Indigestible Jazz: I'm stuck in the "Classical" idiom!

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by neutron619, Jun 17, 2020.

  1. neutron619


    Jul 12, 2019
    United Kingdom
    Hello Chaps.

    I've been struggling a bit with some new Jazz tunes lately. In the absence of lessons or a band to play with (due to lockdown) I've been using iReal Pro to provide some backing tracks to play along to to try and keep things going as much as I can.

    I don't know or listen to a lot of Jazz, and maybe that's what's defeating me here, but I've been trying to learn about it as a way of keeping the boredom at bay. Most of the songs on the app seem to be Jazz tunes and I've been reading a bit of the musical theory presented on Welcome to and other websites.

    The thing is, some of the songs just completely defeat me. I don't mean that in the sense of difficulty, although clearly there are some really fast, hard-to-play songs on there. What I mean, I think, is that they just don't make any damn kind of sense.

    When I read the websites, it's all unfamiliar content, but the understanding is straightforward. Without meaning to sound like a **** - I know a lot of theory. Terms and signage, harmonic progressions and the stuff they write out to explain it all - I get it. I'm classically-trained, play the organ, piano, guitar, sing, etc., so when they talk about ii7-V7-I7, substitutions and interpolations, I promise you, I really get it.

    I think the problem is the Jazz idiom. I see something like this:


    and I can spot the patterns, interpolation, modulations, quite a bit of chromaticism and it seems to make a kind of sense in my head. I can play around it all pretty well - runs, arpeggios / melodic bass, walking bass - it's near enough to what I'm used to to make a good hash of it with some improv thrown in.

    Then I look at something like this:


    And I'm ashamed to admit, I'm dumbfounded. *** and all that. It. Just. Doesn't. Make. Any. Musical. Sense.

    So I go and read and I learn about how it's all constructed from swapping 3rds / 7ths and then altering them to smooth things out; read the examples; understand the harmony. I read about Coltrane changes and think they're wacky but make a kind of sense. I go to YouTube and listen to the recordings and sure enough it sounds like the bassist is basically playing 1-1-2-3 in every bar, starting on a different root each time. Sounds easy enough, even at 240bpm.

    But then I play through the chords without the backing track and I just can't find any route between the roots (let alone making things interesting) that doesn't sound like a pile of crap. I put the backing track on and its just the same, except now I know I can't keep up with the beat either.

    The whole thing just feels like an unconnected jumble of notes and it makes me feel like I should just give up and go and hide in a Double Open Diapason somewhere (really big organ pipe) until I expire from the shame of it. I mean - I'm a serious musician, semi-professional on some of my other instruments, of about 30 years experience now. What's wrong with me? Why can't I get this?

    I want to be able to play this stuff and I'm pretty sure that it's my previous musical experience and a total inability to "think Jazz" is what's stopping me from getting there. Is it even possible when I've got this much "structured diatonic Classical harmony" loaded into my head? What do I do? How do I learn to think the right way about this stuff?

    Any and all advice will be welcome at this point. I know lockdown is getting a lot of us down, but my teacher has gone AWOL and I'm finding the struggle to make any kind of progress really demoralizing at the moment.


    BubbaMc likes this.
  2. Bob_Ross

    Bob_Ross Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 29, 2012
    Any advice offered in this thread probably won't serve as a "shortcut" to helping you blow over a modern [sic] tune like "Humpty Dumpty" but fwiw here's an observation that might put this all into perspective:

    Chick Corea never could have written a tune like "Humpty Dumpty" if he didn't already have an incredibly solid grasp of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean"

    iow, the thing that makes "Humpty Dumpty" work isn't simply that "it's all constructed from swapping 3rds / 7ths and then altering them to smooth things out" yadda-yadda-yadda...the thing that makes it work is that the changes function differently than the way they do in a tune like "How Deep Is The Ocean" ...and so the harmony is confounding your expectations.
    But Chick had to know what sort of expectations certain chords would elicit before he could confound them.


    ...and on another note (no pun intended) it's worth pointing out that some tunes have Chord Progressions and some tunes have Chord Sequences, and being able to recognize the salient components of each is pretty much a requirement to being able to understand how the harmony works and how to play over/under/through/with it.

    Good luck. It's a worthy pursuit.
  3. Papageno


    Nov 16, 2015
    "How deep is the ocean" is completely in the paradigm of tonal music that has been with us since the Barock and is characterized by dominant to tonic cadences.

    That is why it sounds easy to you, in spite of having tons of secondary dominants, chord substitutions, etc.

