An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

February 24, 2008 Jazz Blog 1 Comment

Louisville Leopard Percussionists

LLPA couple of days ago, I watched the HBO documentary, "The Leopards Take Manhattan: The Little Band That Roared." The documentary follows the Louisville Leopard Percussionists from their rehearsals in Louisville, Kentucky, to their performance at the 2006 International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) conference in New York, where they opened for Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. Opening for Chick Corea at the IAJE conference would be an outstanding accomplishment for anyone, but it's even more remarkable when you consider that the Leopards are all children, ages 7-12!

Led by the award-winning elementary school teacher Diane Downs, the Louisville Leopard Percussionists group is comprised of about 45 children who perform jazz tunes on a variety of instruments including the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, drum set, timbale, conga, bongo and piano. Before you read any further, listen to this audio clip of the Leopards playing Caravan iwasdoingallright - audio clip. Pretty good, eh? You might be thinking this is a super group of especially gifted children, but it isn't. They're just average kids with normal backgrounds, yet they've come together to create exceptional music thanks to the superb tutelage of Diane Downs.

The most fascinating part of the documentary, for me at least, wasn't what these children could play, but rather how they learned to play it. Following are some key points:


In the documentary, we watch as the students learn the swing classic, "Sing, Sing, Sing." Before doing anything, they sat down together and listened to a recording of the tune. This might not sound like a big deal to some of my readers, but it's definitely a big deal to me. In the eight years that I spent in middle school, high school, and college bands, I don't recall ever listening to a recording of a tune before trying to play it. And if it did happen, it certainly didn't happen more than once or twice.

Why is listening to a recording so important? It's simple: you can't capture music on paper. Take a swing rhythm, for example. Think of all the complex phrasing, accents, inflections, and other stylistic elements that go into a swing rhythm. You could try to squeeze all of that stuff onto a piece of paper, but if the person reading it hasn't ever heard a swing rhythm it won't sound right at all.

Since the Leopards always listen before trying to play music, they begin with a firm understanding of how the music should sound.


The Louisville Leopard Percussionists don't use any written music. That's right, all of the music they play is learned by ear. In the documentary, Diane Downs echoes Suzuki's argument for learning by ear. The saying goes: just as people learn to talk before they learn to read, they should learn to play music (by ear) before they learn to read music. I certainly agree with this statement. I also believe that mainstream music education is teaching people how to read INSTEAD of teaching them how to play music, since most music students can't play anything unless it's written down. I don't want to get too carried away on that subject (read this ear training article for more), but I did find it refreshing to hear that the Leopards are learning music by ear. I think the result of that training speaks for itself.


In my Learning to Improvise series, I discuss the importance of rhythm and phrasing in jazz improvisation. In short, without good rhythm and phrasing, any group of notes will sound boring and lifeless. While it might seem natural that a percussion group would have a better grasp on rhythm than your average middle or high school band, I believe the Leopards have a leg up due to the way that they learn rhythms. When learning rhythms, the Leopards sing their rhythms aloud, adding words to the rhythms so they internalize both the rhythm and the phrasing of those rhythms. Since they've all practiced the same rhythm and phrasing, they are more cohesive when it comes to group performance. Their emphasis on rhythm and phrasing also carries over to their improvised jazz solos. These young children have a better grasp on rhythm and phrasing than many of the students I've heard in college jazz programs!


As stated on Diane's page of their website, Diane lets the children experiment and come up with their own parts. This gives them ownership of the music, which in turn helps them to care more about the program and each other. For instance, if one child is having trouble learning something, another will gladly help them to learn the part, offering positive reinforcement along the way. The children know that as a band, they're all in it together and every member is as important as the next. Clearly these children aren't just learning about music, they're also learning tremendously valuable lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I definitely encourage you to watch this documentary the next time it's aired, especially if you're involved in music education. With music programs shutting down left and right, it's inspiring to see what can still be done.


These clips aren't from the documentary, but they do give you some greater insight into the program.

The above clip is a promotional video for the Louisville Leopard Percussionists group.

This clip was shot by one of the Leopards' parents during their 2006 IAJE performance.

