GUEST POST: Matthew Shipp’s tribute to teacher Dennis Sandole

The Brothers Sandole
Modern Music from Philadelphia
Fantasy : 1955

DS, guitar; Adolph Sandole, leader; Art Farmer, trumpet; John LaPorta, alto; Sonny Russo, trombone; Al DelGovernatore, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Clem De Rosa, drums.

Dennis Sandole
A Sandole Trilogy
Cadence : rec. 1958; rel. 1999

DS, guitar; Al DelGovernatore, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Frank Young, drums.

We’re incredibly pleased to offer this guest post from Matthew Shipp, one of our favorite pianists. Matt has written a fascinating and insightful tribute to his teacher Dennis Sandole. That name may be unfamiliar to many readers, but Sandole was one of the legendary behind-the-scenes figures in jazz, teaching John Coltrane, among many others.

Sandole was also an excellent guitarist who released some unsung but incredibly forward-looking music of his own. Matt’s chosen two favorite tracks that showcase his playing and brilliant harmonic thinking. We’d like to note that “Paradigm,” from A Sandole Trilogy, is (P) 1999 Cadence Jazz Records and Used with Permission.

We recommend both releases. You can get more info and buy copies of A Sandole Trilogy here and a copy of Modern Music from Philadelphia here.

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Dennis Sandole is one of the great jazz teachers and mentors. He is most notable for being John Coltrane’s teacher at a formative time in Coltrane’s career, but countless others have been mentored by Dennis in some way, and have passed through his studio or his workshops, including James Moody, Art Farmer, Pat Martino…the list goes on and on.

Dennis died in 2000 at the age of 87 and still continues to influence and inspire his many students in their ongoing quest to — as Dennis would say — ”have a maturation of concepts.” His goal was to have his students develop a unique approach to their music and their instrument. In many ways, Dennis acted like a guru whose sole function was to get the disciple to have an experience of the self. Dennis made various comments to me during the time I studied with him to the effect that everyone who is in music potentially has a specific language encoded in their genes — those are not his specific words, but that was how I received his idea.

Dennis was an autodidact on his instrument (guitar) and worked as a studio musician and in big bands. But he soon concentrated on teaching and developing a unique method that dealt with a very specific language: his literature. The ongoing relationship between the student and Dennis depended on the student’s reaction to the literature. He had a specific framework, a line for every week of the month based on a specific compositional device  — but, somehow, every student’s line would be a little different, even if based on the same concept. Dennis claimed to be able to see the soul of each musician, see what your musical personality was and actually write lines for you based on you. He was able to intuit your musical personality even before you manifested it.

Also included in the game plan was work from solfège and sight-singing books. He seemed to know every approach that existed, and he encouraged original ways of using them. Sandole had me copy exercises out of solfège books, writing a jazz bass line and using some of the material as different devices over chord changes. Altoist Rob Brown, when he studied with Dennis, used to take an atonal solfège book, Modus Novus, and practice the exercises as if they were jazz lines in 12 positions. (You can’t quite call them 12 keys since the intervallic progressions are atonal.)

The forth week of each month was devoted to taking a standard and using all of the compositional devices you dealt with that month to re-harmonize it. You would write a new composition based on the outline of the standard, and write out an improvisation based on the reharmonization, thus creating a meta-language of one’s own based off of Dennis’ meta-language. In other words, you were generating language to infinity based on a reaction of a reaction of a reaction. Also, if a student studied with Dennis for years, his or her notebooks from the fourth week compositions would be very dense with cells and ideas. They could later put the pieces of the puzzle together for further compositions and frameworks.

Dennis also had an infinite mind when it came to coming up with different ways to practice. He had Coltrane practice out of harp books to increase his range on tenor. He had me take violin books and write bass lines in the left hand and then learn these pieces in 12 keys. When Rufus Harley wanted to switch from tenor to bagpipes, he brought in a bagpipe book and Dennis had him start from the back of the book and work forward.

Even though Sandole had a specific framework he gave to students, his system could not exactly be codified. Intuition and spontaneity were a big part of Dennis’ approach. He also seemed to have boundless knowledge of all of the books out there that might help a student along on his path, even though the emphasis in the lessons was on Dennis’ own literature. Guitarist David First mentioned to Dennis he was working on alternative tunings and Dennis recommended The Sensations of Tone by Hermann von Helmholtz, a book that David says he uses to this day. Sandole had me look though harmony books such as Schoenberg’s and Persichetti’s Twentieth-Century Harmony.

A major point of inspiration for me with Dennis was the nurturing nature of lessons with him. He really knew how to make you believe in yourself, and had a way to do that without a lot of talk, or resorting to platitudes. The other significant inspirational factor was his literature — this meta language of harmonic concepts to infinity — and indeed some students — like altoist Bobby Zankel, and Rufus Harley — studied with Dennis for over 20 years and had notebooks that were filled, each one entirely different.

I asked Dennis how this eureka process of his language started and I gather he was metaphorically hit with lightning. He said he use to play stuff out of solfège books and one day he started hearing these compositional principles and just started writing them down. He gave me a few different explanations on a few different occasions; in the end it was simply as if his brain was an organ that issued advanced harmonic concepts no end. He understood every aspect and every nuance of western harmony.

His exercises never engendered any type of cliched approach to a harmonic map, but compelled the student to search for his own resolutions within his or her own unique perspective. Plus, Dennis compiled a collection of foreign and synthetic scales that he had students investigate; Coltrane went to town on this. Much to Sandole’s credit, all of Dennis’ students are completely different and there is no one sound that came out of his studio.

There are two albums that feature his music: (1) The Brothers Sandole, Modern Music from Philadelphia (1955), big band compositions with his brother Adolph Sandole, another legendary jazz teacher, and (2) The Dennis Sandole Project on Cadence, which has 12 great quartet sides with Dennis on guitar and Al DelGovernatore on piano. Dennis of course lives on his the infinite variety of his many pupils.

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This is a banner year for Matthew Shipp, who’s celebrating his 50th birthday with two major releases this year. Next week, we’re previewing his remarkable new double album The Art of the Improviser, with an exclusive track to download and an interview with Matt about the release.

Next week, we’ll also be giving away multiple copies of Columbia’s new Miles Davis Bitches Brew Live set. We’ll be running contests here and on our Facebook page. You’ve got to “like” us to eligible for that one, so what are you waiting for?

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