Random Thoughts on Improvisation- A Little History

Now that we have covered a few of the elements used to build a cohesive and interesting improvised solo, I felt it necessary to establish a little of the history behind jass (original spelling). I found this yesterday and believe this is the only video I have found which actually features Paul Whitman speaking on camera.

Most may find the Beer commercials a little boring but even those are a very good example as to how far we have improved in cooperate advertising.

Random Thoughts on Improvisation- Octave Choice

Seldom do improvisers recognize the value in changing octaves when performing a solo. Many times your improvised solo can be repeated in a different octave and sound completely new. Changing a melodic line by inverting it to a different octave can give your solo a whole new meaning.

To give you an example of how this can be done, please watch and listen to one of my favorite trumpet stylists Chet Baker. You may wonder why he is missing some of his upper, front teeth in this video. This could have been shortly after he was mugged on a street corner.

As he performs, notice how he goes up when you expect the line to go down and down when you expect it to go up.

Random Thoughts on Improvisation- Dynamic Changes


1950 Rock and Roll was the beginning of the volume invasion. Even Folk music was limited in decibels until the day Bob Dylan went electric. Once amplification was established in pop music, nothing would be the same. Every garage band was twanging away with 10 on their dials.

As time past, more musicians were evaluated and eventually praised for the number of Marshal Amps they were able to get on stage. It seemed that the higher the decibels, the better the band. At least to the children who eventually lost their hearing.

“Loud is good /soft is bad”.

Many musicians have forgotten the value and beauty which low dynamic levels bring to the party. Many of us have become accustomed to soft volumes used in the performance of Ballades but the full range of dynamics should be used in all styles of music. How can one sound loud if all you play is loud? Loud sounds louder when prefaced by soft and soft sounds softer if introduced by loud.

Here Chris Botti performing “My Funny Valentine” and demonstrates a wonderful example of the artistic use of dynamics. Sting aint’s bad either.

Random Thoughts on Improvisation- Playing the Rests

vector-jazz-trumpeter-background_23-2147493203One might ask “What do you mean “playing the rests”?

Utilizing periods of rests or pausing during an improvised solo is something many players never think of. As I listen to great improvisers, I realize that the short periods of “nothing” can be an oasis in the desert. These mini points of contemplation give the rest of the solo meaning and contrast. Often we are bombarded during a conversation with an over excited and sometimes recreationally medicated person who seems to be able to talk without stopping for air. The more the person prattles on, the less we tend to listen. Jazz solos can be the same.

To give a more contemporary example of this practice, compare the political meanderings of Donald Trump to the careful selection of utterances made by Dr. Ben Carson. Trumps style of speaking is measured by the pound and Dr. Carson’s is measured by the substance.

When playing a jazz solo, one needs to contrast action (notes) from contemplation (rests).

Another example of this approach would be the contrast of isis and snipers. isis’s approach is “cover your opponent with a barrage of fire power” and in contrast the snipers approach is “one bullet, one kill”. Much can be accomplished with just the right note in the right place during a jazz solo.

As an example of musical conservatism, enjoy Miles solo on this great standard. Notice his improvisation is more like a conversation than a solo. And in contrast to his sparse concept, listen to Trane demonstrate just the opposite. His contribution is much more aggressive and technical. Listen to one style for any length of time can get monotonous whereas the two contrasting styles complement each other.

This contrast is what I am suggesting as the execution of a perfect improvised solo. Technical virtuosity contrasted with thoughtful, pensive sensitivity.

Random Thoughts on Improvisation- Sequential verses Diatonic


“the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation:
Musical improvisation involves imagination and creativity”.

“Now there is an Oxymoron”

“a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”

One of my most respected friends from my early days at UNI was Dr. Dave Kennedy. To most who knew him, Dave was the epitome of an aging professor with one exception. He had a brilliant mind and an equally elevated sense of humor. When I mentioned to him one day that I needed to practice my improvisation he pointed out the fact that practicing improvisation was a contradiction of terms, and he was again correct. How can one practice something which is supposed to be spontaneous? I loved that old guy!

Now back to the topic.


“characterized by regular sequence of parts”.


Adjective- “scales that contain five whole tones and two semitones, as the major, minor, and certain modal scales.

We may now begin with our discussion of Improvisation- “Sequential verses Diatonic”.