January 13, 2008 Jazz Blog 10 Comments

Playing jazz in public, finally

When people find out that I play jazz trumpet, they almost always ask if I play anywhere around town. I typically respond telling them that I'm not very good and that I've still got a long way to go before I play in public. And that's how I've felt since returning to the trumpet in 2002. I'm still in "development mode".

If you read my review of the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival, you know that I finally did play the trumpet in public for the first time, as a member of the adult ensemble. It was primarily an educational event with little pressure, so it was easy for me to give it a try. Although I enjoyed playing at the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, it wasn't exactly a big confidence boost for me. I struggled to play some of the parts and I made some mistakes during the performance. If anything, it reinforced my belief that I'm not ready to play jazz in public.

When I talk about playing jazz in public, I don't mean playing gigs. Playing gigs is really of no interest to me, thanks in large part to all of the coffee shop gigs I played in college. Some musicians don't care if the audience isn't paying attention to them and they don't mind (too much) if they're playing to an empty house, but it always bothered me. So, no gigs for me. I would, however, like to someday become good enough to play jazz on a regular basis with other people, in a relaxed environment. Ideally, I'd find a group of musicians and we'd play jazz at somebody's house where there's no pressure to play well and there's no audience to please. All that matters is that the vibe is good and that everyone's enjoying the music. But, like I said, I'm not ready to play in public yet, so even a low-key jam session is many years away. At least that's what I thought until the guy in this photo came along...

What are you lookin' at?About a week ago, I received a fairly long email message from a visitor to my jazz blog (I hope he enjoys this 1970 photo of him that I dug up online). Like many of the long messages I receive, it began with his personal background. He told me he's been a musician for 40+ years and that he and some friends have been playing jazz at his house every Thursday night, for the past few years. As he described it, they're a "rehearsal band" that plays together "simply for enjoyment." Oh, and he lives in Atlanta. I was halfway through the message and figured he was just going to ask me a question about the local Atlanta jazz scene or something like that. And then it hit me... he's inviting me to play in his band.

My first reaction to his invitation was: how am I going to get out of this?! I've still got years of ear training and trumpet fundamentals in front of me. I'm definitely not good enough to play jazz with other people yet! I was all set to politely refuse his offer but for some reason I decided to wait before responding. Later that night, I told my wife about the email and her first response was "Do it." I tried to think of some excuses, but I couldn't come up with anything compelling enough. I couldn't even use the old "it's too far" excuse since he lives only 3 or 4 miles from my house (Atlanta is really spread out, so "it's too far" is often a perfect excuse to get out of just about anything). Unable to come up with any good excuses, I replied to his email and accepted the offer to sit in with his band.

Driving up to his house this past Thursday for my first jam session, my mind was filled with all sorts of worst-case scenarios. What if I get lost in the chord changes? What if my chops blow out after five minutes? What if I'm the worst one there and they laugh at my playing? What if this is all just an elaborate setup and I'm about to be held ransom by a diabolical crime ring that uses their knowledge of jazz to prey upon unsuspecting jazz blog writers? It's a good thing I hadn't yet seen that 1970 photo. He looks like trouble with a capital "T" in that Davy Crockett jacket ;-)

When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by the bass player (Davy Crockett). He then introduced me to the guitarist and the drummer. Everyone seemed really friendly, so I was able to rule out the "crime ring" scenario pretty quickly. I was still pretty nervous, though. With just four of us there, we began playing a blues-based tune. Unsure of myself, the first chorus of my solo was lackluster but I held on and continued for 2 or 3 more choruses. With each successive chorus I loosened up and my playing improved noticeably. By my last chorus I was playing better than I had expected to play the entire night!

After playing a couple of tunes as a quartet, the violinist and alto saxophonist arrived. We played a few more jazz standards including "Well You Needn't," "Blue Monk," and "Stolen Moments." To my surprise, my range and endurance held up really well. In fact, I played at least half a dozen C's above the staff at full volume during my solos. I can't even do that during my practice sessions at home! The guys were very supportive of my playing and offered several complements. I suppose they were being a little extra nice since I was the new guy, but I do think they genuinely enjoyed my playing. In any case, I thought it all went really well and I had a blast. I had totally forgotten how fun it is to play jazz with real live people.

