Pete Churchill: ‘Music, Language and the Rhythm of the ‘Word’

 Educator, singer/pianist, performer, composer and Director of the London Vocal Project Pete Churchill has been reflecting about music education…about the outstanding quality and the musicality of Wynton Marsalis as a public speaker… on what first drew him to jazz… on Jon Hendricks and the eloquence and rhythm that inhabits his lyric-writing. This fascinating essay, ‘Music, Language and the Rhythm of the ‘Word’ ends with some reflections on retirement from Pete’s late father:


Pete Churchill. Publicity photo

I initially imagined that lockdown would be a bit like retirement – a rehearsal perhaps or a ‘dry-run’ to see how things were likely to pan out after I had ceased all professional activity. As it happens I discovered that the work I managed to hold onto simply expanded to fill the available space left by the work I’d lost. The money didn’t expand of course! Before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks, as with so many of us I imagine, I probably kept myself busy in order to avoid thinking too much about why or how I was working – but I find that this time of enforced idleness has given me more opportunities to stop and take stock.

 Thus it was that I found myself with a rare afternoon free and so I decided to take a break from all the hiatus of activity that ordinarily seems to define my life. There I was, sitting in my garden and trying to relax, when I happened upon a thread posted by my good friend Todd Stoll at JALC (Jazz at the Lincoln Centre) and it pointed me towards a really interesting speech given by Wynton Marsalis in 2012 at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. 

The whole thing is on YouTube and has been divided into nine parts – and so I ‘binge-watched’ them all. 

If you’re at all curious then this is definitely worth it – the best hour I could have spent at a time when I have been struggling, like so many others, to hold it all together in what are often impossible circumstances. 

Wynton’s speech was addressed to an auditorium full of Music Teachers and so, before you dive in, there are a couple of things that it might be useful to clarify. It may help to understand the difference between how school-music is taught here in the U.K. versus how they go about things in the U.S. 

 In America, classroom music is often based around an ensemble – in which case, if you’re a music teacher then you’re basically a band director. This couldn’t be more different from how music is taught here and it explains a lot about the differences between our two musical cultures and why students arrive at Music College in both countries with vastly different skill-sets. 

     When you join a High School music class in the States therefore, you are likely to be joining a band and you may even be told what instrument to play – i.e. whatever fills a gap in the band at that particular moment. With music in schools structured this way kids, from the very start, begin to realise that music isn’t ‘instrument-specific’ – that it has an existence separate from the instrument through which they are currently accessing it. 

    In the U.K. however, if you show any aptitude, you are usually encouraged to make a choice of instrument at quite a young age and you then explore music largely through that instrument. There are graded exams to take and levels of attainment to achieve and any experience of ensemble playing will likely be outside the school. It is entirely possible, and quite common, to achieve a Grade 8 on an instrument without ever having played in an ensemble. Indeed it is entirely possible to pass your Grade 8 having only ever played 24 pieces of music – three at each grade. 

 Back to Wynton’s speech – what was it that grabbed me? Right from the start he demonstrates an understanding of his crowd and what it is like to be on the front line. To become a Music Teacher, he states, is to enter a sacred profession. The American High school Band Director is the rarest of breeds and Wynton knows it. (Ideally you should watch the whole thing but I have transcribed a section of his speech from Part 2 that particularly affected me – link below.)

  He speaks with such eloquence that it made me realise how much language and oratory has disappeared from our culture here in the U.K.  As with any transcription, of course, it only captures a fragment of the story – for the essence of his delivery is, like any solo, untranscribable. Words, like notes, lose something when committed to paper. He speaks with a deep rhythmic understanding of his text which suggests that he has grown up, maybe through church, hearing language well spoken. It is clear that the sound of each word is as important to him as it’s meaning and, in fact, one of the themes Wynton focuses on is the importance of developing a good sound… so the mode of his delivery – as my good friend Steve Watts (bass player) has been known to say – clearly reflects the subject matter. 

 To continue this parallel between speaking and playing I noticed that parts of the speech unfolded like a good solo – with repetition of motifs, use of space etc. and Wynton has an ear for the long-form as well. I became aware that the overall shape had been structured compositionally and this served to frame the various quasi-improvised sections. The arc of it all was explicit with material from the beginning returning at the end (Part 9) having been transformed by the thread of the material in the central ‘development’ sections – classic compositional structure. 

 Now I’m not sure if there are any firm conclusions to be drawn from this line of thinking – and perhaps, as my Dad used to say, “It’s not necessary to have all the answers as long as you’re asking the right questions!”. However there is definitely something here that’s worth pursuing. I am convinced that, as musicians, we cannot escape the influence of our own language and how we have heard it spoken. We may not, like Wynton’  become ‘orators’ ourselves – perhaps choosing instead to speak through our instrument – but we can not escape the lasting influence of the very first sounds that we hear – the rhythms and cadences of speech.

To my ears Jazz is message music. There is a ‘cry’ in the sound of my favourite players and an element of preaching, of protest even, that is deep at the heart of it all. This is what drew me to jazz at a young age. There was something being said in the music that my culture hadn’t found a way to express – certainly not in such a vital and immediate form – and the connection with the expressive power of speech was always there in the way melodies were played and in the lines of the improvisers. 

