The Ballad Challenge


The following is an introduction to Jerry Coker’s book on the art of ballad playing (Advance Music).

It was when I began working with Elvin Jones in the early 1970s that the true challenge of playing a ballad became clear as a bell. Before that I had played slow tempos for dancers, but not for listeners. The older guys used to talk about playing a ballad like it was the holy grail. With Jones, at least once a night I had a ballad feature which usually included either an acapella introduction or closing solo cadenza. And of course this feature spot would come after we had just been “burning” intensely on the previous tune. Just to drive the point home, every once in awhile as I was playing Elvin would croak out in that inimitable voice of his: ”Play the melody, the melody!!.” (He might add some other words also!!).  You have to remember that this most intense drummer of all time could also play the quietest brushes where one could have trouble hearing the tempo unless you listened closely to the stroke scraping across the snare drum. Even in my period with Miles Davis-although the music was funk oriented, there was one tune that was a kind of ballad and Miles would build the tension to an amazing boiling point of intensity before letting the dam break. He knew how to make the people (and the band by the way) wait. It made me marvel how he did it.

What it comes down simply is that the ballad is what people will remember. The main reason I think is because it is slow enough to absorb and observe intricacies by even the casual listener. Tone and expression, which after all are the true landmarks of an individual’s style become paramount in the ballad. This is the point during a set of music when the dynamics are soft (no drums to cover you up) and the intensity stays at a lower and more tolerable level. If you want to get to the people-the ballad is the sure way.

For me there have been several important ballad influences. Of course on saxophone one goes back to Hawk, Johnny Hodges, Pres, Bird and so on. But the most important to me would have to be Coltrane and Miles because their approaches were so different. Trane played the melody literally and by the use of expressive nuances like smears, vibrato, turns and portamentos in conjunction with his distinctive tone, he was able to depict a poignant picture. Miles also set a somewhat similar mood, but by different musical means based on alteration of the pitches of the melody, leaving out notes and adding other non-melody tones to create mystery. When listening to Miles play a ballad, one has to do a lot of work to fill in the holes. Once again, his tone was perfect for ballad playing. Playing a ballad is as close to using the voice that we as instrumentalists get and listening to singers of course is crucial. Sinatra and Carmen McRae were favorites of mine. Then of course there was the harmony created by pianist like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and others who along with their incredible touch (tone) were able to perfectly pick the right harmony to highlight the pitch choices.

Jerry  Coker gets it all right here as he always has throughout his illustrious writing career. The insights range from noting that our culture basically denies the whole concept of the “ballad” to giving the reader all sorts of choices as to how to approach ballad playing. Using the great tune ”We’ll Be Together Again” he traces the evolution of a ballad performance with recorded examples to help out. It is a subject rarely discussed or demonstrated and this book clearly puts the issue and how to delve into it on the table.

Jerry, myself and others like us, truly miss the signature ballad we had come to expect from an artist during a performance. It was our way to look deep into the artist’s soul . Take Jerry’s words to heart and read slowly while thinking about the consequences of his thoughts as well as the clear tools he gives for working the principles out. And remember fellow musicians, play a ballad at least once a night!!

David Liebman

Stroudsburg, PA USA

November 1999