British bandleader Ray Noble published his tune ‘Cherokee’ in 1938. The tune begins with a chord progression that could be described as I – I7 – IV – iv – I. In this progression, the tonic chord becomes a dominant seventh that leads to the IV chord, which is then followed by either the minor IV or a dominant chord based on the flat 7th of the tonic major scale, which in turn leads back to the I chord. Although this progression appears in earlier pop tunes such as ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ , first released in 1927, ‘Cherokee’ is perhaps the best known tune in the modern jazz repertoire to use these chords. One possible reason for the longevity of ‘Cherokee’ is it that spends two bars on each of the changes in the progression, which gives improvisers a chance to ‘stretch out’, i.e. develop longer melodic ideas, on each chord.
The progression also appears in Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me‘, the 1947 update of Ellington’s 1940 composition ‘Concerto for Cootie’ with Bob Russell’s lyrics added. Ellington’s tune opens with the ‘Cherokee’ progression but spends only a measure on each chord. (I am using the term ‘Cherokee progression’ for ease of reference, not to imply conclusively that it was borrowed by Ellington from ‘Cherokee’.) In 1945, Billy Eckstine released his tune ‘I Want To Talk About You‘, which begins with the shortened ‘Cherokee’ progression that appears in the Ellington tune. The melody of this tune mostly emphasizes the triad tones of each chord in the progression. 1955 saw the release of pianist Erroll Garner’s recording of his tune ‘Misty’, which uses much of the progression of ‘I Want To Talk About You’ but substitutes a different melody that emphasizes upper chord tones (such as the 7th in the first measure, the 9th and the 13th in the second and fourth measures) rather than triad tones. On Garner’s original recording of the tune, his emphasis on chord extensions in the right-hand melody mirrors his left-hand chord voicings, which combine root position voicings with rootless voicings – voicings built on degrees of the chord other than the root, particularly the third and seventh, and in which chord extensions are emphasized through their placement on the top of the voicing. These are often called ‘Bill Evans voicings’ because they were used so prominently by the younger Evans, but they appear earlier in the playing of Garner and Garland. Garner, along with his slightly younger contemporary Red Garland, was one of the players who introduced rootless voicings into the left-hand vocabulary of jazz pianists. Prior to ‘Misty’, one of Garner’s contemporaries and collaborators, Charlie Parker, released a recording called ‘Koko‘ in which he improvised a melodic line over the chord progression to ‘Cherokee’ that at a number of points arpeggiates rootless voicings of the chord changes.
My tune ‘Washington Heights’, named after both the saxophonist and a neighborhood in New York City, uses the progression of ‘Cherokee’ with the groove from Kamasi Washington’s arrangement and adds a melody which I composed in the bebop melodic style. it also demonstrates two important concepts, dialogic phrasing (left hand chording that leaves space for melodic answers and melodic phrases that leave space for chordal answers) and ‘crossless’ voice leading in the left hand chords (voice leading that avoids voice crossing.) While it can be learned as shown in the grand staff chart, another possible use is to memorize the original melody of ‘Cherokee’ and play it in the RH along with the LH voicings from ‘Washington Heights’, either with the written rhythms or with the chords in long notes. The A sections of ‘Washington Heights’ (m. 1-20 with repeat) also work as a countermelody to the A sections of ‘Cherokee’.
Many thanks to Professor Judith Tick, a music historianat Northeastern University, for providing the inspiration for this post. Most of the transcriptions shown here were commissioned as research assignments for her forthcoming biography of Ella Fitzgerald; the idea of a study of Fitzgerald’s improvising also came from her.
Note: This post includes many links to specific sections of recordings. To risk stating the obvious: after hearing each specific excerpt to which I have linked, it is crucialto go back and listen to the entire recording to hear the excerpt in context.
A common misperception of Ella Fitzgerald’s skill as an improviser is that she was essentially a gifted mimic who didn’t reach the artistic maturity of a Charlie Parker or a Roy Eldridge. ‘In mimicking virtuosity, she came to possess it’, wrote John McDonough in a commemorative Down Beat piece published three months after her death. Embedded in this quote is the widespread misunderstanding that Fitzgerald as an improviser was focused on mimicry as a means of displaying her own prodigious technique and so didn’t evolve to the level of melodic originality found in the improvising of great jazz players from the typical (and overwhelmingly male) pantheon. One of the main reasons for this misunderstanding is that Fitzgerald’s improvising has not been studied with anywhere near the same level of detail as, for example, the solos of Charlie Parker, which have been transcribed and re-transcribed by many generations of jazz players. Through transcribing many of Ella’s solos myself, collaborating with students on transcriptions of her solos, and studying the work of Fitzgerald scholars Katharine Cartwright and Justin Binek, I have found that rather than simply maintaining a knack for mimicry, Fitzgerald developed as a soloist over a long period of time through the three stages that trumpeter, educator, and Fitzgerald collaborator Clark Terry described as being crucial to the evolution of an improviser: ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’.
While Terry’s ordering of these three concepts suggests that they are consecutive steps where one stage leads to the next, Fitzgerald can sometimes be heard working on two of these stages at different points in the same solo. I have come up with definitions for each of Terry’s stages as they relate to Fitzgerald’s work as in improviser. In the ’emulate’ stage, in solos like ‘How High The Moon’ and the studio version of ‘Flying Home’, Fitzgerald is using borrowed melodic material in its original context, often in more extended excerpts. In the ‘assimilate’ stage, which can be heard in her versions of both ‘How High The Moon’ and ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ among others, she is using borrowed melodic phrases in a different music context than the one in which they originally appeared, stringing them together to create longer phrases of her own, and assimilating them into the solo by following them with her own melodic conclusions. Finally, in the ‘innovate’ stage, which becomes more prevalent in her solos from the late 1950s onward, she is performing a number of transformations on her melodic quotations, including transposing them, singing them in inversion (upside down) and making repeated uses of them where they are followed by different material each time.