    Chick Corea's tune is not in this paradigm, and therefore not as accessible; it is similar in this respect to a composition by Pierre Boulez. What is said unmusical by many people is simply non tonal.
    Nashrakh likes this.
  4. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    'Musical sense' comes from expectations. I'm going to guess that anyone raised on Coltrane and Ornette Coleman would find their first exposure to Bach more than a little confusing.
    Always ask yourself 'why does this music (whatever kind) exist? Why was it written? What's it supposed to do? There are some pieces that have been written (created) to show off a performer or composer. Liszt, or Schoenberg come to mind. Other things in The Real Book are there because of connections or friendships with the editor (is Steve Swallow that important?), or perhaps they seemed like a good idea at the time, but now... not so much.
    Remember the difference between 'Good Music' and 'Bad Music'. (hint: you like good music)
    Papageno and Nashrakh like this.
  5. neutron619


    Jul 12, 2019
    United Kingdom
    Thank you, all three of you, for your replies.

    I can accept that there isn't a magic bullet here and that my previous experience is working against me and I certainly take the point about not being able to confound expectations unless you know exactly what they'll be. Perhaps in a few years, with a lot of practice, I'll be able to talk about that and recognize exactly how guys like Correa are achieving that and see their genius (which is what I assume it is).

    After BassChuck imagined the experience of meeting Bach for the first time, having heard nothing but modern Jazz, I tried to recall whether it was like that when I met Bach for the first time - I seem to remember I was pretty confused by the dissonance and even by his occasional habit of jumping into some very "distant" keys and sliding back out of them - and that was coming from the same idiom, let alone somewhere else. Now of course, it makes sense, but it took years.

    Atonal music though, remains a mystery to me, as we've already established.

    To give this post a more practical bent: I've seen some names go past - Coltrane, Correa, Coleman. I'm guessing they are on the more atonal end of the spectrum, whilst Irving Berlin is clearly on the "settled tonality" end. So, some questions:
    • Could someone tell me whether those approaches have particular names (e.g. is it "traditional" vs "modern" Jazz or something like that)?
    • Are there distinct categories of (approaches to) tonality / atonality? (I.e. are there patterns or recognizable ways of confounding expectations whose names I could put into google and read about?)
    • Can anyone suggest some composers - or if the range of styles is too great for individual composers, some songs - which would fall into different places on the tonal <==> atonal spectrum, from traditional to "way out there"?
    At the moment I'm picking the songs from iReal Pro basically at random, but it would probably make it easier to learn the ways if I could work through a few pieces that were mostly in the traditional idiom, then some that had some atonal features, then more, and so on, and so on... I suspect it would also make me feel better about failing to play them if I could always fall back to something like How Deep Is The Ocean and say to myself, "well, I can't play Humpty Dumpty yet, but I can do this...".

    Any and all direction will be appreciated.


  6. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    I posted a thread asking what constitutes "modern" harmony a while ago. From what I have gathered there is no underlying general structure like you get from tonal music progressions and cadences. It's more about establishing completely arbitrary rules to generate chords that relate to each other in some fashion, with perhaps voice leading as the overriding principal.

    You can't find the functional relationships because there are none. What is a bass player to do, when there are no cadences to outline? No functional 'story' to tell? All I got is falling back on playing the changes. Roots, rhythm, chord tones, chromatics, and don't clash with the melody. Same rules apply, but without the luxury of falling back on tonal habits. For tunes like Humpty Dumpty I would probably reach for the paper and write something out slowly.
    BubbaMc likes this.
  7. neutron619


    Jul 12, 2019
    United Kingdom
    I really enjoyed reading the thread you linked and I found the YouTube video about the seven levels of Jazz harmony linked within that thread really enlightening - so I wanted to say thank you very much. I think that was what I was looking for. I found myself sitting at the piano this morning, playing with tritone substitutions and finding all sorts of harmonies that had never really occurred to me before (and, gratifyingly, a few which already had).

    Suffice to say I'm happiest with the levels 1-4 described in the video - they all seemed familiar to some degree and then it all got a bit wacky although "level 7" was - oddly - the exception and made a kind of sense: I'd never thought of adjusting the temperament for every chord (and I'm not clear how you could actually perform music where that was the requirement without, say, a computer to synthesize it) but the principal behind it seemed perfectly comprehensible.