Due to the fact that I am now improvising substantially more these days because of the success of our newly formed Dixieland band (the Dixie Kings), I have an ample amount of time to ponder the technical side of the art form called improvisation. Every Friday and Saturday evening I am faced with the challenge to improve my jazz chops lest my spontaneous creativity become stale and repetitive. From this dilemma and the fact that it is 6:00am and I have a splitting headache, I decided to address every improvisational question every voiced. With the limited space available on this modest Blog, I w\have decided to departmentalize just a few of the elements dealing with creative improvisation and to begin, let’s talk about the differences between “sequential and diatonic” improvisation.

One of the greatest improvisers was Ludwig Von Beethoven.

This well-known composer was most remembered for three elements in his compositions;

1. Motivic consistency
2. Rhythmic drive
3. I forgot the third

Motivic consistency

Motivic consistency is one means of achieving unity among movements, as it is between sections of a single movement. (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is a prime example.)

Most followers of music can recognize his signature motive of three repeated short notes followed by a lower long note which is a prime example of his greatness. Some may question if a composer is actually improvising while composing major works and to that I say…….yes!

Now, how can an improviser utilize recognizable motivic material in a sequence?

To better illustrate my thoughts on this subject I will use the old tune, “Bye, Bye Blues” as an example.

The opening measure in Bye, Bye Blues” contains a perfect example of a recognizable motive- E (whole note), G (whole note), Ab (double whole note). This three note motive or motif works very well for an example.


Noun- “a short succession of notes producing a single impression; a brief melodic or rhythmic formula out of which longer passages are developed”.
synonyms: theme, idea, concept, subject, topic, leitmotif, element; through line “a recurring motif in her work”

I had to add this for all my musicologists’ friends. Now there is another example of an oxymoron. They would love to point out the fact that I have been using the two terms (Motif and Motive) interchangeably. To which I say, “Live with it”.

Our example, in addition to having contrasting rhythms, i.e. short, short, long; also includes contrary motion, i.e. down, down, up.

Isn’t this fun?

Now that we have selected a perfect example of a motif/motive, we now can inject this example into an improvisational setting.

Our written and recorded examples will follow the original chord progressions and this chord progression sounds and looks like this-


Sequence- 1 Diatonic Chords

After listening to the chord progression, you should be able to recognize the motivic example as it is now played along with the chord progression.


Sequence- 2 Diatonic Chords with melody

The chord progression is predictable as is the melodic line so the challenge now is to fabricate an improvised line which will sound impressive.

Here I show an example to illustrate the use of the motive and its repetition.


Sequence- 3 Sequence Improvisation

Obviously this is a very rudimentary example but it does show how a repeated motive can give your improvised solo some unity just as Beethoven used his three short notes and one long note to give continuity to each of his movements in his 5th Symphony.

Now we move on to the use of diatonic motion.

Diatonic Motion

“Diatonic refers to musical elements derived from the modes and transpositions of the “white note scale” C–D–E–F–G–A–B”.

Diatonic or scale wise motion is a more basic form of improvising and is the basses of most classes dealing with jazz improvisation. Many times students are instructed to “learn your scales” in order to improvise. Unfortunately many of these same students sound as if they are still practicing their scale when they are improvising. I feel that too much time and effort are allotted to running scales and too little time is spent on listening to great jazz artists.

Here is an example of an improvised solo done in a diatonic fashion using the same song.


Sequence- Scale Improvised

Both the Motivic sequence and the diatonic forms of improvisation given here are very academic sounding but unfortunately many less gifted practitioners of this art form do sound like mathematicians endeavoring to play jazz.

Now that we have identified and illustrated the style difference between motivic sequencing and diatonic improvisation it is time to list a couple advantages and disadvantages of each style.

Advantages of intervallic, motivic sequencing

1. Easily recognized
2. More interesting than diatonic improvisation
3. Adds more continuity to solo

Advantages of diatonic improvisation

1. Much easier to perform
2. Sounds more virtuosic than intervallic, motivic sequencing

Disadvantages of intervallic, motivic sequencing

1. Much more difficult to pull off
2. Requires a more highly developed recognition of the chordal structure

Disadvantages of diatonic improvisation

1. Gets monotonous
2. Requires much more technical ability

Now that we have dissected the pros and cons of these contrasting improvisational techniques, the question of “which is best” may be asked. The answer to that question would be “both are best”. Each gives contrast and consequently interest to a solo. The problem arises as to when and where do you use each and that is ultimate difference between a jazzer and a “JAZZER”.

We have produced in education an overabundance of diatonic scale technicians and few proponents of intervallic, motivic sequencing. Listen to some of the great jazz musicians (with the exception of many of the Beboppers who reveled in their number of notes and failed at producing anything more than a shower of spit) such Pops (Louis Armstrong), Miles (Miles Davis), Clifford Brown and John Coltrane.