The iconic and dazzling scat solos on Fitzgerald’s 1947 recordings of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ and ‘How High The Moon’ became set pieces which she re-used with only minor changes in live performances during the following decade, including a number which are available as live recordings. As I will show, both of the 1947 solos contain examples of Ella working through the ’emulate’ and ‘assimilate’ stages. After about a decade of performing the set piece solos, she began in some cases to radically expand on them, as in her 1960 version of ‘How High’ from ‘Ella in Berlin’, and in others to completely replace them with new and more improvised solos, such as her 1957 version of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ from Ella Fitzgerald at The Opera House. This last recording, the first of the versions of ‘Oh, Lady’ listed in J. Wilfred Johnson’s ‘Ella Fitzgerald: An Annotated Discography’ where Fitzgerald does not repeat the 1947 solo, contains examples of the ‘innovate’ stage. In the 1957 solo, as well as many solos from later in her career, and especially in her solo on ‘C Jam Blues’ from Jazz at The Santa Monica Civic 1972, Fitzgerald can be heard more and more inhabiting the ‘innovate’ stage, demonstrating increasing spontaneity as an improviser and increasing skill with responding to creative opportunities presented in the moment.
Fitzgerald takes a similar approach in the first chorus of solo on her March 1947 recording of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’. During this chorus she quotes in rapid succession the second strain of E.E. Bagley’s ‘National Emblem’ march (in the first A section of the tune), the opening of Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ (in the second A) and the traditional folk tune ‘The British Grenadiers’ (in the last A section). In each case, she quotes four bars of her source material, followed by four bars of her own improvisation which creates a consequent phrase of her own to complement the borrowed antecedent phrase. (I discovered these quotes through studying Justin Binek’s excellent transcription of the 1947 ‘Lady Be Good’ solo in his paper ‘Ella Fitzgerald: syllabic choice in scat singing and her timbral syllabic development between 1944 and 1947.’)
A further development in her ’emulate’ stage can be heard in her December 1947 recording of ‘How High The Moon’ where her borrowings from the lesser-known trumpet player/composer Benny Harris are at one point more hidden and at another point more overt than her borrowings from Jacquet in ‘Flying Home’. Harris is not well known as a player, as he only briefly recorded as a sideman with Parker and Don Byas, and his solos on those sessions were rare and much shorter than those by the leaders. He is better known as the composer of a short list of tunes that have become bebop standards, including ‘Ornithology’, ‘Crazeology’, (a.k.a. ‘Bud’s Bubble’), ‘Reets and I’, and ‘Wahoo’. Although a number of published charts (such those in the Aebersold ‘All Bird’ book and the ‘Charlie Parker Omnibook’) credit Charlie Parker as the sole composer of ‘Ornithology’, a number of more recent sources (including the credits on a 2016 duo version by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman) identify Harris as a co-composer. (There is also an argument to be made, based on the chronology of Parker’s and Harris’s recordings, that Harris may have been the primary composer. For more on this, see my post on Ornithology.)
The first chorus of Fitzgerald’s 1947 solo on ‘How High’ (and her 1960 expansion of it on Ella in Berlin) includes a sign, clear and yet well embedded in the melodic line, that she was aware of Harris’s little-known work as an improviser. In m. 13-16 from the first chorus, she quotes the opening of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Deep Purple’, changing a few notes of the original but preserving the phrase’s overall shape.
The ‘assimilate’ stage of Fitzgerald’s development as a soloist can be seen in sections of the 1947 and 1960 ‘How High’ solos and the 1947 ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ solo, where she incorporates back-to-back melodic quotations from multiple sources, as Harris frequently does in his solos on the Byas sessions. In these passages she is taking fragments from widely disparate melodic sources and assimilating them into a new harmonic context. A characteristic of these quotations is that while she typically follows them with a development of their melodic material or a phrase ending of her own, she usually does not repeat them or return to them later in the solo. The three borrowed phrases in the first chorus of the 1947 ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ solo mentioned earlier are examples of unrepeated quotes. The first choruses of the 1947 and 1960 ‘How High’ solos begin with a quotation from ‘Poinciana’ which is immediately transposed down a whole step to fit the ‘How High’ chord progression, but there are many more quotes that are used only once. These include, in both versions, the ‘Deep Purple’ quote in the first chorus and the quote from the opening of Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’ in the third chorus.
‘Mean to Me’ appears in more than one Fitzgerald solo; her use of it in her ‘St. Louis Blues’ solo from two years earlier (from Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert) reached the ‘innovate’ stage. Although her use of ‘Mean to Me’ in the ‘St. Louis Blues’ solo deftly alters the intervals and pitch direction of the original tune, Katharine Cartwright identifies it as a ‘Mean to Me’ quote in her transcription of the solo, a testament to Fitzgerald’s ability to transform a phrase and still give it an abstract but audible relationship to the original.
The six additional choruses that she adds in the 1960 version of ‘How High The Moon’ to the original three chorus solo from 1947 include quotes from the ‘Irish Washerwoman’ in the fifth chorus, the ‘Peanut Vendor’ quote in the sixth chorus, the ‘Stormy Weather’ quote in the seventh chorus, and the back-to-back quotes of ‘Did You Ever See A Dream Walking’, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’, ‘Heat Wave’ and ‘The Grand Canyon Suite’ in the ninth chorus.
