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Jazz Theory: Overview

Overview

By Peter Spitzer - Jazz Author, Musician, and Instructor

“Music theory” endeavors to explain how music is structured, and why we hear it in the way we do. “Jazz theory” adds another purpose: to provide information that is of practical use to improvisers. This group of theory articles is aimed at readers who are jazz players - student, amateur, or professional. I will assume that you have some basic background in music theory, but at the same time I’ll try not to be too technical.

The songs defined on this site as “jazz standards” come mostly from four sources: Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals, Hollywood movies, and from jazz artists. Composers in all of these genres have tended to use a similar approach to harmony, following certain standard harmonic procedures. While harmony will be our main concern in these articles, we will also include some observations about melodic practice, rhythmic practice, form, and history.

What Makes a Song Come across as “Jazz”?

In the 1920s and 1930s, when jazz was taking shape as cutting-edge popular music, factors were: a danceable swing beat, blue notes, characteristic rhythms, and vocal/instrumental timbre. Improvisation was a factor too, but we should remember that songs were marketed as ”jazz” well before improvised solos became important in performances. The rise of the soloist’s role was a process that began in the 1920s, notably with Louis Armstrong, and gathered momentum through the big-band years, culminating in the primacy of the soloist in the bop years (late 1940s - 1950s). This latter outlook, in which improvised solos are the focus of the performance, is current today.

Following are some introductory comments on harmony, melody and rhythm (you will find more detail in the other articles in this section).

Harmony

The songs in the “Jazz Standards Canon” are musical compositions with a short form (usually 12, 16, or 32 measures). Most have chord progressions that have proven to be interesting to improvisers - a major factor in their longevity. The basic harmonic approach is that of “common practice” classical music, adapted to these short forms.

Jazz performers will frequently alter the composer’s original harmony.

Some jazz composers of the last 50 years or so (e.g., John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter) have employed harmonic devices that push the boundaries of traditional common practice.

Melody

Many jazz standards began as popular songs, with melodies and/or lyrics that mass audiences found appealing. In the original sheet music, and in modern fake books, melodies are usually stated in simple note values. Melodies will almost always be altered in pitch, rhythm, or both, when interpreted by a jazz artist.

Any melody - pop tune, folk song, Christmas song, even classical theme - can become “jazz,” if it is played with a jazz interpretation. This can be accomplished by using a beat identified with jazz, by using an instrumental or vocal timbre that is associated with jazz, by altering the melody in ways associated with jazz, and/or by featuring improvised solos in the setting.

Rhythm

Swing is, of course, the basic rhythm in mainstream jazz, but various Latin American rhythms are also important in the “Jazz Standards Canon.”

Many standards (e.g., “All The Things You Are”) were not originally intended to be played or heard as jazz, but became “jazz” after a popular recorded performance in a jazz setting. On the other hand, many others were conceived as “jazz,” or even as improvisation vehicles, from the start (e.g., “Take the ‘A’ Train,” or “Anthropology”).

Standards are almost always in 4/4 time; a few are in 3/4, and just one on our list is in 5/4 (“Take Five”). Although older sheet music often shows songs in cut time, this is generally disregarded in modern performance. A bass player may choose to play “in two,” but this has little to do with any original printed indication.

A Word About Sources

The most common references for standards these days are fake books: collections of lead sheets showing the melody of the tune, with chord symbols above the melody. One should never take it on faith that any one fake book version is “correct.”

When performing, it is essential that all members of the band be “on the same page” - that is, using the same version as a starting point. Different fake books may disagree in chords, melody, or even the key of the tune. If you are using fake books, you cannot assume that charts from different books will be compatible with each other.

When compiling fake books, editors must decide what to use as their source material. This could be:

  • Published sheet music
  • The original version from a movie or Broadway musical
  • A classic recorded performance
  • Common practice in the jazz world
  • Another fake book
  • The editor’s personal take on the song
  • Some combination of these sources

Editors’ choices are subjective; the result will not necessarily be definitive. As a musician, you will have to make your own decision about which source is best. (For my own opinions on the best sources for 100 “must-know” standard tunes, please check out this article at the author’s website.)

Available at Amazon...

Peter Spitzer
Mel Bay Jazz Theory Handbook Book/CD Set
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
Perfect Paperback


(Jazz Theory Handbook is a great jazz theory resource for beginners and established musicians. Click the graphic to see our review.)
Jazz Theory Contents

1. Overview
2. Performance Practice vs. Composer’s Intention
3. Jazz Standards: Harmony and Form
4. Blues
5. Rhythm Changes
6. Modal Jazz
7. Bossa Nova

Recommendations

Jazz Theory Recommendations

Click on any product to view at Amazon.com
Peter Spitzer
Mel Bay Jazz Theory Handbook Book/CD Set
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.

Mark Levine
The Jazz Theory Book
Sher Music

Robert Rawlins, Nor Eddine Bahha
Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians
Hal Leonard

Dan Haerle
The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation
Warner Bros Pubns

Ted Pease
Jazz Composition: Theory and Practice
Berklee Press

Jeffrey Hellmer, Richard Lawn
Jazz Theory and Practice (Book & CD-ROM (Macintosh))
Alfred Publishing

Mark Harrison
Contemporary Music Theory - Level One: A Complete Harmony and Theory Method for the Pop and Jazz Musician
Hal Leonard

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