While jazz has been America’s greatest musical contribution in the last century, there is another system that emerged contemporaneously in Europe and then in the United States, namely, serialism. Despite serialism’s prominence in the American academy and the proliferation of jazz studies programs, the two realms have enjoyed few synergies. This study will examine adding other components of serialism such as rhythm and dynamics separately and, after a pre-test to establish the improviser’s facility with standard material, asking the participant to improvise first with the pitch constraints and then adding the others one at a time under expert, double-blind panel adjudication. To what extent can the tenets of serialism be imposed and still permit accomplished jazz improvisers to execute with the fluency typical of their improvisations on traditional harmony-based music, executing idiomatically-sound ideas confidently and purposefully in time and with note selection appropriate for the prevailing harmony? In order to determine if the conditions impacted participants’ improvisational fluency, a repeated measures ANOVA will be conducted. Descriptive statistics will be reported for participants across each condition. Principal among the expected findings are that (1) facility with jazz improvisation over standard material is highly correlative with serial improvisational fluency with pitch-class considerations, (2) serialization of dynamics and rhythm is impracticable in improvisation and, at best, enables only a stilted performance interfering with the swing feel, and (3) as such, the pedagogical approach would therefore be to first ensure students can improvise at high level on standard material and then, for only the best such students, extending the instruction to the serial pitch-class language.
Effect of Serial Procedures on Fluency in Jazz Improvisation: Can Serial “Killing” Be Taught – (Click for Full Research Paper)
This study is inspired by the work of America’s greatest exponent of serialism, Milton Babbitt, who himself had a jazz background and whose All Set for jazz ensemble (1957) showed that the 12-tone language does not, in and of itself, diminish the visceral and emotive qualities of any music. Though fully scored, it is a bona fide jazz piece meant to be heard and not just seen on a score. This study is not an attempt to keep serialism alive in America but rather an exploration into how the serial language can be re-imagined in a contemporary and distinctly American fashion, translating the language of jazz to serialism rather than the other way around.
The literature on pedagogical methods for jazz improvisation in tonal music with functional harmony or over modal music is voluminous with method books emerging in the 1960s and 1970s (Aebersold, 1967; Baker, 1969; Coker, 1970; McGhee, 1974). While jazz has been America’s greatest musical contribution in the last century, there is another system that emerged contemporaneously in Europe and then in the United States, namely, serialism. Despite serialism’s prominence in the American academy and the proliferation of jazz studies programs, the two realms have enjoyed few synergies. In the few cases where this has occurred, the results have found favor with audiences of experts and laypersons alike (Garasa, 2017). It may be therefore advantageous for improvisers to develop this skill set to add to their arsenal. It is notable that even serialists such as Stockhausen embraced indeterminacy, introducing the unforeseeable outcome of improvisation as a reaction to the orthodoxy of rationally-conceived serial music, more in line with the American and German avant garde of John Cage, Christian Wolf, and Earle Brown (Kutschke, 1999).
The mathematical nature of research in the area of music theory has led to preponderance of highly technical literature in the academy especially with regard to serial organization. Mead (1994) has distilled these notions as they relate specifically to the music of Milton Babbitt including the aforementioned All Set. In that piece, written for the 1957 Brandeis Music Festival which that year was a jazz festival, Babbitt (1957) employed all six of the all-combinatorial hexachords, hence the title, and asks that the eighth notes be swung which gives the solos, albeit written, an improvisatory feel. Lest the reader posit that such pre-compositional design obviates the need for creative selection, Mailman (2010) showed that Babbitt’s arrays, in fact, open up thousands of possibilities. Zepeda (1996) took the All Set idea one step further in his I Care If You Listen where there is actual jazz improvisation required. Just as Babbitt did in All Set, Zepeda used all six of the all-combinatorial source hexachords for this piece. During the swing section, players are called upon to improvise jazz over each hexachord and its complement (the entire aggregate). Each soloist takes six choruses, one over each aggregate, treating each trichord as an unordered collection. Furthermore, each aggregate employs a different trichord generator to create intervallic variety.