The examples I have found that illustrate Fitzgerald’s ‘innovate’ stage fall into three main categories. Earlier examples of the ‘innovate’ stage include solos in which she repeats a phrase three times back-to-back, adding motivic development on the second and third repetitions. The third iteration of the phrase is so altered that it becomes her own creation, a melodic idea whose connection to the phrase that inspired it would be untraceable if it didn’t appear immediately following the model phrase. This occurs in her 1948 solo on ‘Old Mother Hubbard’, which includes a three-stage development of the opening phrase from Ann Ronell’s ‘Willow Weep For Me’, and the first chorus of her 1957 ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ solo from At The Opera House, which features a development of the opening from ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’.
A second category of examples of the ‘innovate’ stage are situations where Fitzgerald develops a single motive at two different points in the same solo. This is a skill which Charlie Parker also exhibits in some of his most iconic solos. In his solo on ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’, Parker uses the same twelve-note motive twice in the space of sixteen measures, placing it on the upbeat to beat three in measure three the first time and on the upbeat to measure eleven the second time.
The five notes I have identified as the ‘first tail’ begin a four-measure phrase which is repeated (although with a shorter ending) at m. 13-16. Parker’s earlier placement of the motive in his second use of it necessitates the ‘second tail’, which becomes a connection to the repetition of m. 5-7. In m. 11-15, he adjusts the rhythmic placement of the motive introduced in m. 3-4. The earlier placement creates a space which he fills with the second tail before returning to the material from m. 5-6 in m. 13-14. I would argue that this kind of repetition and development of a single motive in separate sections of the form is one sign that a player is thinking about the solo from a more long-range, structural perspective.
Repetition of the same material in separate sections of the solo can also be heard in the 1957 solo on ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’. Other than a few references to the original, Ella’s solo on this version is a nearly complete departure from the 1947 version that she had been recreating in performances for a decade. Near the beginning of this solo, she sings the improvised lyrics: ‘I don’t know where I’m goin’ / but I’m goin’, I’m goin’…’, signaling her fellow musicians (and hip audience members) that she is in the midst of diverging from one of her most famous creations.
Another category of examples that illustrate the ‘innovate’ stage are situations in which she responds in mid-solo to melodic material improvised by other players between her phrases or, in some cases, ‘behind’ her phrases (i.e. concurrently with them). An early example of Ella’s ability to quickly react to melodic ideas encountered in mid-solo can be heard in her solo on Perdido from a 1949 live set with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a dazzling example of melodic grace under the pressure of a rowdy audience. During a two-bar break in her solo, a one-bar background line is played first by Flip Phillips and then by Roy Eldridge. In the following measure, Fitzgerald picks up the idea and expands it into a two-measure phrase. Here she is doing the same kind of expansion of a borrowed phrase that is heard throughout the ‘How High’ and ‘Lady Be Good’ solos that she performed so often, but doing it on the spur of the moment.
Another category of examples of the ‘innovate’ stage are performances where she trades two, four and sometimes eight bar phrases with other players. Fitzgerald often used these sections as opportunities to radically transform the ideas of other players and challenge her partners in musical conversation in ways that often showed her detailed knowledge of their instrument’s range and technique. Although instances of Charlie Parker ‘trading’ with other players are somewhat rare in his most iconic recordings, his trading with Miles Davis on ‘Big Foot’, a characteristic Parker blues line, shows this was a skill he also had evolved to a high level.
On the 1948 recording of ‘Big Foot’, Parker and Davis demonstrate highly evolved listening skills during a section of ‘trading fours’ that follows their individual solos. Each phrase in the trading is based on one and sometimes two ideas from the other player’s preceding four measures. Parker and Davis do not just emulate each other’s ideas but transform them in multiple ways, including subtly reshaping the melodic direction of the phrase and giving it a different rhythmic placement within the bar.
Near the end of his first four-measure phrase, Parker plays a six-note figure that he had played three years earlier near the opening of his iconic ‘Ko-Ko’ solo (I have marked this ‘Parker motive A’). ‘Ko-ko’ is based on the chord changes to ‘Cherokee’ and is in the same key (B flat major) as ‘Big Foot’. Davis begins his first four bars with a variant on the first four notes of Parker’s ‘Ko-ko’ phrase, followed by a minor-scale variant on ‘Crazeology‘, a tune he had recorded with Parker the previous year. In the third bar of his first phrase, Davis introduces a chromatic figure (‘Davis motive A’) which Parker then varies at the beginning of his next phrase. Davis begins his second phrase by playing the first four notes of Parker’s variation, transposed up a half step and moved one half beat later in the measure. Davis uses this as the opening of a line implying a series of chord substitutions involving dominant seventh chords moving around the circle of ascending fourths/descending fifths. Parker answers with his third phrase, a fourth-generation variant of ‘Davis Motive A’, by now refracted through three different variations he and Davis have made on it. In the second bar of his third phrase Parker re-uses what I call ‘Davis motive C’, a four-note connecting gesture. Parker repeats the notes of the motive, but moves it one beat earlier in the bar, a similar rhythmic shift to the one Davis made with Parker’s figure in his second four bars. A common theme through this trading section is bebop as a private or encoded language, with both players referencing melodic lines they had recorded in the recent past, as well as echoing each other but often using rhythmic shifts and transposition to make their source material less recognizable and put their own stamp on it.
