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Never Knowing

Never Knowing: Performing Jazz at the End of History by Hannah Epstein

At Swarthmore, Hannah Epstein '10, who graduated with a major in Music played in both big band and combo settings. She performed in her jazz combo, the Hannah Epstein Experience, as well as in jazz band, orchestra, and wind ensemble. She also served as assistant musical director for The Wild Party and founder of Earthlust's Green Adviser program. Write to her at

The following is adapted from issue six of Nacht.

About four months ago, I found myself sifting through a nearly 400-page "Real Book" full of jazz lead sheets. I was looking for repertoire to play for my senior recital, the culmination of more than 10 years of jazz study. As I looked through hundreds of tunes, humming familiar ones in my head, testing out ones I was unfamiliar with on my instrument, I became aware of the process I was using to pick five tunes out of the countless possibilities. How would I go about choosing pieces from among all the styles and subgenres that make up the jazz canon, selecting tunes that best showcased my strengths as a saxophone player? How would I balance the desire to channel the classic greats with the need to make my own imprint on the material?

Some of the difficulty in trying to think, write, and study about jazz is encapsulated in Louis Armstrong's notorious reply (made to someone who demanded a definition of the art): "Man if you have to ask, you're never gonna know." This statement of the great trumpeter and singer, really the patriarch of the entire genre, has been quoted time and time again. But it always seems to me to take on new meanings. Armstrong was obviously talking, on one level, about the limits of teachability and of learning by example: about the idea that jazz is a mood, a feeling, and a style as much a transmittable craft. There is no record with a perfect display of ability and groove, no book that can teach mastery. You can play as many etudes as you want and still not be able to swing. But Armstrong may have also been referring to the deeply personal nature of jazz and the certain distance between player and public that separates it from other types of musical performance. A solo can mean one thing to the musician and something completely different to the audience.

These truths present stumbling blocks for the contemporary student and performer who wants to know that she's making something come alive, not just producing a hollow facsimile of the bygone. And after a decade of learning to improvise, play, and arrange, I've come to the conclusion that while this is difficult, it's not impossible. One thing that helps, paradoxically, is to have a good understanding of history. If, as some say, jazz is a language, like French, it is even more important to appreciate the context in which it came to be "spoken." Each decision I'll make while putting together my recital takes place against a historical backdrop that informs it.

There is no record with a perfect display of ability and groove, no book that can teach mastery. You can play as many etudes as you want and still not be able to swing.

One of the first, key steps in putting together any jazz performance is figuring out whom you'll be playing with; this context can be nearly as important as one's own skills. Jazz music is generally performed in one of two settings: big band and combo. Big band was the main format of jazz's early days. The genre emerged out of blues in the South; in the Roaring Twenties, musicians like Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton played in ragtime styles, eventually inventing what is now an integral part of the jazz idiom: swing. In the 20's and 30's, band instrumentation usually consisted of approximately five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, a drummer, a bass player, and a pianist, with the occasional addition of a vibraphone, guitar, or extra horn players. These big bands played at dance halls as the accompaniment for an evening of dinner and dancing.

In the 1940's, alto sax player Charlie Parker (a.k.a. Bird) decided that people should sit down and pay attention to his playing rather than absorb it as background music. He brought jazz away from the white bandleaders and into the small Harlem clubs where only people who wanted to really listen went. He also, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, invented a new style of jazz called bebop. He and his band started playing faster, flashier melodies that were much more difficult to play than the more lyrical big band music. Bird also reduced the size of his band to saxophonist, trumpet player, drummer, bassist, and pianist. This reduced instrumentation is the combo form, which a majority of jazz musicians still use today.

Now that I have the setting picked out, the next step in putting together the program is choosing the repertoire. As I page through the canonical Real Book, which contains early jazz compositions, compositions from the 1950's and 60's, and non-jazz tunes reimagined as jazz, I'm looking to select tunes from a variety of eras and tempos. A program filled with slow tunes would become dreary and monotonous, while a uniformly loud, raucous, up-tempo recital would leave the audience bored and desensitized to the great things a combo can achieve with extreme volume.

