Arts and Entertainment

Just what is it about jazz?

He has played with Dizzy Gillespie. He has played with Wynton Marsalis. And on May 2, jazz great Wycliffe Gordon will appear in concert with the Mercer Island School District’s jazz ensemble.

Gordon, named 2011 Jazz Trombonist of the Year, will teach a clinic for district jazz students before the concert. Bothell High School’s jazz ensemble will also play with Gordon at the concert and attend a workshop. The two districts partnered to bring Gordon to the area. An anonymous donor has made a substantial contribution toward the cost of the event.

The entire community is invited to attend the concert. Never been to a jazz concert before? This one would be an excellent place to start, according to Dave Bentley, who directs the jazz ensemble and other district bands here. Bentley is also a trombonist with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra and The Jazz Police. These are his answers to a few questions for some first-timers.

When I listen to jazz, I get lost. First I hear a melody and then different instruments each play a ton of random notes, and then I hear the melody again. What is going on?

The part you refer to as random notes is one of the core elements of jazz called improvising. This means the musician is spontaneously composing music on the spot. When a jazz player improvises, the rhythm section of the band usually accompanies him. Typically, this consists of a piano player, bass player, drummer and usually a guitar player. The rhythm section is playing a predefined harmonic structure, known to jazz players as chord changes or just “changes.”

Improvising seems so random. When a jazz musician improvises, does he just make it up as he goes along?

Every solo is different. Most solos contain material that is new and original. Often, a conversation develops between the soloist and the other musicians playing. One of the truly special characteristics of the best soloists is that they are unselfish and interactive. Musicians who share and inspire create great solos that become unique, organic creations that happen once, in real time. Recordings are great, but being there allows one to be a participant.

When I go to a jazz performance, the people sitting next to me clap wildly in the middle of a piece for no apparent reason. How do I know when to clap?

Jazz has very different concert protocols than either classical music or rock music. In jazz, when you hear something you like, it is acceptable to clap or respond verbally to the band. Typically, audiences clap during a piece at the end of an improvised solo. The interaction between the musicians and the audience is an essential element of jazz.

Jazz rhythms sound very different from the classical music I listen to. What am I hearing?

Jazz is constructed with syncopation. This refers to an emphasis on “off beats” rather than “on beats.” This element of jazz, like the harmonic structure of the blues scale, is linked to jazz’s African roots. Jazz is a wonderful marriage of harmonic elements of western European art music with rhythmic and melodic components of African music and worksong.

How did you get involved in jazz?

Happily for me, I went to Shorecrest High School, which has a thriving jazz program. My middle school did not, but the middle school on the other side of the school district did. I was envious of the kids at the other school who got to play jazz and eagerly awaited my opportunity when I got to high school.

Why do you like jazz?

To me, jazz contains complexity and freedom not available in other types of music. While I deeply love many types of music, there is just something about the groove, the soulfulness, and the sharing that draws me to jazz. Being a part of a great performance provides a feeling that is, I think, impossible to duplicate elsewhere. I also love that it is so uniquely a part of our American culture. This is our music.

What should I be listening for when Wycliffe Gordon plays the trombone?

Frankly, I think his playing will speak for itself. His style is very vocal in nature. Gordon frequently uses a plunger to create a human vocal characteristic to his playing. You will hear him talking and singing through the horn. Gordon is also tremendously versatile and incredibly skilled.

Simply, he can play things the vast majority of other players cannot.


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