Ella begins this performance with five choruses of solo on the C blues progression in which her trademark use of quotations is largely absent, other than a quote of the lesser known 1935 Gillespie/Parrish/Coots tune ‘Louisiana Fairytale’ in the second chorus and ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ at the beginning of the third. For any listener who might have doubted it, this solo establishes her as a melodic creator with a level of originality on par with the imposing roster of soloists joining her on this tune, which includes trombonist Al Grey, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, tenor saxophonist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Fitzgerald’s solo is followed with one by Al Grey, who displays prodigious technique and melodic vocabulary. Establishing a pattern that she will follow with the other soloists, Ella trades fours with Grey after his solo. Throughout this trading session, Ella sets a series of challenges for Grey in the execution of high notes, articulation of short notes, and even slide technique. Grey rises successfully to each challenge, including some phrases where his responses to Ella’s exhortations lead him to literally rise in pitch toward the limits of his instrument.
Following her trading with Grey, Fitzgerald melodically acknowledges him and introduces Stan Getz with the improvised lyrics ‘that was Al Grey wailin’ on the trombone…here comes Stan Getz’, interspersed with scat syllables. After Ella’s musical introduction there is a moment where she ’emulates’ a short Getz phrase and Getz ‘innovates’ by echoing her echo of his phrase but transposing it up to the C ‘blues scale’. Getz’ solo, which is largely a tribute to the swing-era tenor players who preceded him on the JATP stage, includes three instances of the common bebop device of enclosure, the chromatic ‘surrounding’ of a scale or chord tone with two chromatic upper and lower neighbor tones.
Throughout her trading with Getz that follows his solo, Fitzgerald signals her intent to move beyond emulating the ideas of other soloists and into developing and transforming those ideas, in other words, innovating. To adapt Clark Terry’s term, this might be called ‘innovate trading’. Fitzgerald begins the trading section with Getz at m. 148 by immediately echoing his closing phrase while adding an opening note to it (D). This is followed in the very next measure with a passage in which she uses the same notes as Getz’ first surrounding figure but moves it one half beat later in the measure – a rhythmic shift of the kind that Parker makes with the motive in ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’ and that Miles Davis makes with the Parker motive in ‘Big Foot’. Getz’s first phrase in the trading section is a four-bar phrase based on a four-note descending chromatic figure which he transposes down by a perfect fourth and then a fifth. The third time he states the four-note phrase, he adds a descending perfect fourth. Fitzgerald’s response to Getz’ chromatic phrase is to improvise an inverted (i.e., upside down) variation on it, complete with the concluding interval, now expanded to an ascending sixth.
Another example of ‘innovate trading’ which also uses transposition but involves more motivic development can be found in Ella’s trading with Paul Gonsalves on ‘The E and D Blues’ from Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook. This is the last trading exchange of the tune, in which Ella begins her response to a Gonsalves phrase by echoing it and then performing a number of other transformations to it. Fitzgerald’s multi-layered motivic development of Gonsalves’ phrase is remarkable, considering that she is responding to a line that he began playing before she finished her previous phrase.
In the space of two measures, Fitzgerald moves Gonsalves’ phrase one beat earlier in the measure, echoes his first four notes, deletes his fifth note and moves the sixth, seventh and eighth notes up a perfect fourth, creating a kind of inversion of the phrase and forming a typical bebop enclosure of D4 that is not in Gonsalves’ more diatonic original. She ends her phrase by transposing his opening four-note motive up a perfect fourth.
‘Innovate trading’ could be contrasted with two other categories of phrases which Ella contributes to improvised conversations. I’ll define ’emulate trading’ as an echo of a preceding phrase by another improviser, often followed by material not directly related to the phrase being echoed. This can be heard elsewhere on Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook during her trading with Ben Webster on ‘Cottontail’ and on ‘E and D Blues’ in her trading with Johnny Hodges and Clark Terry that comes before the exchange with Gonsalves. There are also examples of what I would call ‘assimilate trading’, where Ella takes a small piece of a previous phrase, sometimes as few as two notes, and uses it to build a new phrase where her source material is less identifiable due to the economy with which she borrows. This can be heard during her trading with Tommy Flanagan on the version of ‘One Note Samba’ from the album ‘Montreux ’77’.
In the 1972 ‘C Jam’, her ‘Ray’s Idea’ quote sounds like a final twist on the chromatic motive introduced by Getz during the trading and transformed in the trading between Fitzgerald and Edison. In the 1979 ‘C Jam’, she effortlessly elides the first two bars of ‘Ray’s Idea’ with an improvised ascending scalar tail that she adds to the phrase. Both ‘Ray’s Idea’ and ‘Moose’ are less hospitable to vocal adaptation because of their complexity, chromaticism and wide tessitura. As compared to the fragment of ‘Ornithology’ she uses in the 1957 ‘Lady Be Good’, the ‘Moose The Mooche’ fragment covers the range of an eleventh and ‘Ray’s Idea’ covers an augmented eleventh. These tunes were even avoided by bop-oriented vocalists like Eddie Jefferson who recorded many Parker compositions. Kurt Elling, who within the current generation of jazz vocalists is one of the most agile at adapting complex instrumental tunes, recorded ‘Moose’ only recently, well into the third decade of his career. That challenging motives from these tunes became part of the regular vocabulary of Ella Fitzgerald’s improvisations in her later years is only one example of the many ways that, rather than resting on her substantial laurels, she was on a constant journey in search of new challenges and pathways to innovation.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY
Binek, Justin Garrett. Ella Fitzgerald: syllabic choice in scat singing and her timbral syllabic development between 1944 and 1947.
