David Morgenroth completes first UNT DMA in Performance with local concentration in Jazz Studies

In May 2015, pianist David Morgenroth became the first student to complete the DMA in Performance with local concentration in Jazz Studies at UNT. David had previously earned the M.M. in Jazz Studies at UNT in 1991. During his doctoral work he served as a teaching fellow in piano and jazz small groups. His related field was in collaborative piano. His dissertation work includes three recitals and a dissertation in which he studied collaborations between jazz pianists and vocalists. Read more about David's work at www.davidmorgenroth.com.

This is the abstract of his dissertation, followed by a Q&A and an excerpt from the dissertation. His dissertation advances the scholarly conversation about collaborations between jazz pianists and vocalists and the study of expressive microtiming, and creates new possibilities for research by bringing the together the literature on collaboration in jazz and in Western art music.

Morgenroth, David Jonathan. Collaborative Crossover: Identifying Classical Vocal Collaborative Piano Practices in Jazz Vocal Accompanying. Doctor of Musical Arts (Jazz Performance), August 2015, 165 pp., 28 examples, 17 figures, 8 tables, bibliography, 456 titles.

Classical vocal collaborative piano and jazz vocal accompaniment are well-established fields with long-standing performance traditions. Classical collaborative performance practices have been researched and codified, but jazz accompanying practices largely remain in the domain of aural tradition. Both classical and jazz accompaniment share associated practices, such as rubato, transposition, and attention to lyric diction and inflection, but there is little previous investigation into the idea that classical collaborative practices might apply to jazz accompanying. This research examines jazz piano accompanying practices in sung verses of standard tunes to demonstrate how accomplished jazz pianists intuitively use many of the same techniques as classical collaborative pianists to create balance with singers. Through application of expressive microtiming analysis to graphical displays of transcribed recorded performances, a strong correlation is established between the classical and jazz vocal accompanying traditions. Linking classical practices to jazz potentially creates a foundation for jazz accompanying pedagogy.

Keywords: classical, jazz, vocal, piano, collaborative, accompanying, performance, rubato, microtiming

Could you explain what your topic is, and how you came to choose it?
I explored the connection between classical vocal collaborative piano and the accompaniment of jazz singers. As a DMA student, I chose collaborative piano as a related field, and during my studies I read The Complete Collaborator (2009) by eminent collaborative pianist Martin Katz. In this book, Katz uses his wealth of performance and pedagogical experience to codify collaborative practices. After considering Katz’s description of how pianists create balance and ensemble with singers, it struck me that great jazz accompanists do similar things intuitively to attain the same musical result. By using the powerful Sonic Visualiser software program to analyze expressive microtiming in both classical and jazz duo recordings, I was able to affirm my thesis.

What is the most unexpected thing you learned about jazz vocal accompanying?
The degree to which jazz pianists employed codified collaborative techniques was a surprise to me. Yet perhaps most surprising was the dearth of writing and research in the field of jazz accompanying. There are numerous books, dissertations, articles, and other sources for collaborative piano, jazz voice, and jazz piano comping, but little attention has been paid to jazz vocal accompanying. I believe the field is wide open to further research and exploration, and I foresee future degree programs in the field.

How can what you learned about jazz vocal accompanying contribute to teaching pianists to be more effective accompanists/collaborators?
Most inexperienced jazz pianists approach vocal accompanying with the same mindset as comping for an instrumentalist. The text (lyrics) is the prime differentiator--if as a pianist you don’t know the words and what they mean, your ability to flow with and support the singer is compromised. There is also a specialized skill set for collaborators, including the willingness to sublimate the desire for the spotlight. I think few young pianists are aware of these basic aspects of accompanying, and many singers might be able to express what they want, but can’t explain how to execute it. I believe all young pianists could become better musicians generally if they have exposure to these collaborative principles.

Do you find that your study has enabled you to approach vocal accompanying differently?
During the course of my study, I became acutely aware of the many tunes for which I don’t know the lyrics, a situation I endeavor to rectify. The text is of ultimate importance for an accompanist, and never more so in the context of rubato (out-of-time) verses of standard tunes, a focus of my study. Singers are storytellers, and rubato verses afford them great expressive potential. An accompanist must align with a singer and how s/he tells the story, uses the lyrics, and pronounces the consonants and vowels. The commitment great jazz accompanists have to a song, its story, and its text equals that of their singers. I strive to attain such a level of knowledge and commitment.

Did your study enable you to find more common ground between jazz and classical vocal-piano collaborations?
The beauty of the codified classical collaborative techniques is their universal character – they represent fundamental musical principles that transcend differences in style and genre. I realize that in some circles, a movement exists to isolate the art music called jazz, and while I agree that the concept of jazz as "America's classical music" first suggested by Billy Taylor (1975) is problematic, musical ideas offered in one genre can be (and have been) used successfully in another. One could argue that jazz and classical vocal-piano collaborations conceptually align more closely than jazz vocal and jazz instrumental collaborations. Collaboration requires a skill set and a mindset, and great collaborators of all genres have them both.

How would you compare your experiences as a DMA student to your prior experience as a master's student at UNT?
Over twenty years elapsed between my MM in Jazz Studies and my DMA, and while the basic culture of excellence at UNT has continued, I believe the program is even more challenging today. Academic rigor was something I missed as a master’s student at UNT in the early 1990s, but now one must demonstrate high-level performance and writing/research skills to earn a degree (master’s or doctorate). This may not be a popular shift among students, but it sets UNT apart from the majority of institutions offering jazz degrees.

What are your next career steps?
I have moved back to Missoula, Montana, to be with my wife, who I have been apart from for most of the past three years. My wife is the Suzanne and Bruce Crocker Director of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at the University of Montana, and is in the midst of a museum building project now. Until my wife is able to fulfill her mission in Montana, I will monitor the job market but will wait to pursue a college-level teaching position. In the meantime, I am working as a financial analyst and advisor, while continuing to focus on piano playing, composition, and jazz research.

