This article is copyright 2007 by Antonio J. García and originally was published as a two-part feature in JAZZed, Vol. 2, No. 2, December 2007/January 2008 and Vol. 3, No. 2, March 2008. It appears in its entirety below. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.
Where's the Beat?
by Antonio J. García
“What’s the most important beat in the measure?”
It’s a simple question, very basic. In any given measure of the style of music in which you are performing, where’s the ground beat? (Or is there more than one?) If the music is not rubato, there should be a unified answer throughout your ensemble, whether jazz, classical, pop, rock, or funk; acoustic or electronic; instrumental or vocal; wind or orchestral; large or small. Where does this music’s “groove” fall?
Western European music has certainly made its roots of 4/4 time clear: beat one, along with a supportive beat three, was king for centuries. African-based music has its own clearly defined ground beats for so many variations of grooves. Latin music, influenced greatly by African music, has a specific ground beat at the conceptual heart of any of its styles. And rock and funk—the preferred genre of so many students in school jazz ensembles—are nothing if not built on a solid ground beat.
So why the mystery? When I assist ensembles at festivals and at their own schools across the U.S. and beyond, I frequently ask in the post-performance workshop, “What’s the most important beat in a bar of this music?” Very few orchestras, choirs, jazz ensembles, or chamber groups can answer. Yet once they think about it, all agree that unifying their concept of performance around the ground beat is an essential element—and possibly the most essential element—for quickly elevating their performance to their next level of excellence. Impressively, this shift of emphasis rarely calls for any greater technique, only awareness.
Unfortunately, the concept of ground beat is often relegated only to the percussion or rhythm section of instrumental ensembles (though too few can answer the question). The horn players and voices seem much more rarely involved in incorporating the groove into their lines. Yet that very incorporation of the ground beat across the entire ensemble is fundamental to the musical success of any performance.
In fact, if an ensemble arbitrarily had chosen a random part of the measure as its ground beat shared among all its musicians, the unity of its performance would markedly improve. The style might not be historically or culturally accurate, but the unified interpretation would be undeniably strong. So what would be some accurate interpretations of the ground beat across various jazz styles?
The visual examples I have provided as partial answer to that question include the drum part—usually just the ride cymbal and hi-hat portion (for funk, the hi-hat and bass drum). This leaner summary, minus the more ornamental role of the snare and toms, allows for a distilled view that will hopefully offer clarity to the illustrations.
Some examples are heard only in pairs; so not every example has an individual sound-link.
The format of most drum-pattern examples is as follows:
The format of most melody examples is a pairing of the unaccented and accented samples, as follows:
Additional details are noted on the visual examples as needed.
An incredible amount of resources for performance and pedagogy in swing, bebop, Latin, and more styles are available via Jamey Aebersold’s web site at <www.jazzbooks.com>. Write Jamey Aebersold Jazz Inc., P.O. Box 1244, New Albany, IN 47151-1244; call (800) 456-1388; or e-mail <email@example.com>.
An increasing site for resources regarding Brazilian and Afro-Cuban jazz is Chuck Sher’s web site at <www.shermusic.com>. Write Sher Music at P.O. Box 445, Petaluma, CA 94953; call (800) 444-7437; or e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Many of its products are also available at the referenced sites above and below this one.
The web site at <www.descarga.com> is to Latin music what Jamey Aebersold's <www.jazzbooks.com> and Double-Time catalogs together are to jazz music: a one-stop shop for CDs, videos, texts, and other resources. Descarga means "jam session"; and the site is neatly jammed with Latin folk and pop music as well as jazz. You’ll learn more about the music just from the home page than you probably ever learned about it in school. The online glossary is great. And check out “The Descarga Journal Archives” link from the home page as a tremendous resource of literature on the subject! The search engines on this site are terrific. Particularly impressive is the “Category Search,” which easily allows you to focus on genres and regions of the music. You can also call DESCARGA at (718) 693-2966; write 328 Flatbush Avenue, Suite 180, Brooklyn, NY 11238; or e-mail <email@example.com>.
