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Jazz Articulations

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Today’s topic dives into the variety of jazz articulations. The majority of this information comes to us from Mats Holmquist’s book, “The General Method: A New Methodology for a Tighter Big Band.” I highly recommend this book for any of you out there teaching or actively performing jazz music. Please click the image above to get your own copy of this book.

The Need for Jazz Instruction

In the past I would always teach my students the four primary articulations. Tenuto, marcato or short accent, the roof top accent and staccato. Many times students would recognize these accents however, after the first time introducing them they often failed to fully recall them on day two. And that’s okay. Articulations need to be reviewed not only for mental recall but for also mastering the kinesthetic or muscle memory side of improving their craft. 
Jazz band
Jazz Band

Young musicians often find it difficult to sustain the needed energy or mental focus to play a challenging piece of music fraught with regular and mixed up articulations. More times than not, students must be reminded to actively observe and execute these musical nuances. Regular and focused practice of articulations is necessary for large ensembles to stylistically lock-in.

I fully believe that the four primary articulations (tenuto, marcato, roof top accent and staccato) should be practiced early starting in a child’s musical career. But what comes next? What can my students do to continually improve? My after school jazz band is typically the group that gets more engaged into these types of self development sessions. Today’s important topic includes advanced skills relating to jazz  articulations. Next, we are going to explore more of what Mats Holmquist’s book says about articulations and articulation rules.

The Brick

Holmquist begins by describing what he calls the brick. This is a symbol that represents a long note that visually illustrates an articulation that looks like a uniform brick. One of the troubles musicians have when they play is that they round out or are careless about the articulation. The brick provides a mental cue to add an edge to the beginning and end to a long accentuated note. The note should begin with a distinctive attack, think a marcato accent at the beginning and end with a clear energy release.
The Brick

The Anthill

The opposite of the Brick could be considered the Anthill. The Anthill attack is similar to the Brick in the sense of starting with an edge, or marcato accent feel, however, has a clear phrase ending diminuendo at the end of the note. This type of articulation is much more prevalent in classical music and really only should be used when a diminuendo is notated.
The Anthill

The Brickhill

The Brickhill is a type of hybrid articulation and is essentially a cross between the Brick and the Anthill. You could describe it as an Anthill where the attack has a solid beginning (with a marcato accent) however, the phrase ending sharply diminuendos at the end at only 50% volume. This is in contrast to the original Anthill that diminuendos 100% within the beat.
The Brickhill

The Dog

The next articulation is called the Dog. This is similar to the Brickhill. The only difference is that there is actually space between the end of the note and the next beat. The main reason they call this articulation the Dog is because if it is executed correctly it should sound like a barking dog and it should also have a bounce-like feel.
The Dog

Distinction of Attack

This is a helpful articulation rule. The distinction of attack refers to the difference between the volume of the actual note and the accent at the beginning of the articulation. Consider this difference when you are explaining to your students that you want more or less contrast. Also, consider showing a note with a fortepiano or the Brick as examples to clarify this visually to your students.
Distinction of Attack

Distinction of Release

This articulation rule is similar to the Distinction of Attack however, concerns the actual release of the note. Most musicians do not often create an accented release of a note. Really the only stylistically accurate scenario in which you would do this would be in “Funky Music” and the action would be exaggerated. Most times musicians should play with a release that is unaccented. However note that this is often unintentionally played with a diminuendo. Remember this should only be done if a diminuendo is written in the part.
Distinction of Release

Energy Release

The idea of an Energy Release signifies the energy of a phrase ending is going to the very end of the phrase. You can envision a sharp end to the release and it would sound like a “DAT.” In contrast, classical music often ends with a diminuendo at the end of phrases which sound more like a “DOO.” It is important to recognize that jazz, as well as other African-American music, use an energy release, whereas classical music doesn’t. Performers in a group who mix-up the release styles often create an articulation result that is sloppy.
Energy Release

Play with an Edge

When Holmquist says to “Play with an Edge,” he refers to play with a distinct attack – or rather a big distinction of attack. This can be phonetically be played as a big “D” on long “DOO” notes. Ultimately, playing with an edge means sufficient Distinction of Attack. This concept should be common performance practice for jazz bands.

Tongue Cut-Off

The Tongue Cut-Off is an articulation technique that happens often in jazz music. This is when the tongue literally cuts off the airstream and the sound immediately stops. Doing this could be described as using the “T” in the “DAT” articulation. This Tongue Cut-Off is recommended to be used in more traditional big band jazz music. In addition, the Tongue Cut-Off is the preferred means for executing an energy release. In contrast, the Tongue Cut-Off is rarely used in classical music.