Now let's think about chronology. While jazz of course dates nowhere near as far back as classical music, there is a good 100 years of history to choose from. Yet the earliest tune I'm eyeing is 1935's In a Sentimental Mood, while the latest is from 1954, Oleo. What these dates allude to is that the majority of jazz repertoire performed today - in combos by students, during cocktail hours as background music, and even by professional concert musicians in sold-out halls - comes from a 24-year period.

The Balkan Brass Band in Worth courtyard, with Greg Albright '10 (percussion), Hannah Epstein '10 (tenor sax), Alex Israel '11 (alto sax), and Ed Dewey '10 (trombone), fresh off this year's Battle of the Bands win.

While arranging is tremendously important in a big band setting, it is usually done by one person and written down with precise music for each musician. In combos, however, the arranging is much more communal, oral, and spontaneous. In Bird's combos, there was no longer one leader who conducted the ensemble, taught them the music, and led the show. Instead, all five members of the combo were constantly responding to each other and creating different performances of the same tune every night.

Each individual performance requires a great deal of creativity from the entire combo. In the Real Book, there are typically only 16 or 32 bars of a piece written out, with the chord changes marked out over each bar, each requiring around one minute to play. However, jazz songs can often last for 10 minutes. What fills these extra minutes, besides a series of solo improvisations, are the different parts of the combo arranged to fit each musician's style and ability.

We'll start by working with Oleo, a 1954 tune by Sonny Rollins, which embodies the harmonic progression known as "rhythm changes." Rollins is one of the great improvisers from the "straight-ahead" era who is, however, not generally known for his compositions. Oleo is nonetheless a classic and greats such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and others have recorded their own versions. When playing such a familiar piece, it can be wise to include some creative changes to the tune, but here I think the traditional tempo (brisk) sounds best, and I likewise want to play the "head," or melodic line, more or less conventionally. But what we can do is switch up who starts off with the melody.

Typically in a combo with one or more horn players, a horn will introduce the melody if for no other reason than that they are too loud to play a supporting role vis-à-vis, say, the piano or bass. What can often make a combo tune sound original, especially if it is a tune that many people are familiar with like Oleo, is to have the pianist or even bassist introduce the melody. Let's then kick-off the arrangement with the bass playing the melody unaccompanied and note that the player shall have freedom to alter the harmonies and tempo here and there. Following the bass intro, I'll present the melody on tenor sax in a more traditional way: with the piano playing chord changes, the bass player "walking" a bass line," and the drummer keeping time underneath the melody. After one or more instruments present the melody in its entirety, it is time for improvisation. As the sax player, I'll go first.

Attempting to articulate what makes for good improvisation is one of the most difficult problems of all, yet it is the most salient, indeed defining, aspect of jazz. Other musical genres, even classical, have incorporated improvisation at one time or another. Bach famously extemporized canons and fugues; Baroque concertos were often played with improvised cadenzas. But Jazz is the only major musical form in which the main act is improvisation.

Attempting to articulate what makes for good improvisation is one of the most difficult problems of all.

Improvisation: the word itself sounds spontaneous and intuitive, and one might expect that personal expression is the key to the art. However, improvisation fundamentally involves picking out notes that sound "right" in the context of the accompaniment (i.e. the rhythm section playing the chords that previously accompanied the melody.) In addition to using aesthetic intuition, I must maintain an almost mathematical understanding of the three to five note chords underneath me. It might sound great in some contexts to play notes that coincide with the chords that pianist plays, while in others it makes sense to play notes that clash with those chords. Sometimes the "right notes" can be those from the original melody, which can be incorporated if used sparsely enough that it doesn't sound like a recapitulation of the tune.

A more advanced stage of improvisation still isn't wholesale invention but is nonetheless a major challenge - deciding when and how to incorporate the style, "licks," and feel of great tenor players I have studied and use them to develop my own style. What I do is listen extensively to, say, John Coltrane, transcribe particular lines he plays that I love, and try to incorporate those into my solos. I can take a lick from Trane, one from Sonny, and one from Bird to build an extended line. When I combine these licks with my own tone and articulations, I can move towards the creation of original solos.

