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Jazz Form and improvisation
Chapter Outline

Here students are guided toward recognizing and understanding two broad categories of jazz form: the twelve-bar blues and the thirty-two-bar popular song (A A B A and its variants). We look at the rhythmic and harmonic structures used in jazz, with the aim of familiarizing students with the principles underlying improvisation. How do musicians make up music on the spot and still have it make sense? The chapter also explores the venues and audience behavior associated with big-band jazz and small-combo jazz. Although not strictly necessary to enjoy jazz, the ability to follow along with the form of a piece provides greater insight into what the improviser is doing.

  1. Form
    1. Like African music, jazz form is cyclic, each cycle being defined rhythmically and harmonically. Each cycle is called a chorus.
    2. Choruses are a fixed length. Often choruses are twelve, sixteen, or thirty-two measures, but they can be as short as two measures (e.g., "Heart and Soul").
    3. "Heart and Soul," in which one person plays the chord changes and the other improvises a melody, reflects the African principle of rhythmic contrast with two distinct layers, one fixed and one variable, each complementing the other.
    4. Common forms in jazz include the blues and popular song forms.
  2. Blues Form
    1. Poetic form: three-line asymmetric stanza (AAB) with each line consisting of two vocal measures (call) followed by two instrumental measures (response), to make a twelve-measure chorus.
    2. Basic harmonic form consists of three chords: tonic for the first four measures, then IV chord for two; tonic for two; V chord for two; tonic for two.
    3. Often chords are added and/or substituted.
    4. Turnaround or turnback: chord progression that leads the ear to a new part of the cycle or the beginning of a new cycle.
    5. "West End Blues" (Louis Armstrong) has both chord substitutions and turnarounds.
    6. Blues can be played in different rhythmic grooves and tempos.
    7. An example of fast blues is "It's All Right, Baby" ("Big Joe" Turner and Pete Johnson).
    8. Modern jazz blues: "Now's the Time" (Charlie Parker). Rhythmically different from the previous two examples, harmonically more complex and dissonant, but still a twelve-bar blues.
    9. In small-combo jazz, the composed head of a blues distinguishes one blues from the other.
    10. It is harder to recognize the blues form in the Charlie Parker example due to musical distractions.
    11. In this book there are six blues recordings, which cover much of jazz history.
    12. Blues can be interrupted by intros, modulations, and contrasting sections, but it is still a blues regardless of tempo, rhythmic groove, and interruptions. It is the foundation of rhythm and blues and of rock and roll.
  3. Thirty-Two-Bar AABA Pop Song Form
    1. Based on songs of the 1930s to the 1960s; often for movies or Broadway.
    2. These songs were often in two parts: verse and refrain. Jazz musicians rarely use the verse.
    3. Form: eight bars repeated (A A) ending with a turnaround to the contrasting eight-bar B section (the bridge) and then the last A.
    4. Unlike the blues, defined by harmony and melody, not the words.
    5. Unlike the blues, this form is not defined by a particular harmonic progression.
    6. Example, "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" (Billie Holiday).
      1. AABA form starts after a four-bar introduction. Holiday varies the A sections with saxophonist Lester Young's accompaniment and fills.
      2. The second chorus is divided among the soloists and the last chorus is cut in half due to limitations of recording technology at that time.
    7. From 1930 to around 1950, jazz musicians used popular songs as a vehicle for improvising. Knowing the melody gave listeners a way to keep track once the cycle was established.
    8. "Rhythm changes": for example, the chord progression for Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm," which became very popular with jazz musicians (although they omitted the last two measures and made up their own melodies).
    9. "So What" (Miles Davis) is an AABA, thirty-two bar form. It is one of many jazz standards.
      1. Both As of this piece have the same single chord. The chord in the bridge is one half tone higher than the A section.
      2. Try to hear the bridge, which contains the real harmonic change.
    10. There are many AABA tunes discussed in this book.
    11. ABAC(AA") Form
      1. Contrasting sections in different places.
      2. Could be two 16-bar sections with different endings (half cadence; full cadence).
      3. Both AABA and ABAC have the original melody in the third 8-bar section.
  4. Improvisation.
    1. What is it? How does the band keep playing together?
    2. Bass
      1. Most restricted; must play basic harmony and keep time (walking bass)
      2. Example: Paul Chambers playing bass on "So What." He's not obtrusive, but rather is doing his job in a creative way.
      3. The bassist can also play a pedal point-the pitches do not move. Example: "Now's the Time" (Ronald Shannon Jackson)
      4. Latin and funk bass lines may be more complex rhythmically but still function as rhythmic foundation. Examples: "Manteca" (Dizzy Gillespie) and "Acknowledgement" (John Coltrane)
    3. Harmony Instruments
      1. Usually piano but can also be other instruments; play specified chords using improvised voicings and can use chord substitutions; examples: first and fourth choruses of "West End Blues" (Louis Armstrong)
      2. The pianist can also take part in a variable layer rhythmically, by comping.
      3. Drummer: right-hand ride cymbal pattern, backbeat on high-hat, right foot plays bass drum accents ("dropping bombs"), left hand is variable; can play improvised fills and various grooves
      4. Listening can focus on the individual player or on interaction between individuals.
    4. Soloists
      1. Melodic paraphrase
        1. Variation of the composed melody; often used in heads
        2. Example: "Over the Rainbow" (Art Tatum)
      2. Harmonic improvisation: more common; uses notes from the underlying chords
      3. Modal improvisation
        1. Uses the scale suggested by the chord, not just chord notes; example: "So What" uses the Dorian mode.
        2. The blues scale is used in "Now's the Time" and "West End Blues."
  5. In Performance (Big Bands and Small Ensembles)
    1. Big Bands
      1. Starting in the 1930s and continuing until after World War II, big bands of sixteen players became popular. They still exist mostly on university campuses, but there are some new professional bands as well.
      2. Grouped by instruments in sections of trumpets, trombones, reeds, and rhythm section
      3. They use arrangements: composed scores for the band with individual parts for each musician. There are places for improvisation in arrangements.
      4. Musicians are often formally dressed; bands use a front man and play for dancing or concerts; members are relatively anonymous.
    2. Small Combos
      1. Typically consist of a few horns and a rhythm section; usually named after an individual.
      2. Derive from jam sessions and small dance halls. Jam sessions are recreational playing sessions in venues that encourage improvisational exploration.
      3. Nineteen-forties: the jam session goes public but remains informal.
      4. Heads are short and emphasis is on improvisation; typically, horns improvise first, then the rhythm section.
      5. Drum solos can be open-ended or keep to the form of the cycle.
      6. Trading fours: drums and soloist trade four-bar segments, usually after longer solos; can be longer or shorter as well
    3. Audience Behavior
      1. Quieter than for rock, more raucous than for classical music. No programs: pieces are announced from the stage.
      2. Some clubs, but not all, forbid talking during performances. Clubs are de facto concert halls.
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