Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 2

Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 2

A Scaffold Approach to Teaching Jazz Concepts to Beginning and Intermediate Jazz Ensemble

By NAfME Member Jonathan Holford and Mike Carubia

Article written by Jonathan Holford


Goals of the Article

The goal of this article is to sum up a workshop that I presented at the 2016 NAfME All National Conference in Grapevine, Texas. In Part 1 I addressed specific challenges that teachers and students face when teaching or learning jazz. This part will focus on specific teaching strategies that can be used.



(The Developing the Language of Jazz Approach)

Learning Jazz Like We Learn to Speak

In Part 1, I concluded that the only way to learn jazz or a language, for that matter, is by listening and immersion. We often recommend that students listen to the jazz masters like Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, to name a few, and emulate how they play. This is a daunting task for a young musician who is still struggling to hold up their instrument.

It is like teaching a first or second grader writing skills by having them read and analyze the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and having them recreate their writing styles in their next essay. I am sure we would all agree that this is not the best approach to teach writing. Instead of inspiring this young writer, you would most likely frustrate them. Although there are exceptions to this, the majority of our students need things to be simplified.


jazz chihhang


Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that we need to minimize having our students listen to the jazz masters. In fact, if students had regularly listened to jazz as they grew up and developed as musicians, this would be a moot point since that would be their default dialect. A supplemental approach needs to exist that guides students through the development of the jazz language while taking into account their technical limitations as elementary and middle school musicians.


The 4 Basic Riffs – Aural Literacy



When Mike and I studied and analyzed transcriptions and big band arrangements, we realized that you repeatedly see the same rhythms. We broke those rhythms down into what we call the 4 Basic Riffs (ex. 2.1). These riffs are then used as the building blocks of the Developing the Language of Jazz approach. Eventually, these riffs (words) will be combined to make more complex permutations. (ex 2.2).




Following how one initially learns language, it is important to introduce the jazz vocabulary by rote using call-and-response exercises. Do not show the students the riffs at this time. Listen to the recording for the call-and-response technique that is used for this exercise. The exercise should be performed on a concert F. Drummers should keep steady quarter notes on the ride cymbal while playing the riffs lightly on the snare. If the drummer is more advanced, they can add the hi-hat on 2 and 4. This is exercise #2a, b, and c in Developing of Language of Jazz. Pay close attention to the inflection and length of the notes. Audio tracks can be found here.



Aural/Visual Literacy – Singing Vowels, Articulations, and Pronunciations

After students are comfortable with the call-and-response exercises, it is now time to introduce the visual component. If you own Developing the Language of Jazz, it is time use the flash cards and connect the call-and-response sounds to the visual riffs. At this point, you will need to explain the different types of articulations.

In my fifteen years of experience, the biggest challenge of playing the jazz style for students is keeping the eighth notes smooth. Quite often, students play very choppy, and the swing feel becomes more of a polka! I like to use the syllables “Va, Voo, Vat” and “Vit” to describe and sing jazz articulations. I know this goes against the norm of “Da, Doo,” and “Dhat,” however; I have had great success in smoothing out jazz articulations with the “V” sound.

I believe that the purpose of the syllables is NOT to teach tonguing, since a trumpeter doesn’t tongue the same way as a saxophonist. The syllables naturally give a smooth aural representation of the rhythm. As a saxophonist and educator, I have found that the “D” sound causes saxophonists to play with a slap-tongue sound because in order to produce a “D” sound you must push up on the roof of your mouth. Once a mouthpiece and reed are inserted, the roof of the mouth becomes the reed resulting in a harsh tongue. For some this may be difficult. Experiment with the “V” sound and see if makes a difference.

See the video below for the technique when using the flashcards.







4 Basic Riffs – Comping

As a middle school band director, I encounter jazz ensemble charts that have whole notes written for the pianist or guitarist with the word “comp” written on top. Without fail, my pianist will start playing the whole and half notes as written.

Instead, explain to your student that this is a guide for voicings, and guide them to use one of the 4 Basic Riffs.




I got this idea when listening to a Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington recording of “Duke’s Place.” Check out Duke’s comping on this track. It is a valuable resource for teaching rhythmic comping and very understandable to the young musician.


4 Basic Riffs – Improvisation

Back in college when I was engaging in field observations, I heard a teacher tell a fifth grader to “play some jazzy rhythms.” In response to the teacher, the fifth grader looked bewildered. What are “jazzy rhythms?” When teaching improvisation, we often spend a lot of time working on melodic/harmonic vocabulary such as the blues scale and ignore the rhythmic vocabulary. The basic riffs are a good starting place to help your students improvise with some “jazzy rhythms!!!”

A good technique is to give your students one of the basic riffs and have them only improvise the notes, not the rhythm. You will see that your students will start playing more thoughtful phrases rather than playing up and down the blues scale.

As you progress, you can warm up the band with call-and-response exercises that use the blues scale and the basic riffs.


The Big Picture – Musical Selections

Ultimately, what we are doing is what classroom teachers call “pre-teaching vocabulary.” When selecting concert music, pick standards that incorporate many of these rhythmic patterns. I try to pick a Basie-style chart like “Shiny Stockings” that has the band playing in rhythmic unison. What you will find is that students will start seeing these patterns in their music and begin to audiate the correct style. Once that happens, they will begin to perform it on their instruments.


Final Thought

My focus and intent has been working with elementary to middle school students, but I believe that some of these ideas can be used with the most advanced student. This article is but a succinct and provocative abridgment of teaching techniques that you can use to help your students effectively communicate the language of jazz.


Read Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 1



About the author:

Jonathan Holford

NAfME member Jonathan Holford is the co-writer of Developing the Language of Jazz with Mike Carubia. For 15 years, he has been member of the Hewlett-Woodmere Music Department where he has been teaching middle school band and jazz ensemble. His middle school jazz ensembles have been invited to perform at state and regional music conventions and for the NYS commissioner of education. He holds a B.S in Music Education from Hofstra University and a MA in Jazz Performance from the Aaron Copeland School of Music. In addition he is an active freelance woodwind specialist in the New York area, a guest conductor and a clinician at the state and national levels on jazz education and critical questioning in the music performance classroom. 


Developing the Language of Jazz is formatted as jazz band chart and can be purchased here.


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