy Tyner, as fourth chords with accompanying pentatonic melodies are absolutely a way to make the piano more African. However, both Tyner and Taylor definitely played some European classical piano repertoire.

Although Keith Jarrett has gone even further and recorded excellent performances of major works of Shostakovich, Barber, and Bartók — not to mention commissioning the Lou Harrison Piano Concerto, one of the great American piano concertos — that level of commitment to classical music is not required. If someone can swing and play the blues, just a dash of modern composition might be enough to set them on a personal and potentially even innovative path, especially if they trust their subconscious.


Finally, some of my students are graduating this year, and have asked about practical advice. 

In the 1990s, I went out to see music whenever I could. I was broke but I found money to hang anyway. A lot of the time I was at Smalls seeing Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Ben Street, and Jeff Ballard play their near-weekly Wednesday gig. This band really taught me something about group sound: They all played so great, but together they all seemed even greater.

Things went well for the quartet. They signed record deals and eventually they played the Village Vanguard, which was a big step up from Smalls.

I went to the opening night at the Vanguard for both sets and a couple more times during the week. I never asked to be on the guest list. Smalls was only $10, but the Vanguard was another level of financial commitment (I think it was $25 plus a minimum). However, I knew that my cats needed support. At Smalls the club was always packed for this band. At the Vanguard it was relatively light. 

I expected to see more familiar faces but a lot of peeps stayed home.

About a year later, Mark asked me to sit in at the Vanguard for a couple of tunes, which was my first time on the Vanguard bandstand. Shortly after, Kurt asked me to sub for Mark for his week there. There were even some sets at Smalls with a quintet, the original quartet plus me. Along the way, the owner of the Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, decided she would give me a gig and this led eventually to the Bad Plus playing at the Vanguard. 

Only recently did I learn from Mark more of the whole story. Mark told me that back then he and Kurt had discussed getting a piano player to sub for each other and thicken the mix. There were a lot of great pianists in New York, but they chose me in part because I showed up as cheerleader and paying fan when they got their shot at bigger room. 

So: You can’t predict if, when or where you’ll catch a break. It’s a hard, hard business. But in my experience, showing enthusiasm and commitment to who you really dig might open doors. 

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