Cartwright, Katharine. Guess These People Wonder What I’m Singing: Quotation and Reference in Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘St. Louis Blues’
Ellington, Duke. 1958. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Song Book. LP: Verve MG V-4008-2.
Fitzgerald, Ella. 1956. Lullabies of Birdland. LP: Decca DL 8149 (Includes 1947 studio versions of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ and ‘How High The Moon’
Fitzgerald, Ella. 1959. Ella Fitzgerald at The Opera House. LP: Verve MG V-8264 (Includes 1957 Shrine Auditorium version of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’.)
Fitzgerald, Ella. 1960. Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife. LP: Verve MG V-4041 (includes 1960 ‘How High The Moon’)
Fitzgerald, Ella and Basie, Count. 1972. Jazz At The Santa Monica Civic 1972. LP: Pablo 2625 701 (includes ‘C Jam Blues’)
Fitzgerald, Ella. Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert. LP: Verve 835 454
Arturo O’Farrill is an amazing pianist and composer who has had a long recording and performing career and recently released his first album on Blue Note records, ‘Dreaming In Lions’. He is also the son of a legend of Afro-Latin jazz, the bandleader and arranger Chico O’Farrill, who arranged for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra among other bands central to jazz history. I had the good fortune to teach with Arturo at the Flynn Center Summertime Latin Jazz camp a number of years ago, and he and I also appear on different recordings by Jazzismo, the group led by the late, great trombonist and composer Rick Davies. He has recently made a visit to UVM to perform with his own quintet and the student big band. I began the transcription below of his solo on ‘Blue State Blues’, a blues in B flat from his earlier album ‘Risa Negra’, around the time we got to work together, in an effort to begin understanding his unique approach to melodic improvising. He refers to his approach as ‘organizational pitches’. In his first chorus of the solo, O’Farrill stays largely within the key center and uses standard rootless voicings for the Bb7, Eb7 and F7 chords. He follows the bebop practice of using non-scale tones (what Barry Harris calls ‘half steps’) to connect scale tones, often placing the non-scale tones on upbeats in typical bebop fashion. (I’ll add here that, although elements of bop style can be heard in this solo, Arturo is careful to mention that organizational pitches is a different approach from bebop.) In m. 13, he begins to alternate between playing outside the key center and playing inside it. That he does this without chordal comping adds to the stark contrast between the ‘inside’ first chorus and the ‘outside’ second chorus. (I made some guesses about where his left hand may have briefly taken over the melodic line.) At m. 21, he re-introduces chordal comping with standard voicings for Cm7 and F7, briefly re-establishing the key center before finishing the chorus with another ‘outside’ phrase where the chromatic right hand line is complimented by ‘sideslipping’ fourth voicings in the style of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. I put the Bb7 chord symbol in parenthesis here as at this point Arturo has moved away from the standard blues harmony, although the solo eventually returns to it. I hope you enjoy this brief look at Arturo O’Farrill’s incredible playing and that it inspires you to venture further into his wonderful music.
Harvey Diamond is a Boston-based jazz pianist who has played with artists including Dave Liebman, Sheila Jordan and Art Farmer and two bassists I’ve also worked with, Harvie S and Jamie MacDonald. Diamond was a student of the legendary, idiosyncratic and trail-blazing pianist Lennie Tristano during Tristano’s last years of teaching. He will be performing on Friday April 23rd at 8 pm and giving a workshop on Saturday, April 24th at 10 am during the Vermont Jazz Center’s fifth annual Solo Jazz Piano Festival. The festival will be streamed live on the VJC’s website, and includes many great players including Elio Villafranca, Craig Taborn and Kris Davis. I highly encourage anyone reading this to both attend as much of the festival as you can and to donate to the VJC through their website (all events are free but donations are encouraged.) I have attended the festival for the past three years, including once as a guest artist, and have found it enlightening and a great portal to what is happening currently at the highest levels of jazz piano playing.
In anticipation of Harvey’s performance this coming weekend, I transcribed (with his permission) part of his solo on Sonny Rollins’ ‘Tenor Madness’ from the album ‘Harvey Diamond Trio’ with bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. I focused on the fourth, fifth and sixth choruses of the solo because they have some great examples of what George Colligan calls ‘hand-to-hand conversation’. Colligan coined the term to describe the dialogic moments in Horace Silver’s piano solos, but it is an approach that can be found in the playing of many great jazz pianists, particularly Wynton Kelly. In the fourth chorus, Diamond’s left hand is responding to two-bar ‘questions’ from his right hand, but by the sixth chorus, in measure 30, the left hand is introducing ideas which the right hand picks up. There is also a hallmark of the style of Diamond’s teacher Tristano at measures 35 and 36, where he plays a four note motive (Db, Bb, Ab, Eb) twice with two different rhythmic placements. The first time is on the second beat with swing eighth notes, and the second time is on the third beat with more straight eighth notes. All in all, a fantastic and highly swingin’ solo. I highly encourage you to check out the rest of ‘Harvey Diamond Trio’, which is full of inventive treatments of standards and beautifully reflective ballads, including a gorgeous reading of Duke Ellington’s ‘Don’t You Know I Care’.
