The title of Duke Ellington’s tune, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” says it all when it comes to the importance of being able to place notes within the rhythmic flow of the music, but it is a concept that is best understood when it can be experienced. Two events in my past spring to mind that illustrate how I was not experiencing the magic of swing. I mention these not to bore you with the details of my life, but because they are similar to what a lot of musicians experience at various points in their careers. The first event occured after receiving a Miles Davis record (Miles in Europe) from one of my aunts when I was about fourteen. It made very little sense to me…I could only recognize what instruments were playing. The music sounded very disconnected, with no sense of a beat. I put the record back in the jacket and did not play it again. A few years later during a college jazz band rehearsal the director said that we needed to “lay back more”…that we weren’t swinging enough…that the music “didn’t feel good.” This came right after the group was pretty happy with the way we had just just played, so his comments did not make sense to me. When I tried to come in a little later on the written notes (my attempt at laying back) the music only sounded worse.
Luckily, there were some significant turning points in my rhythmic life. By my junior year in college I was hanging out with the school’s better jazz players, and we spent hours and hours of listening very intensely to many special records (which is one of the great ways to experience great time). These same friends would point out all manner of wonderful musical moments, which significantly increased my awareness and listening skills. The music itself was the greatest teacher, for hearing those gifted musicians play with such feeling and conviction had a huge impact on my education. Interestingly, many of those records were by some of the same musicians on my Miles in Europe album, which helped me recall that it was still in my possession. None of my friends had heard this record, yet because of my past experience with it, I thought it best to listen to it first privately (I did not want to embarrass myself by playing something for my friends that was inferior to the great music we were already listening to). To my surprise, it was as though someone had put a different record in the jacket, for the music (and the time) I now heard was so strong and clear. Somehow I had been given a key to understanding this music!
Soon afterwards I began to study with my jazz mentor, Dale Bruning (seen at left), who never ceased to promote the priority of time in music. One of the strongest examples he presented (besides his own ability to swing) were some out takes of a bebop master, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and his group playing “Swedish Schnapps.” Dale pointed out that on each take pianist John Lewis always played right in the middle of the groove, while trumpet player Red Rodney always laid back just a little. However, Charlie Parker varied his approach every time…once playing right in the groove, another time playing on top of the beat, and yet another time laying way back. It was a wonderful illustration of the varieties and expressive power of good time…very similar to a tennis master applying “english” to the ball in the form of topspin and backspin. This increased vocabulary makes both the tennis star and the musician a more complete and formidable player.
Here’s a great way to illustrate the phenomenon of swing: imagine that you are swinging a hammer and striking a nail precisely with the tempo of a metronome, clock or piece of recorded music (even after the nail has been hammered into place). Now imagine that you begin to gradually increase the backswing of the hammer so it is traveling a greater distance during that same time interval. If you keep increasing that swing in the same manner you should begin to notice a few things. One would be that your arm and wrist have to relax more in order to move the hammer that greater distance in the same amount of time, and so you can also change the hammer’s direction more quickly. You will also most likely begin to arrive at the point of impact with the nail a little later (which is akin to “laying back”) and yet you will be striking the nail with much more energy. As the swing increases even more so must the relaxation, and the hammer’s motion will become more circular…more like an uninterrupted continuum, which increases both the energy and efficiency. Laying back actually has much more energy, and instead of dragging the music down, propels it forward even more. If the swing is tight, the motion is restricted, meaning less energy and drive…and a greater likelihood that the hammer will arrive at the nail ahead of the beat with less impact.
So how can you swing more in a musical context? Just like with the hammer, there needs to be much more action in between the beats. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by subdividing the beat…not just mentally, but also physically, by drumming a continuum of all of the notes in the music’s smallest subdivision. At the top of the page of a lot of big band music there is the equation shown in example A, meaning that what is written as even 8th notes should be played with a triplet feeling (all musical examples can be clicked on to enlarge). In order to place that last triplet properly, the 2nd triplet (hidden within the quartet note triplet) must be felt just as strongly. Try drumming example B while tapping your foot in quarter notes and simultaneously saying “1-2-3” along with the continuum of 8th notes. The sticking pattern is below the 8th note triplets, but you can reverse the right (R) and left (L) hands if you’d like. Now try adding the accent on the 3rd triplet. A lot of folks move their foot to coincide with the accented triplet, showing a disorientation to the downbeats. By keeping the foot in the right place, those accents are felt in their correct relationship with the beats, which is one of the keys to understanding and performing this style of music. Use the talking, 1-2-3-1-2-3…as the common glue between the hands and foot. Go as slow as you need to in order to work out the coordination, which is only the first step. Most folks are satisfied when reaching this point, but the work has only just begun.
