Write or Wrong: Diving Into Jazz Composition. PART 1

serov117Hello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Well readers, your questions continue to flood in week after week. My apartment is starting to look like Santa’s mail room on the 24th of December,… red sack after red sack just brimming with letters. Now, I am a giver but I’m afraid there’s only so much time I can devote to answering all of your questions. Plus, my elves are overworked as it is and I can’t afford to pay them any more. So please, let’s ease up a bit.

Anyways, I decided the only fair way to do this would be to swan dive into my Olympic size swimming pool full of letters (a la Scrooge McDuck) duck and fish out one at random. It read…

“Dear Mr. Danderfer,

I seek your wisdom. My biggest problem is writing. I need to learn to write and I don’t know if I can just sit down and crap out some good tunes without any experience composing. I’m essentially a beginner. I’m not saying this as an excuse, I’m just saying I need to do something about it and I’m not sure how to start.

So, how should I start??”

Presumably, if you’re interested in “crapping out” jazz tunes then you’re already able to play jazz to some degree. This means you know something about jazz harmony (i.e. You can play a 2-5-1 progression on the piano) and how to improvise lines and melodic material. So congratulations,… YOU have ALL the tools necessary to get started! Just dive in and start writing, there is no right or wrong way to create, only experienced and inexperienced. As you pen more songs, more good songs, more bad songs, more boring songs, more exciting songs,… your experience becomes your guide.

But wait! If writing jazz tunes is so simple (at least, to get started), then why are there still professional musicians who aren’t that comfortable composing their own tunes? What gives?

Here’s what gives: If you sit down in front of a piano with a pencil and manuscript (or in front of computer and USB keyboard) and simply draw a blank as to where to start, then it’s possible you’re overwhelmed with too many options and a lack of inspiring framework to work within. You may need to put some more thought into the “pre-game” and narrow your focus. Here are some questions to help you do so,… make sure you write the answers down ON PAPER somewhere that you can keep looking back at it.

1. What style of jazz do you want to write? Which albums most resemble the direction you want to head in right now. Yes, yes,… you love Basie’s “Kansas City Seven” just as much as Miles’ “Bitches Brew” but which direction really “rings true” for you right now? How do you want to frame your own playing? I like the term “frame” when it comes to compositions because unless you’re writing through-composed works, most jazz tunes are still (to varying degrees of course) a vehicle for improvisation and group dialogue. Which leads me to the next point…

2. What size is the ensemble? Be as specific as possible and again, write it down. The larger the group, the more likely your songs will be “composition driven” as opposed to “improv driven.” If you’re writing for big band, then most of your musicians will be reading parts most of the time, sooo it’s not about “framing” individual players per se; in this case the individuals aren’t giving it momentum, they are supporting your piece, which has it’s own momentum built in. The happy medium might be a sextet since you have more horns to build “compositional momentum” with but you’re not into heavy arranging territory yet.

3. Who’s in the band? Again, this helps to narrow down the options and clarify your direction. My two recordings thus far have been with 2 very talented, but very different drummers, Quincy Davis and Joe Poole. In both cases I knew who was going to do the record shortly after I started sketching out the direction of the music and it really helped to focus my direction. Knowing that I was going to have, in both cases, such a great drummer also inspired me to write music. And of course, make sure to hire the best musicians you can, musicians who are better than you, musicians who inspire you.

4. Is there any thing, place, subject, or story you’d like to write about? This too can offer you direction when you have no idea where to start. It isn’t necessary, but recently I’ve found it inspiring to have some sort of theme or story to write about. My last album (Accelerated Development) was all about writing music for the city of Shanghai, my perception of the city and my encounters while living there. It was a subject I found very interesting and it lent some cohesion to that collection of music. Most recently, I’ve written music inspired by contemporary New Orleans brass bands and again, I didn’t feel locked into “nailing” that style exactly, it just gave me some inspiration and direction. This direction could come from anything: people you know, your job, where you’re from, where you’re favourite music is from, some place or time you’ve only imagined, etc, etc.

OK, so that’s it for this week, I’ll continue on this subject next Saturday but for now,… I’ve got shit to do!

Thanks for reading and for the questions, I always appreciate a little SMNP direction! Have a great week! jd

Above painting by Valentin Serov. “Portrait of the Composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.” 1898.
Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

  • Guy

    There are enough forgotten songs out there already. Since most jazz tunes are, as you say, a vehicle for improvisation and group dialogue, just find some great forgotten tune or even a pop tune not usually associated with jazz and go to it. You’ll save lots of time.