 In this music I heard singers who still treasured every word, who had a clear sense of narrative and were able to rephrase the lyric so as to make you listen afresh every time. They were aware of the expressive power of the text and, beyond its literal meaning, they could express something essential about the song just through the sound of every syllable. 

    Sadly, here in the U.K. I think we may have lost our connection with the spoken word – and this may go some way towards explaining why there is often less of a connection in the playing of younger musicians, certainly on this side of the Atlantic, with melody and groove. We perhaps are educated to think that the secret to becoming a better musician is to explore more music – whereas the most transformative input to our development may well lie outside our discipline. 

       When I first met Jon Hendricks (the ‘Poet Laureate of Jazz’ and Godfather of vocalese) and before we began working together on his last masterpiece Miles Ahead, we simply talked about language -specifically as found in the King James translation of the Bible. From there we moved on to Shakespeare (much of which he believed was written by Sir Francis Bacon!) and beyond! Jon was obsessed with the language of the Bible – he was the ‘son of a preacher-man’ after all – and I realised that the resonance of this translation still permeates much of the language of Black American churches and is the raw material from which many preachers develop their powers of oratory.

      Here in the U.K. in the last half of the 20th century, the glorious language of the scriptures and the prayer-book was summarily dismantled when a new ‘Alternative’ liturgy was brought into common use. In the interests of making the message ‘more accessible’ all the mysteries of the old translation were stripped away. In an astonishing act of linguistic vandalism and in the mistaken belief that the process would make the message more enticing, the church ensured that the opportunity for churchgoers to bathe themselves in the sound of poetry every week was taken from them. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were translated at a time in history when – as the essayist Clive James put it so succinctly – ‘the English language was in such good shape that even a committee could write poetry.’ The Church of England took this language and placed it in a museum. In America, however, it still resonates and this translation was at the heart of Jon Hendricks’ eloquence and the rhythm of the language inhabits every lyric he ever wrote. 

      Crucially, although I have never heard Wynton claim to be a poet I can certainly hear the poetry in his playing. Similarly when he speaks there is music in the rise and fall of his cadences… you can hear motivic/melodic development, the riff, however you want to define it, as he warms to his theme. The link between music and the spoken word is clear and you realise how closely connected it all is. Check out this particular section of his speech (Part 2) and see what you think. I have transcribed his ‘exhortation’ on music (below) but you should really listen to it first – as you would a solo. 

Wynton Marsalis on Music…

(Speech to the ‘ Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic’ 2012 – Part 2)

“Just the name… ‘Music’ – it bespeaks spirituality and sophistication and solemnity and silly songs, sensuousness and skipping and squeaking and squawking sounds and special sonatas and symphonies and so much swing and swooping and special sauce that we call soul. 

      “It bespeaks the blues and saying what you have to say. And music is everything from the movement of the heavens to the chirping of crickets, the ringing of church-bells and the ringing of a cell-phone alarm, the splashing of water and the howling at the moon, the whispers of new lovers, the cacophonous cadence of embattled couples and the lonely cry of the broken hearted. 

    “Music is the exhortations of a country preacher and the sound of the midnight moan. It’s the super-trite jingle of a TV commercial and the ditty that identifies a video game, the identifying theme of a movie and the sound of an entire ethnic group. It can also be the travail of Southern Slaves in song, the voice of morning prayer that stops cities and the anthem that calls a nation to attention. 

    In music there is the recorded history and memory of a people brung to life at every performance, the tying together of generations, an expression of pride and ultimately love and also a sense of belonging.

   This music is something. It can reorder emotions, can awaken thoughts, can raise morale and open the mind’s eye with a single golden note. Music is consciousness made physical through the razor’s edge of performance. It is consciousness forced into truthfulness through the pressures of time. You don’t have the time to lie. Music is always now.”

        Wynton returns to this theme – a recapitulation of sorts – in Part 9 of his talk… almost an hour later. But, like any good Jazz performance, it is not the same… he paraphrases, adds to it, omits some things and his cadences are different. 

      You will have to check out the whole thing and draw your own conclusions I guess – but for me, this is one of the great speeches about music… because it IS music.

      So there you have it – the result of a free afternoon in my garden. It’s clear in this case that work did expand to fill the available space… who’d have thought! 


      Just before I finish, I have found a few thoughts on retirement that my Dad sketched out for a book he never completed – this could easily be taken as advice for those on lockdown! 

  “I find that one of the many delights of a happy retirement is that one can, with care, at last find time to read more widely than formerly and find time to reflect upon a million matters that were pushed aside in a professional musical life. Beyond the whirlwind there is a calm and we are perhaps foolish if we resist its beauty, if we continue to precipitate ourselves in all directions in imitation of our younger selves either through anxiety or a nostalgia to retain our youth.

     “Such reflections as maturity may bring can often be fruitful; we may retrieve fugitive thoughts and let them scamper into speculations that previously were sternly rejected in a former, busier existence.”

      Maybe the real lesson here has been how important it is that I take time out to think. 

      And as for Music… I think I’ll leave the last word to Wynton!

     “It’s the singing of a cymbal in full swing. 

      It’s the sweep of brushes on snare and the very last wisp Ben Webster’s sound makes kissing the air…  and it’s much deeper than notes.”

LINK: Pete Churchill’s website

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Youtube Channel

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