“Jazz improvisation is exactly like speaking,” notes jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This is a compelling statement on a few different levels. First it’s important to explore the parallels between speaking words and playing notes. Structurally the two are quite similar. Where words are arranged into sentences, then paragraphs, and speeches, notes are arranged into riffs, phrases, and then complete works or solos.
In jazz soloing this note arranging process is unique because it is largely improvised. In this way, jazz represented a casual conversation more than a prepared speech. For the individual, ideas and emotions are expressed through tonalities, rhythms, and inflection. These musical elements provide context to musical thoughts in the same way speaking tools like tone and cadence do. Much like a conversation though, improvising is not just about ‘speaking,’ it’s also about listening! A person can not contribute to a conversation if they don’t know what has already been said. Neither can a jazz improviser. This process may be best defined as the pragmatics of jazz improvisation. Musicians need to hear what other soloists are playing, so that they can then respond with relevant information. The concept of conversational improvisation is further explained in the Bruce Babad-Joe Jewell Tedx below. Following a verbal expanation, at 5:56 there is a clear example of listening and responding, with a focus on rhythm:
CAN JAZZ IMPROV HELP WITH ENGLISH LITERACY INSTRUCTION?
Jazz improvisation is an established ‘language’ of its own, but does it also have relevance to English literacy? According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, the answer is yes! In her contribution to The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom, Ladson-Billings describes a young teacher with a passion for Wynton Marsalis (see above). The teacher, Carter Forshay, utilized Marsalis recordings, having students create characters and dialog based on the music they heard (Ladson-Billings, 2008, p. 114). In doing so, Forshay was able to ” realize the language and literacy skills the students already possessed and connect them up with conventional forms of literacy,” (Ladson-Billings, 2008, p. 117).
The rhythmic elements of jazz can be used to practice spoken Standard English. This may be especially useful for English Language Learners. In this video author Carolyn Graham demonstrates the rhythmic and cadential similarities between jazz and spoken English. She then details her concept of ‘jazz chants,’ which uses jazz as an instructional tool.
The relationship between jazz improvisation and literacy is vast, with room for many definitions. On one hand it is a language of its own, requiring unique literacy skills. On another it can be an effective tool for English literacy in a wide range of classroom setting. Exploring these two concepts together provides a more complete view of jazz and literacy and creates another unique perspective of arts and literacy.
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Mark is an instructor and performer in the Washington D.C metro area with experience in many diverse styles including jazz, classical and pop music. As a graduate from Shenandoah Conservatory, he studied music pedagogy, theory, history and technology. Also ask Mark about his unique experiences performing in the Sahara desert – it will be sure to inspire and give insight into the passion he brings to every lesson.
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