Decoding Jazz: Tuesdays @Seattle’s Owl N’ Thistle

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Eminent musicians will tell you that “Jazz,” as a word, much less a self-contained musical genre, has forgone its use. During a 2019 concert at Benaroya Hall – his last, as it would turn out, in the Emerald City – the late Chick Corea asked that the audience refer to his art as “impromptu, creative composition.”

Earlier this year, leading a seminar on Capitol Hill, Seattle legend Julian Priester said much the same, labeling jazz a feeling, or a type of artistic interplay, rather than a standalone musical school.

Regardless of its outdated and even pejorative use, what strikes me about “jazz” is a widespread naivety pertaining to the music’s basic elements. Even among those confessing a passing interest, jazz often proves illegible, striking listeners as a chaotic flurry of notes rather than a carefully orchestrated wonder.

It might surprise you that, in its most often encountered form – a small group performing standards – jazz has rules. In fact, it has a whole lot of them (some of which, admittedly, can be broken). I’ll be reviewing upcoming jazz concerts for Post Alley, and before I do, I thought readers might benefit from a primer on the ins and outs of a typical composition. To accomplish that, we’ll need to introduce some musicians.

This past Tuesday I hopped on a slow-rolling accordion bus and made my way downtown, where for the past 25 years some of Seattle’s top jazz artists have gathered weekly in the basement of the historic Colman building, on the shallow wooden stage of the Owl N’ Thistle Pub.

Scour the weeknight taverns of any major American city and you’ll find a considerable number of jazz sessions, most of them adhering to the following structure:

First, the house band – a group of preplanned, preferably consummate musicians – performs an opening set of standards. (“Standards,” hundreds of prominent tunes transcribed in hardcopy collections, form jazz’s essential vernacular). Second, a set break allows the players in the room to mingle. Third, the artists who were in the audience during the first set take the stage in spontaneous, unrehearsed groups, where they roll through additional standards in what’s commonly referred to as a “jam” set. (A misnomer, really, as “jamming” suggests a lack of structure.)

These weekly sessions – varying by venue, attendance, and skill level – are a proving ground for jazz musicians across the world. In Seattle, they’re often free of charge, though tipping the band provides a well-known karmic boost.

Down at the Owl, the Tuesday crowd consisted of a dozen listeners, as many musicians, and a handful of barflies. The first set begins each week around 10 pm. I’d just taken my seat when rapid-fire trumpet scales began drifting from the pub’s storage room (Thomas Marriott, the eight-time Golden Ear Award winner, warming up). Minutes later, bandleader Eric Verlinde took the stage.

Verlinde told me that the Owl session’s staying power derives from a history of top-notch talent. In the late ’90s, several Berklee College of Music students relocated from Boston to Seattle and established a group called Bebop Instruction, which began gigging on the Owl N’ Thistle’s small stage. Along with jams at Tula’s (now closed) and the Patti Summers Club (sold in the aughts), those at the Owl were on the up and up when Verlinde entered the Seattle jazz scene in 1997.

Now, a quarter century later, the Owl’s hosting musicians are Verlinde on keyboard, the aforementioned Marriott on trumpet, Paul Gabrielson on standup bass, and Max Holmberg on drums.

Sessions like the Owl’s tend to showcase a classic jazz format. Once listeners familiarize themselves with this musical layout, it’s not so difficult to decode a standard – where it’s been, what it’s accomplishing, where it’s headed next. This tiny bit of know-how could forever change the way you listen to jazz.

In layman’s terms, a jazz standard can be broken up into four sections: head (in), soloing, “trading fours,” and head (out).

The head of a jazz song is quite simply the song itself, a preordained melody played over a preordained chordal structure. In the case of our Owl quartet, this melody will commonly be blown by the trumpeter (Marriott) both because of the instrument’s upper-register delivery and its nonchordal function (i.e., the trumpet can’t play chords beneath a piano solo).

After the opening head, each member of the band takes instrumental solos over the entire body of the song. Solos can continue for multiple song repetitions, but – and here’s where the rules trickle in – improvised lines must follow a tune’s precise chordal structure. A soloist always plays to the end of the composition before passing his solo off.

After the trumpet, piano, and bass players take their solos, the drummer takes his. Drum solos often include a practice called “trading fours” – “fours” means that every four bars, the solo is passed between drums and another instrument. If we take 24 measures of “fours,” the active solo will travel from the drums (measures 1-4), to the trumpet (5-8), back to the drums (9-12), to the piano (13-16), again to the drums (17-20), and then to the bass (21-24). Note that section lengths can vary. “Fours” can easily become “eights,” “sixteens,” or, much more frantically, “twos.”

