Jazz adventures in St Andrews, Scotland

Jazz adventures in St Andrews, Scotland

For many years I have admired the work of two marvellous jazz teachers, both now residing in The Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. During his time as a music teacher in secondary schools, Richard Michael (RM) founded the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra which has produced many wonderful players over the years. A story he told at an inset day I attended many years ago has stayed with me. He described how as soon as his pupils had an instrument, they joined a band. It didn’t matter what note they played or what it sounded like, all that mattered was that it was in the right place. This is SO DIFFERENT from learning a stringed instrument! I began to realise why youth (and no-so-young) orchestras have the rhythmic problems they do. A pianist by training, Richard’s jazz arrangements and performances are legendary. Check out YouTube.

Saxophonist, composer and educator Richard Ingham (RI) and I were colleagues at St Mary’s Music School for many years. On his jazz days, a special energy infused the school. There were more smiles (yes, even from teenagers….) and the concerts never failed to astonish. How did he enable the pupils to do those things with such panache and confidence? It was a mystery to me.

As a teacher I believe it’s vital to keep learning, so when the opportunity finally arose to sign up for Richard Ingham’s famous long-running Jazz Course at St Andrew University, I jumped at the chance. My first instrument is the violin, but I reckoned doing the course on piano would be more beneficial to my Dalcroze and general teaching, so opted for that. Running September to April over 6 weekend days, leading to an exam weekend in June, the Scottish Certificate in Jazz course threw our diverse group of adults in at the deep end, playing together from the first session. The foundations of rhythm, groove, listening, responding and enjoying were laid immediately by RI. Combining enthusiasm with experience and respect for everyone in the room, his upbeat and energetic teaching style meant that everyone was empowered to succeed. That first day was a revelation to me. Terms such as head, chorus and turn-around finally made sense. The structures of jazz were revealed, and I understood on an intellectual level how those chord symbols work.

Scottish Certificate in Jazz cohort 17/18 outside Younger Hall, St Andrews with
Richard Ingham (far right, second row)

I have always adored harmony, and consciously analyse its structures while listening to all music, so as soon as it was pointed out that the sequence II V I is used lots in jazz, things began to make a lot more sense. However, the jazzers’ way of notating it did my head in! I could hear it, and play the sequence in any key, but spotting it on the page was another matter. For those not in the know, jazz “numbers” are not fully notated. Usually, the melody is written in the treble clef, with chords indicated by the letter name of the bass note and a range of symbols indicating whether it’s a dominant, major, minor, half diminished or diminished 7th, or short hand for a range of other chord structures. I struggled valiantly to read these without translating them into my comfort zone but was very relieved at the start of the second year (Advanced Diploma in Jazz) when RM said it was okay to think harmonically in a key. This made playing by myself much easier, as I could hear the bass line from the chord symbols and work out by ear what the progression was likely to be.

However, the catch for me was that when playing with the band, the bass played the bass line and I wasn’t allowed to! So, whereas single line instruments improvise a melody over the chord structure, pianists do that and are expected to put in some chords without bass too. The two experienced jazz pianists on the course had no difficulty with this at all because they do it all the time, but it defeated me for a while.

Another revelation was the use of modes as musical currency. Having studied them so much through Dalcroze, I reckoned I might finally be ahead of the game. However, what I hadn’t factored in was that the mode often changed with every chord! Without becoming too technical, I came to recognise that this actually wasn’t as complicated as it sounded when RI pointed out that chord II dorian, V mixolydian then I Ionian all use the same notes. It’s just a different way of thinking.

Zoë playing with the band

The practical assessment side of the course included performing a 32-bar jazz standard of our own choice with the band. Having come across Tom Jobim and Elis Regina singing Jobim’s Aguas de Março and becoming totally enchanted by it, I decided to choose something by him. One Note Samba appealed to my sense of humour, and I quickly decided that I’d have to work in a reference to Purcell’s Fantasia on One Note. This proved remarkably easy when I realised that those famous false relations in Purcell are the same as the Hendrix chord (but "spelt" differently… don’t get me started….sharp 9 is a flat 10 in my ears). It also tied in with RM’s fabulous demonstrations of playing jazz standards in the style of Bach, and his jazzed-up hymn tunes.

My favourite version on YouTube of One Note Samba is by Laurindo Almeida with the Modern Jazz Quartet: superb musicianship all round, with pianist John Lewis demonstrating the “less is more” principle magnificently. (If you’re getting the bug, it’s well worth exploring others too.) The words are also entertaining. There’s a line in which the solfa syllables re mi fah soh la ti doh are all sung on, yes, you guessed it, one note. I decided to play a scale at that point in my arrangement but I’m not sure anyone got the joke…… However, this links to a story that RM told us about the great saxophonist Joe Temperley. When asked by a school pupil in Lochgelly how he managed to play everything in all the keys, he explained that he did it all by solfa, which he’d learned in primary school in Fife. I don’t think my grandfather Morton Robertson taught Joe as I believe he was teaching in a different part of Fife in the 1930s, but I can’t be sure!

Following all the performances, I was thrilled and honoured to be presented with the Linda Trahan Memorial Award. This was the icing on the cake of all I’ve learned over the two years. It’s not just the jazz, either. Watching Richard Ingham teach is an education in itself. He is a master at knowing what to say, when, and how. His ability to treat everyone equally is second to none, and the way he controls the “temperature” in the room is fabulous. We all laughed when he exclaimed “my favourite!” at everyone’s choice of standard for the exam.

Beyond the teaching and learning, the course has been fabulous in many ways. On a personal level, I’ve met and made music with people from a wide variety of musical backgrounds, and loved the feeling of improvising with the band. Jerry Randalls’ lecture on Jazz Improvisation and Language Acquisition was fascinating, and Kenny Irons’ dry repartee from the bass attempting to keep us on the straight and narrow was a hoot. But above all, it has given me a new perspective on and respect for jazz musicians, who have so much deeper an understanding than many of us trained in other traditions. Rhythm, inner hearing, creativity and memory are all taken for granted as skills in jazz. Thank you, Richard and Richard, for opening up this new world to me.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of George Ramsden, whose jazz band “The Baggy Chords” I would love to have danced to.

George Ramsden

George Ramsden


It was another joy to work with Lui Kai at the Congrès Jaques-Dalcroze in in Geneva this summer. Lui Kai teaches jazz and Dalcoze in Bejing. His rhythmics/solfège lessons in which he used Dalcroze principles to explain jazz to the uninitiated were beautiful and brilliant.

Lui Kai after his class in Salle de Spectacle in Institut Jaques-Dalcroze, Geneva, July 2019

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