Messages From Masters: Byron Stripling

by Ella Campbell

While I’ve been moving and rearranging my things, I came across a notebook with snippets of notes from different masterclasses I attended at Michigan State. Here are a few notes I took during a masterclass with Byron Stripling in April, 2010.

  • Knowledge is not power, action is power. Develop action-oriented habits.
  • When you leave your university, your teachers will become your competition. Stop thinking about yourself as a student, and start thinking of yourself as a musician.
  • Believe that what you want to do is possible. Then what you believe must become your reality.
  • Do your own research. If everyone is going in one direction, see what happens if you go the other.
  • First we make [good] habits, then our habits make us.
  • Practice every day. Develop a practice program for yourself.
  • Repetition is the mother of skill: you know something when you are able to perform it.
  • Practice for 1 or 2 hours every morning sometime before noon: it’s like working out. If you don’t do it at the beginning of the day the probability of you having the motivation through the rest of the day lessens.
  • “What should we practice?” Whatever it is, believe that it’s important. Emotionally you have to feel it’s important, otherwise you won’t do it.
  • “What kind of mouthpiece do you use?” … “Oh that’s interesting!” “NO. What’s interesting is get your ass in a practice room!
  • Clarity is power: check out the Clifford Brown recording of him practicing.
  • Practice sight reading
  • Practice listening: “You must be present to win.”
  • Listen for rhythm, melody and harmony. Do what the musicians you admire do: study the culture & roots of the music you listen to. Absorb everything.
  • Create a music environment that serves to your greatest good.
  • Learn how to play something humble for your grandma. Like “Misty.”
  • Play, in root position, any changes you have to play over. Then figure out how to resolve it. Learn the rules first.
  • Model the masters. If someone has done something that you want to do, learn how they did it and do that. Get the music inside you.
  • Start with baby steps.
  • On Self Discipline: There is no one to blame but ourselves for our lack and limitation. Do what you know you should do, even when you don’t want to do it.
  • Record yourself once a week. Get the true reflection of how you sound.
  • People want to help you if you can help yourself.


  • When you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk: “Who you are is so loud that I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
  • “Circumstances don’t make the man, they just reveal who is he is to himself.”
  • “Success is failure turned inside out.”
  • “If you see a straight line in nature, man made it.”
  • “Any time you decide what you want, there will be road blocks in your way.”
  • “All negativity is rooted in frustration of potential.”
  • “Be proud of giving joy to people’s lives.”

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!

Messages From Masters: Tim Warfield

by Ella Campbell

After a Terell Stafford Quintet concert, the musicians all re-entered the stage and opened up the house for questions. A member of the audience asked a question about how to keep her sons involved in music. She has a son who is taking piano lessons and she can’t convince him to keep practicing, so she asked what made the members of the Quintet stay interested in music. Here is Tim’s answer.

“I just love music. I guess the radio is what kept me inspired. And, if you know me, my parents. My lifestyle was different. My childhood was different. I lived in the hood, but I was not allowed to speak the hood unless I was out on the street. Then it was okay because I had to understand what that was. If I was in our house, I had to speak properly.

“I was fortunate enough to have parents that exposed me to a lot of different things very early. Me and my brother were treated really well, and I consider myself to be very blessed. For whatever reason, I was just that kind of kid who would go out and hang out a little bit, but then I just liked sitting by the radio. I used to just listen to music, and I happened to grow up in a period where it was a very fertile time artistically. No matter what genre of music you were talking about, like now, you see someone saying ‘I’m gonna do a Joni Mitchell project,’ yeah, well, whoopdie-doo. There were so many while I was growing up, you could choose anybody. We were just talking today about, whether you think he’s corny or not, Barry Manilow. He wrote a bunch of killin’ tunes, and so did John Denver, so did Karen Carpenter, so did The Eagles, Christopher Cross, Earth Wind and Fire, The Platters, doesn’t matter. I could just go on and on. That’s the era I grew up in.

