Flute Improvisation by Hubert Laws
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What is “jazz flute?” It is not a new instrument, different from the one used in a Beethoven symphony or Bach sonata, but a phrase coined to describe this instrument used in the jazz idiom. When speaking of “jazz” however, my thoughts turn immediately to spontaneous composing. Although my personal experience has covered several idioms, jazz improvisation has presented the greatest challenge and excitement. Using the flute as a speaking voice in this musical form requires development of several factors as we will discuss here.
Sound will be our first consideration. Development and control of your flute tone colors greatly affects all other aspects of your playing. Decide on a particular tone color you like and develop it by the use of long tones. For example, I heard a flute sound being used by Clement Barone and Julius Baker in a symphonic setting and decided that this is one of the colors I would like to use. Of course, personal study with these individuals greatly facilitated duplication of this flute sound. Personal association, although important, need not always be the rule. Hearing the sounds to be developed is of greater importance whether through recordings, radio, concerts or whatever. To develop this flute sound, I was encouraged to spend an hour or more every day using long tones. I started with “B” on the third line of the treble clef, proceeded downward in half steps to the lowest note; carefully scrutinizing each note to be sure it was the same in quality as the previous, then from the bottom to the top of the instrument. The purpose of this exercise is to develop the sound and the muscles of the embouchure. Since muscle tone requires regular use, it is obvious that this exercise must be regularly maintained.
Although the flute is termed a monotone instrument, the improvising flutist need not limit himself to one color but should feel free to experiment with various sounds to enhance his individual musical personality. For example, I recently have begun using an electronic attachment to my flute which not only amplifies the initial sound but divides it into octaves, and synthesizes other instrumental colors such as the bassoon, saxophone, bass clarinet, etc. Other sound variations have included humming in unison or harmony with the natural sound of the instrument. Also, bending the noses, i.e. intentionally making them flat or sharp (by turning the lip plate in or out) helps to protect emotional expression common in the blues.
Finger technique is another important consideration. Although there are different approaches to positioning the flute for playing, I personally prefer balancing rather than holding it since this gives greater mobility of fingers. The instrument is held when support is given under the tube (usually by the thumb of the right hand and/or the index finger of the left) but balancing is achieved by employing counteracting pressure of the mouth, right and left hands against the sides of the tube. This of course is limited to the C flute, alto flute and piccolo, since the bass flute is usually too heavy to balance in this way. To improve smoothness of execution and avoid key noises, try keeping the fingers in an arch and close to the keys even when not being used to depress a key. Of course when special effects such as “slapping” the keys are used, this suggestion can be overlooked. While there are standard fingerings found on widely distributed fingering charts, the “jazz flutist” should always feel free to experiment with new finger combinations. Who knows what might be discovered? Remember, you are a composer as well as a player. Consequently, fresh sounds will be more than welcomed.
After learning how to operate the instrument, what is next? Well, it might be a good idea to learn the “tools of the trade”. Knowing and feeling the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic manifestations of “jazz” are most essential. There was a time in the evolution of jazz, perhaps in 1930-1950, when having a “feel” for “jazz” may have been sufficient but today there is so much more happening on the musical scene to just be satisfied with having a “feel”. The improvising musician of today needs to be cognizant of chordal construction and progression along with rhythmic complexities, as well as making melodic sense. How can this be done? I have found extensive listening, added to the study of music theory, to be extremely beneficial. As an improviser, I rely a great deal on my ear along with what I have learned theoretically.
My opinion is that just as one can be more or less inherently endowed or gifted with physical attractiveness, so it is with the gift of a musical ear. Some have more or less natural musical ability. We should understand, however, that no matter how generous the gift, it requires work to develop it to its greatest potential. Some start with very little but work so hard that in many cases they excel those who in comparison had more to begin with.
Let’s discuss now a little about “working” at jazz improvisation. It may be helpful to relate my personal introduction to improvisation. In the mid- fifties, during the so called “Bebop” era, I was exposed to such artists as Charlie “Bird” Parker, Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, James Moody and others. I listened intently not only with my ears but also with my fingers, (meaning every single note that my ears were able to discern, I attempted to duplicate on my instrument), which was the alto saxophone at that time. This of course took a considerable amount of time as well as worn records. Although this method seems completely devoid of originality, I believe it serves the purpose of developing the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic sense to this form of music. At that time there was generally a great variety of harmonic progressions in a given composition as contrasted with the basically mono-chordal drone extensively used by musicians and innovators such as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and others in the late sixties and early seventies. This self taught approach to jazz was being practiced at home, while at school the age-old technology of scales was being forced down my throat. The appreciation of scales and how they relate to improvisation did not come until much later when I came to the realization that knowledge of them and how they relate to chords is most helpful in improvisation. When a “G7” chord appears, I think of more than just the chord tones:
Rather, I think of its G7 related scale:
which includes not only those chord tones but three more: A, C, E. Since these additional notes bridge the gap between the chord tones, they allow for smooth flow when constructing a melody line. Thinking scales instead of chords also aids in passing from one chord to another. This is because there are usually more common tones scale to scale than chord to chord. The most common error made by beginning improvisers is playing nonrelated chord tones. This usually happens because the young improviser relies heavily on his “ear” rather than combining this faculty with theoretical knowledge of chords and scales. The use of nonrelated chord tones can be distinct and pleasurable when approached discreetly. This is usually done by exceptionally advanced and gifted improvisers. However, we will not concern ourselves with this aspect now but concentrate on knowing what the related chord tones are.
Another valuable part of this training includes the “jazz” repertoire.” Just as a classically trained student studies and learns compositions from Bach to Shostakovitch, the jazz improviser would do well to study and learn the styles of compositions from Scott Joplin or Duke Ellington to John Coltrane or Cecil Taylor. Learning to play many pieces by memory can only enhance your development.
So now what? Well, there are perhaps as many approaches to the art of improvisation as there are improvisers. However, the foregoing is a summation of my personal concept. Regardless of the concept, I think it is safe to say that personal effort or hard work is indispensable. Like a plant, the art of improvisation grows but first the seed of natural ability and the watering (i.e.: daily work) must be there in order to realize the blossom of a mature improviser.
Flutists Hubert Laws and Mark Thomas, vice president of the W.T. Armstrong Company, discuss their favorite subject in a relaxed conversation.
A native of Houston, TX, Hubert Laws came from a talented musical family. His interest in flute came almost by accident. The school band was rehearsing “The William Tell Overture” that called for a flute part and Hubert volunteered to play it. He took the flute seriously from the start. As he explained, “I wanted to learn to operate the flute the way classical musicians do.” He studied with Clement Barone, then of the Houston Symphony. When in California he was awarded a one-year scholarship to study flute at Julliard. He completed four years there making impressive progress in the study of the instrument. During the same period, he also worked with the Berkshire Festival Orchestra. During study at Julliard, Hubert studied with eminent flutist Julius Baker. A popular recording artist, Hubert Laws’ albums reveal an unusual blending of jazz, pop and classical elements. He is author of the book entitled “Hubert Laws Flute Improvisations”.* A recognized leader in down beat Readers Polls, this quotation from Jim Schaffer’s article “Hubert Laws… in review” – down beat October 11, 1973, is most appropriate.
My summation is: Hubert Laws, a creator of beautiful music, is also a beautiful human being.
Originally published 1972
W. T. Armstrong Company, Inc., Elkhart, Indiana