The second step is establishing the endurance. How long can you be coordinated? Eliminating the tension and becoming completely relaxed not only helps the endurance, but also actually increases the energy, efficiency, and control. For example, if you saw two men each pick up 200 lbs. and hold it over their head, yet one did it in a completely relaxed manner, you would probably assume that the man who showed no signs of strain would be the stronger one (and you would be right!). The longer you can stay with the drumming, the more deeply you can listen, the more aware you can become, and the more you can adjust your beat in order to experience and master the next step.
The third step is the most important, and is the reward for mastering the first two. This is where we all want our music to live and breathe, no matter what the style. The “Feeling,” the “Groove,” the “Magic,” the “Flow“…these are all swinging to the jazz musician. The longer you can stay in the Groove, the more you will be able to experiment with consciously changing the feel…pushing ahead of the beat or laying back. These modifications have a totally different feeling when they spring from a solid sense of time.
Although there are many ways to articulate swinging 8th notes, I like to start my students with the pattern shown in example C…where (for horn players) the tongue and air are used to create the accent. All of that energy is then allowed to follow through into the length of the next note (occurring on the downbeat), which helps create a relaxed, connected, singing style. Dale told me to exaggerate the accent so it is more obvious to the listener, plus this also helps increase the strength and control, which then makes it easier to modify the time in creative ways. Consider that accent to be another way of increasing the activity in between the beats…of increasing the swing. Example D shows a duple based sticking pattern created by alternating between the hands. This is also a great first step in experiencing a simple polyrhythm, 3:2 (three right hands played within two beats…the subdivision needed to play quarter note triplets correctly). Some folks become disoriented when the right hand is accented because they are hearing two rhythms simultaneously, but the more you stay focused on the continuum of 8th notes the stronger and more independent those contrasting rhythms become.
There are also duple based subdivisions (example E) in jazz, like the bossa nova and latin based styles (plus many jazz players play their 8th notes more evenly, even while the rhythm section’s feeling may be more triplet based). With one less note in the subdivision, some folks tend to rush more, pushing the beat in a bad, non-grooving type of way. As with the hammer, the solution is to swing more…increasing the activity in between the beats by accenting the offbeats even more and/or subdividing the beat more (example F).
As the drumming becomes stronger, the player should be able to “scat” sing the melody at the same time (example G). The dotted lines serve as a reminder that the written offbeats actually occur on the third part of the beat. The words are not important, and are chosen mainly for their ability to facilitate the swinging feel. It might be necessary to slow down the tempo at first as the coordination is being mastered, but there will be no doubt where the notes should be placed. Even before the singing is learned, I have heard remarkable improvements in students’ playing after they have drummed the underlying continuum for the music they are working on. Not surprising, since they were focusing on the most fundamental element of their music.
There are as many kinds of grooves and ways to swing as there are languages, dialects, and even individuals’ personal mannerisms. Although many “classical” musicians may not swing their 8th notes with the mastery of a Miles Davis in a jazz setting, the ability to generate a groove within their own particular style is just as important. John Hagstrom, who plays trumpet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and who has served on the audition committee for well over one thousand auditions, says that a strong sense of time…a rhythmic conviction is the first thing their panel looks for in any prospective candidate. Without that ability, the audition immediately comes to an end. Example H shows a common rhythm that is also misinterpreted by less seasoned players, especially when the triplet rhythm is nearby (in this case on beat 4), for the dotted 8th-16th and triplet rhythms tend to become more similar and less distinct. Once again, drumming is the remedy…for both exposing the problem and for providing the solution.
There are a lot of things that need to be improved in my playing…it is a never ending task for any serious musician. But if I were granted one wish that would allow me to master any musical skill, I would choose the mastery of time. This mastery encompasses so much more than where a note starts and stops, or being able to play more rhythmically complex music (time signatures, polyrhythms, etc.). True mastery of time includes every event in music that takes place in time, including dynamics (the rate of crescendo and decrescendo), grace notes, vibrato and trills, timbre and pitch changes (when they begin, at what rate they change and how that rate may change over time), etc. Pitch, which is defined by the number of vibrations in a given amount of time maybe the most subtle of rhythms. Even accelerandos and ritards will all sound better if they are performed with an acute awareness and control of their place in time. How all of these events occur in time are what define a particular style of music, and most importantly, the nuance of expression needed to create a greater connection to our music, our fellow musicians, and our audience. It’s time to start drumming!
“It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.”