After a few rounds of “fours,” the standard concludes with another repetition of the head.

To exemplify this structure, we’ll look at the house band’s third tune, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” The ballad begins with Marriott playing the 32-bar head on his trumpet. Note that there’s nothing “random” here. A musician like Marriott will add his own flourishes and character to the tune, but the melody is Ellington’s through and through. Likewise, while the standup bass (Paul Gabrielson) and piano (Eric Verlinde) improvise the manner in which they play the chords and bassline, they must heed the song’s bar-by-bar composition.

After he plays the opening head, Marriott improvises over the body of the song while abiding by its chordal structure. This is why Chick Corea referred to jazz as “creative, impromptu composition.” In his solo, Marriott composes a new melody to “In a Sentimental Mood,” one that fits within the harmonic boundaries laid out by Duke Ellington.

Notice that, after an initial section based around D minor blues, the bridge of “In a Sentimental Mood” switches to D flat major. Though these scales share some musical tones, anyone remaining blithely in the initial key will stick out like a sore thumb. The result would be grating, possibly hideous. In many jazz standards, this holds for each and every bar. Should a player step out of line, or fall a measure behind, the song falters.

Marriott’s solo runs for 32, 64, or 96 bars, depending on how many repetitions he takes. At the end of each song length, the audience might see band members looking around for cues, as Marriott decides whether to pass his solo off.

When he does, he steps aside to make room for Verlinde’s piano solo. Verlinde composes his own improvised melodies for a few song lengths, then cedes the spotlight for  Gabrielson. With each torch passing, the sound grows sparser, orienting itself around the rhythm section.

Finally, after Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” has been sheared down to its bare bones – the 4/4 rhythm of Max Holmberg’s drums, and a few rounds of fours – the entire band chimes in as one to reprise the head. The last bars of the melody are typically repeated, or “tagged,” in a prolonged, ornamental conclusion.

The audience claps. The players ready their instruments. Onto the next one.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to get up and “creatively compose” in a roomful of strangers. Having done so many times myself – though never at the Owl – I can attest to the nerves amassing in musicians during the first set.

These nerves vary with chops, experience, and self-confidence. Particularly at a session like the Owl, where the house band’s collected awards could fill a large display case, aspiring players watch the first set in a state of heightened awareness. It’s one thing to marvel at  Marriott’s trumpet solo. It’s quite another to know you’re expected to follow it, before the same audience, in half an hour.

This comes with the territory – jazz can be a harsh teacher. Even Verlinde, a quintessential pro, still uses the word “brave” when talking about musicians getting up there to improvise.

During the set break, Marriott makes his rounds and assembles ad hoc bandmates. A drummer here, a guitarist there. A saxophonist. A piano player. Ages, genders, and playing experience run the gamut. Many of these new bandmates have never met. But they share a common language.

At advanced sessions, standards are called as players take the stage. Veteran jazz musicians won’t need charts – they’ve internalized hundreds of tunes, consisting of thousands of chordal patterns. This is why I’ve used the word “language.” Jazz, in a basic sense, is a way for musicians to talk with one another. Standards are a medium of shared reference.

The next time you turn on midday KNKX or cue up your favorite Coltrane tune, recall the song structure I’ve laid out. Listen for the head. Notice who’s soloing. Track chordal changes in the walking bassline. See if the drum solo churns into “fours” with the other instruments.

Granted, some numbers eschew easy classification. By putting jazz composition into a box, as I have here, I’ve likely committed a cardinal sin. Even so: I’ve generalized in the spirit of comprehension.

For me, practicing jazz is like navigating a vast, fog-covered ocean. A shadowy seascape onto which my dinghy’s headlights shine a few feet at a time. In the darkness are things I can barely make out – lapping waves, mysterious species, decaying jetsam. Something called the harmonic overtone series.

The more I learn about this journey, the more I realize I don’t know. And if that’s not jazz, then I don’t know what is.

Eric Olson
Eric Olson
Eric Olson is a Seattle-based novelist and essayist living in the Central District. He works as an environmental engineer, managing polluted sites west of the Cascades, and also plays guitar in local outfit Caveman Ego.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Terrific piece; I’m sending it to my friends whose complaint about jazz is that they never know when the song is “over.”

  2. Thank you for contributing this lucid piece! I have listened to a lot of jazz in my 76 years, but have never “put the pieces together” in such a straightforward way.

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