On December 3rd, 1941, the Duke Ellington Orchestra made their first recording of ‘Rain Check’, a composition by Billy Strayhorn, who had joined the Ellington organization as staff composer and arranger less than three years earlier in January of 1939. ‘Rain Check’ had a number of features that announced Strayhorn’s compositional style as distinct from that of his employer, including what Walter Van de Leur calls an ‘uncommon structure’ as well as quartal voicings (i.e. voicings built in 4ths) in its opening section. Strayhorn contributed Rain Check to the Ellington band book as part of a group of seven tunes that include some of his best known compositions. Among these was ‘Take The A Train’, which became the band’s theme song. Although ‘Rain Check’ would not become as well known as ‘A Train’, it is a sign of how long it stayed in the Ellington book that the Ellington Orchestra recorded an updated version in 1967 for the album ‘And HIs Mother Called Him Bill’, which commemorated Strayhorn after his death that same year.
The melody of ‘Rain Check’, played by trombonist Juan Tizol, opens with an ascending perfect fourth followed by a descending major triad; this four note motive is immediately repeated a perfect fourth lower, where the descending major triad is expanded into a minor seventh chord arpeggio. The first melodic phrase is capped off with an ascending major 2nd. The clever use of a repeated and transposed motive (what classical music theorists call a ‘sequence’) is a feature that ‘Rain Check’ has in common with at least two other songs in the group of seven tunes from 1941, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ and ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’, as well as another of Strayhorn’s best known tunes, ‘Satin Doll’. Strayhorn was certainly a studious apprentice of Ellington as a person and as a composer, and transposing melodic patterns through various harmonic sequences is a common practice of studious musicians. Classical players do this to develop technique, for instance in the Hanon piano exercises, while jazz players often do it to develop improvisational vocabulary in multiple keys. Another studious apprentice in a slightly later era was the trumpeter and composer Benny Harris, who in his small number of well-known and long-lived melodic lines, transposed melodic concepts from Charlie Parker in ‘Ornithology’ and from Dizzy Gillespie in ‘Crazeology’; his compositions ‘Donby’ and ‘Reets and I’ also involve melodic sequences.
The year following the first recording of ‘Rain Check’ saw the birth of Paul McCartney in June of 1942. McCartney was the son of a jazz musician, Jim McCartney, and went on to become a member of The Beatles, whose repertoire in their early years included a number of songs made famous by Louis Armstrong (‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Sheik of Araby’). McCartney’s affinity for the music of Ellington and Strayhorn has become evident in the later stage of his career with a live recorded version of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ and, at one point, the inclusion of ‘Satin Doll’ in a soundcheck. This, combined with Duke Ellington’s enduring popularity in England throughout the time of McCartney’s upbringing (indicated both by Ellington’s frequent performances in the city and his dedication of an extended composition, ‘The Queen’s Suite’, to the British matriarch), make it likely that McCartney may at some point have heard ‘Rain Check’, if only perhaps in passing. McCartney’s song ‘I Will’, recorded on 1968’s The White Album, has a eight-note phrase which matches exactly the interval pattern (although not the rhythm) from the first phrase of Rain Check; in other words, in terms of intervals, McCartney’s phrase is Strayhorn’s phrase minus two notes.
If you can identify one or more of the places where the ‘Rain Check’ phrase occurs in ‘I Will’, either identifying it by timing or lyrics or both, please mention it in the comments.
Fragments of the ‘Rain Check’ motive can also be found in the following places:
– near the beginning of Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance‘ (which uses four notes of the motive in its first phrase – can you identify the pitches in the middle of Harris’ first phrase that use the first four notes of ‘Rain Check’, and the timing where this occurs in the recording?)
– near the end of the song ‘Meditation‘ by the rap/jazz supergroup August Greene, which combines rapper Common and drummer Kareem Riggins with keyboardist/composer/producer Robert Glasper (can you identify the timing in the recording where Glasper uses a motive that could be described as the ‘Rain Check’ lick with one note subtracted and one note added?)
The ‘Rain Check’ motive also appears in the melodic vocabulary of a number of improvisers. In his version of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’, the jazz pianist Mike Longo uses the motive a number of times during his solo – if you can identify timings for any of the places where Longo uses the ‘Rain Check’ lick, please leave them in the comment section. I’d particularly appreciate any other uses of the ‘Rain Check’ motive you can find in improvised solos, or examples of other melodic lines that prominently feature ascending perfect fourths.
Two of the most iconic jazz versions of Autumn Leaves combine the tune’s melody and chord progression with a rhythmic figure idiomatic to jazz sometimes called the ‘Charleston rhythm’. This title relates the rhythm to the James P. Johnson composition of the same title which was in turn named for a 1920s dance craze. In the Johnson piece, a repeated rhythm is heard in the melody and the accompaniment in nearly every bar of the song; this can be heard in Johnson’s playing as two separated notes, the first on the downbeat of beat one, the second on the ‘and’ of two. The Charleston rhythm was adapted by composers and arrangers including James P. Johnson admirer George Gershwin, who used the Charleston pattern in ‘I Got Rhythm‘ on beat two of first bar of the melody and on beat one of the second, and James P. Johnson student Duke Ellington, who used the Charleston pattern in C Jam Blues on the third measure of the melody. In these tunes the pattern was adapted to be two connected notes, a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. Other jazz standards in which the ‘Charleston’ rhythm figures prominently include Killer Joe by Benny Golson (where it appears as it does in Johnson’s ‘Charleston’, on beat one of the first bar of the form ) as well as So What by Miles Davis and Moanin’ by Bobby Timmons (where it appears on the second half of the first bar of the form).
