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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jazz Composition 1 - Composition or Ditty?

The pianist Richie Beirach once said in a workshop I attended:
“There are two kinds of jazz compositions – compositions and ditties. Most so-called jazz compositions are ditties”.

This statement, typical in its forthrightness from Richie, has stuck with me for a long time, and I’ve thought about it for a long time – was he right? Are most jazz compositions real compositions in the sense of carefully created artistic artefacts in their own right, or are they trite constructs with little or no thought given to them structurally or artistically – in short, ditties?

A lot of jazz compositions, in fact most of them, are really just excuses for blowing. They fulfil the requirement of providing the improviser with the form and chord progression over which to improvise. In the post-bebop idiom, once the melody is finished with, it is rarely if ever referred to again, it has fulfilled its function of giving the players the skeleton which they can fill out with their solos. And as such a lot of these compositions are indeed ‘ditties’ – they are short little pieces with little or no thought given to internal structure, to the relationship of the notes to each other, to motivic development, or especially to timbral and orchestration considerations. They are pragmatic jumping off points provided by improvisers for improvisers.

Does this matter? Well maybe it shouldn’t, because the history of jazz shows that the great leaps forward in the music were generated in the main by improvisers, not by composers. But then again, all of these innovators – Armstrong, Bird, Miles, Coltrane etc. – all wrote very specific kinds of pieces that were tailored to the kind of improvisational landscape they wanted to explore. So it could be argued that composition, providing as it did a forum in which these players, and others could explore and develop their art, is indeed very important in the history of jazz. As an example of how important composition can be seen to be for jazz, try to imagine Coltrane developing the concept of the Classic Quartet if his repertoire had been based on the compositions of Charlie Parker. Or can one imagine Charlie Parker powering the engine of the bebop revolution while using the repertoire of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five? Of course both of these great musicians would and could have made great music from any material, but they clearly felt the need to write new compositions which reflected their musical concerns and identity – Bird with pieces such as ‘Anthropology’ or ‘Yardbird Suite’, Coltrane with ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘Transition’.

It could also be argued that by providing these different kinds of improvisational landscapes, jazz has actually come up with a unique kind of composition – one that provides the structural constituents for the personal musical development of improvisers. On the face of it this would seem to dismiss the ‘ditty’ theory by showing how even a short form piece can form an integral and indispensable part of a much larger whole. And since the creation of this piece by the composer was a deliberate act in which he or she used the piece to fulfil this role of creating the right environment for the expression of his or her improvisational concept, it can be seen that in this context these pieces fulfil pretty much any criteria of what constitutes a ‘composition’.

So, case closed then? Is the ditty theory blown out of the water by the creation of highly personalised pieces written by great improvisers to help move their concept forward? Well no, the case is far from closed in my opinion. Because pieces that were written as true compositions, and in their original form were integral parts of an artistic whole, often become ditties in the hands of lazy unthinking musicians who completely miss the point of the original intention and context of the piece. For example the original versions of Wayne Shorter’s classic composition ‘Footprints’ - as played on the ‘Adams Apple’ and ‘Miles Smiles’ albums, is a true composition – a brooding melancholy minor blues with a lovely melody and a very specific atmosphere. It is all of a piece with the way Wayne plays and the subsequent atmosphere of the post-composition improvisations. But the ‘Footprints’ that is trotted out at a thousand jazz clubs around the world and butchered at a thousand more jam sessions is indeed a ditty, in the truest sense of the word – a trite little melody, glossed over quickly in the rush to get to the ‘real action’ - the blowing. The players in this situation are heedless of the original context of this piece and by ignoring this context, and by seeing it as merely an excuse to blow, and refusing to bring a context of their own to the piece, are, at a stroke, relegating a once lovely and unique composition to the realms of ditty-dom. ‘All Blues’ is another example of how a once exquisite composition has been cheapened and degraded by thousands of mindless performances.

So maybe the answer for the jazz musician is to write their own compositions and thereby do the kind of thing Wayne did with ‘Footprints’? Well yes, if that means that you’re going to come up with compositions that serve your overall musical concept in the way that Footprints did for Wayne. However the idea that original composition automatically equals deeper artistic expression is often not true at all. Unfortunately I believe that a lot of jazz musicians have a very poor compositional sense. They become obsessed with the the typical scale running solos of the post-bop era, and the blandness of this 8th note-soaked way of playing is reflected in the equal blandness of much of what passes for composition in jazz. An intro followed by a melody and off we go! No backgrounds, no changes of direction for different soloists, no thought given to the possibility of using different instrumental combinations within the group for different soloists, no examination of textural possibilities, no care over the creation of specific emotional atmospheres – just a parade of solos one after another followed by a brief recapitulation of the theme. In this context, despite the fact that these pieces may be ‘original compositions’ they are unquestionably ditties. And worse – they are often generic ditties – the bebop tune, the Latin tune, the rhythm changes tune, the ballad, the modal tune etc. etc.