“So, I was just like a sponge as a young person listening to all this music, and I liked music. And the other thing is, it’s a different sort of experience I think, for me, than maybe the current generations. I think we were talking about this yesterday as well: when I was growing up there were no visual images to go along –”

The woman asking the questions interrupted: “Where were you born and raised?”

“Born in York, Pennsylvania. Raised in York, Pennsylvania. That’s where my mother’s from. My father’s from west Philly. So my mom would be like,” Tim raised the pitch of his voice to sound feminine,  “‘No no! they can’t fight!’ and my dad would be like, ‘Let them fight.’ But he spoke like this,” Tim lowered his voice and spoke with perfect diction, “‘Let them fight. Dear. They must learn how to fight.’ and then I would come home with a black eye,” switches to his father’s voice again, “‘You’ll be all right, son.’” The audience laughed.

“I lived 20 minutes from Amish country. Everybody’s hip to that right? So how I lived, and what I understood, was a bit more diverse than the kids in my neighborhood. Even listening to music was different for me, not having visual images. No one dancing, no one singing, you don’t see groups of people dancing or anything.

“It’s like, you hear about Michael Jackson, and you think about your favorite song. Then you hear he has a new record out. How did you hear he has a new record out? You read it in the magazine or heard it from your friends. And you couldn’t wait until you got to this song: and when you got this song, it was just you and the song. Which is much different than you, the song, and the video. Understand that. It’s a different spiritual, intellectual experience when you don’t let someone feed you a visual image with music. It’s much more intimate. I think the idea of being intimate with music also inspired me. You know, and, when my parents said ‘you have to practice.’”

Until next time,
Practice & listen, sisters!
– Ella

Messages from Masters: Jimmy Heath

by Ella Campbell

During the past year, Jimmy Heath visited Michigan State University. He performed with one of the big bands and hovered around the jazz program, offering conversation and good company, and gave a master class. A “NastyClass” he proclaimed as he walked into the classroom. He spent some of the time talking about his autobiography I Walked with Giants, which he co-wrote with Joseph McLaren. His wife, Mona came with him to Lansing and kept Mr. Heath in check.

Jimmy is the brother of Percy and Tootie Heath, and contemporary of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. An NEA Jazz Master, he is a saxophone player, teacher, and composer/arranger.

I was curious about Mona as will as Jimmy. Race has played a huge role in American history and as I did the math in my head, I realized that Jimmy (African American) and Mona (Caucasian) must have gotten married  around the ’60s. I was right: they met in 1959, and were married by 1960. I have lost inhibitions with what questions I bombard Professor Whitaker with, so I asked him with sincere curiosity if Mona was very light-skinned or if she was white. He said she was white, and then encouraged me to talk to her. I asked her what it was like for her to be in an interracial relationship during the early ’60s and she said “Oh. It was a terrible idea,” immediately, wrapping the words in warmth as she looked up to the ceiling, “But he needed me. It was right when he got home [Jimmy suffered from drug abuse in the previous years and served a 4-year sentence at Lewisburg Penitentiary. They met during Jimmy’s welcome home gathering in 1959, where she was a friend of Percy’s]. I lived with his mother for a while. She taught me everything I needed to know.”

Jimmy describes their relationship in I Walked with Giants:

Eventually Mona and I decided to get married. When I told Marro that I had met someone and we wanted to get married, he said “That’s a wonderful idea. I’m so glad to hear that. She’ll be a stabilizing influence.” He said that he’d like to see her. When Marro heard the name Mona Brown, he assumed that she was black. When Mona went in to meet him, Marro tried to discourage her from marrying me because of my criminal background and for racial reasons, but it was to no avail. We got married on February 4, 1960, in my parents’ living room in Philadelphia. … My brother Percy had already married interracially when I was with Dizzy in 1950. My interracial marriage was and wasn’t a problem. My parents were nervous because they figured that since I had been in prison, Mona couldn’t be serious about marrying me. They though it would only lead to another problem for me to overcome. My father wondered why Mona wanted to marry me. He wasn’t sure if she was serious.