“Help level the playing field for today the scale is tipped 80% towards the side of diatonic scale improvisation and only 20% towards the side of intervallic, motivic sequencing”.

What a great bumper sticker that would be!

Highly recommended study material- Patterns in Jazz by Jerry Coker

Now that we have started to open the discussion of good improvisation, our next post will address “the importance of playing the rests”.

Additional post on the subject of Improvisation

Learning to Improvise From A Book

Learning to Improvise Jazz Using The Creative Side Of Your Brain

How Can I Learn To Play Jazz?

The Most Important 24 Notes You May Ever Play

As most of you know, Branson is possibly the most dedicated city in the nation to honor of our service men and women. This week has been designated as Veterans Week and every store, show and business has welcomed thousands of our veterans to Branson to give recognition for their dedication to the protection of our country.

This evening I have the privilege of performing Taps at the formal Marine Corps. dinner and in their honor and for that reason, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this post to the preparation going into this performance.

The history-

The Story of Taps (reprinted from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs The Story of Taps).)

The 24-note melancholy bugle call known as “taps” is thought to be a revision of a
French bugle signal, called “tattoo,” that notified soldiers to cease an evening’s drinking
and return to their garrisons. It was sounded an hour before the final bugle call to end
the day by extinguishing fires and lights. The last five measures of the tattoo resemble

The word “taps” is an alteration of the obsolete word “taptoo,” derived from the Dutch
“taptoe.” Taptoe was the command — “Tap toe!” — to shut (“toe to”) the “tap” of a keg.
The revision that gave us present-day taps was made during America’s Civil War by
Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, heading a brigade camped at Harrison Landing,
Va., near Richmond. Up to that time, the U.S. Army’s infantry call to end the day was
the French final call, “L’Extinction des feux.” Gen. Butterfield decided the “lights out”
music was too formal to signal the day’s end. One day in July 1862 he recalled the
tattoo music and hummed a version of it to an aide, who wrote it down in music.
Butterfield then asked the brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, to play the notes and, after
listening, lengthened and shortened them while keeping his original melody.
He ordered Norton to play this new call at the end of each day thereafter, instead of the
regulation call. The music was heard and appreciated by other brigades, who asked for
copies and adopted this bugle call. It was even adopted by Confederate buglers.
This music was made the official Army bugle call after the war, but not given the name
“taps” until 1874.

The first time taps was played at a military funeral may also have been in Virginia soon
after Butterfield composed it. Union Capt. John Tidball, head of an artillery battery,
ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action. Not wanting to reveal the
battery’s position in the woods to the enemy nearby, Tidball substituted taps for the
traditional three rifle volleys fired over the grave. Taps was played at the funeral of
Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson 10 months after it was composed. Army infantry
regulations by 1891 required taps to be played at military funeral ceremonies.
Taps now is played by the military at burial and memorial services, to accompany the
lowering of the flag and to signal the “lights out” command at day’s end.

Preparing for the performance-

Mental mind set-

Performing Taps should be considered an honorable occasion for there is much more involved than just its 24 notes. Taps represents sacrifices and heart break as well as pride and honor among a few chosen, or have volunteered to serve our country. Some are able to hear its performance while many will only be there in the memories of their comrades. Because of this honor, your performance should reflect the seriousness of the occasion.

The performance-

One should not be casual about preparing for this presentation, which means having a copy of the original and most accepted version of the number. I have heard many versions and only a few were performed as the original music requested. One misconception is the misuse of the dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth. As you can see from the example offered below, the use of dotted rhythms and even rhythms alternate throughout the melody.

The tempo which you choose must be dignified yet not too somber for this is not your solo; it is a ceremony in which you are participating. Just as the tempo is important for the effect so are the dynamics and tone color of your playing. When I play Taps, I most often use the largest mouthpiece I have on my shelf which happens to be a Schilke 20. I choose this for tone and richness of the sound. No matter how loud I have to play, I will never have an edgy, cutting tone quality which tends to distract from the performance. The larger mouthpiece also tends to mask any nervousness in my sound as sometimes smaller mouthpieces can.

We have the choice of many different keys to play this melody but I have found that the conventional Bb concert still works best for intonation and timbre although the use of the first valve (Eb concert) comes very close.