For a student of jazz, listening carefully to the greats and forming relationships across history is crucial to artistic development. Rollins is one of my idols and for the recital I've decided not only to play his composition Oleo, but also to render In A Sentimental Mood - a 1937 gem of a ballad by Duke Ellington - in Rollins' style, as found on his recording from the album Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Many of jazz's greatest performers have recorded the tune, including John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Benny Goodman, and Michael Brecker. But listening to Rollins' elegant embellishments of Ellington's composition inspired me to take on a pure exercise in channeling Rollins. I've been listening to his solo on In a Sentimental Mood and transcribing the notes "verbatim," including the articulations and stylistic markings. The hardest part of this translation, and what I am working on now, is trying to emulate Sonny's unique sound by evoking his techniques of expression. If I learn to completely master his sound, in the future I will be able to incorporate the parts of it I like most into my own evolving style.

In the early 50's, Bird's bebop was succeeded by the less aggressive cool jazz, as performed by such greats as Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis. I'll represent the Bird era with the 1948 tune, The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, composed by Jerome (Jerry) Brainin and Buddy Bernier for the film with the same title. It has very traditional big band as well as bebop harmonies, and a catchy melody. What's especially fun about it is that it alternates between Latin and swing rhythms. Incorporating a song with Latin rhythms is a good way to vary the feel and tempo of a jazz program. Then, in making the shift to the "cool jazz" period, I will perform the title song from Disney's 1951 Alice in Wonderland, a version of which Bill Evans famously recorded for his Live at the Village Vanguard record of 1961, arguably the best live jazz album of all time.

The same period gave rise to hard bop, developed by such musicians as Art Blakey and Clifford Brown, who saw it as the logical next step after bebop; it was progressive but not as mellow as cool jazz. Modal jazz, the brainchild of Davis and John Coltrane, involved an emphasis on harmony rather than melody. Around the same time, the pianist Thelonious Monk was composing in a style very much his own. For my last tune, I'll play 1951's Straight, No Chaser, one of his most famous compositions. The tune incorporates harmonies from the blues as well as simple, repetitive melodies. Traditional blues consist of a strict 12-bar form that has a distinct harmonic progression repeated over and over again; Monk plays around with the traditional blues form in his composition and in his improvisation, both of which are eccentric and idiosyncratic, to say the least.

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Following hard bop was free jazz, an avant-garde style that sought "free tonality." Traditional melodies, harmonies, and styles were eschewed in favor of a wild, abstract, expressionist style of playing. On the heels of free jazz came Latin jazz, soul jazz, jazz-fusion, jazz-funk, and innumerable other varieties that permeated the late 1960's and after, including the "Afro-Futurism" of the possibly extraterrestrial band leader Sun Ra. The less traditional and accessible compositions from this era are less frequently used as jazz standards and I have to admit that personally it is territory into which I can't follow. My ear doesn't seem to have developed an appreciation for atonality, nor do I like jazz-fusion. Surely this has something to do with my own taste, but the sensibilities of contemporary audiences seem to bear me out.

I went to see Sonny Rollins play a few years ago to a sold out house at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. At this concert, he played music from his latest album, Sonny Please, and was backed by a rhythm section of some of the best contemporary jazz musicians playing today. The concert was mostly a modern free-form jam until the encore, when Sonny played his classic composition, Tenor Madness. It was as if the crowd was pulled up in their chairs by marionette strings; the bulk of the audience went from vaguely receptive to incredibly enthusiastic. If you were to reflect on the state of jazz today simply from gauging the reaction of this admittedly small sample of one concert audience, you would no doubt conclude that present and future of jazz lie in the past.

This might seem like an unfortunate or reactionary conclusion, but I believe there is so much that can be learned from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and older sax greats who died long before I was born that I cannot conceive of a time in my studies when I would have learned enough from these men to move on. What they played epitomized jazz for me, and what this jazz entails is the feeling that you are creating something new and unique every time you replay, or rearrange an old tune. How this occurs is something that maybe can't be known, but I think - and hope - it's a quality that will never die.