    Some of my study on the organ has looked at why historical temperaments / historically-tempered instruments tend to produce more pleasing performances of certain historic works through practice of adjusting the intervals to make the temperament more suited to a particular key, so with the exception of the frequency of adjustment, that seemed perfectly ordinary. I guess in some ways, music goes full circle just like the rest of life.

    Anyway, thank you again - I now feel that I have a sense of direction and things that I can look into / experiment with. :)
  8. The main problem is that you don't know enough about how jazz "sounds" for it to make sense to you. Basically you're trying to understand English as heard through a thick accent. It's not enough to absorb the theoretical harmonic structure as though it was painting by numbers. You can get away with that in the classical vein, I suppose, because everything tends to fall into all the expected places and categories. I guess it's totally expected since every single aspect of it is written down for you.

    Bottom line is you can't play jazz AT ALL without listening to it. And I mean enough to have it encompass your being. The phrasing is important, how you approach the line, is important. Studying the masters is crucially important. Arguably, the notes you play (other than being more or less in the key) are probably the least important aspect. How you play them is the most important. When a 5 year old talks to you, you can still understand him. But you expect a most sophisticated conversation from a 50 year old. That's where your note choices begin to change. The chances of you sounding like Stanley Clarke or Ron Carter "today" is pretty close to zero. But in some years and with some heavy study, who knows?

    The easy part is understanding the math. The execution is the trick. It takes a lot of work honestly. And to be any good at it, you have to literally love doing the work.

    This video touches on what I mean, re: listening.

    Last edited: Jun 20, 2020
    bassGtar, bfields, IamGroot and 2 others like this.
  9. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Gold Supporting Member

    FYI - "How Deep...." was composed in 1932 by Irving Berlin. It's been around for 88 years.
    Ah! There's the rub. You've answered your own question.
    Good Listening, and Good Luck!
  10. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    As another from the formally trained classical background, the first highlighted line is at best, IMHO, misguided. At worse, I'm sorry to say, it's utter nonsense.

    The rest of the post is no less true of the classical (small 'c') tradition as any other. To suggest or imply otherwise betrays as shallow an understanding and appreciation of the classical tradition as you diagnose for the OP with respect to Jazz. YMMV.
    Fun Size Nick likes this.
  11. kesslari

    kesslari Groovin' with the Fusion Cats Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 21, 2007
    Santa Cruz Mtns, California
    Lark in the Morning Instructional Videos; Audix Microphones
    I suggest, strongly, that you start listening to some of the folks listed - Coleman, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk.
    It's really hard to absorb a musical style from paper alone.
    I recall playing with a Klezmer band who learned solely from sheet music - the notes were right, the feel was all wrong.
    Spin Doctor likes this.
  12. Fair enough. That's just the way I see classical, but honestly, I don't care about it all that much. So I'm ok with anyone concerned ignoring the classical reference.
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2020
  13. I'd probably start out Coleman Hawkins (as mentioned) and possibly Lester Young, and throw in some Clifford Brown. Monk and Trane can be pretty tough to get your head around if you're just starting out. Being a classical guy at heart, I think Bill Evans would also be a likely person for him to check out. Everybody Digs Bill Evans...
  14. IamGroot

    IamGroot Inactive

    Jan 18, 2018
    My recommendation is that you start with Miles Davis 's "Kind of Blue" which is a very accessible introduction to jazz and much easier going than Ornette and Thelonious.

    So many people get hooked on jazz via this album that we call this album the gateway recording to jazz. And the players on this album are giants.
    Spin Doctor likes this.
  15. Scottgun


    Jan 24, 2004
    South Carolina
    Yes. Idiomatic. You learn this real quick when you cue up "Take the 'A' Train" grab a pencil, start numbering chords in classical harmonic tradition and slam into a brick wall on bar 3 as everything you thought you knew disintigrates.

    But you ought to ask yourself what you want out of learning a new idiom. Is it just academic to increase awareness and overall awareness? Or do you absolutely adore it? You sound like me. I studied jazz, I've been trained to appreciate and understand it, but I don't love it. I can put out an acceptable performance of a jazz chart, but I'll never be great at it because I don't eat, sleep, and breathe the stuff, and don't want to.

    I say this because you need to avoid having your tastes dictated to you. That is, concern that you will be regarded as an unsophisticated rube if you don't love classical, jazz, or blues. We do lots of things to please or impress others. Trying to force yourself to enjoy certain music shouldn't be one of them. Sure, be open to music out of your normal wheelhouse and you might find something that really clicks, but ask if you really like it, or only like it because you think you should.
    Spin Doctor likes this.
  16. Jason Hollar

    Jason Hollar Jazz & Cocktails Supporting Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    Central Pa
    Dude Humpty Dumpty is a ridiculous tune - lol - cut yourself some slack!
  17. ugly_bassplayer


    Jan 21, 2009

    Now thats how we do it!!!!

