Teaching Jazz Articulation and Style

Can You Dig?

Teaching Jazz Articulation and Style

By NAfME Member Christopher Barrick

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Along with improvisation, jazz style can be one of the more challenging aspects of teaching jazz.  Since so much of jazz style comes from articulation, it is difficult to address one without the other.   Let’s look at some common tenants of jazz articulation.  Can you dig?

Keep It Smooth

Jazz is legato! One of the most common issues I hear in young jazz students is a lack of legato style in their articulation. Although we tend to focus on the short accents in jazz, the basic articulation style is legato. 

To make matters worse, some students go too far and slur everything.  Authentic jazz articulation is a combination of tongues and slurs in a legato style.  For example, try interpreting this:

Fig 1

As this:

Fig 2

This second example if often referred to as a “bebop” or “off-beat articulation.”  While professional jazz players won’t use this articulation strictly, they will use versions of it to add definition to lines while maintaining the smooth, legato style.

Know Your Syllables

Much like in other areas of instrumental music, jazz educators can use syllables to help teach articulation.  Here are some common articulations symbols, their interpretation, and an appropriate syllable to apply:

  • Short Accent = “DOT” (tongue-stopped) Fig 3
  • Long notes = “DU” Fig 4
  • Long Accent = “DA” fig 5
  • Staccato = “DIT” fig 6

You’ll notice that the short accent (“DOT”) and staccato (“DIT”) syllables both end in “T.”  In both classical and jazz music, I teach articulation syllables as “consonants = tongue; vowels = air.”  In this case, both “DOT” and “DIT” are tongue-stopped articulations.  While some educators emphasize an avoidance of tongue-stopped articulations in classical music, they are quite commonplace in jazz.  In fact, some teachers ask their students to play “DOT” accents shorter and shorter, when perhaps they should be making sure they are using the proper tongue-stop (rather than an “air stop” or “breath release, etc.).   A “DOT” accent can have some length at slower tempi (“fat” in the lingo), but it is always tongue-stopped.  Furthermore, I recommend that students always start the “DOT” with the tongue, even if the line slurs into it.   Also, there are several different versions of these syllables that jazz players and educators use.   While these particular syllables are the ones that I use, feel free to employ other versions if they make more sense to you and your students. 

Follow the Rules

While the classical world often prescribes exact articulation, there often appears to be much more interpretation required for jazz music.  Here are some simple rules that might help you in interpreting jazz articulation:

  • Think of jazz articulation as LONG vs. SHORT
    • LONG is full value and legato tongue (NOT slurred)
    • SHORT is generally very short and tongue-stopped
  • Eighth Notes followed by a rest, are usually short (DOT)

fig 7  is played as:  fig 8

  • Notes immediately followed by a DOT are usually long (DU)

fig 9  is played as: fig 10


 Scoops, Bends, and Jazz Grace Notes

While “scoops,” “bends,” and other stylizations are an integral part of the jazz language, they are often abused and misused by novice players.  Frequently, I hear jazz students over-scooping, adding in far too much bending to their playing.  On the contrary, some students don’t use them at all and miss out on a key element of jazz expression.

Scoops and bends are essentially synonymous.  They are produced differently on different instruments.  For wind players, scoops are usually accomplished by manipulating the embouchure.  Many saxophonists add in an element of throat or “glottal” smear to the scoop.  Trombonists, obviously, can also use the slide.  As with any element of jazz style, recordings of master players are the best reference for scoops and bends.

Some instruments ­– such as piano – cannot bend the pitch.  Instead, they use a “jazz grace note:” a grace note a half-step below the target note.  Jazz guitarists use these grace notes instead of string bends, which are more appropriate in blues or rock playing.  Wind players can also employ jazz grace notes to add style to their playing.  Simply tongue a note a half-step below, and slur up to the target note.  For a really hip sound, utilize ascending and descending jazz grace notes to play the “smooth jazz lick:”

fig 11

Putting it all together

Just as with improvisation, jazz articulation and style are difficult to master without listening.  I often to recommend a wide variety of focused listening to my students including: their favorite players, older/newer jazz masters, and jazz players on instruments other than their own.  There’s a whole world of jazz style and nuance to learn, and the master players are the best place to start.  Can you dig?

About the author:

Christopher Barrick bio option 2

Dr. Christopher Barrick is the James and Ann Bumpass Distinguished Chair of Music and head of the Department of Music and Theatre at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. As associate professor of music, he teaches applied saxophone and directs the UAFS Jazz Band.

Previously, Barrick served on the music faculty of West Liberty University (WV) for six years and has taught in the public schools of Tennessee.  A Selmer Paris saxophone artist, Barrick holds music degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (DMA), the University of Tennessee (MM) and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (BA and BS).

Christopher presented on his topic “Can You Dig?: Teaching Jazz Articulation and Style” at the 2016 NAfME National Conference in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2022 NAfME National Conference!

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