The chord progression used in ‘Autumn Leaves’ is also known as the ‘diatonic cycle’ for the way it begins on the ii chord in a major key and, with a bassline that follows a pattern of ascending fourths or descending fifths, cycles through chords built on all seven notes of the major scale, landing on the relative minor. This progression was around long before the tune ‘Autumn Leaves’ was composed in 1945; it can be heard near the beginning of the Allegro from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Since ‘Autumn Leaves’ was composed, the diatonic cycle progression has appeared in a number of tunes, at least some of which are likely borrowing it from Autumn Leaves; these include:
– Tito Puente’s Maria Cervantes; during the solo section of this tune, the Autumn Leaves A section changes are looped with their usual harmonic rhythm cut in half (so that each change lasts two beats instead of four) over a 2-3 son clave
– Clare Fischer’s Morning uses Autumn Leaves A section changes with a compressed harmonic rhythm over a cha-cha groove in the second four bar phrase of its A section
– The song best known as the ‘Theme from MASH’, the 1970s TV show (the title of its lesser known lyrics is ‘Suicide Is Painless’), famously interpreted by Bill Evans, uses the Autumn Leaves A section changes over a bossa nova groove. (Evans cycles the entire form of the tune through three keys, using a pattern of descending major thirds.)
– Carlos Santana’s Europa uses the Autumn Leaves A section chords over a rhythm section that combines rock ballad feel with bolero
– A good reference for the original French lyrics to Autumn Leaves (Les Feullies Mortes) is the version by Charles Aznavour, which is also a good recording to use for practicing the changes to the tune in E minor (as shown in the tune below) with the left hand alone. Aznavour also wrote an original tune, Yesterday When I Was Young, that uses the A section changes of Autumn Leaves.
My tune ‘Paul’s Question’ is named after a student who approached me after rehearsal and asked how to take a solo on Autumn Leaves. A chart and keyboard video of it is below. It combines a Charleston-based stride accompaniment in the left hand using mostly rootless voicings with a bop-based melody in the right hand. I hope this post might either inspire you to create your own piece based on an excerpt from the Autumn Leaves progression or a tune based on the entire progression of Autumn Leaves.
I encourage you to choose one recording out of the Bach, Tito Puente and Clare Fischer pieces and leave a comment citing the timing (i.e. minutes and seconds) of the place where the Autumn Leaves/diatonic cycle progression is used in that piece.
 Terry Teachout’s biography ‘Duke’ mentions that after hearing Ellington play his famously challenging Carolina Shout, Johnson ‘was sufficiently impressed to go club-hopping with his young admirer. It was a night that Ellington never forgot: “What I absorbed on that occasion might, I think, have constituted a whole semester in a conservatory.”
In a New York Times article titled ‘What Haydn Taught Mozart’, the music historian H.C. Robbins Landon quotes a number of letters by both composers that indicate the high regard these two icons of the Classical style had for each other. In a letter to a friend, Haydn said of the younger composer: “…scarcely any man can brook comparison with the great Mozart.” Landon quotes an early Mozart biography that says the composer “often called [Haydn] his teacher.” Landon then goes on to cite a number of examples from Mozart’s music that show Haydn’s influence, including the D minor piano concerto which ” utilized…not only the latest Haydn symphony but also that composer’s seminal String Quartet Op. 9 No. 4.” Landon writes that Mozart and Haydn first met ‘in Vienna in the early 1780’s’, when Mozart was in his mid-twenties and Haydn in his late forties.
In the recent movie Emma, the title character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, rushes to a fortepiano (a predecessor of the piano originating in the 18th century) just before the visit of George Knightley, an adversarial friend and eventual love interest. Emma briefly practices a Mozart Minuet and Trio as a way of feigning indifference to Knightley’s visit. As piano music is a subplot of the film (based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name), it is significant that the piece Emma practices is K.1, in other words, the first piece in Mozart’s catalog and allegedly the first piece he composed in 1761 at the age of five. As the plot goes on, we meet Jane Fairfax, a peer and sometime rival of Emma’s. At a scene during a music recital, just after Emma sings a plaintive but rudimentary rendition of the Irish song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, Fairfax plays a fast and technically brilliant piece composed by the mature Mozart around the time he met Haydn, the Allegro Assai from the Sonata in F KV 332. Fairfax’s Mozart outshines both Emma’s vocal piece and the Mozart piece Emma practiced at home, leaving her feeling musically outdone. This only adds to the ways she feels socially outdone by Fairfax. As Fairfax blazes through the Mozart, Emma says to Knightley in an annoyed whisper, ”Ever since I can remember, I have been told I can find no better companion than Jane Fairfax, she who is so accomplished and so superior.”
While in Emma the Minuet and Trio K. 1 symbolizes one-half of a less-than-well-matched rivalry, in the history of Mozart and Haydn it also seems to be a mysterious and perhaps inexplicable foreshadowing of their friendship. The first phrase of the Minuet and Trio ends with a cadential phrase that descends the D major scale, completing a modulation to D major. (The link in the last sentence is cued to the phrase I am referring to, however, after listening to it from this start point, please also go back and listen from the beginning to place it in context.) This phrase is very similar to a phrase at the end of the first section in Haydn’s Sonatina in G Major H. XVI no. 8. If you can find the timing in the video where the Haydn phrase that echoes the Mozart phrase appears, leave them in a comment in the comment section below.Although these pieces are in two different time signatures, this right-hand melodic phrase appears in in the same key in both pieces and with the same figure in the left hand accompanying. This would seem to be another example of Haydn’s influence, except that the Mozart piece is dated five years before the Haydn piece, which is listed as being composed in 1766, five years after the Mozart piece and over a decade before Haydn and Mozart met. One possible explanation is that Haydn may have heard Mozart play on one of the concert tours Mozart’s father arranged starting the year after Mozart composed K.1. Another explanation is that both composers were quoting the same source, much as jazz improvisers borrow from various sources to tell their spontaneous melodic stories.