The use of lyrics-

When performing a number which has lyrics, it is helpful to think of the words as you play for it tends to make your performance more musical. Individual notes have no emotions but words generate feeling and images helpful for a better performance. As you play the melody, mentally think the words and your notes will take on more expression. As an example- play the melody to the Lord’s Prayer. Then play the same melody as you mentally sing the words. When you get to “for Thine is the kindom, and the power and the glory forever. On the word forever, not only have you placed more impact on that word, but you have also forgotten any technical problems you may have had playing the top note. It is as if the words pull the notes out of the bell of your instrument.

In closing, I would like to share with you another person’s appreciation for the performance of Taps.

One of my good friends has been very active in the honoring of our Veterans and I have asked him to share with us his feelings while listening to the playing of Taps. His name is Mike Radford.

Mike Radford

“Whenever I hear Taps being played my heart goes to the vision of a mother standing on
the front porch of her home, watching as two uniformed men approach the house as she
falls to her knees realizing her child has been killed in action. My mind thinks of my Grandpa
Mitch who fought in WWI … hearing his cries in the night as he screamed in terror remembering
the horrors of fighting in 1916. As a little boy, his screams carved deep memories in my heart.
But my most vivid emotions, still raw… are of laying to rest my adopted brother Tim Rogers
who epitomized the term “Patriot.” His war injuries demonstrated the sacrifice of young
men and women from 1776 to 2012. We owe them everything as they gave up all their tomorrows
so we could remain free men and women in these wonderful United States of America.”

I have included a very small listing of his achievements and as you read, I think you will agree that we, as trumpet players, need to reevaluate the honor placed upon us as we perform this powerful and meaningful 24 note melody.

“Bob Hope Award”
for Excellence in Entertainment
Other recipients include:
President Ronald Reagan
The late Jimmy Stewart, Actor
Stephen Ambrose, Literature
Roger Staubach, NFL Hall of Fame

In 1999 Senator Bob Dole’s office asked Mike to spearhead Branson’s fundraising efforts to build The WWII Memorial in Washington, DC– Mike’s efforts helped Branson rank as the #1 city in the country. In 2000 he was named Ambassador of Patriotism by the Missouri House of Representatives and the Pentagon in Arlington, VA.

Download Taps here

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.

Thanks and praise, for our days,
‘Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, neath the sky;
As we go, this we know, God is nigh.

Sun has set, shadows come,
Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds
Always true to the promise that they made.

While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.

The Mystery of Playing by Ear

2015-11-17 17.42.27
Playing by ear is a term used to describe the musician’s ability to improvise a melody or a melody coordinated through a series of chords. To some it is a mystery and to others, it comes natural. What abilities do musicians have when performing music by ear? Can this ability be learned and is it important?

First let’s discuss what playing by ear really means.

1. To perform by ear requires an ability to function on an instrument which is capable of reproducing the desired pitch.

2. This series of pitches need to be placed in a proper order so that a melody or improvised series of notes correspond to that melody and the series of chords it is played with.

3. In addition to the proper pitches, the player must also time the performance of each note at the correct time in the sequence.

4. All of these requirements must be executed at the discretion of the performer as an instantaneous response to the music at that moment.

Sounds pretty cool, yes?

When listening to such great musicians who played by ear, the names Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Hendrix, J. S. Bach come to mind. Each had the ability to create magnificent performances on their instrument at any moment, each performance would be equally great and each performance was different from the last. In order to explain how musicians are able to play by ear, several factors come into play.

1. The musician and his/her instrument must be in one with each other.

If you struggle with the technical side of your musicianship, you will never be able to play by ear.

2. The musician is connected to his/her instrument through practiced responses.

Trumpet players, feel the notes before they play them in their fingers.

Trombone players feel the slide position in their arm before they play the note.

Piano players feel it in their fingers and singers feel it in their throat.

3. The musician has a strong center focus to the pitch of each note.

If you are tone deaf, you will never learn to play by ear.

Some may ask; can playing by ear be learned? Yes! Re-read the material above and realize that some are born with this ability and others must develop it through time and practice.

When I say that some are born with all of the above requirements (other than learning the technical side of your instrument), I need to mention that the very proficient are many times blessed with perfect pitch which makes the learning process infinitely easier and faster.

A very good example of a person who is a fine musician, able to play by ear with ease, is a friend who I visited with early this morning. He plays great Dixieland Trombone and can repeat from memory hundreds of Dixieland recordings note for note. Each tune we played, he locked in instantly on the melody and played with great confidence. As an experiment, I asked him to play one of his best licks but this time up one step. His expression was that of a completely bewildered individual. He painfully moved his slide up and down trying to get the “feel” of the correct slide position. He had no idea which position to begin on. This is a perfect example of a person who has a great ear and is able to recognize and repeat every note from the records but because of a limited degree of technical ability, the “feel” was of no use.