When Mona and I sat on the front steps of my parents’ house on Federal Street, sometimes the police would slow up and stare. One time they approached her and said “you all right, Miss?” Things like that would happen.

There weren’t a lot of interracial marriages, but people were doing it. In the sixties, interracial relationships involving jazz musicians were becoming more prevalent. … Miles, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee, Benny Harris, Tadd Dameron, Coleman Hawkins, and Charles Mingus were all involved in interracial relationships. Although I was in Philly, I was still into the same kind of musical environment that lent itself to social mixing. There were interracial relationships in the other direction too. Gil Evans, George Wein, and other white musicians were involved with black women. It was socially acceptable in the bebop community, and it was also part of the internationalism of the music.

The situation was completely different for Mona’s side of the family:

By the end of the year, we had decided to get married. We told our families.Mine said, “Goodbye, don’t come back.” Jimmy’s mother said, “Fine,” and called her preacher. We were married February 4, 1960, in the living room with Jimmy’s family and Mama’s friends helping us celebrate. We moved into Tootie’s room with the black ceiling and stars painted above. Federal Street was a community that cared for everybody on the block. I learned everything I needed to know in the kitchen with Mama while washing dishes and listening to the family stories.

Mona also did her part for the struggle of women in creative fields. Not with the intention of breaking barriers, but with the intention of following her passions. Through this, she accidentally became involved in jazz as well.

A year after graduating from high school in 1951 and working in an art-layout design shop, I convinced my father that I should go to art school. The Rhode Island School of Design was my choice, and being the only girl in the architecture department was very interesting. Many of the art teachers were musicians, and they would play traditional jazz on weekends at a club downtown. All their students would show up. My friend Nancy was from Boston and we would go to the museums and clubs there. We saw Sarah Vaughn and Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen more than once! On my train rides home for the holidays, I would get off in New York City or Philly and go to the museums, the ballet, and Birdland because there was so much going on in the art world and the music world in the fifties.

[Later she transferred to the University of Providence]

My sculpture teacher, Jim House, recommended me to a team of archeologists working on the ruins of Tikal. My job was to draw the stelae and glyphs that they photographed in the jungles of Guatemala so that they could study them further and publish them. I loved working in the museum in Philadelphia and living with the fantastic collections of art in every room.

I’m sure many of our jazz girls can attest to Mona’s declaration about being the only girl in her college department!

When the race issue was brought up to Mr. Heath during the master class he said, “We suffered the same indignities in this country. But we love this country. They [his contemporaries] made this country important. We scuffled to make this music important. And,” he said, gesturing toward all of the students, “you all are following that. And I love you for it.”

I thought back to my conversation with Mona. She went through losing her entire family because she decided to marry Jimmy, was harassed by policemen, and was the only female in her department at her university. Here girls are, still questioning whether it’d be acceptable for us to be in interracial relationships. Still wondering if we have a place in this music. Just like Jimmy and his peers, Mona suffered her own indignities in this country – most of which still weigh heavily on our women’s hearts and shoulders. I thought, how grossly tired of me to – five decades later – still be afraid. She did her part – she was the “only” girl too. I decided it was time to stop being afraid of that! The more of us that push through, the more of us that will.

Jimmy’s contemporaries went through other struggles too, “Lee had the struggle still in his playing.” Artists were suffering from drug abuse and social indignities, and as Heath talked about some of them he mentioned artists committing suicide. He said they were writing music they’d never hear, and he pointed to all of us again and said “No more stories like that.” He counted off the artists that have passed before him, and as he stepped back and motioned toward the ceiling, he said “There’s plenty of music in the sky to grab from. And you all are qualified to do that. And I’ve heard some of you grab a whole lot.”

