Jazz And Sports: The First Ten Plays

By Sam Griffith

Jazz and sports share a lot of common ground. Both require the performer to be instinctive and responsive to the moment. Other art forms, with perhaps the exception of acting, don’t have as many potentially destructive forces acting against the performer.  With jazz improvisation, you must concerned about the piece you’re performing, your instrumental skill level, your jazz theory level, the ability of the musicians around you and the impact of other environmental factors.

In other art forms, you are typically concerned with just internal factors. However, jazz is a music of community and requires additional performers. Sports ALWAYS require additional performers, although sometimes these performers will be your competition.

With that in mind, I will be writing a series of posts looking at elements of sports that can make us better jazz musicians. Typically these are components of practice or game-planning that should be considered when you are working on jazz. These posts will focus on strategies to not only improve your own practice (or performance) but to consider the other musicians you’ll be working with to achieve a better performance.

The First Ten Plays

Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers and pioneer of the “West Coast Offense” is credited with being one of the first coaches to script the first ten offensive plays of a game. Walsh felt this was very beneficial for several reasons; it helped the quarterback get into rhythm early and allowed the offense to fine-tune a specific sequence of plays prior to the game. By developing confidence and establishing a comfort level, the offense could easier get into the flow of the game.

Does this always work? Of course not. Usually the offense is having to compete against 11 angry guys who are trying to counter everything they do. But in jazz, nobody is working against you. At least…..hopefully no one is!

So, how can a jazz musicians “script their first ten plays”?

  • Decide prior to starting the song what your pitch material will be. Look at the chord sequence, and determine some notes that will work. Select an approach to these chords that is easy for you. Allow yourself to get into rhythm, and then begin the process of reacting. Don’t be too obtuse. Stick to pentatonic scales, note clusters or melody notes initially. Focus on simple ideas that aren’t difficult. You’ll have plenty of choruses later on to get crazy with it.
  • Consider the importance of routine. If your pitch selection is similiar to begin every solo, the musicians you are playing with will have a better idea of how to support you. Too frequently, the idea that everything has to spontaneous is encouraged. Everything should be fresh (and organic), but spontaneity can be too difficult. Instead, if you have a game-plan for the first two choruses, the musicians playing with will be able to best support you. Support should be great than spontaneity (although our end goal is hopefully both!).
  • With this idea of “scripting” you can also methodically choose specific chords (or a specific section) to try out new material you’re working on.  This will allow you to try new ideas, while also allowing you to “fall-back” to material that is more comfortable.
  • When playing a concert, establish which songs will be the most comfortable and arrange them strategically. In football, the scripted plays allow you to get into a rhythm early, but with music you typically want to come out firing. Plan the songs you are most comfortable with around songs that are more challenging. In regards to programming, also consider the musicians you are playing with. You want to get them in sync with what you are doing. Some musicians are natural great at this, others…well….you can help them out a lot.

Each week we will continue to look at different sports strategies and consider how they can be used in jazz. Next week we will discuss how Man and Zone defensive principles should be used with improvisation.

Jazz and Sports is a weekly post by Sam Griffith focusing on strategies for applying sports strategies in jazz pedagogy. For more on Sam, visit his webpage – samuelgriffith.com


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