There are many terrific books, videos, CDs, and web sites about Brazilian and Afro-Cuban musics. But one of the best free pedagogical resources is “Latin Rhythms: Mystery Unraveled” by Victor Lopez, based on his superb workshop at The Midwest Clinic in 2005. The downloadable PDF, including extensive print-music examples and a glossary of terms, can be found online at <www.midwestclinic.org/clinicianmaterials/2005/victor_lopez.pdf>. While visiting there, consider browsing through the large menu of resources available to you from past years of Midwest clinicians!
Swing and More
In medium swing 4/4, the ground beat falls on beats two and four, matching the hi-hat closures in a typical drummer’s time-keeping pattern (Example 1). So if the ensemble has a line such as in Example 2 and plays it without accenting that ground beat, the result is rather dull. When the musicians accent the notes that fall on or nearest beats two and four—overriding that concept only if a line leaps significantly—the result in Example 3 is the excitement that only comes when everyone is acknowledging the ground beat together. (Note that the /\ “secco” marking, such as on beat four of Example 3, indicates that the note is both short and accented.)
It is critical that your rhythm section players are not the only participants in this concept. Every ensemble member’s phrases should be affected by the ground beat.
A slow 4/4 swing ballad also reflects the same two-and-four backbeat, though with less strong of an accent. So a Lil’ Darlin’-like line such as in Example 4 would have a slight emphasis in performance as shown in Example 5. (Note that the last note of the phrase is accented because all final notes of phrases receive a slight accent.)
In an uptempo swing or bebop 4/4, jazz musicians make the eighth notes a bit straighter than the swing style of a slower tempo. And the ground beat shifts from beats two and four to beats one and three (even though the hi-hat pattern remains intact). But as in sprinting, where runners breathe less frequently per step than if jogging, performers often feel the ground beat only on beat three, thus relaxing the environment while maintaining the pace (Example 6). Thus a phrase written such as in Example 7 will be interpreted more richly when feeling the ground beat on the second half of each measure as in Example 8. With this, the musicians can then project a feeling of forward motion in the line without promoting panic. (Note that while the last note of Example 8 is accented as the end of a phrase, it would not be accented if the line were continuing into the next measure of music.)
There are reasons for this backbeat interpretation at faster swing tempos, rooted in the Latin styles ahead; and I have found its application to be tremendously helpful for ensembles of all ages. However, do note that disagreements over the ground beat of uptempo swing have raged for decades and will likely continue as long as the music exists.
The ground beat of a 3/4 jazz waltz varies greatly, influenced primarily by its melody and tempo and may not be reflected in the drummer’s hi-hat pattern so as to promote freshness in the overall feel. Jazz waltzes are among the most malleable of grooves, and variations can occur every eight measures or so that can be very attractive to the ear.
However, a medium tempo swing jazz waltz frequently implies a ground-beat comprised of accents on beats one and the upbeat of two (shown in Example 9. For example, a line such as in Example 10 played with this ground-beat emphasis (except for strong leaps) would sound unified as in Example 11.
Some jazz waltzes instead suggest a ground beat rooted on the downbeats of one and three. For example, the same line accenting the notes that fall on or nearest beats one and three would sound just as unified as in Example 12. (Melodies in this style would include the Duke Ellington/Peggy Lee tune I’m Gonna’ Go Fishin’.) An ensemble usually must give priority to one of these two interpretations. Either would sound more in the jazz tradition than a reading of Example 10 with no ground-beat plan at all!
Perhaps no style frequently sounds more uncomfortable on the student bandstand than the 4/4 samba. Ask your ensemble members to raise their hands if they have an opinion as to what the most important beat of the bar is. I’d be surprised if more than twenty percent have an opinion—and half of them will differ from the other! Partnering this confusion with the more aggressive samba tempo often leads to a very unmusical fighting between chairs as to where the accents fall in a performance.
The samba (in even eighths rather than swing eighths) originates in Brazil, where the dancers advance their feet down the street on the second half of the bar, accompanied by the open tone of the surdo drum. Thus the 4/4 samba is really felt in 2/2, a half-note feel, with the accent on the second half of the bar (Example 13). While this is beat three in 4/4 time, I have heard some Brazilians refer to it as “Big Two,” reflecting that it is the second beat of the bigger, cut-time feel. It gives the samba the same danceable backbeat as if its melody were over a medium swing feel of half that tempo. (There are parallels between this feel and fast swing or bebop, in which the second-half-of-the-bar backbeat provides similar forward motion in a relaxed feel over a bright tempo. Also note that the cymbal pattern provided here is but one of many options, chosen here for its parallel to a later example.)