Students asked what being a contemporary of Trane was like. “He was humble and soft-spoken. He was beautiful and he was kind. He liked everybody. He practiced. He was 90% saxophone. He had a color in his sound that was a cry, not a beg. He wanted to be someone everyone loved. And everybody is trying to BE Coltrane. YOU CAN’T!”

Others asked about Monk: “He was the most unique composer. What a character!”
Clifford Brown: “Clifford was playing all kinds of shit. Pardon my french. We’re all adults here, right?”
And Lester Young: “He stayed high. Gin and weed. He’d get drunk, and then just sit there and not play. But have you ever heard a tape of Lester talking? He was very creative. Incredible creative abilities.”

Jimmy kept referring to connections. “That’s what you’re doing here. That’s what you’re going to do forever.” He talked a lot about how important networking and connections are. And treating the people you network with like people. His warmth was a sure example of this.

Jimmy was very willing to be serious, but for the most part he kept the conversation very light-hearted. He spoke about dead artists winning Grammies “Then Miles won. And he was dead. Then Bill Evans won. And he was dead. They like icons. I guess I’m just an acorn.” We all cocked our heads to the side and looked at each other while holding back the laughter in our noses. Jimmy was 84 when he taught this class. He was 84, imitating other 84 year olds as if they were younger than him, in a squawky teenage voice. He referred to republicans as “rich-ublicans.” He remembers Paul Gonzalvez turning to him and saying “Jimmy, we must be boogers.” Jimmy is a man full of boundless joy and energy. What a blessing!

“To be able to create and to be understood is a gift.”

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!

Messages from Masters: Etienne Charles and Diego Rivera

by Ella Campbell

Mr. Charles (trumpet) and Mr. Rivera (tenor) are both professors at Michigan State University. During one studio night, Charles and Rivera combined their studios and demonstrated playing in a frontline.

They started with 6 themes about the logistics of playing in the frontline of a combo.

1. Listen!
This is the main idea behind everything they talked about. Listening to each other, listening to records, listening to yourself.

2. Phrase
Learn how to match phrasing with each other. The lead voice should play phrases the same way each time around so the people who are following can understand how they should play. When the lead player adds inflection, make it very obvious and repeat it clearly. Know if you are supposed to lead with your sound or if you are supposed to lead with your rhythm.

3. Time
Don’t drag because you’re trying to swing too hard. To play in time you have to play on top of the beat. If you’re right in the pocket, by the time your sound gets to the rhythm section, you will sound behind.
Practice breathing together, especially in awkward tempos. The frontline should breathe in time to play in time.

4. Articulate
The back of the note is equally as important as the front, especially for woodwind players. The frontline can even take the time to talk it out before just playing and copying each other – decide where cut-offs are, etc. Charles pointed out that trumpet players should tongue every note so each one has clarity.

5. Examples
Wynton & Branford
Mason Brothers
Joe Henderson & Kenny Dorham: “Our Thing” Listen to how they shade their notes the same way.
Lou Donaldson & Clifford Brown
Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson & JJ Johnson: “Cape Verdean Blues” Listen to their liberal use of cluster voicings
Billy Strayhorn
Some tunes to know as a frontline: Confirmation, Billie’s Bounce, Joy Spring, Caravan, Quicksilver, Weedot, Orbits, Cain & Abel

6. Balance
Know the power of your instrument. How does it relate to the power of other instruments in your frontline? Brass instruments tend to get more powerful in higher registers, woodwinds get more powerful in their lower registers.
Trumpet is playing the melody most of the time but trombone is usually more powerful than trumpet even though trumpet is a higher instrument. The safest bet is to keep a third or sixth between trumpet and trombone instead of playing in octaves.
When a frontline is trumpet and tenor, sometimes trumpet players will have to widen their sound to match the breadth of the sound of a tenor. Tenors have a tendency to play too loud, so try to play with a smaller sound while being a secondary voice.
As an accompanist, know to tone it down and blend. When you are not playing the melody make sure you know your role (what extensions are you playing?). When you are playing the melody, know your role!