The Inverted Accent

The Inverted Accent creates a really neat effect if all parties involved execute it together. Although it can be achieved by all players, the most impressive effect is accomplished by the horn players of the big band. This is done when everyone releases a note at the same time with an energy release. The desired effect is achieved when the silence itself creates an accent. Unfortunately, if even one person doesn’t release at the same time then the Inverted Accent doesn’t occur. 
Inverted Accent

Ones and Zeros

The phrase Ones and Zeros serves as a metaphor for the digital age. In this scenario Ones and Zeros describes that there are only long and short notes. This concept encourages players, especially horn players since rhythm section members tend to be more in-tune to this concept, to continually ask themselves if they should play short or long. The common stylistic issue includes that some musicians play long notes when they should play short and vice versa.

The “Short/Long” Rule

The “Short/Long” rule states that you need to exaggerate the differences in performing note lengths that alternate long and short. The problem arises when musicians are playing music that constantly alternates between long and short. The long notes start becoming too short and the short notes start to become too long. Holmquist points out that in this type of scenario often the short notes include a roof top accent. He continues to say that you should then follow the “Rooftop Accent Rule.” This states that rooftop accents should be more emphasized than the surrounding notes.

“The Machine Gun”

The Machine Gun refers to jazz bands, especially young ones, who have difficulty playing sustained jazz eighth notes. As a result, these players shorten the notes which makes it not swing and creates an “edgy” machine gun effect. Teach your students not to shorten these sustained jazz eighth notes and play what Holmquist refers to as “jazz tenuto.” Clearly identify that the gap in the sound is what makes it sound like a machine gun however, it is important to correct this by playing “jazz tenuto.” 
Jazz Tenuto
Jazz Tenuto

The “TAH” Syndrome

Holmquist continues to describe the Machine Gun effect with what he calls the “TAH” Syndrome. In a good “jazz tenuto” style the performer is phonetically playing “DOO-DOO-DOO.” However the Machine Gun effect sounds like more like “TAH-TAH-TAH.” The gap between the notes make the “DOO” sound more like a “TAH” sound.
Machine Gun/ TAH-Syndrome
“Machine Gun” / TAH-Syndrome


The Semi-Legato is a type of attack which is one that has a weak attack that almost sounds legato. If a note is to be accented be sure to avoid the semi-legato. Holmquist recommends to first learn to play with an edge-meaning not legato. Once players have full control of this then perhaps try it with music that uses more of a “DOO-WOP” feel as opposed to a “DOO-DAT” feel.

Legato Prohibition

It is Holmquist’s opinion that legato should only be used in the following circumstances.
  1. Fast moving lines, quick eighth-note triplets, sixteenth-notes or shorter note values.
  2. Long background notes.
  3. Certain melodic lines. These are commonly found in pop and Latin music rather than swing.
  4. As a soloist as long as it fits in the context of the musical piece.

The “Long Background Note” Rule

Long notes such as whole notes and half notes should most often be played with a soft tenuto. Often music is written so that no legato slurs are notated in the music. For musical reasons, background notes should rarely be attacked with accents. Be careful that young musicians don’t get too ambitious about having an edge to the note. Long background notes should not be emphasized. 

The “Phrasing Slur” Problem

Holmquist points out that few musicians recognize the difference between phrasing slurs and legato slurs. As a result, many players make the mistake of playing legato when they see a phrasing slur. By definition you would find that the difference between a phrasing slur and a legato slur is that the phrasing slur begins and ends further away from the note head than does the legato slur. The problem is that composers often notate both styles exactly the same. As a teacher you need to communicate to your players the difference between the phrasing slurs and legato slurs, and explain what the problem is.

The Triplet Rule

This rule implies that whenever you have a quarter-note, half-note or triplets of longer value, you should play each note emphasized. Note: This does not include triplets that are eighth-note value or smaller.

The Badger

This is a rule that deals with long notes in a type of climax. Think more of a long note that is loud at the end of a piece. Holmquist recommends thinking of a badger bite. The badger doesn’t release until the person is dead or “hears the sound of crushed bones.” Relating back to the final chords, it is absolutely necessary for players to hold these notes straight and balanced. Often young players maybe found to be unable or unwilling to do this. Be sure to rehearse and practice making these sustained chords a habit and executed in a disciplined manner so that the sound does not end until the director releases them.


It is clear to see that there are many types of considerations and issues that jazz musicians must be well versed with when accurately performing jazz music. Holmquist has made some logical points as to when to address the “why” and “how-to” in regards to jazz articulations. I absolutely love this book! It has a ton of tips and tricks to help you improve your jazz band performance today! 


Holmquist, M. (2013). The general method: a new methodology for a tighter big band. Jamey Aebersold.


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