Many inexperienced rhythm sections in a typical non-Brazilian jazz band emphasize the downbeat of the measure instead of the halfway point. This creates a very weighted samba feel, as opposed to the lighter, forward motion achieved by accenting the middle of the bar (and particularly within an authentic partido alto guitar part). Correcting that ground beat will generate a striking character-change in the music.
The next step is to convey that feel throughout the ensemble. In a line such as Example 14, each musician should communicate that ground beat as in Example 15. This is done even in pop music using samba feel. (Think of Lionel Richie’s long-ago hit, All Night Long.) Again note that while the last note of Example 15 is accented as the end of a phrase, it would not be accented if the line were continuing into the next measure of music.
The bossa nova, also in 4/4, was the “new beat” derived by slowing down the culturally revered samba to roughly half-tempo. The Brazilian interpretation of the ground beat is the same as in samba: no matter what the bossa’s tempo, the music is really felt in 2/2, a half-note feel, with the accent on the second half of the bar (Example 16). Thus a bossa has the same danceable backbeat as a samba but at the slower tempo.
The typical non-Brazilian jazz band interpretation emphasizing the downbeat of the measure creates a much heavier 4/4 feel than the intended 2/2, backbeat feel. Conveying the backbeat throughout the ensemble makes a line such as Example 17 sound as in Example 18.
Note that you have the additional option of treating a bossa nova in a Horace Silver, “Blue Note label” style (from which you can hear the influence on such pop groups as Steely Dan and Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number). This more North American interpretation of the feel in a 4/4 manner (as in Example 19) has its own history and is valid when intended. A rendition such as in Example 20 is successful with much lighter accents than as performed by a typical younger jazz ensemble.
There are many more Brazilian grooves than samba and bossa, but these two comprise the vast majority of such styles being performed by younger ensembles.
Similarly, there are countless variations of Afro-Cuban grooves, each based on the appropriate clave (KLAH-vey), which means “key.” The sticks known as claves play the key rhythm of that specific Afro-Cuban groove, and that rhythm informs the patterns of all instruments in the rhythm section.
If there’s one phrase that captures the essence of the Afro-Cuban grooves, it’s “Don’t mess with the clave!” In more positive terms, this means that all the horn and vocal lines must be compatible with the clave beat: even the best soloists are aware of incorporating it into their improvisations.
The details of the many grooves and related claves are sufficient for a book or article on their own. (See “Resources.”) But let’s assume for the moment that the music you are exploring is in the very popular 2-3 son clave. That describes two specific hits in the first measure and three specific hits in the second measure of any pair of bars (Example 21). (Let’s also assume that your drummer is using the hi-hat, even though the original timbales of the genre have no such item.)
The clave carries information about the ground beat in the two-bar phrase. The measure that contains two hits (in this case, the first of the pair of bars) usually slightly emphasizes the second hit—which happens to fall on beat three of the bar. But much more importantly, the measure containing three hits (in this case, the second of the pair) even more strongly accents the last of the three—which happens to fall on beat four of that bar (Example 22).
Thus in 2-3 son clave, the ground beat is actually the eighth quarter of every pair of measures. This effectively shifts emphasis from the downbeat of any given measure to beat four of the even-numbered measures—a position that can properly transport an ensemble’s musical interpretation from north of the Caribbean to far south. It also changes most 4/4 Afro-Cuban music to feel not in one-bar groupings but in two-measure phrases—a kind of cut time that adds an element of relaxation to even the busiest such groove.
Armed with this information, Afro-Cuban musicians can take a line that may seem rather sterile in print (such as in the Peanut Vendor-like Example 23) and infuse it with the ground beat accent of beat four every even-numbered bar (Example 24). Depending on the nature of the line, they may even add a moderate emphasis on beat three of the odd-numbered bars (Example 25) or the complete clave pattern (Example 26). The choice is yours. But culturally informed musicians will not play the line devoid of any ground-beat emphasis. (Note again that the last note of each example is short only because it ends a phrase; otherwise, it would likely be long.)