They also spent a lot of time talking between the 6 themes they based the class around. The other topics we gathered were, Performance, Practicing and Harmony.

1. Performance
Most of the time there isn’t going to be a chart, but you’ll need to harmonize. You need to know the extensions and chord tones. To be safe, use mostly guide tones when improvising harmony. When you’re playing a peer’s composition, believe in the composition.
Play at a volume where you can hear the lead player. Focus on playing in time while you do this – it helps to tap your foot on beats 1 and 3 so that you don’t slow down.
For pickup measures, make sure you breathe together. This means the leader must breathe loud enough so that the entire frontline can hear it.
Stand in a line: Face your audience, not each other. Usually the trumpet will stand in the middle, as in a big band. Trumpet players: Play the melody a little loud the first time through to dictate the phrasing of it.
Have fun with each other: In the best frontlines, you can tell a dance is going on between them.

2. Practicing
Play along with records and try to harmonize with the melody. And, play along with records in general.
There was a student duo playing for the studio. A male trumpet player and a male saxophone player. They were playing a waltz. Charles suggested they waltz together, and this dialogue ensued:
Charles “Waltz together!”
Rivera “For giggles!”
JazzGirl “I’d giggle!”
* awkward pause *
Alas, there was no waltzing. 😦

Charles and Rivera played Billie’s Bounce as an example of ways to practice together. Rivera suggested different styles of playing together. For one try, he suggested playing everything long, just to see if they could do it, and do it together.

3. Harmony & Arranging
– When it’s just two of you, make sure you harmonize and “get the meat:” 3rd and 7ths. Especially if you have two horns and no chordal instrument. Harmonizing in 6ths is also a good way to get a full sound from two horns. When playing in 6ths, think about the resultant tones, the overtone series: “Finale won’t tell you that.” When you’re arranging on a writing program, you won’t be able to hear the overtones that you will when real instruments are playing it. Play your arrangement at a piano, and listen for different timbres that will result because of overtones. Things might be muddy there that weren’t muddy on your “human playback” in your writing program. Different rubs will create a ring of sound around them and fill in the gaps for you. For instance, Billy Strayhorn uses less instruments with wider intervals between them, and overtones fill the rest of the sound out.
– Your harmonies don’t have to be perfectly parallel either. For instance, on Black Codes, it sounds like there are two melodies at once.
– Don’t forget that the piano can be used like a horn too! Give them something arranged to play in harmony with the frontline.
– Tenors: When you’re harmonizing on the spot, stay around your middle C and break.
– Safest Harmonies: 3rds, Unison, 6ths, Octaves
– Just 2 Horns: all of the above & tritones

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!
– La

Messages from Masters: Bobby Carcasses

by Ella Campbell

(Pronounced Car-Kuh-SAYS)

Bobby Carcasses is a Cuban musician who was born in Jamaica and raised in Cuba, where he developed his art when he moved from Santiago to Habana in 1956. He is an artist by all counts: he plays instruments, sings, dances, paints and draws. When asked where his musicality was inspired, he said that he was “born singing.” He can play congas, saxophone, piano and flugelhorn. While in school, he wanted to drop out in order to focus on music and art, but his mother did not approve of quitting school. She insisted that he find work if he was going to quit, so he dropped out and got a job at a cracker packaging factory. Once he moved to Habana, he said “I realized that I can live life as an artist and have reason.” He studied opera, practicing in the walk-in refrigerator at a burger joint he later worked at. (Burger joint in Cuba? We were surprised too.) He also studied ballet, which is “another world of art,” when he decided that he would audition on a television talent showcase. From there, he was hired into a vocal quartet and made his transition from singing opera to singing Cuban popular music, and jazz. The music he creates is a combination of traditional harmony and new musicians putting their modern spins on it, and his son leads a music group called Interactivo.