May (2003) has shown what factors in students’ backgrounds correlate strongly to improvisation scores across seven dimensions on very standard jazz material, namely, F blues and Satin Doll, and found self-evaluation and aural imitation ability to be the two best predictors. Smith (2009) validated a 14-point rubric for evaluating jazz improvisation with high reliability, again on very standard material – Bb blues and Killer Joe. Ciorba (2009) studied 102 high school students measuring improvisational achievement (dependent variable) versus seven independent variables with Self-Assessment and Motivation leading the way. Again, that study evaluated improvisation on very standard material, Bb blues and Satin Doll. O’Gallagher (2013) presented a comprehensive method specifically addressing the application of serial techniques to jazz improvisation using the trichord as the basis. Beato (2017) demonstrated how 12-tone rows can be expertly used in jazz improvisation, ‘comping, and composition as lines, chords, or polychords. Like Zepeda (1996), these latter two focused solely on the pitch class aspect of serialism.
To what extent can the tenets of serialism be imposed and still permit accomplished jazz improvisers to execute with the fluency typical of their improvisations on traditional harmony-based music? Improvisational fluency is defined here as the degree to which the improviser executes idiomatically-sound ideas confidently and purposefully in time and with note selection appropriate for the prevailing harmony (May, 2003). For this study, improvisational fluency is taken to evaluate, with the rules of serialism imposed, the degree to which the improviser still maintains a melodic flow executing idiomatic jazz ideas in time and with good note choice at a level consistent with his/her competency in conventional (traditional harmony-based) jazz improvisation.
Rather than considering improvisation as a reaction to serialism as noted by Kutschke (1999), this study looks at the integration of improvisation adding other components of serialism such as rhythm, dynamics, and articulation separately and, after a pre-test to establish the improviser’s facility with standard material, asking the improviser to improvise first with the pitch constraints and then adding the others one at a time under expert, double-blind panel adjudication. If “a skilled improviser in any tradition must be able to deal with the relevant elements of melody, rhythm, and harmony in a spontaneous and expressive manner” (Dobbins, 1980, pp. 38-39), why should serial jazz be excluded from the list of traditions? Unlike examples from the concert music world such as Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse (1956) and Pierre Boulez’s Improvisations II sur Mallarme (1957) wherein limited improvisation takes place within the context of strict composition (Hamilton, 1960), the tests in this study require full-blown jazz improvisation within a rigid serial context. The following research questions were therefore proposed:
- Can fluency in serial improvisation be predicted by a known or established level of artistry in traditional jazz improvisation?
- How much does the imposition of serial conditions impact improvisational fluency?
- Is idiomatic jazz improvisation tenable with any number of serial conditions and, if so, what pedagogical methods are indicated?
Discussion and Implications
A conclusion would be drawn on how to best teach serial improvisation at the college or advanced high school level. Based on how these professionals perform, is it reasonable to add the restrictions of dynamics and rhythm or is even pitch too difficult for students? Is improvisational artistry on standard jazz material, as established by a pre-test, a reliable predictor of improvisational fluency under imposed serial treatments. To what extent do serial restrictions beyond pitch class organization affect fluency?
This study seeks to generalize the results to avant garde or contemporary straight-ahead jazz musicians and free jazz improvisers. This population would be well-served to adopt this skill set either to add flavor over chord changes or to add a measure of order to their improvisations which may appear random or solely gestural/textural. Further ecologically valid generalizations can extend to contemporary straight-ahead jazz or fusion where the chord changes are not so much functional as they are in a Great American Songbook standard but, rather, colors such that 12-tone shapes can be played without sounding “wrong”. It would also be generalizable to modal jazz where a strict adherence to the notes within the prevailing mode or to pentatonic patterns would grow tiresome over time (Beato, 2017).
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Beato, R. (2017, January 9). Twelve tone triads: How to use tone rows in your soloing [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvCkynymUDQ
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Garasa, C. (2017, October 4). A different kind of Bakersfield sound with new releases. The Californian. Retrieved from https://www.bakersfield.com/entertainment/music/
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Smith, D. (2009). Development and Validation of a Rating Scale for Wind Jazz Improvisation Performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 57, 217-235.
Zepeda, R. (1996). I care if you listen: A critic’s response to just artistry. Redondo Beach, CA: Cambridge-West.