The 2-3 son clave can be reversed in another tune to 3-2 son clave (Example 27)—or modified to 2-3 rumba clave (Example 28) or 3-2 rumba clave (Example 29)—or appear in yet further variations. But whatever the clave beat is, every musical line in every chair of the ensemble should reflect its ground beat: that’s what sells the groove!
Even an abbreviated look at Afro-Cuban grooves has to mention the 6/8 feel known by abakwa, abakua, nanigo, or other names. Its triplet-feel bell-pattern groove is also based in clave. Some musicians might choose to overlay a 2-3 son clave atop this feel (Example 30), while the more frequent choice seems to be a 3-2 rumba clave (Example 31). So long as everyone agrees on the same pattern, all will be well: the ground beat can be chosen accordingly. This groove is often written across one measure of 12/8 instead of two of 6/8.
The roots of funk go deeply into blues, gospel, swing, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban musics. Help your students realize and demonstrate that the funk backbeat grooves they so enjoy come from the very same backbeats in these earlier forms, and you’ll find them more interested in playing swing and Latin grooves well.
At the outset of this article I mentioned that “if an ensemble arbitrarily had chosen a random part of the measure as its ground beat shared among all its musicians, the unity of its performance would markedly improve. The style might not be historically or culturally accurate, but the unified interpretation would be undeniably strong.” The most interesting element of funk to me is that virtually any portion of the measure—or combination of portions—can be selected as the ground beat with tremendous success. But if your ensemble wants to convey the music in the style of the composer, you’ll have to identify what the original ground-beat choice was in order to duplicate it.
Whether based on swing or even sixteenth notes in 4/4 time, a majority of funk grooves carry a backbeat feel accenting two and four (Example 32), as in swing. This is gospel music’s influence at its strongest; so if the music you’re performing is built on this feel, you will have to address it deeply. A line that might appear as in Example 33 requires ground-beat accenting as in Example 34. (Note that the last note of each phrase is also accented.)
Sometimes such feels are written in eighth notes at half the tempo rather than sixteenths and thus across twice as many measures, as in Example 35. Though the music sounds the same to the listener, the resulting ground beat is very often on the second half of the bar in 2/2 time (Example 36), as in samba.
There is nothing less funky than listening to an ensemble try to play funk without agreeing where the ground beat is!
Form and Function
By now, two questions might have arisen in your mind. First, why aren’t these ground beats more obviously reflected in the scores and parts of the music you’re performing? In most cases, it would be impractical for the composer/arranger to write accents above every critical beat-point in the lines of all the musicians. The more notations added to the parts, the more complicated the written music looks—usually a negative in the eyes of the potential buyer. You might find clues in the drum and percussion parts of the ensemble, at best: it would take longer for the writer to insert those ground-beat accents into each part. Nonetheless, that’s exactly how the pros interpret the lines. That’s how ensembles groove, whether a jazz band, a symphony orchestra, or a chorus: they have one vision of the ground beat involved.
Second, do all fine ensembles really make these decisions as to how to interpret the ground beat into every musician’s part? Absolutely, they do. But the more professional the level of experience in each chair, the more quickly and silently the decisions are made. In a pro jazz band, for example, the historic tradition is that all horns look to their section leaders for stylistic interpretation—and that all section leaders follow the lead trumpet’s interpretation—and that the drummer and lead trumpeter work on an equal level to lead the ensemble from the chairs. The adjustments across such a band can occur so instantaneously that the communication seems effortless or absent, though it is indeed there.
The younger the ensemble, the more the director’s input is needed. Otherwise, the varying opinions of a younger ensemble’s members will continue to conflict in performance. Unifying the interpretation of the ground beat across all chairs is thus one of the foremost responsibilities of an ensemble director. By addressing this musical element, you will strengthen your ensemble’s performance to an extent you had likely not even thought possible in so short a time period, contributing a more natural feel to the music of any tempo.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own garciamusic.com, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.
Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.
Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."
About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”
Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/educator...one of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.
The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <www.garciamusic.com>.
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