Dissertation excerpt

In my study, I focused on the practices of diction and inflection, two key aspects of creating ensemble in collaborative practice. Diction is the enunciation of the text by a singer, and the vertical aspect of ensemble (how a pianist lines up with a singer). Inflection is the shape of the sung text, and the horizontal aspect of ensemble (how singers create shapes out of a lyric and melody and how pianists respond to it) (Katz 2009, 23-24). Using the freeware program Sonic Visualiser, I created spectrograms of recordings of well-known vocal-piano duos. Spectrograms give a visual display of music not offered by standard notation, and allow for accurate measurements of microtiming, a performer’s minute rhythmic displacements contributing to a feeling of pushing forward (forward movement) or pulling back (relaxing).

The following is a specific example of how I used a spectrogram to determine, on a microtiming level, whether jazz pianists have used codified collaborative techniques. Successful accompaniment of a singer depends on a pianist’s knowledge of the lyrics, and his/her ability to maneuver a singer's rubato gestures. But it goes deeper--text knowledge must include intimacy with the lyric’s consonants and vowels, the basic components of a singer's expression and creativity. Sundberg & Bauer-Huppmann (2006) used spectrograms to show that collaborative pianists routinely synchronized their attacks with vowel onsets, in effect avoiding consonants; Katz agreed with this finding by stating, "the vowel sound is the music" (2009, 23). I found a similar consistent pattern among esteemed jazz accompanists.

Below is a spectrogram of the beginning of the verse of "My Man," from a recording by Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan (Montreux ’77, Fantasy/Pablo OJCCD-376-2):

This spectrogram gives a general overview of the frequency content of the first two measures of the verse as performed by Fitzgerald and Flanagan. Vowel onsets appear as front edges of short, dark, wavy vocal lines that recur through the frequency spectrum (vertical or y-axis). Straight, horizontal lines in this spectrogram represent the stable frequencies of piano sounds; the defined edges of these lines give precise points of piano attacks and releases. Thicker, darker lines represent sounds of greater amplitude, and in the vocal line they primarily correspond with vowel sounds.

Several important aspects of the performance stand out, features that are aurally discernible but minute in detail. The letters A-E correspond to five left-hand chords played by Flanagan. The sinuous horizontal lines representing Fitzgerald's vocal line are accompanied by corresponding lyrics. The breaks in the lines coincide with her consonant sounds. Flanagan adeptly avoids consonants throughout the phrase, and there are several instances worth noting. He avoids the hard /t/ of 'lot' by delaying his chord by a fraction of a second (B). Similarly, at (D) he delays his attack to coincide with the long vowel /ī/ of ‘I’ve’ rather than the short vowel /a/ of 'that'; in doing so, he stresses the more important word and complements Fitzgerald’s motion. The single instance of Flanagan playing directly on the onset of a word is on the word 'one' (C), striking the chord on a vowel (/o/), and skillfully avoiding consonant clusters on either side of the vowel (/r/ + /s/ before, and /n/ + /th/ after). Finally, Flanagan recognizes Fitzgerald’s desire to linger on the /ô/ of 'got' (E), ensuring the avoidance of the hard /g/ while respecting Fitzgerald's lengthening of the note.

This small sample is indicative of Flanagan’s style, and the performances of the other ten jazz pianists I studied mirror his awareness of diction. Additionally, in all recordings the pianists successfully accommodated and supported their singers' rubato (inflected) performances through various means, including imitation, articulation, and suggestion of forward motion. These are all codified techniques in classical collaborative pedagogy, and my research shows that high-level jazz pianists use them liberally to create good ensemble.

This study opens the door into several facets of jazz accompanying research. First, the preponderance of microtiming studies in jazz and elsewhere focus on musical contexts employing a regular beat, against which expressive microtiming is gauged and analyzed; the area of full rubato (no metronomic time) is a vast area ripe for investigation. Second, my work defines and affirms resources extant outside of jazz that directly apply to jazz vocal accompaniment, a crucial pedagogical step in a field suffering from a paucity of scholarly or commercial publications. However, due to time and space constraints, I could not cover all major collaborative considerations, so more research opportunities await. Studies on balance, postludes, preludes, compositional techniques in improvised accompaniments, personal style and how it relates to specific singers, and even lineage among jazz accompanists would offer great rewards. Finally, specific pedagogical and performance studies might consolidate and refine knowledge in a jazz education setting, ideally creating opportunities for degree programs in jazz accompaniment.


Cannam, Chris, and Queen Mary, University of London. 2006-2011. Reference manual for Sonic
Visualizer 2.1. http://www.sonicvisualiser.org/doc/reference/2.1/en/index.html.

Fitzgerald, Ella. 1975. Ella Fitzgerald at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1975. Berkeley, CA: Pablo Records, LP 2310-751; Digitally remastered CD issued 1995 as Fantasy/Pablo OJCCD- 789-2, Original Jazz Classics series.

Katz, Martin. 2009. The complete collaborator: The pianist as partner. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Sundberg, Johan, and Julia Bauer-Huppmann. 2006. "Where does a sung tone start?" Journal of Voice, 21/3: 285-293.

Taylor, William E. 1975. The history and development of jazz piano: a new perspective for educators. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts.

Wall, Joan. 1989. International Phonetic Alphabet for singers: A manual for English and foreign language diction. Freeland, WA: Pacific Isle.

Yvain, M., J. Charles, and A. Willemetz. 1921. Mon homme: (My man); Europe's biggest dance
. English lyrics by Channing Pollock. New York: Leo Feist Inc.