Integrating Strings into your Jazz Program

by David Mills

Jazz Educators Journal
November 2000

This is a revision of an article I wrote for the International Jazz Association in 2000. Most of the concepts on how to integrate strings into an educational jazz program have only minor changes. I would now like to add the argument that we, as jazz educators, should create dance orchestras for our schools. (see DoSO® Dance Band) Why is it that young people are dancing to a DJ spinning rap records when they could be dancing to live music performed by their peers? A recent New York Times article reported that high schools are suspending social dancing because the lyrics and dance steps are so offensive to women, they fear lawsuits for condoning sexual harassment. Let’s take advantage of a renewed interest in couples dancing—salsa, swing, tango, etc. (see Children Dancing)

When asked what kind of music he liked, Duke Ellington replied, “There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” I, myself, would say there is serious music and social music. Serious music requires our undivided attention, and it is performed by highly skilled musicians in a concert setting. Social music is to be shared in social gatherings, such as, dances, sing-a-longs, and nightclubs. As the leader of a superb dance band and the composer of sacred music performed in cathedrals, Duke Ellington was a master of both serious and social music. (See a great documentary, “On the Road with Duke Ellington,” filmed by my father, Abbot Mills.)

In our educational system, the choice of a string instrument is most often a choice limited to serious European music, even though our National Education Standards insist that a complete music education must include improvisation as found in jazz. As in school sports, few educators will have a student who will go on to be a professional. Our purpose in teaching music has much broader social implications as stated in our Education Standards: we develop “intuition, reasoning, imagination and dexterity into unique forms of expression and communication…(students) learn to respect the very different ways others have of thinking, working, and expressing themselves.”

Most jazz educators will admit that working with string players is problematic. The vicious cycle is undeniable. Because the opportunity to learn jazz is not there for violinists, violists and cellists, students interested in jazz will choose brass, reed, or percussion instruments. As someone who concentrates on teaching improvisation for string players at Neighborhood Music School, I would like to encourage my colleagues to give strings a chance. In brief, I offer solutions to the obstacles of working with strings.

Problem 1 — What do I do for arrangements? Jazz band arrangements have melody parts that are in Bb and Eb, and even if I take the time to transpose parts, flat keys are uncomfortable for string players.

The simple solution is to use Flat Key Violins (Bb and Eb instruments). Using slightly heavier strings, one can tune violins down a whole step (F-C-G-D). The violinist can then read trumpet, soprano sax, or clarinet parts, and s/he can play in comfortable hand positions taking advantage of open strings. For example, the space below the staff is read as an open D string, and it will now sound as a concert C. Lowering the strings actually gives the instrument a darker, richer sound that reduces some of the edginess associated with solo, amplified violin. It also allows for a wrapped high (D) string rather than a plain E string that often sounds shrill on an amplified violin.

By tuning a viola down one whole step (Bb-F-C-G), the violist can read an Eb alto sax part in the treble clef. In other words, the violist thinks of the instrument as an Alto Flat Key Violin with the lowest string as G and the highest as E. In this scenario, the space below the staff that reads as an open D string will sound as a concert F, a major sixth below–just as it does on an alto sax.

Both the Flat Key Violin and the Alto Flat Key Violin are fretted to the 5th like a viola da gamba. With light touch in the left hand, the player can still slide and get a glissando effect. The advantage comes in anchoring the first finger when moving into upper positions. Replicating melodic patterns by shifting hand positions is known as “frame shifting.” When playing with loud horns and drums, frets make it much easier to maintain good intonation in upper positions.

Sax sections in big bands were often scored to sound like strings, and a violin on a lead clarinet part can help realize the arranger’s intent. Simply adding strings to existing arrangements is just the beginning. Strings have their own rhythmic dynamic that will be developed as composers and arrangers begin to see the potential.

(In my original article I wrote about an approach towards the inclusion of cello in a jazz band, but I am going to leave the cello out of this version while I continue to work on the concept of the Bb piccolo cello.)

Problem 2 — It takes several violins to balance against a single clarinet. How will anyone hear a violin in a jazz band with eight brass and five saxes?

Obviously, strings must be amplified. When trying out an electric instrument, one should first play it unplugged. If the instrument feels good, the sound can be shaped by the amplifier and its tone controls. If the instrument does not feel right, no matter how good the sound, the player will become discouraged and abandon the instrument.

