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What Is Jazz Composition? Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of On the Road To Emmaus

When you hear the word composer, what comes to mind? Do you think of Beethoven, Mozart or Bach?

These composers wrote music that is still played today because every note is written in the music.

But what about Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or Duke Ellington? Aren't their compositions still played today? Since most sheet music versions of their pieces have only the melody and chords, are they still truly composers?

In this article, you'll learn:

  • the difference between Jazz Composition and Classical Composition.

  • how playing jazz compositions can bring your piano playing to a more advanced level

  • ways that you can express your creativity by composing your own jazz pieces

  • why revisiting your own jazz compositions from time to time can inspire you to keep writing

What Is Classical Composition or Rather Concert Music?

When I was working on my second Masters Degree at New England Conservatory , I became aware of the term Concert Music, which is the identity given to compositions written by living composers. The music written today is notated like that of Beethoven, Chopin and others (all the notes that each instrument plays are written on the staff along with dynamic marks, phrasing and articulation). However, it certainly does NOT sound classical. During the 16 years that I composed Concert Music exclusively, every single note that I wanted an instrument to play from my Capriccio for Solo Flute to my Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra was written on the staff. My music was influenced by classical music but also by jazz and other sources. Many of these pieces are published and can be played by classically trained musicians without any need for me to be present. These compositions basically sound the same whenever they are played because to musicians follow what I wrote in my score.

What Is Jazz Composition?

A jazz composition is piece of music written to be played by musicians who are free to interpret it their own way. Except on rare occasions, this type of composition is notated with melody and chord symbols above it on a lead sheet. There are many recordings of well-known jazz compositions available, and this helps musicians learn to play pieces like Charlie Parker's Blues for Alice, Miles Davis' Solar or Paul Desmond's Take Five well enough to either model the original or create their own interpretations of them.

How Playing Jazz Compositions Can Bring Your Piano Playing to a More Advanced Level

Most jazz compositions feature one or more musical elements that require extra practice to master:

  • very fast tempos

  • complex rhythms

  • lots of syncopation

  • intricate and involved melodic lines

  • advanced chord types

When you spend hours of practice and listening in order to play solo piano versions of these tunes or play them in groups with other jazz musicians, you can't help but improve your piano playing. Besides playing these jazz standards well, you'll find yourself embellishing and expanding your interpretations of standards from the Great American Songbook.

Ways That You Can Express Your Creativity By Composing Your Own Jazz Pieces

Any composing you do can offer you the opportunity to improve your musicianship. I talked about this in my blog post . When it comes to jazz composing, there are many opportunities to explore and express your creativity.

Although my first Masters Degree from New England Conservatory was in Jazz Composition, my work as a jazz composer officially began in 1969. After my jam session with the world famous jazz organist Jimmy Smith he told me that I needed to write my own jazz compositions in order for me to get established in the jazz world. From then on, in different periods of my performing career, I composed pieces for my trios and quartets. Although my creative ideas began at the piano, the compositions that evolved always offered me as well as each of the musicians in my groups opportunities to express ourselves creatively through improvisation, different accompaniment styles and rhythms and well as new ways for the ensemble to combine instrumental colors.

Why Revisiting Your Own Jazz Compositions from Time to Time Can Inspire You to Keep Writing

As I mentioned earlier, each period of my performing career brought with it, some new jazz compositions. In 1982, during my private musical studies with Joe Maneri I was in the process of making the switch from group performing to solo piano playing (which continues to be my main performing genre). At one point, our multi-faceted program of lessons moved into jazz composition. One day, an idea for a new piece emerged while I was practicing the piano. It began with a stride accompaniment pattern. Around the same time, I was reading a passage from the Gospel of Luke 24: 13-25.

Then it hit me: the stride piano idea for which I composed a melody represented the first part of the story. Two disciples were walking on the road to a town called Emmaus on Easter morning. They were dejected, because they had hoped Jesus would be able to redeem Jerusalem, but instead he was crucified.

All of a sudden, Jesus appeared to them and interpreted all of the scriptures as the three of them continued walking. I needed a way to express this musically and so I composed the middle section with complex chords, a 10th style accompaniment and a totally different feeling. After Jesus disappears, the two disciples were "kicking" themselves for not having recognized him. Nevertheless, they headed back to Jerusalem to meet with the others and tell them what happened. Musically, that required a return of the stride section, which is exactly what I did.

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of On the Road to Emmaus

In the 40 years since I composed On the Road to Emmaus, I have performed it many times in its original instrumentation and arrangement for solo piano. For publication, I notated the arrangement so that pianists could play my piece from the written music. In more recent years, I adapted Emmaus for my jazz trio consisting of piano, soprano sax and bass. This required some changes so that the instruments would be used to their best advantage. One of the components of my Transformational Approach to Piano (TAP system), is to focus on the left hand accompaniment. Inspired by my ensemble performances, I switched the stride piano accompaniment to shuffle bass. Inspired by this, my 2022 rendition of On the Road To Emmaus is an evolved and expanded performance in celebration of this composition's 40th anniversary.


Want help learning to compose your own jazz pieces or playing the jazz compositions of others? Taking piano lessons with Diana Mascari will certainly help you reach your piano playing and creative goals.


Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England.



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