    Like playing some Monk or Mingus......damn that’s shizzle is hard to pull off.
    Guess why you never hear anyone playing Mingus tunes at jam session. :)
    (Mayyyyybe goodbye pork pie hat.,......haha)

    That’s why Charlie Rouse is soooo underated IMO, he played with Monk for so long and completely murdered his complex tunes. Always had good flowing very melodic ideas that complemented the songs perfectly,

    Even the “2 chord” Well You Needn’t is crazy hard.

    My 2 cents
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2020
  18. neutron619


    Jul 12, 2019
    United Kingdom
    Thank you all, again, for your insights which continue to be appreciated. Let me offer some replies:

    Since reading the above earlier on, I've ordered some compilations of the works of the three artists above. Plenty to be going on with, although I was very tempted to add a Bill Evans collection too, as I can actually play along to (I won't say really play) some of his songs already. My teacher has had me working out some bass lines to Miles Davis tracks in the past, so hopefully I should be able to approach the music of his that I haven't heard and make something of it once I've listened to it a few hundred times. I'm assuming here that I'm listening out for ideas rather than parts to replicate verbatim, given the emphasis on improvisation...

    This is the hard bit to explain, possibly bordering on the ridiculous. So sorry if what follows is a little long-winded and esoteric.

    Basically, the band I usually play with is the worship band at my wife's church. There had been a lot of people coming and going, but just before this damned lock down, everything had settled down and we were starting to sound really good, in a way that I guess we / they haven't for some years. I basically picked up a bass last year for the first time in about 20 years to help them out when their usual bassist (my teacher) had to spend some time away. Anyway - I don't go in for the religion particularly, but playing in the band is pretty much the best thing I do (did) in the average week and I got hooked.

    So there I am, playing the roots and so on for a while, whilst trying to remember all of the stuff I used to know as a kid when I last played, and at some point the old bassist returns. We get on, he offers lessons, I say "yes" and he gets me started on a mixture of rock, worship songs and jazz using a mixture of backing tracks / CDs and iReal Pro to play along to. I felt like I was making progress.

    Anyway. At some point, just before lockdown started, my teacher disappeared again (life stuff) and the lessons stopped, but I carried on with the band. Now we have lockdown and all I have to play along to is the iReal Pro thing on the computer, which is mostly Jazz songs with a few bits of other genres.

    However, much like it's been since I started playing again, I don't really know what direction I should be going in. I picked up the bass again last year because it was something I started as a child of 12 or so, and really loved, but then circumstances changed and it all stopped after a year or so.

    Now I'm back reliving my childhood, I know I don't want to give it up again (I play most days), but it's always been a bit removed from a purpose (worship songs aren't terribly demanding usually) and although I can appreciate most kinds of music, I don't have any particular upbringing in blues, or jazz, or rock, so I'm basically having to manufacture an interest in one of those to provide the outlet for what I really want to do, which is play bass guitar competently and hopefully one day, find some people to play it competently with.

    In short, Jazz seemed most interesting and unusual (and therefore ripe for learning), given my other musical background, serves a purpose and is intellectually challenging enough that it'll hopefully provide fuel for the fire until (and beyond) lockdown ends, my teacher reappears (or I get another one) and keeps me motivated to pick up the bass as often as possible.

    So no - I don't love it - but I hope I might learn to.

    You have no idea how much I appreciate hearing someone say that!

    Right - I'm off to try and find something simple that I can play along to.

    Thank you all, again.
    Spin Doctor and Jason Hollar like this.
  19. gflat


    Jan 10, 2009
    Outside NY City
    Spin Doctor likes this.
  20. dalkowski

    dalkowski It's "rout," not "route." Supporting Member

    May 20, 2009
    Massachusetts USofA
    Welcome to jazz.

    If you've ever eaten an elephant, then you know you have to take one bite at a time, and it goes better when you start with the soft, tender, digestible bits. Learning jazz is somewhat similar.

    As has been said before, listen to a lot of jazz. +1 to Kind of Blue — "All Blues" was probably the first jazz standard I ever learned, waaaaay back in my teens and just starting out. I might also recommend Ed Friedland's Walking Bass Lines books; they could help you connect some of the dots.

    Good luck, enjoy the journey - it never ends!