The Three Pillars of Jazz

For about as long as I can remember learning about jazz from mentors elder jazz men , books and bios of jazz greats ; I have been taught that there are ” Three Pillars of Jazz ” . Without these three key ingredients whatever the music that’s being played it is not jazz .The concept of Jazz , the word itself dredges up mixed feelings to many friends of mine that are Jazz musicians . The word came from a slang term for sex Jass and later came to be pronounced with the zz sound in Chicago . Many elder Jazz musicians that I have asked about this history felt that having emerged from such a negative connotation that the music was purposely devalued by calling it Jazz . Many elder statesmen of jazz that I have sought out for advice and direction about composition and theory , that have lived through the various evolutions in the music from bebop to the so called avant gaurde  say that they no  longer play Jazz . I have been told  that it was a sound from a time long past never to truly be recaptured .Nevertheless over the years it was played codified and now is studied the world over . Jazz is interwoven into many folk musics around the world and new hybrids have been born from it such as fusion , latin jazz and so on . I find it curious that when it comes to Jazz and Violin in particular it is rarely mentioned that the three pillars of Jazz are vital in order to be playing the music properly . The three Pillars of Jazz are Jazz Melody , Jazz Harmony , and Swing Rhythm . If it doesn’t swing it ain’t jazz . If there is no use of jazz harmony it ain’t jazz . If the melody isn’t written or played to swing and fit over chords that are within the harmonic movements used in the idiom ,it ain’t jazz .So how diverse or limited is the sound really ? As an Artist dedicated to Jazz and alternative styles on Violin it kind of pisses me off when I read Artists coming from a purest perspective . I all of a sudden feel as though this ” holier than thou moron ” is trying to limit my creativity by placing his personal views on my Art . In the countless interviews of notable Jazz artitsts I have viewed and read , I have observed Artists mention their distaste for the names of musical catagories being placed on their Art in direct contradiction of the idea that Jazz is a specific thing many say I just play and appreciate  ” good music  ” . These artists had been in their time marginalized by racial stereotypes of their day . But then how does an aspiring Artist know that they are creating or developing in the right way giving proper weights , balances  and attention to the tradition .

Is there a tradition that is unique and specific ?

Yes I take it personally  . Well on the other hand It bothers me a lot more when Classical musicians string players especially ( because I’m a string player ) but also other classical instrumentalists constantly confuse being able to improvise with playing Jazz . Simply put,  Improvisation is NOT Jazz !

Jazz is a musical language a very specific accumulation of experiences and ideas that have matured and stood the test of time and have been critiqued and studied and pressed to extremes by master musicians . It has dialects that use the same codes and grammar with varying inflections . The music was formed and shaped by extreme social conditions in the US . The African- American experience must be dealt with on a personal level even internationally felt and reconciled when dealing with this music . It often amazes me when I try to discuss the music with people musicians and non musicians to gleen from them how the music impacts them – I am curious if they hear it like I hear it . I am amazed that few people in my experience ( less than 20% if I had to guess ) actually hear the nuance in the music . I can actually hear and identify the scales and chords being played by the soloist , I can hear the contexts in which the soloist inverts chords plays outside the scale using related extensions of chords . So when I talk to people and they miss these details it shocks me that they can still say they enjoy it having missed all the information . I guess a beautiful day is still beautiful even if you didn’t see the shapes of the clouds the green grass the butterfly flitting about .

So let us begin with Swing Rhythm – Rhythm in all music accounts for 90 percent of music Jazz Rhythm has evolved to a very complex level of compound times and meters called polyrhythm , but the fundamental element of the uneven eighth note remains as a clear and consistent marker or the African American influence in the music . You can research the feel and concept in more depth on your own , I would like to focus on Violin in particular now . The most fundamental aspects of swing rhythm as it relates to Violin is in how the bow is used in the application of swing rhythm . To create the feeling of swing it is necessary to have enough bow technique to change bow direction within micro seconds in order to have the freedom to improvise . One of the ways to develop this is in the mastery of the Long tone or long bow . I have come to realize that the best approach to developing this technique is to begin with the the concept of using the Bow as the breath of the Violin . As a wind player would develop the strength and quality of a pure tone on a horn the Jazz Violinist needs to master that even and consistent sound first matching their breathing with the drawing of the Bow in both directions . The Legato bow is the best place to begin because when phrasing in Jazz it is vital to be able to change direction on a moments notice while maintaining sting contact and even pressure for articulation. As you develop technique you will ultimately discover that other forms of Bow technique will become more important to integrate like martile , staccato etc alla breve . The ability to cross strings with ease and clarity  in both directions in any tempo is the idea. With regards to the left hand it will become important to view Classical training in reverse because of the chordal movements in Jazz – I will expound on this later in the Jazz harmony section . However with respect to Rhythm the concept of a percussive tapping approach when applying the fingers will be useful . Obviously in synchronicity with Bow movement . In bebop Charlie Parker is accredited with the innovation of double time solo phrasing . As it applies to the Violin in jazz it becomes necessary to master the triplet on the left hand and become comfortable using triplet figures and rhythms in the left and right hands . For dexterity and the ability to apply accents in varied patterns, I have found the Shradieck Method book to be a wonderful classical technical bridge to Jazz phasing , however I must note that when you are studying scales and technique systems it is very important to remember that memorizing set patterns will limit your freedom when it comes to improvisation . I have often been disturbed when I hear Violinists from the classical tradition playing Jazz because there is an inbred limitation that requires one to regurgitate fixed phrasing because of the repetition required of technique on Violin .

