The Composing & Arranging Habits of Master Jazz Composers

I stumbled across this video recently and thought I would post it here for class members.

This is David Berger discussing the composing and arranging habits of a handful of some of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers who ever lived. Its very interesting to learn how the master’s actually applied their craft.

Here is a quick summary:

1) The great Billy Byers writes 8 hours per day, 5 days per week – just like a day job. The difference between Billy and the rest of us is that Billy wrote everything in ink! The only other guy that could (and did) pull that off is Mozart (and Bach). Beethoven couldn’t do it, so don’t feel bad if you have a difficult time committing your first attempt as your final draft.

2) Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn used sketch scores – 4 line scores consisting of saxes (top two lines), trumpets, and the bones on the bottom. I have used sketch scores before and I know that Sammy Nestico recommends this type of format as well. Sketch scores allow you to get main ideas, lines, form, voicings, etc. laid out quickly without having so many staffs to deal with.

FYI: Finale has an “explode music” feature that allows for one section to be inputted, then blasted out to all the parts. Technology can’t write and arrange the music for you, but it sure helps save time in the rendering of parts and scores.

Duke Ellington did use the piano when he wrote and arranged, Billy Strayhorn only used the piano when the composition was finished. I personally have never been able to write a chart without using the piano. I probably could do it if I had to, but I think David’s comment about Maurice Ravel in the video is very accurate. (refer to 3:00 minute mark)

3) Gil Evans also used sketch scores, along with the aid of a large magnifying glass to put the music on paper.

4) Al Cohn read the entire New York times each day before he started writing. If you have ever read the New York Times you know that this could take some time!

5) Bob Brookmeyer would start at the end of day with a bottle of booze and a stack of score paper before he dried out later on and gave up drinking.

I tend to write in the evening, at my computer and input everything into Finale directly. Years ago everything would go to paper first, then into the computer. Computers are 100X faster today than back in the late 80s and 90s so I tend to go directly into Finale now.

Everyone has their own working routine and whatever works best for you is the way to go! What are some of YOUR writing habits? Feel free to comment below the video.

Here’s David’s video.

David Berger Octet Plays the Music of Harry Warren

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