Carcasses has another son, of whom he said “My son has autism.” The people in the room looked at each other, as if they thought he hadn’t meant to tell them that. “I am speaking about this because this is part of my life: it is a part of my art.” Another part of his life, and his art, is his wife. “When I was 12, my wife was 5. I never thought that little girl would be my wife. And, my wife? And we never have discussion. We only have love for each other.” He also said “My wife. She is fat.” The way he said fat, was not the way we say fat. He said “fat” the way we say “big.” In a beautiful, endearing way that makes us all wish we had MORE TO LOVE!

Bobby is a very charismatic man in person. He was very excited to be in the United States, watching students of jazz. I believe that he found so much joy in listening to American students because it is similar to us listening to him. When we watch a man who grew up playing and perfecting Cuban music, dance and rhythm in Cuba, we realize how little like him we sound, or will sound. We grew up with beats two and four, we grew up with swing. We grew up with the blues. Even when we try not to play that way, it leaks out anyway. I think our performances were so inspiring to him because he was watching Americans play the blues. After hearing three groups play three different blues, he went up to the front of the class and asked “If, if you can? Please. Play another blues?” and he stood there, in the middle of the band, and sang along. There immediately was brotherhood between all of the musicians.He is a man who very much understands the meaning of the blues “I am very happy. I am happy to be here because people of every country are the same. We all have different problems, but as people, we are always the same.” And everybody wants to hear just one more blues.

He explained this brotherhood between musicians. He studied jazz for most of his life, and had heard about Rodney Whitaker before traveling to Michigan. “Five minutes after meeting Rodney the first time, we were playing music. And we were like old friends.”  Music has the power to bring people together from across the world — and create brotherhood within minutes.

A man of many instruments, Bobby insists that the voice is the most divine. It is the only instrument you cannot see. We cannot watch how it works, and we cannot watch the mechanics of it.  It can imitate every instrument, and everyone plays their wind instrument in an attempt to sound as vocal as possible. You know you’ve all been playing something when someone shouts “Sing!” or when you haven’t been playing well and someone’s advice to you is to “Sing through your horn” or “imagine the lyrics.” We use our voices to speak, and we use our voices to sing, and we use instruments to imitate this, and create dialectic music.

Both Cuban music and jazz are dialectic. The dialogue in this music not only happens between musicians, but it happens between cultures, and it happens between the people and their leaders. The musicians in jazz are obligated to improvise, and this improvisation creates steady forward movement and development in this music. As Cuban music and jazz continue to evolve, they still have the same African rhythms in common, “in Cuba, the music is African and Spanish, and sometimes we just don’t know if what we’re playing is Spanish or African. And in Brazil, the music is African and Portuguese. In America? Jazz is African and American.” This combination of cultures, the relationship between colonizers and the colonized, the slaves and slaveholders, means this music is liberation music. And in Cuba, politically, jazz, the music of America, is the music of the enemy.

However, the lovers of jazz know that this is music of the people. It is from and for everyone, and the audience of jazz is an educated and intelligent one. It’s history is deep and complex, and it doesn’t separate itself from classical music. A good example of this, Bobby pointed out, is Gershwin. He is right in the middle, between opera and jazz, and both forms of music embrace and respect his work and each other’s interpretation of it.

Bobby used the history of the relationship between Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza to describe the dialectic and brotherly nature of Cuban music and jazz. (Click the previous links in order to learn about them.)

Bobby spoke mostly about the human spirit and our relationship with each other and music, but he also had a bit to say about practicing and performing too. Some of his first experiences as a professional musician took place in a vocal quartet. In that quartet he learned to master writing for four voices and “if you can master writing for four voices, you can write a symphony.”