Now let us move to deal with Jazz harmony for a moment in Classical training we are trained to view the Violin as being set up in Fifths – I have been hearing this from teachers since I was a baby . Fifths and Fourths are perfect . So it always confused me as a child because I always recognized that it was possible to think in reverse terms , like math with negatives preceding zero and cardinal numbers coming after zero . But my teachers would always dissuade this line of thinking . The reason is that most Classical music chordal progressions move in fifths . Its classical theory to think in fifths . However Jazz chordal movement traditionally moves in Fourths 2 5 1 progressions . This shift in thinking from the 5th movements to fourth cycling represents a large chasm to overcome from classical training to Jazz conception . For me it was a quantum leap when Rodney Whitaker forced me to view the Cycle of Fifths as the Cycle of Fourths – I woke up to the realty that everything I had been taught was exactly opposite of what I needed to have more freedom in executing solo ideas as well as in compositional approach and overall feel . The left hand must reconcile this by being flexible to making jumps in reverse movement of classical conception . Reverse movement ( with respect to classical chord movements in fifths )  but in  progressions up and down the fingerboard moving in 4th cycles . There are many scale books for Horn players but very few for Violin – I’m working on some as I’m sure other Violinists are and have been as well . I would encourage you to write your own thats what the Masters do . Doing this will greatly increase your knowledge and understanding of Jazz harmony as well as open your mind to theoretical concepts that you may not have considered before . As far as training the left hand . The best way to approach this from my experience is to begin with the building blocks of arpeggios . As we advance in classical training we begin to learn scales in set finger patterns in three or more octaves . This becomes an important milestone in a string players classical development . In  Jazz however it is more important to be able to isolate areas on the Violin that apply to specific chords and develop variations of the the chord within the octave , and then be capable of jumping to the next chord and so on . I was turned on to  Alvin Baptiste’s Root progression system  by Maurice Brown and have found this an invaluable system that is infinite in its technical and theoretical applications .

And finally Jazz Melody . When I began sight reading fakebooks over fifteen years ago , I was thoroughly frustrated as a string player . Having been classically trained I was led to believe there was only one way to interpret and articulate musical notation . Not only was I wrong but many of my teachers were very limited in their knowledge and being a student it is hard to challenge a teachers knowledge when you hardly know yourself . Your intuition is extremely valuable do not discard it because your feelings have not been validated , the truth lies in your ability to execute and communicate your musical ideas . It wasn’t until I began researching and problem solving on my own that I discovered that musical notation is as diverse as its composers. If you do your own research you will discover in comparing scores of music that even in classical music there will be a different articulation for measures of music written by composers  of different periods even when the notation may be identical . I would go so far as to say that all music begins from with in and that the written forms are still being pioneered . In other words the sheet music is only a road map. With Jazz it is extremely important to listen to and dissect the elements of musicians playing the music that you like – that you are drawn to in order to find your individual sound . This process is called transcribing .  It is similar to the feeling as you are growing up that there are these characters in your life that you listen to the way they talk and you think to yourself I really think thats cool the way they said that – I want to remember that and use it one day . As you continue to grow over the years you consciously and unconsciously adapt your verbal expressions to fit the kind of person you want to be . Your unique style of speaking . Some people are aware of the way they are perceived and some are not . Artists tend to be hyper aware . These are the things you should be listening to for direction in phrasing melodies and articulating your ideas . When you listen deeply to the greats you come to discover that the best most exciting parts of their solos are the cast off parts the very ends of the phrases . Often times these parts of the phrase are left in odd places in the meter or measure . They tend to extend the time bleeding over into the next measure . These tidbits at the end of cadences are apart of what marks a jazz musicians character and unique sound . This is the best starting point to grow from after you have a comfort level with improvising on say 100 or more Jazz Standards . I say this because this stage in the evolution of your sound can only be reached after you have grown and matured a bit , if you are starting from zero this level of hearing and thinking and playing is much further beyond you yet . But it is important to know that you will arrive here eventually to understand this is a key indicator that your are on the right path to mastery of the Art form .

Well thats all I can write for now I know there are volumes of questions that this will lead to and thats the point of this blog . But also each part of these Three Pillars have lifetimes of depth in how they can be explained and taught . So I hope to entertain comments questions and continued dialogue on the subject, and I hope you are inspired by this to explore these problems and solutions for yourself  . As Wynton would say in his autographs ” Practice ” !  I most certainly will be .

Yours in Music Samuel  Savoirfaire Williams


4 thoughts on “The Three Pillars of Jazz

  1. Samuel- I am thrilled and delighted to read opinions of musicians who have been trained on both sides of the track and who continue to dig deep and find their truths. There are so many approaches, not all valid for everyone, but if well thought through, bring us even more flexibility in how we can express ourselves.Regarding the Three Pillars, I believe your argument to be very convincing in regards to it being an effective way for some to approach this mystery called jazz. You know it’s a mystery to me that it took me almost 50 years to encounter (in depth) creative music.I love YOUR approach though to music, thoroughly enjoy you as an artist and I look forward to the continued artistic interaction. Please continue to challenge, make us think and make all of DIG DEEPER..Peace- Renee’

    • Thank you Renee ! I am one of your biggest fans ! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog its of tremendous value to me and an honor . It has been a personal artistic struggle for me to reconcile the Creative Music stream with the concept of Jazz and an Art form which obviously has a deep and rich history . Many of the pioneers of the music have dealt with these issues having been labelled at various points being pigeon holed as one type of musician or another . I will continue to Dig Deeper as I continue to grow and mature !

  2. Pingback: Shradieck methode | Janesfreedman

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