Hal Galper Clinic at U.C. Berkeley

(As published in the may 1998 issue if Jazz Now Magazine, by Robert Tate and Nina Johnson)

(Quotation marks added. H.G.)

“What you hear in your head comes out on your instrument.” Pianist Hal Galper was talking to students at the University of California in Berkeley. Galper and his trio were conducting a clinic on how the members of a group communicate on the bandstand.

After playing a few numbers with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Steve Ellington, Galper stopped and point out “that just because everyone is in the same room at the same time, playing notes from the same chart, jazz isn’t necessarily happening. If everyone is just playing a specific part with no regard for what everyone else is doing, then the result, what ever you call it, is not jazz. The kind of communication that takes place in jazz goes mostly unseen by the audience, and it requires a common vocabulary.” In the case of Galper and his trio this is the language of jazz. “It has evolved over the years since before the birth of bebop and provides a common frame of reference for musicians who may never even have played together.”

“Call and response, an African invention, lies at the heart of this musical communication,” Galper continued. “One player states an idea; another picks it up and does something in response to it. Perhaps he repeats it or echoes it or expands on it somehow. In this way, all musical ideas are signals, or at least potential signal, rather like the binary system in computer programming. The stream of call and response is constant and makes up the conversation that is jazz.”

Borrowing a suggestion for Miles Davis, Galper advised students “not to complete ideas.” “ State the beginning of an idea and then let it hang there for someone else to develop or finish. Where do ideas come from? To quote Miles again, “steal from the best and practice in all twelve keys.”

Galper explained that “ bands develop a group sound when the members have listened to each other long enough to be able to predict fairly accurately how they will respond to each others cues. Until then they will ‘lay up in the weeds,’ not playing everything they know but testing each other to see who’s capable of handling the conversational flow.”

“Along with allowing room for others to interject their ideas, players leave plenty of ‘air.’ When you fill up all the air the music dies.” Here again Miles was the exemplar, known as much for his silences as for his sound. Galper showed how to leave air in the music by comping in a spare style behind the bass and drums.

( I was slightly misquoted below and have corrected it, in italics, for accuracy’s sake. H.G.)

Applying these principles, Galper drew a diagram of who listens to whom for what cues. “The most important conversation is one between the bass and drums that establishes the rhythm. The pianist listens to the soloist for harmonic cues and to the drummer for the rhythm. The horn player or other soloist suggests the harmony to the pianist and the rhythms to the drums, but is also feeding signals to the other players so they can support his improvisation.”

Finally, Galper talked about the predictable and the unpredictable elements in jazz. “The predictable elements are understood by everyone but not always explicitly played: These are the pulse, The tempo, The specific harmonies of the song as written, the form. The unpredictable elements are what you actually play: the dancing of the instruments around the beat, the altered harmonies, the responses to signals from others.“

To illustrate the unpredictable, Galper started a syncopated rhythmic line by singing scat, then had the other band members and the audience join in. As the scatters partially “made it up” and partially responded to what others were scatting, a musical conversation took shape, and the band switched to their instruments to continue the discussion.

One student wondered how he could ever apply all this at the speed of jazz. Galper asked him what he understood by the term “faking.” The student answered that it meant to play what you know and sort of make up or fill in the rest as best you can. “What do you think we’ve been doing up here?” Galper retorted, and he emphasized that “playing jazz cannot be an intellectual process. It happens too fast.”