In his youth he would practice entertaining for an hour. He would sit with a piano, drums, his horn and his voice and attempt to be entertaining and fresh for an hour straight, alone. He was a one-man show, and he would perform blues, rumba and boleros in an attempt to stay interesting. This is a wonderful idea. Take one hour, and play tunes through, utilizing whatever skills you have, if you can play piano for a tune, then play your horn for a tune, then sing a tune, and see if you can be entertaining and enticing for the entire hour. It’s very challenging! Pick tunes that contrast in key, tempo and feel, and see if you can convincingly, excitedly and meaningfully play each one different from the others.

While he consistently reminded us to play with meaning, he also reminded us to “relax. Know that you have time. You may think the time is getting away, but it’s not.” You do not have to chase the time – as in tempo and the amount of time you are on stage. Be playful and relax into the time. Let it settle, and make it feel right. Dance with more than just your fingers and face. Only moving the parts of your body that mechanize the instrument is not enough to make the music settle, you must dance with your entire body, and you can make the time feel good. Making the time feel good is far more important than fitting as much information as you can into it. You can always get up and play another tune.

Finally, if you respect the music, and if you are going to attend masterclasses, and you take lessons, and you go to concerts, go there armed with questions. The musicians must know you are honestly interested in their music and their knowledge.

Bobby is an avid believer in the power of yoga, and making his spirit whole. Through yoga, meditation, and a belief in reincarnation, he discovered a world full of possibilities. “Knowledge is something. Wisdom is another thing.” He has also become very comfortable with honesty and people. Which, when you think about it, finding people comfortable with being truly honest with people is very rare. “The truth is the only thing I can give. It is the most beautiful thing you can give.” But he does not only find his spirit through yoga and meditation.

His drawing is also a form a meditation for him: “when I finish a drawing, I can look, and my spirit is realized.” Developing his human spirit and his spirit for life are also different. He believes that “we develop our spirit for life in groups. … When you play, you are entering a cosmos where you all know each other and are good friends. When you finish playing, you come back. Don’t think about anything except giving yourself. Offer your heart. You don’t have time to think.

He is very rapidly approaching the age of 74 and he works as hard as he can every time he performs.
He jokes about dying on stage from working so hard, but then he said, very soulfully
“If I die? Wonderful, because I died doing something important.”

Messages from Masters: Marion Cowings

by Ella Campbell

During the winter semester of 2012, Michigan State University’s jazz studies program was blessed to have a week-long residency with the master vocalist, Marion Cowings. Unknown to many, his lack of popularity is not telling of his charm, stage presence, and beautiful vocal styling: the day he left from his residency at MSU, he was New York bound for an engagement at Smalls. During the afternoon on a Monday, walking into the College of Music, he was unmistakable. Dressed in dark skinny jeans, clean canvas sneakers, a crisp button up shirt, navy vest, silk scarf, sport coat and unbelievable swag, one could only assume he was, “the vocalist that’s visiting.”

Later that night, he gave a masterclass to the jazz studies program. He opened by singing “Have You Met Miss Jones” with the faculty from Michigan State (Rodney Whitaker, bass; Randy Gelispie, drums; Reggie Thomas, piano; Diego Rivera, tenor sax). Immediately every-one’s breath was taken away by his power and versatility. He was singing to, and for, every one of us. He finely controlled his voice to be open, gesturing with his arms the same openness, and was conversational when the tune called for it. His communication with the audience was enchanting. His communication with the bandstand was equally as notable. In videos of Cowings, you can see his communication skills very clearly. He’ll hold up three fingers when he wants to tag the ending, counting down with each repeat, and he’ll cue every note in the final turn, including the cutoff. He gives the band specific directions before he counting off, and makes it very clear who he wants to solo — and when he wants them to stop.