Playing by ear requires the ability to recognize all pitches, convert those pitches to a action through one’s motor responses and complete the cycle by making the appropriate movement in the slide, valve or piano key.

If you would like to improve your ability to play by ear, there are things you can do to make this happen to some degree.

1. Learn all there is to know about your instrument.

2. Play along with recordings every day.

3. Memorize solos played by other great musicians.

4. Begin to develop the “feel” in your fingers as you listen to music of any kind.

5. Listen to music and try to repeat small phrases as they are being performed.

6. Sing a series of notes and try to repeat them with your instrument.

Some may ask, “How long will I have to do this until I am able to play by ear”?

My response would be, “How gifted are you”?

Free Trumpet Sheet Music- “La Marseillaise 11/13/15”- Brass Quartet

Free Trumpet Sheet Music- “La Marseillaise 11/13/15”- Brass Quartet

La Marseillaise- Score

La Marseillaise- Trombone 1

La Marseillaise- Trombone 2

La Marseillaise- Trumpet 1

La Marseillaise- Trumpet 2

In respect to the people who lost so much on 11/13/15.

We will continue to offer these free arrangements and ask only that you visit our Facebook page listed below and mark “Like” if you are so inclined.


Water Key Developments For Trumpet

Many changes have been made in the trumpet in the past few decades and one of the earliest was the modifications on the simple condensation extractor (water key). Few changes were made until Getzen came out with the Amado water key. This revolutionary mechanism was designed to fill the gap made by the traditional hole extension and water key. This new concept worked extremely well if maintained properly. Unfortunately, few of us read the fine print in the manual and from time to time the valve would stick open or closed depending on your luck at the time. With proper oiling, the Amado water key functioned as advertised and made a big improvement on the trumpet it was mounted on. I remember having them also installed on my Cousnon Flugel horns and found them to improve their response as well as improve intonation. I have had them on a couple of my Getzen trumpets and have also enjoyed the improvement.

How did water keys evolve?

Before we had water keys, our predecessors emptied the condensation either by blowing a very hard blast of air through the horn or doing as horn (French horn) players do, pull the slide and dump the water. During a performance this was not usually acceptable to either the performer or their audience.

Condensation collects at the lowest point in a trumpets tubing (usually in the tuning slide) and unless this is extracted, the moisture will keep increasing until the air, sound waves or acoustics begin to move it which will cause a gurgling sound. Because of this buildup, the trumpet needs a way to extract it from the instrument. Due to the fact that the tubing must be closed from the mouthpiece to the bell, the only way to let the water out is to drill a hole at the lowest point while in a playing position. This hole must then be opened for releasing the water and close again when performing.

The most widely used design is a collar attached around the hole where the moisture collects and an add swing arm which could be alternately opened and closed to let water out while performing. Most instruments utilized a small cork to seal this opening and through years of use, the corks eventually crack and leak. Some manufactures began to replace the cork with rubber stoppers but there were no major changes until the Amado water key was first introduced on the Getzen trumpets.

The advent of the Amado key

The Getzen Company is given credit for this innovation and its original development seems to be clouded in mystery. The new approach has lasted for a long time and many additional trumpet manufacturers have added them to their trumpets. As stated before, the only complaints have been directed toward problems of sticking which is in most cases due to the fact that the valve was not maintained as recommended by the manufacture.

Leave it to the Germans!

Mr. Schilke came up with an alternative which can improve your instrument and will cost very little to implement. The original corks were flat where it contacted the opening and to correct the gap from that point to the actual hole in the tuning slide, Schilke started using and rubber stopper which has a small extension in the center which enters the opening and ends flush with the hole in the tuning slide. As with most geniuses, this improvement was made simple and effective. If you are interested in replacing your old cork stopper with the new and improved water key rubber, you can purchase them from Mouthpiece Express.com.

The newest improvement in water keys

After searching the internet for some time, I finally found something new and you might find it interesting. It is a redesigned key with apparent improvements to the basic Amado principle. Instead of a piston sliding back and forth, this key makes use of a spring loaded ball and water can be discharged by pressing from any direction. I have not tried this water key and do not endorse it at this time but as soon as I have one to try, I will give you my opinion. You can read more on this new development at The Saturn Water Key.

What’s That Thing Called?


Click image to enlarge


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