Observant listening: Students at UNC camp get inside jazz
Lynn Seaton picks up his double bass and asks his students to become “observant listeners.” He improvises a solo based on the blues, then asks the students what qualities they heard in his playing.
“It’s an open forum here,” Seaton says. “Holler out. What do you see?”
Students give their observations: “chromaticism,” “chords,” “call and response,” “range,” “groove,” and more.
“Did I think about any of that stuff when I was playing?” Seaton asks. “No,” but he explained to the students that he has spent a good part of his lifetime practicing and learning those elements to become a good musician.
Seaton was teaching a course in improvisation on the opening day of this year’s Carolina Summer Jazz Workshop. About 80 students, from middle-school age to adults, are taking classes in theory and improvisation, as well as private lessons, during this week’s camp. The week’s activities include daily free concerts from faculty members and guest artists, culminating in a student concert Friday.
UNC senior Sean Olson, who is teaching a theory class, told students one goal of the camp is “to bombard you with more information than you can handle,” so that when students leave, “you have something to work on.”
The classes are by no means all lecture. Seaton plays a prerecorded blues and writes out the chords on a blackboard. He then asks the students to sing the root note of the chords, encouraging them not to be afraid to make a mistake. “Don’t be shy. Be strong and wrong, and 14 bars long,” he said. Developing ear training is a lifelong exercise: “The greatest gift you will give yourself is the ability to hear,” Seaton said.
After they sang the chords, students took out their instruments, and Seaton explained call-and-response, and allowed students to play some solos. “So that’s the sound of the blues,” he said.
Olson also used a hands-on-instruments approach in his theory class. He handed out lead sheets to John Coltrane’s “Impressions” and Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird,” and taught the students numerous scales and chords, emphasizing the importance of ninths, elevenths and thirteenths in the jazz sound. During the camp, students will learn more about how to harmonize the compositions Olson gave them. To prepare, Olson had students play the different scales and chords on their instruments.
But scales are a means to an end. “Scales sound boring,” but they offer a way to approach improvisation, Olson said. “It’s a matter of what you do with them.” Olson told the students to “take one of the tunes we did and go over the scales while you practice. … The more you do it, the more you are improvising,” he said.
Saxophone player Graham Mulvaney, who graduated this year with an engineering degree from UNC and who is now in medical school, said music theory and engineering have multiple connections, “the leaps and bounds of breaking things down from their components and putting them back together.” Mulvaney, who said he grew up with jazz playing around his home, continues to play in many groups locally.
Pianist Campbell Eshleman, a high school sophomore from Atlanta, takes private lessons from a teacher who has taught him jazz theory, and he was familiar with many of the concepts in Olson’s class, which he said he will continue to practice during the camp. While jazz fans may not necessarily know theory, “listeners know a lot more then they think they do,” Eshleman said. “They know what sounds good,” and his job as a musician is to convey those sounds.
Jim Ketch, UNC Jazz Studies director, also took students through the paces, having them listen to a recording of Louis Armstrong performing “Hotter than That,” then singing the harmonies of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader.” “Get comfortable with the chord progressions,” Ketch said, “so your fingers will have a kind of muscle memory” for improvising.
He told the students to listen to recordings, sing the solos, then either do their own transcription or find one to practice. “The recordings are the great teachers.”