Translating Ether To Paper

The headline of this feature story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette is “Saxophonist transcribes jazz to printed notes.” Especially if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of the craft, it is a rather amazing thing:

“There will be one measure with 65 notes in it,” he said. “First of all, I have to write out every note and then divide each beat into however many notes until it hits on the next beat.

“And you have to do this in real time. So I’m doing it by pressing the pause button.”

Now, the musicians reading this are saying, “big deal,” and wondering why this is the basis of a feature story. For most jazz improvisers, transcribing recorded solos is a valuable way of studying the greats in depth. Writing down every single note and rest in even the simplest solo forces you to listen closely and repeatedly. And because musical notation has inherent limitations — how to represent that trumpet growl, or that tricky flurry of notes? — you must translate with great precision. (Sixty-five notes in a measure seems like a bit of hyperbole, but you get the picture.)

Of course, the saxophonist in this story, a one Woody Mankowski, does this as his day job. He works for Hal Leonard, a sheet music publishing company which sells books of transcribed solos by jazz greats. He’s also a performing musician, of course, including an ongoing stint with a Genesis tribute band. The profile on him and his home studio is one of many on artists’ workplaces in the East Central Wisconsin region.

Still, it’s a nice reminder that what is obligatory for musicians is sometimes quite astounding to those outside the community. For an improvising musician, listening closely is more than a pleasurable activity. Of his vinyl and CD collection, Mankowski says: “That’s my education right there, mainly. I got my degree from UW-Green Bay, but this is also my education.” [Green Bay Press-Gazette: “Saxophonist transcribes jazz to printed notes”]

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