Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Jazz vs Classical Music Notation

The September '09 issue of JazzEd Magazine has a provocative article on jazz notation entitled Common Errors in Jazz Music Notation. The piece is by Lee Evans, a professor of music at Pace University and co-author of the book How To Play Chord Symbols in Jazz and Popular Music. Mr. Evans' central thesis is that jazz chord notation and spelling ought to conform to the standards used by classical musicians.

I contend that harmonic notation serves a different purpose for jazz musicians than for classical players. Jazz players use chord changes as a means of giving shape to melodic improvisation. The chords determine (or at least suggest) the scalar context out of which the improvisor operates. Classical musicians reading lead sheets or fake book arrangements use the chord symbols in a much more static way - to accompany the melody of the tune they're reading. The scalar context is unimportant to someone who is not engaged in improvising.

Hence, there is no good reason why the nomenclature jazz musicians use ought to be considered inferior, or "incorrect and sloppy" as Mr. Evans would have it. The way jazz players notate, read and interpret harmony is very well suited to their needs; classical notation is irrelevant and often impractical.

It seems to me that jazz players tend to conceive chords based on three factors: harmonic function (or context), readability and aural quality. In other words, for a jazz musician, where the harmony derives from, how easy it is to recognize quickly and how the chord sounds take precedence over the rules of classical harmony.

For example, Mr. Evans is adamant that the chord spelled C E G Bb Eb ought to be called C7b10 instead of C7#9, unless the top note is written as a D#. Of course he is correct IF you accept the point of view that the way jazz musicians generally think of chords is inferior. The dominant chord with an altered 9th is not found in any diatonic scale; it is extracted from the diminished (or octatonic) scale. Therefore, the "classical" rules for note spelling don't necessarily apply. It is equally correct, from a jazz perspective, to think of the altered 9ths on a C7 chord as Db and Eb, and, given our predisposition to favor flats over sharps when reading, Eb is preferable to D#. (Just ask any saxophone or trumpet player which spelling they'd rather read.) The alteration "b10" is simply meaningless to a jazz player because the significant implication of the diminished scale is the presence of both altered 9ths and the absence of the natural 9th.

Another example is the chord Cdim7, which he insists must be spelled C Eb Gb Bbb. Though I get his point that, on paper, C up to A is a major 6th and not a diminished 7th, I'm quite certain that most of us would prefer not to have to interpret a Bbb on the fly. How it sounds rather than how it looks ought to be the determining factor. No matter how you spell the notes, a diminished 7th chord consists entirely of minor 3rds stacked on top of one another, and A is a whole lot easier to deal with than Bbb.

Mr. Evans also has a problem with the minor 6th chord. He feels that Cm6 ought to translate to C Eb G Ab. The problem here is that he is taking the chord form out of its most commonly used context, namely, as a tonic chord in a minor key. Jazz musicians don't usually use natural minor as tonic; we think of that chord as being extracted from melodic minor. So Cm6 really is C Eb G A. We use the m6 designation to distinguish that sound from the minor 7th (C Eb G Bb), which most commonly functions as a ii or vi chord.

The final part of the article states that "until such time as the...questionable practices... have been modified or changed, it is imperative that musical purists learn to function within these broken rules of theory, if they are to participate successfully in the jazz world".

This is an elitist and arrogant statement. First, Mr. Evans dismisses the traditional and highly functional way jazz musicians communicate with one another, calling our nomenclature both "questionable" and "broken". Then he makes matters worse by implying that "musical purists", whoever they may be, can "participate successfully in the jazz world" by adapting to our "incorrect, sloppy and broken" system.

Seems to me that there might be a few more skills that need to be learned if a classical musician wants to play jazz. The implication that any classically trained musician can become a jazz player by adapting to our "broken" rules is as wrong as it is demeaning. Mr. Evans' assertion that the "language of jazz [is] unfriendly and difficult to comprehend" is based on a fundamental lack of understanding of how we use that language. The fact that it differs from classical harmony is a function of its practical application. Different doesn't mean broken, incorrect or sloppy, unless one views jazz as an inferior genre - and I doubt very much that this is what Mr. Evans intends to communicate.

Your thoughts are welcome.