Jazz Composition – a Conversation with Bob Pilkington

By Paul Combs



“The only difference between improvisation and  composition in jazz, is that one is  spur-of-the-moment, and the other is  carried out with a lot of reflection” said Bob Pilkington. We were talking over lunch at a restaurant down the street from Berklee Collage of Music, where Bob is a professor of jazz composition. Bob is also one of the judges of the MAJE - Robert Ayasse Memorial Composition Contest.


“In either case you are structuring the music so that there is logical order to it.,” said Bob, as we considered  the range of balance between improvised and written music in jazz. You could think of some of Elington’s pieces with very short solo passages, such as “East St. Louis Toddle-Oo,” on the one hand, and Ornette Colman’s “Free Jazz,” or the music of The Fringe, on the other hand.  “ Good free jazz players are improvising structure, and The Fringe is a prime example of that. It doesn’t matter how virtuosic the artist is, if there’s no structure it just doesn’t do anything.”


We agreed that a study of composition is beneficial to any music student, whether in jazz band, concert band, orchestra or chorus. However, as improvisers as well as readers, jazz students have greater responsibility for the creation of the music. As Bob put it, “Performing jazz is about organizing and structuring on a more active level. Teaching jazz students more about composition will inform their performance.” In response, I opined that getting the students to think about structure outside of being in the moment and the flow of musical time,  helps them to have that awareness when they are in the moment. To which Bob added, “It informs their intuition.”


Some jazz musicians seem to have an acute intuitive sense right from the beginning, but this does not mean that intuition cannot be developed. Indeed, practice and performance are the experiences that feed one’s intuition.  As Bob said,

“In either case – composing or improvising - you’re structuring the music so that there is a logical order to it. Of course , improvisers do that so much that it becomes intuitive. There are a lot of musicians who are just intuitive anyway. Others of us sort of have to inform the intuition, before It becomes automatic. Either way, a good soloist will structure the music rhythmically, harmonically, organizationally so that it tells a story; there is a time line, there’s drama to it. And, of course, that’s a prime focus for composers , as well.”


Bob also spoke about the work he is doing with his students at Berklee.  “One of the things I noticed when I first started teaching jazz composition was that the students were writing with the harmonic language of the 1950s and 60s. They weren’t even coming in with something as adventurous as the harmonic language of Wayne Shorter. I think we are doing a better job, now, of getting them out of that reliance on II-V sequences and the like. When they get to my jazz composition class, which is the second level of our four level program, they take a “dive off the deep-end” into extended composition. Here I try to get them away from thinking about harmony as chord symbols, because while it is a way of thinking [Bob’s emphasis] about harmony, it’s not the only way. When the student stops thinking that way, it’s as if somebody opened up a door to so many more beautiful, possible sounds. It also helps them to gain a voice of there own.”


After getting into these more advanced concepts of harmony we had to get back to working with the young jazz student. I asked Bob where we should start with middle and high school students. “Probably with the blues,” he responded, “and the other forms that the students are playing.” This makes sense for both the teacher and the student. Having students write their own blues tunes as a starting point gives them a clear and simple form to work with. Using other song forms that are readily available as models would be a good second step. While Bob’s more advanced students need to get away from “American Song Book” harmony, it is still a good foundation for the secondary school student, especially since it is what they are building their solos on.  



I hope this will inspire the jazz band directors among you to encourage your students to try composing. You both have the models in front of you, and you can only profit from the experience.  The closing date for the MAJE - Robert Ayasse Memorial Composition Contest is May 7, 2012, so you and your students have plenty of time to try things out. For more information about the contest visit MAJAZZED.org.


To learn more about Bob Piklington visit www.berklee.edu/president/journal2.html and jazzcomposersalliance.org/node/117. You can find examples of Bob’s music at www.myspace.com/bobpilkington. He is also reasonably well represented on You Tube.

© Paul Combs, 2012