After performing, he requested that a student group play. The student vocalist called “How High the Moon” and attempted to imitate Cowings’ commanding stage presence toward the audience and band. However, after four measures they were cut off by Cowings shouting “Disaster!” The vocalist hadn’t spoken loud enough for the entire rhythm section to hear what he wanted for the intro and key, so the bassist began playing different changes, in a different key, than the pianist. During round two, the vocalist made sure to give clear instructions to everyone that he wanted the last eight bars of the form to be the intro. Mr. Cowings supported this idea: many vocalists do not have perfect pitch, and by playing the last eight bars of the form as the intro, vocalists will be able to hear the melody in their heads before entering.

This way they can sing without having to be given a starting pitch (ex: vocalist turns to pianist and whispers, “can you give me an A?”), and then try to mentally hold on to that pitch while a different intro is going on, and then pray they are still hearing the pitch correctly in their head by the time they enter.

As far as being instrumentalists alongside vocalists, Mr. Cowings expressed that every song doesn’t call for “a science experiment saxophone solo.” We are playing the same song that a vocalist is singing, therefore we should play the song. As a saxophone soloist was getting fancy later during the masterclass, Cowings said “It’s not all about chasing Bird.” This struck many as: he may be right, perhaps fast rhythmic bop language is not appropriate for all tunes. However, one of the elder professors, who was around during the time Bird was hittin’, was taken aback by this statement. This is also understandable. Why not chase Bird? We were never there, we can never really understand what it is like to hear him play. But according to our elders, Bird is a wonderful musician to strive to embody and consistently chase, because we will never be able to catch him. Two schools of thought, both are valid interpretations, so take from that statement what means most to YOU, and be sure to play and accompany the message of the song.

While attempting to convey the message of words through our instruments, remember that voices are instruments too. Depending on how good of condition they’re in, if they’re warm, or cold, if the performer is in good health, etc., they will perform differently. Instrumentalists need to be prepared to hear and play our vocalists’ tunes in any key, and be able to transpose any interval while sight-reading. (Or just, any tunes, for that matter!) Instrumentalists also need to be sensitive to this fact, and that a half step does make that much of a difference. Think about how big of a difference it means on the saxophone. The lowest note on baritone sax is a concert Db. If an arranger writes for a pedal on a low B, it isn’t possible. The saxophone just doesn’t have enough buttons for that – it’s how the instrument works. So, wary instrumentalists, sometimes vocalists need to change the key they sing in every other night. It’s how their instrument works.

Aside from being a master of knowing exactly what he wants the structure of a song to be, and knowing exactly how to tell the band that, Cowings is also a master of captivating his audience. He had the second student vocalist, who called “Stella by Starlight,” attempt to say what the song meant to him in ten words or less. However, the student could barely think of ten words that the song meant to him. Cowings asked him who the song was about, and when the student answered “Stella,” he was wrong. Cowings meant who, personally, the vocalist was singing about.

Every song has to be about something, or someone, because you must “make them understand you. Relegate [songs] to an extremely personal level.” When playing tunes like “Stella” or “Have You Met Ms. Jones” the songs should not about “Stella” or “Ms. Jones” — none of us have met either of them! However, each one of us knows a sort of “Stella” or a “Ms. Jones”. Or, for the ladies who don’t “swing that way,” we know men who are “a great symphonic theme” who are real to us, “and not a dream.” Cowings not only challenges us to make every song mean something specific to our experience, but also to memorize the lyrics of each song we learn so that we can “play the words as if [we’re] singing.” We must be vulnerable when we play, and I think each of us knows this. I also think that knowing something is much different than embodying it and feeling it, in such fullness of spirit, that others can feel it too.

“You may say, ‘Oh gee. They’re gonna see my heart.’ You’re right. That’s what they paid to see.They want to go where we can take them. You have a gift to give. So give it.”

– Marion Cowings

Our next articles are going to be 10-Question interviews with Sput and Mike from Snarky Puppy as well as a review of their concert in Detroit!

Unfamiliar with Snarky Puppy? Check them out here!