It is amazing just how much poor and hackneyed material is accepted in jazz as being OK as far as composition goes. I do believe that in a world where so many musicians are coming out of jazz education programmes where they all learn basically the same information, that there is great scope for helping to ameliorate the danger of everyone sounding the same by making the study of composition mandatory in jazz programmes, as opposed to it being a specialisation or optional extra as it often is in many schools. The care and thought that has to be applied to true composition will and should spill over into the improvisational field of any musician who properly studies it. Any jazz musician who studies composition will quickly see that if you’re going to write a blues or rhythm changes tune you need to find something personal to do with it, not just create another ditty.

To my mind the ultimate example of a great short form, small group composer is Thelonious Monk. No matter what form he composes in, it has his personal stamp is all over it. Want to hear a Bb blues that is completely original? Try ‘Straight No Chaser’ or ‘Misterioso’. How about rhythm changes? Listen to ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’. And for great examples of through-composed pieces, try ‘Crepescule with Nellie’ or the gigantic baroque structure of ‘Brilliant Corners’. Here is someone working within the conventions of bop and post-bop form – AABA, blues, etc. - and who comes up with completely original and personal takes on these hoary old forms. And not only that, in a Monk performance, once the melody is played it is used again and again IN the solos, to inform the improvisations. He is a model for what is possible in the genre.

And he is a model for how a short form piece can avoid all the pitfalls of ditty-dom and exist as a true and uniquely jazz composition.


  1. Wow! Great article. I completely agree with your assessment of Monk's compositional style. His music, to me, sounds so unconnected to any one period- as though it transcends the different eras.

  2. I have found this article through the google. And I found a lot of interesting tips about jazz music..

    Thank you for this post..

    Music Careers

  3. Thanks for reading! And thanks for responding - I'm glad these posts are of interest to people. I think Emma, you make a very good about Monk's almost non-classifiable music. In a broad sense of course he's very clearly coming from a modern (i.e. post 1930s) jazz idiom, and you can clearly hear an Ellington influence, but he's not really of any school.

    In the 1940s the common musical characteristics of what became known as the 'bebop' school became apparent - the fast tempos, complex 8th note melodies, lots of chord substitutions based on cycle of 5th movement etc. But even though Monk came to prominence during this period and played with the greatest exponents and innovators in this musical movement, he was always slightly apart. His tunes, even of this period, are not typical bebop tunes and his own playing does not display the typical characteristics of bebop piano typified by people such as Bud Powell.

    He was then, and continued to be outside of this and other schools - you could almost say that he was the sole member of the Thelonious Monk school. (I think Charles Mingus is similar, though maybe more closely allied to bebop practices than Monk was). As jazz evolved into mainstream hard bop, and later freer and modal styles, his music remained untouched by any and all of these developments. It remained uniquely his and never sounded dated - quite the opposite in fact. As the years have gone on Monk's music can clearly be seen to amount to one of the great bodies of musical work of the 20th century, irrespective of genre.

  4. Hey Ronan, great blog mate, just came across it but will endeavor to continue through from now on. Can't agree more with your take on jazz composition here. Moreover I believe that the soloists should feel/play as part of the whole piece or composition too rather than the solo being a separate event which so often is the case. As you said this is what made Wayne, Monk, Miles, Trane etc be well beyond the ditty, the entirety of the performance IS the composition. That's what great improvisers do. Hope you're well too. Cheers,

  5. Thanks Scott - good to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to write. Great point about the integration of the solo, in fact I'm planning to write about precisely that issue in part 2 of this post - the whole issue of composition and improvisation and the problems of integrating the two. It's a fascinating subject and one that gets too little attention from a lot of players.



  6. Louis Armstrong the composer... How many composition do you know written by Him? Can you give examples?

  7. I wouldn't be an expert on Armstrong's compositions, and he's certainly better known as a player than a composer, but he did write two famous compositions on his most influential recordings - the 'Hot Five' sessions - 'Cornet Chop Suey', and 'Gut Bucket Blues', while his wife the pianist Lil Hardin wrote several more.