Jazz Piano Lesson #6: The art of transcribing in jazz–Whether ’tis nobler


To transcribe or not to transcribe? For many musicians–aspiring, accomplished, or both–that’s the question. On the one hand transcription is for everyone regardless of skill level–because it’s an amazing immersive way absorb the inner workings of jazz.

And what’s up with that pic of the waterfall? Well, it could be a pictorial metaphor—does such a thing exist?—for transcribing and the process of transcription and, finally, for one of the great learning streams in jazz. Yes, that’s what is—a pictorial representation of a learning stream, a stream of learning.

But talking about something else entirely the great computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum said “once inner workings are explained … magic crumbles away.” JW was talking about chatterbots–computer programs that engage in conversation. When we transcribe can we acquire understanding about inner workings of jazz? Can we keep jazz magic at the same time?

To transcribe—transcription

Charlie Banacos–one of the most influential of jazz teachers–put transcribing at the centre of his teaching. Dave Liebman has much to say about the how and why of transcribing. My own experience is I’ve known more musicians than I can count who learned tons and tons and heaps and heaps from transcribing.
And it’s easy to find anecdotes, such as from Lee Konitz, about Charlie Parker playing Lester Young solos verbatim.

I was on tour with Charlie once and I was warming up in the dressing room – I happened to be playing one of Lester’s choruses – and Bird came noodling into the room and said, ‘Hey, you ever heard this one?’ and he played ‘Shoe Shine Swing’ about twice as fast as the record. He knew all that. I believe he’s probably whistling it up in heaven right now.

Not to transcribe (’tis nobler to not become a chatterbot)—transcription

Fred Hersch and Mulgrew Miller are among great jazz musicians of our time who didn’t transcribe. In an interview with Ethan Iverson (on his Do The Math blog) Fred Hersch said:

Growing up, I didn’t transcribe, but I would sit and do what I would retroactively call channeling. Say I’d listen to McCoy Tyner for a week on end, or three weeks or something like that, just McCoy McCoy McCoy, and I’d sit at the piano and just try to imitate him, or play some tunes that he might play, but try to play them in his way, but it wasn’t about playing the notes, I didn’t care so much about playing his notes, but I wanted to try to think like him.

Mulgrew Miller in Mulgrew Miller The Book says

One of the big differences between me and probably ninety-five percent of other players you hear on the scene–I’ve done almost no transcriptions in my life … A person might learn all of that and may not really know how it was put together. He just knows what the notes are and learns those notes and plays them … when you copy it off the record it doesn’t mean as much.

Bud Powell—a transcription

The solo I remember as my first go at transcription was a Bud Powell version of Night in Tunisia on the ESP label.

It was a struggle. I’d listen to a phrase, pick up the needle and put it back a few grooves or so–that was of course in days of vinyl. And I’d listen again. And again. Eventually I’d write down what I heard, mostly a few notes at a time. A good way to wear out vinyl it was but it was the technology I had.

Freddie Hubbard

Next in my transcription journey was a recording on Prestige with Freddie Hubbard playing Green Dolphin Street. There was a lyric quality to FH’s solo that caught my imagination. But, if making an instrument sound like or imitate a singing voice is the ideal then Ben Tucker, the great bassist on that session reached out and captured it in his solo entirely.


Actually, Eric Dolphy was the session leader. And Jaki Byard–with whom I later studied–was the pianist.

Horace Silver

My transcription project #3 was Horace Silver playing his amazing composition St. Vitous’ Dance.

Teaching to and learning from the source—transcription

Years later I taught courses on transcribing, among other things, at the University of Maine at Augusta. After a long time away, I’ve joined up with them again as Online-Artist-in-Residence. I know now once you’ve lived in Maine you never really leave it. But that’s another story …

My method at UMA in the transcription course was let my (excellent) students have at it, one solo a week, and see what they learned. The one-solo-per-week rhythm was more or less what Charlie Banacos presented to his students during the period when I studied with him.

To me the phrase of “see-what-they-learned” goes directly to the best most magical part of transcribing. Which is transcribing’s an extremely personal, subjective, learn-by-doing-it experience. It’s personal and subjective because everyone who transcribes gets their own pathway to the magic source. The “source” being the the substance of jazz as played by the musicians who defined and invented it.

Alternately (forests and trees)

These days we have volumes and volumes of transcriptions from sources such as Hal Leonard Publishing and the internet and all over everywhere.

For example, it’s possible to learn from the Charlie Parker John Coltrane Omnibooks. Those volumes together are an amazing window onto the jazz practice of improvised lines. Or for fascinating views of specific styles there are books (and books) of Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk transcriptions.

Of course traveling the transcription road with books–in essence letting someone else write down the notes and rhythms–doesn’t provide direct aural contact that comes from working with a recording. But a well-transcribed volume of solos does get us the notes at least. And a pretty good representation of the rhythms in which the notes are set. Those aren’t small gains and having them at hand in a book so to speak is a timesaver.

As an important next step, play the notes and rhythms from the transcribed page along with and over the original recording from which they come. Voilà! Direct aural contact with the original is restored, at least to a degree.

However, the huge promise from complete collections of transcriptions are stylistic overviews that might not otherwise be apparent when transcribing a limited number of solos.

As the authors of Mulgrew Miller: The Book say about the transcription in the book:

Transcribed between 1989 and 2012, they allow us to gauge how much he advanced from his beginnings as a pedagog, but mostly to understand in writing the incredible scope of his piano mastery; it’s the whole of jazz history we hear under his fingers, revealing the unique breadth of his talent. Technique, ideas, harmonic savvy, a style of his own, swing, it was all there, concentrated, organic, gorgeous.

The magic of experience (Here there be tygers)

As for the actual feel of the music–the micro-rhythms within the rhythms–there’s no way to capture that in notation. Which is a case then for actually transcribing each and every solo by hand. Because the magical gift that emerges out from concentrated listening while transcribing is the feel of jazz. But, having said that isn’t the best way to get to the feel of jazz to play or hear it played with great players?

Where to begin transcribing?

A place is start with something easy that we like and want to spend time with. Because if we like what we hear, if something captures our attention and our curiosity, we’ll come back to it. It’s the return visits where learning broadens. Literally, it accumulates in fascinating ways we can’t always predict.
Another way to begin is transcribe a portion of a solo: 8 measures or 4 measures is fine. Even just one single phrase however long or short can work. For example, I heard recently about a great jazz improviser in New York City who learns a few phrases from a solo he likes.

The idea is: Play those few phrases in the larger context in in which they’re set. It’s like beiing an actor in a play. A few lines spoken in the right time and right way provide overall meaning and context. As in

Go ahead. Make my day.

Do we really transform great scripted phrases into metaphors and the process is enthralling because it’s creative? Does it work like that with great musical phrases?

Do we attach our personal meanings, whatever they may be, to great musical phrases and that’s the point where we use them? We do attach meanings to the musical phrases we play. Don’t we? Otherwise, in the spirit Mulgrew Miller warns against, we’re playing phrases without meaning!

From a great student a great example

I have a wonderful student, a really interesting beginner, who practiced Miles Davis’ So What solo over Paul Chambers’ bass line from the same tune all of which he played over a great beat from Mauro Battisti’s Drumgenius app. There are endlessly inventive ways to practice.

Being inventive when learning to play jazz is great practice for music that’s about invention.

What else?