“Jazz” Articulation

Trombone Articulation in a Jazz Style
Why Calling it “Jazz Articulation” is Bad

The trombone is by far the most difficult instrument of the wind family for developing proper articulation technique. Not only must every note be articulated with the tongue, unless the same pitch is repeated this must be match in perfect time with the motion of the right hand when reaching for the position of the next note. Before a player is introduced to jazz performance or improvisation a solid technical foundation must first exist. As Buddy Baker stated “This involves, first of all, a command of the instrument – good basic fundamentals (air, embouchure, finger position, tongue, etc.)” 1 This can not be overstated, and there are a number of tools available to help the non-trombonist teacher with learning about proper articulation technique. A very good source for describing the mechanics and process of proper articulation is Edward Kleinhammer’s book Art of Trombone Playing (Summy-Birchard Company). Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of that book offer an excellent description of proper slide, detached, and Legato tonguing technique. This book should be a part of every band director’s library and anyone else who has to teach young trombonists. Chapters 6, 7, and 12 of Reginal Fink’s book The Trombonists Handbook (Accura Music), are also excellent tools with accurate pictorial depictions of a proper attack and release of a note from the trombonists aspect. For actual jazz style articulation, the Fink book is the less useful since it approaches articulation from a very classical point of view. Review of these books is necessary before beginning teaching of articulation in a jazz style .

The use of the phrase “jazz articulation” when applied to the trombone can be misleading. In fact it reinforces one of the two stereotypical myths of the trombone, “It doesn’t matter if the student can’t articulate cleanly, it’s just jazz.” 2 Because the basic fundamentals of articulation between classical and jazz performance are the same, a term which reflects more on the actual technical differences from a pedagogical view would be “articulation in a jazz style.” There are two exceptions to this statement. One is doodle tonguing which is a technique developed by jazz trombonists during the bebop era in order to play licks along side saxophonists and trumpet players. However this technique is nothing more than a fast legato double tongue. The second exception is that the tongue is frequently used to stop notes in the jazz style, especially in the big band setting. Again, this technique is used in modern classical works and therefore should not be entirely foreign to a more advanced student.

The next step in teaching articulation is to view how a trombonist must approach terms used everyday in musical settings. The word slur is a typical example, used almost everyday in any musical setting. On other wind instruments is refers to playing to notes without articulating between the two. Unless a trombonist is moving between two notes in different overtone series, a slur would result in a gliss. Since that is not the desired effect the trombonist must legato tongue the passage making the notes as long as possible without a discernable break between the two when moving the slide. 3 This requires a calculation of how long the note must be played, how quickly the slide must be moved to the next position, and how to articulate to produced the desired sound. The example below shows all of these processes.

Jazz Articulation Example 1
Example 1

Even though other instrumental performers must think along similar lines for their articulation as well, it is much more crucial for the trombonist, who must coordinate gross muscular movements, i.e. the motion of the right arm, with fine movements, i.e. finger tips for exact placement, movement of the tongue. As a result the trombonist looks at notes in terms of time. For example, in the above diagram, each quarter note has a set value or length of time that is possible; if the passage is at 60 bpm then each quarter note could theoretically last for a full second. Now if that amount of time is graphed out as in the following example, it is much like any line graph. Delving into mathematical terms, it consists of an infinite number of points, and due to that nature, within a second a note could be of almost any length, starting and stopping at any point along that line.

Jazz Articulation Example 2
Example 2

While this may seem very technical and mathematical, it is the basis of technique for learning the articulation style of jazz. The above example demonstrated by the instructor through either visualization with the hands, on a blackboard, or even on paper is all that the student really needs to know. The actual technique of articulation doesn’t change between the styles. The next step is the most crucial and involves the most amount of time: listening. Have the student listen to various trombonists, starting with Jack Teagarden, George Roberts, Jiggs Whigham and Kai Winding; for ensemble playing and style, any Stan Kenton big band recording. Have them pay particular attention to the lengths of notes, where they are placed within the beat and when they are ended. Transcriptions of solos from these performers will help the young trombonist learn the style. After a period of time introduce them to slower works by artists such as J.J. Johnson, Bill Watrous, Carl Fontana, and Conrad Herwig.

For the advance student who has excellent control of his articulation technique and has worked on multiple tonguing (the use of double and triple tonguing articulations), Bob McChesney’s Doodle Studies and Etudes (Chesapeake Music) is the source for teaching the more advance style of bebop. This book is laid out in a logical manner, with the exercises becoming progressively more difficult, and culminating in ten bebop etudes; also included with the book is a cassette which demonstrates the sound achieved using this technique.

Articulation in a jazz style on trombone is nothing more than a hyperextension of traditional technique, with a heavy emphasis on stylistic rather than technical changes. Listening to professional jazz players, and not just trombonists, is key in helping to develop a student in the area of jazz performance.

  1. Buddy Baker, “Jazz Improvisation: The Beginning Student and the Inexperienced Teacher,” International Trombone Association Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 1982, 11.
  2. The second myth is, “It’s o.k. if a student can’t play in the upper register of the trombone, he’ll just switch to bass trombone.”
  3. To maintain a consistency in the sound the author advocates tonguing every slur even if it does occur in a break in the overtone series. As with any rule, there are exceptions.