The amplifier becomes the “body cavity” for the instrument, and it should be chosen with the same care as the instrument. I try to have a small amp for each player, and we set the amp at the volume of a robust tenor sax. It is important to set the amp for optimum tone, not for shear volume. For large arenas or outdoor concerts that require “sound reinforcement,” I put a microphone approximately one foot in front of each amp just as I put a mic in front of each horn.

One can run instruments directly through a PA system, but it causes a couple of problems. First, two violinists coming from the same speaker cannot distinguish their own part, and they lose control of their intonation. Second, if the instruments are coming through PA speakers placed down stage, the players cannot accurately judge their volume.

It is not necessary to have amplified strings sound exactly like traditional instruments in a classical orchestra. A drum set, with its strong cymbal overtones, will cancel out the “warm” overtones of acoustic instruments. Electric string instruments are responsive to the musician’s touch, they have a good new sound, and they offer new possibilities for the jazz band.? It is curious how people who take offense to amplified string instruments are accepting of a symphony orchestra in the park performing with overhead microphones. I say once the sound is coming through speakers, it is electric–whether the microphone is overhead or in the instrument is irrelevant.

Problem 3 — It is difficult to improvise on bowed string instruments.
String players merely lack experience, and they need to hear inspiring examples of string improvisation. In fact, string instruments, tuned in fifths, are great for improvisation. There is a symmetry to scale patterns that makes it very easy to understand modal theory (Figure 2 & Figure 3). The ability to slide into or off of notes is very effective when playing the blues, and this can be done even on fretted instruments.

Improvised music, a form of spontaneous composition, will often take on the characteristics of the instruments employed. For example, the blues developed naturally from guitar fingerings. Ragtime came from out-of-tune dance hall pianos that sounded less dissonant if the player bounced the left hand in a staccato stride. Although a significant jazz influence from the violin may be yet to come, there is a shadow of influence imbedded in the jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Besides the great African-American innovators of that era, there were many Jewish musicians whose families came from Eastern Europe–song writers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin–improvisers like Benny Goodman and Ziggy Elman. From this culture one hears traces of klezmer music and Russian folk dances–music that soars in the hands of a wild violinist. Altering scales to accommodate chord progressions from old jazz songs creates exotic Eastern scales (Figure 4). For example, in A minor one adds only a G# to accommodate an E7 chord. The resultant scale has an exotic leap of a minor 3rd from F to G#. Improvisation students who have played in klezmer bands are comfortable with these scales.

There are, of course, great examples of violin improvisation in Cuban dance music and Indian classical music. Also, there are multi-cultural ensembles that have made some great recordings: Natural Elements by John McLaughlin and Tchokola by Jean Luc Ponty.

Problem 4 — Strings don’t swing

It is true that it takes practice to capture the triplet feel of swing on a string instrument with its up/down bow attack. However, Latin, African, rock and funk rhythms are all great for strings.

One of my string projects was training a European string quartet to work with Ahmad Jamal. The string players could easily relate to Mr. Jamal’s “classical technique” on the grand piano, but beyond that, they had to explore the full body language of the music. When Ahmad Jamal plays you see conga strokes in his forearms and African dance in his shoulders. We gave the string quartet African dance lessons, and it helped them to feel the music as a full-body gesture rather than a series of notes off the finger tips. I believe that all musicians, not just string players, should dance as part of their training. Especially in polyrhythmic music, dancing is the only way to truly understand how all the parts contribute to the composite feel.

Problem 5 — Playing jazz will detract from students’ classical playing

A student trying to sound like the late great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli may need to borrow from classical rehearsal time, however, pure improvisation greatly accelerates the development of technique. Think what it would do to a toddler’s speech development if we allowed the child to speak only words that he or she could read and write. I have young students that can play extremely sophisticated rhythms–rhythms that would be difficult to read for any musician. My string improvisation students use the full range of the instrument and discover all sorts of radical bowing technique years before they would come across something similar in a virtuoso classical composition.

Improvisation also helps a student to better understand the meaning of a written part. Students who improvise can better phrase, embellish and memorize classical scores. Playing jazz certainly does not detract from Marsalis brothers’ ability to play classical music.

In families where there has never been exposure or interest in classical music, hearing jazz or the blues on the violin may inspire a young child. Once the child is learning to play, s/he will develop the technique to play all kinds of music. Ultimately, we may see better diversity in the string sections of our symphony orchestras.

Coda — The addition of strings will bring new rhythms, new textures, and new vitality to the American dance band. In turn, string players experiencing improvised music will discover the fundamental of the American dream: an individual who is innovative and creative shall be rewarded.