Common Denominations - Where the Churches of Jazz and Classical Agree

Ryan Adamsons

When teaching jazz for high schools and middle schools, all too often the discussion is about what is different about jazz playing versus classical playing. There is certainly no shortage of these differences, but for band directors looking to develop consistent musical habits in their programs and who may or may not have a strong jazz background themselves, looking for and emphasizing commonalities can be very helpful.


It’s still the same instrument.

In particular for wind players, the basic techniques for playing the instrument remains the same. Good breath support, proper posture and hand placement, and all the things that give an instrumentalist good classical technique will still apply to jazz playing.


Tuning knows no style.

Being in tune or out of tune is one of the blessed few topics in music that can be devoid of opinion. Jazz ensembles often have to deal with the addition of fixed pitch instruments tuned to equal temperament such as piano and vibes, but even this is no different than the same scenario in a wind ensemble. For wind instruments, tuning can often be a question of timbre, but that leads us to the fact that...


A good sound is a good sound.

A “jazz” sound can and often should be different from a “classical” sound, but it should still be thought of the same way.  A good “classical” sound should be pleasing to listen to, produced with good technique on the instrument, and internalized by the player through extensive listening to other players in the style. While jazz allows for a much wider palette of sounds and individuality, these sounds still should be developed the same way and style is not an excuse for playing with poor technique.


Play well with others.

Ensemble listening rules still apply, and are arguably more important in jazz. Being aware of your lead player, your musical role, balance, blend, pitch, time, and everything else is essential especially given the minimal role a conductor plays in most jazz settings.


Time is not just a magazine.

Because of the nature of swing eighth­notes, time and rhythm are often treated as different in jazz. The truth is that swung eighths are really the only difference; quarter notes, larger values, and triplets all remain exactly the same as in any music, and sixteenths with rare exception should be played straight as well. The perceived differences are generally articulation, duration, or other stylistic changes rather than rhythm. While there will always be some discussion about “laying back” and other rhythmic nuances, playing with good vertical alignment as an ensemble is never a bad starting point.


It’s the same 12 notes.

For most people, “jazz harmony” is something that is far easier to identify than define.  In general we’re referring to chords other than simple triads and scales other than major and minor, but the fact of the matter is that all of these still use the same pitches and basic rules of harmony as the rest of Western music. Chord symbols can seem like hieroglyphics, but like hieroglyphics they are just representations of sounds and ideas; they establish the root, 3rd, and 7th of the chord plus any other notes you may need to know. V7 still leads to I or i, most complex scales are just permutations of major or minor, and chromaticism is fundamentally just adding notes from outside the scale or key to create tension and resolution.

This still takes a lifetime to master as an improviser, but the “rules” are far less daunting and different than one might imagine.


Master the rules before learning the exceptions.

As a student, whenever I learn something my tendency is immediately to try and find out when it doesn’t work. While this is valuable in terms of exploration and testing out ideas (or so I tell myself), the educator and performer in me finds it much more valuable to master the concept so that I can use it where it does work than to worry about if or when it might not. If someone plays their instrument with good basic technique, in tune, makes a pleasing sound, listens well in an ensemble setting, plays with good time, and has a good handle on their major and minor scales and how they relate to basic harmony, they are well on their way to being a good jazz musician.