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3 minutes reading time (549 words)

Interpreting jazz accents

Accents are a fascinating thing. I mean the kind that keep Americans from understanding folks from across the pond and vice versa. I'll never forget landing at the Edinburgh, Scotland, airport and hailing a cab to my hotel. The cabbie said something to me that sounded vaguely like a phrase I should understand. It might as well have been Martian, for, try as I might, I could not figure out what he was trying to convey. Suddenly, like the sun breaking through a fogbank, I got it! It was simply a case of his emphasis being on a syllable that made a rather simple English phrase sound completely—well, foreign. 

When we moved to the Nashville area from California, we had a few linguistic surprises as well. A certain parent-teacher conference comes to mind. We had lived in Tennessee for about six months, and the teacher had a very strong—and beautiful, I might add—southern accent. My wife and I were struggling to catch every word, and our son, Sean, was doing a bit of translating for us. His young ears had adapted quickly to his new surroundings. The parents were still learning.

"(Our son's) young ears had adapted quickly to his new surroundings. The parents were still learning. So it is with the language of jazz. It has an accent all its own."

So it is with the language of jazz. It has an accent all its own. Once you have the hang of it, it's a beautiful thing. But, if you are adapting your ears from a classical music background, the ebb and fl ow of jazz interpretation might need some translation. 

Let's take "When the Saints Go Marching In" for example. Interpreted in a "classical" light, we might fi nd the result seen in Example 1. 

By anticipating the second beat (or as some might say, "pushing" the second beat), we fl avor this phrase with the accent of jazz (see Example 2).

Example 1
Example 2

The effect can be further enhanced by also anticipating the downbeat of the second measure. The melody remains fi rmly on the third downbeat, serving as a solid anchor in a sea of syncopation (see Example 3). 

Let's look at an eight-bar complete phrase of "The Saints" arranged with typical classical styling (see Example 4).

Example 3
Example 4
Example 5

Now, let's take that same phrase and apply a "jazz accent" to it. In addition to following the phrase and articulation markings, play it with a "swing" and you'll have an authentic jazz feel (see Example 5). 

In learning any language, there is absolutely no substitute for listening. I studied German in college, but I feel like I really "got it" after visiting the country and hearing the language fl uently spoken all around me. 

The same is true for absorbing the language of jazz. Listen. Listen. Listen. In that spirit, I would encourage you to listen to the incomparable Louis Armstrong's version of "The Saints Go Marching In." This can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyLjbMBpGDA 

It doesn't get any better!

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An unknown pupil of Franz Liszt
Louis Nagel "The People's Pianist"


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