Is this the start of a new chapter in my musical journey? It's probably too early to tell, but it was definitely a great experience and also a good indication that maybe I am ready to play jazz with other people!

I'd like to say a special thank you to "Davy Crockett" (his real name is Rick S.) for inviting me to play with the group, and to the other musicians for welcoming me into their band. I'm looking forward to many more Thursday nights.

August 18, 2006 Jazz Blog 0 Comments

New ear trainer coming soon

I know it's been a little quiet around here lately, but that's because I've been using my free time to work on a new version of the ear training tool. It's mostly the same application that you're familiar with, however I'm now going to do the controls in HTML and just the staff and piano part in Java (and the midi sequencer, of course). Why the change? Well, the Java GUI has become too much of a pain when it comes to adding new features and moving things around. There have been plenty of mornings where I try to sneak in 15-20 minutes before work and I end up wasting the entire time wrestling with the layout. The change to HTML should make feature/layout changes MUCH easier.

Here are some of the features I hope to add to the new ear trainer over the next month or two:

  • Ability to set the root note for all exercises
  • Auto-timing feature that prevents the need to manually set and adjust the loop time and results-display time
  • Everything can be modulated rather than just random melodies
  • You can change from piano to any standard midi instrument
  • Pre-set exercises that you can load with a single click
  • Random melody exercises over chord accompaniment. I haven't started this yet, but it promises to be one of the coolest new features. In addition to standard chord progressions and melodies, I hope to come up with some inside-outside exercises that will train your ear to hear outside lines

July 4, 2006 Jazz Blog

Update - Ear Training Article

If you'd like to relive the past, you can re-read my Learning to Improvise - Ear Training article. I made quite a few updates to it today as part of the editing process mentioned in the series introduction.

March 15, 2006 Jazz Blog 0 Comments

Jazz musicians protocol

Ken Watters, a former Caroso trumpet competition winner and active member of the Atlanta jazz scene, has a nice article about jazz protocol. It covers many of the ins-and-outs of playing in a jazz band and is especially good reading for young/new jazz musicians.

Read the article...

February 13, 2006 Jazz Blog 2 Comments

Wessell Anderson master class

warmdaddyWessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson was in town recently, as the featured performer during at the Emory University jazz festival. Most of my trumpet-playing readers will know Wess from his association with Wynton Marsalis. Wess is the lead alto saxophonist in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he's a regular member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Most recently, he appeared on Wynton's Live At The House Of Tribes recording. In addition to his playing gigs, Wess is also a professor of saxophone for jazz studies at Julliard School of Music. Not too shabby, eh?

While in town, Wess hosted two masterclasses and he performed with the Gary Motley Trio (Gary Motley on piano, Paul Keller on bass, Pete Siers on drums). Between the masterclass (I could only attend one of them) and the main performance, I got to hear Wess play for about three hours. As anyone who's heard him play knows, Wess is a monster player. He's so good, it's down-right scary. Whether playing a ballad or an up-tempo burner, Wess appears totally relaxed and absolutely confident. The music just pours out of him.


The masterclass I attended took place during what would have normally been Emory's jazz improvisation class. I'd guess that there were about 30 people in the audience, with about half being students.

Wess and the Gary Motley trio performed one tune after which they discussed some of the things that happened during the performance. Most notably, they talked about the interaction that occurs between players, touching on many of the same elements that I mention in the "GROUP INTERACTION" portion of my LISTENING TO JAZZ guide.

After the discussion, six students (4 sax, 2 piano) joined the band for a brief jam session. A student sitting closest to the front started to reach for his fake book when Wess stopped him cold. As Wess put it, the fake book is for working, but they weren't getting up to work; they were getting up to play.

Wess went on to explain how books are like crutches. They prevent us from developing our ears. While learning to play, he didn't rely on books. Instead, Wess used his ears to figure things out. I've heard similar comments by other great players, including Nicholas Payton. They all learned tunes just by listening. When you think about it, using a book to learn a tune (especially a tune's melody) is cheating your ears out of good ear training practice. Stop, thief!

