Vocalize to Conceptualize

Vocalize to Conceptualize


By Chris Bruya

NAfME Council on Jazz Education, Northwest representative


I’d like to share something that I’ve used and refined for over 20 years that has made a big difference in my teaching and the performance of my ensembles. It’s certainly nothing new or groundbreaking, but as I make the rounds each year judging and doing clinics around the Northwest, I don’t see or hear of this methodology being used much, so I thought sharing it here might be of some benefit.


Early in my career I wrote vocal jazz arrangements, and I struggled with creating be bop lyrics for backgrounds and ensemble figures. For instance things like “doot ‘n doo daht”. I checked out what other folks were writing and then I just relied on my instincts to vocalize what instrumentalists seem to do naturally. In my first full-time teaching job I helped the choir teacher and his students wrestle with the jazz phrasing they were working on. Through my own previous writing and these experiences I kept returning to common words being connected with jazz phrasing, things like “daht” for short, loud notes and “doo” for longer, more connected notes.


And then it happened, that “eureka” moment that changed my approach forever. It was in the middle of a rehearsal with my high school jazz band and the frustration level in the room was mounting as the students continued to not articulate/phrase a jazz line together. Finally I asked them to put down their horns and sing the line. “We don’t sing,” was the response from the players. I remember saying something like, “yes you will”! With some modeling and monitor/adjust from me, in a few minutes they were singing the phrase in the same way, i.e. with the same words. Then I asked them to put it on their horns and wham! All of us sat there for a moment in disbelief at how together they had just played. And even better, the phrasing sounded genuine, like a jazzer would play based on instinct.


Later that year I saw a clinic given by Barry Green (Inner Game of Music) with a concert band, using the same concepts I was experimenting with, although it was on the “legit” side of the fence. It was amazing how he merely asked the students to think about how to phrase/play a figure with vocalization and the musical issues would be taken care of. Soon I tried the vocalization approach with my concert band with the same astounding results.


Then another magical moment happened. I decided to look through a stack of yellow-covered jazz ensemble method books that were on the shelf of my music library. I had noticed them when first pawing through the library, but had quickly dismissed them as old school 60s vintage that couldn’t possibly be of any use to a hot, new, fresh-out-of-college-already-knows-it-all, dude. The book was written by a guy named John La Porta, a somewhat familiar name. The book was designed to be used by young musicians that knew nothing about jazz and was constructed with concepts/lines to be played by the entire group, followed by a short “chart”, with full jazz band instrumentation to put the idea into context, progressing logically from simple to complex. One overriding concept stuck out: La Porta said that in its simplest form, jazz phrasing could be reduced to two words, either “doo” or “dot”. And La Porta urged that his method would not work well unless the students regularly practiced the exercises vocally. The next day I passed out the books to my older jazz band and we tried some of the exercises. They all worked and the little charts quickly got the concepts across. The idea that simple jazz phrasing could be reduced to only two words greatly reduced complexity and most students could decide on their own whether or not a particular note should be “daht” or a “doo”. Soon after I remembered where I had heard the name: my jazz mentor, John Moawad, had referred to this particular method book as the one-best resource he had as a young teacher back in the 1960s.


After many years of using these techniques I find that I can quickly fix most jazz phrasing and time issues in instrumental jazz ensembles. When doing clinics with jazz bands, I first start by asking the group to sing their lines together. After getting everyone saying/singing the right syllables in time together we go back to horns and the students are almost always astounded at the results. Additional refinements include asking the students to finger their instruments silently at the same time. Sometimes in these clinics I start by writing the syllables on the board. Take for instance this example: daht….bah doo daht….bah doo daht….bah doot ‘n doo bah doo daaahhhhh doo daht. If you sing through this example in steady, swingin’ time you may recognize it as the head (melody) to  “Splanky” from the Basie Band. The students quickly grasp what we are doing and usually can transfer this concept to other parts of their charts and come up with their own vocalizations. It works great every time!


Over the years I’ve expanded the variety of syllables I use because true jazz phrasing does have a larger “vocabulary” than just those two words, but from my example you can understand what La Porta was trying to accomplish. One of the most difficult concepts in jazz phrasing is getting students to play pairs and/or strings of eighth notes with authentic style. As a young player, I remember being told many times to “swing” by accenting the off beats. Many of us have heard the results of this tell-them-how-to-play approach: stilted phrasing. The key is vocalization. Picture a string of eighth notes in a jazz melody, for instance “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker. Using vocalization one would sing the first phrase (medium tempo) like this: doo bah doo bah doo bah doo bah doo daht, or at a fast tempo as duh buh duh buh duh buh duh buh doo dit. In both examples the notes are connected (legato) as the “oo”, “ah” and “uh” part of each word implies note length and the difference between a closed vowel and open vowel (“oo” versus “ah”) implies the off-beat accent desired. Using the syllable “aht” or “it” implies a short note. Saying “doo-bah”  or “duh-buh”over and over in time also makes it difficult to NOT swing!


And now after many years of teaching music in all sorts of contexts I am often reminded of the value of singing, both for phrasing and pitch. I guess what it all gets down to and what I tell students here at my institution and in clinics is this: if you can’t “hear” it, you can’t play it. That’s really all this method is doing – causing students to internalize a musical concept via vocalization.


And a footnote….


A couple of summers ago I read Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography To Be or Not To Bop, which is richly filled with evidence, from both Dizzy and his contemporaries, that Dizzy was one of the first jazz “educators” to use a vocalization concept, as early as the late 30s. In fact the label “be bop” came right out of his attempts to vocalize what the players were doing and as a way to teach those around him how to phrase as he was. I discovered through this book that John La Porta was a clarinet and sax player that came up through the start of modern jazz playing in Woody Herman’s First Herd (late 40s) which many recognized, including Dizzy, as being at the forefront of be bop, then known as modern jazz. Dizzy even wrote a few charts for that band. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to conclude that La Porta and Gillespie knew each other and that La Porta had been in the band when Dizzy came by to rehearse some of his music. La Porta was also associated and recorded with many of the great players of the day, including Lenny Tristano and Charles Mingus, while at the same time beginning his teaching career at the Parkway Music Institute in Brooklyn, NY. In 1962 he went to teach at the Berklee School of Music (Boston) and had a large part in the construction of the jazz curriculum there. He died in 2004, but his legacy lives on through the thousands of students he has influenced. I guess in some small way I am one of them!