The group ended up jamming to "Straight No Chaser", a tune that the students had been working on in their jazz improvisation class. All of the students knew the tune well and played decent solos. One student in particular played with great ease, playing fast lines confidently and effortlessly. At first it was impressive, but he kept going and going and going. I'd guess that he took a dozen choruses or more. He and a couple others soloed for so long that one student, the lone trumpet player in the crowd, didn't get a chance to play.


After the jam session ended, Wess and the other guys gave some feedback to the students. One of the first things they mentioned was the fact that several of the students didn't interact enough (or at all) with the rhythm section. Those students got up there, played stuff that they normally play, and that was it. Wess and the rhythm section reiterated some of the concepts they mentioned earlier, stressing how the group needs to communicate as though they are having a conversation. Everyone listens to each other, everyone contributes, and the final product is a result of everyone's input.

Another criticism was that some of the players didn't use enough space in their solos. Had they left more space between ideas, they would have given the rhythm section a better opportunity to react to what they were playing. Once again, the conversational aspect of jazz resurfaced. In a conversation, you say something, pause, listen to input, respond to the input, pause, and so on. Those pauses are the spaces that we need to put in our jazz conversations.


In addition to using more space, Wess suggested that some of the students could benefit from using fewer notes in their solos. While it might seem exciting to tear through note after note, after a while it can become tiresome to your audience. Instead, using fewer notes with more rhythmic variations can create much more excitement in a solo. Wess then asked the drummer to play an eighth-note rhythm on the ride cymbal, while he played a one-note solo on the saxophone. While I'm a huge advocate of one-note solos and note limiting, I've never heard anyone else talk about it, especially not any jazz educators. So, it was great to hear Wess talk about it, demonstrate it, and also go on to mention how guys like Lester Young and Ben Webster used to light up the room with just one note.


The last bit of criticism pertained to the length of people's solos. Without actually pointing at the guy, Wess made it quite clear that the strong player had taken too many choruses. In a jam session setting, you need to be kind to the other players waiting to play. Two or three choruses is generally long enough, especially when you have five or more people waiting to play after you. The other comment about length was that you have to know when to stop. A couple of the students played five or six choruses, yet they ran out of ideas half way through their solos. To continue the conversation theme, if you have nothing to say, you're rambling. It's best to just stop talking.


The bass player, Paul Keller, had a good tip about transcription that's definitely worth passing on. Rather than transcribing an entire solo, just pick eight bars or so that you really love. Transcribe those eight bars, study them, practice them, and those ideas will stay with you a lot longer than if you transcribe the entire tune. Makes perfect sense to me.


I've attended various combo and big band concerts at Emory University over the past three years. Emory's jazz program is relatively new, but each year I've seen noticeable improvement in both the number of students and in their playing. I was especially proud of one of the saxophonists at the jam session. I heard him play last year and the improvement he's made since then is astounding.

It will likely take several more years before the jazz studies program at Emory reaches the size and strength of established programs (like that of Georgia State University), but it's been very encouraging to see that it's well on its way. Congratulations to all the students and to Gary Motley. I'm sure you've all put in a lot of hard work, and it shows!

January 2, 2006 Jazz Blog 1 Comment

Ear trainer update - modulations

Online ear trainer - click to try!The random melody generator now includes modulated sequences.

A modulated sequence is a short phrase which is repeated, starting on a new note. Because the melody line itself doesn't change (the distance between each note remains the same), the repeated phrase is played in a different key. Thus, we can say the sequence has modulated into a new key.

Modulated sequences are quite common in jazz solos and are frequently used to connect inside and outside playing. The "out" part of the sequence is connected to the "in" part by the fact that the shape of the melodic line is the same. This connection adds cohesion to the solo and helps the listener identify the "out" portion as a deliberate act, rather than a bunch of funky notes.


Original phrase: C, D, G, E

Same phrase, modulated up a minor third: Eb, F, Bb, G

Notice that the spacing between the notes hasn't changed from the original phrase to the modulated phrase. We're playing the same melodic line but we've now started on an Eb instead of a C. If you were playing the above over a C7 chord, the original phrase is the "in" part, and the modulated phrase would be the "out" part.

Enough reading, try it out!

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