In 1930, Moises Simon’s song The Peanut Vendor became a best-seller in the sheet music world as well as a hit record by Don Azpiazu and His Havana Casino Orchestra. It was recorded by a number of jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong in 1931 (who provided his own combination of English lyrics and scat syllables in place of the Spanish lyrics) , Stan Kenton in 1947 and Duke Ellington in 1958. 1960 saw the release of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic album ‘Mack The Knife: Ella in Berlin’. The album was named after the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill song that became best known on the album after Fitzgerald forgot Brecht’s lyrics and improvised her own. Following ‘Mack the Knife’, and closing the album, is Fitzgerald’s epic rendition of ‘How High The Moon’, in which she begins with the scat choruses from her 1947 recording of the song and adds an additional four minutes of improvisation, this time including a quote from The Peanut Vendor. If you can find the timing in the video for Ella’s Peanut Vendor quote, leave them in a comment in the comment section below.
In his solo on the tune Dr. Jackle, Miles Davis uses first uses the opening bars of ‘When The Saints Go Marching’ as the basis of a whole chorus of the 12 bar blues form. Following this, in two different places he uses the melodic rhythm from the second bar of the main theme in ‘The Peanut Vendor’ (i.e. the second of bar of the section that Ella Fitzgerald quotes.) Although Miles alters the melodic pattern from this bar, he keeps the basic descending shape, and the pattern of two pairs of repeated notes followed by a single note a step lower. The intervals between the notes are different, which is how Miles both disguises this borrowing and makes the pattern his own. If you can findthe timing in the video for either of the Peanut Vendor quotes or the quote from ‘When The Saints Go MarchingIn’, leave them in a comment in the comment section below.
Trumpeter, composer and educator Clark Terry, who I got to play with briefly in the early 2000s when he visited UVM, often used the phrase ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ to describe the process by which improvisers develop their melodic language. In this series of blog posts, I will be presenting some theories about how great improvisers from jazz history imitated and assimilated specific ideas of earlier players and often found ways to add their own innovations. In his book Elements of the Jazz Language, Jerry Coker titles two licks that show up in many mid-twentieth-century solos by jazz players the ‘Cry Me A River‘ lick (after the Arthur Hamilton song) and the ‘Gone But Not Forgotten‘ lick (after the Bob Haggart/Jack Lawrence song). (The link to ‘Cry Me’ in the last sentence is to the version by Ella Fitzgerald, for whom the tune was written; while it has not been recorded by many pianists, Brad Mehldau has a version with the melody clearly stated and spare counterpoint in the left hand.) Coker goes on to catalog many instances in which these phrases are used by various players on various tunes. In this post I will suggest a timeline for how a melodic idea may have made its way from Bud Powell’s playing to Wynton Kelly’s playing. By doing this I am hoping to show both that, for developing improvisers, there is more to building melodic vocabulary than just learning and transposing melodic phrases in their original form. Through some process, conscious or subconscious, those ideas have to combine with the rest of one’s vocabulary until, like the scraps in a compost heap, they start to change form.
On May 8, 1947, Bud Powell made his only studio recording with Charlie Parker, at a time when the saxophonist’s fame as a soloist and bandleader had recently begun to rise. He had recorded with pianists including Dodo Marmarosa, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner and Sadik Hakim, and had even used Dizzy Gillespie on piano at one point, but he had not yet done a recording session with Powell, who was becoming known as an erratic genius. As Peter Pullman notes in his biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, although Parker and Powell had worked together on and off since mid-1945, Powell did not show up for Parker’s first recording as a leader that same year, despite being the pianist in his working band, and had to be replaced by Hakim and Gillespie. Earlier that year, the pianist had missed his first opportunity to play with Parker in Cootie Williams’ band because Parker joined the band while Powell was on leave from it while being institutionalized in a series of psychiatric hospitals. After the 1947 recording sessions, Parker and Powell would go on to play more live performances together where their odd-couple dynamic was on full display. As I mention in an earlier blog post, these performances, preserved on the albums One Night In Birdland and Jazz At Massey Hall, contain brilliant playing by both musicians, but also examples of how Powell’s idiosyncrasies as an accompanist threw Parker off his usual unshakeable balance. On both these recordings, Powell sometimes can be heard musically irritating Parker and in one case nearly derailing him with a confusing intro. The ways Parker resists Powell’s musical disruptions is masterful, and the counterpoint between them is sometimes hilarious.
Pullman notes that at the May 1947 session, Powell is ‘not given much solo space on any of the takes’ – on what became the most famous recording from the session, Donna Lee, Powell is given only 16 bars to improvise – but that he ‘steals a chance to shine on “Buzzy” ‘, one of the two Parker tunes on twelve-bar blues forms from the session. On his solo from the master take of the tune that was released as a single the same year, Powell deftly quotes a phrase from m. 3-4 of ‘Donna Lee’, the tune recorded at the beginning of the session, perhaps showing a desire to connect musically with his bandmates. He closes his first chorus of solo with a figure in m. 11 that descends from F4 to F3, embellishing a Bb major 6th arpeggio on the way. Powell would use a slightly more chromatic version of this same figure to close his iconic solo on Un Poco Loco four years later in May of 1951.
In July of 1951, in the same recording studio where Powell recorded Un Poco Loco, a young Wynton Kelly did the first of two sessions that would become his first album as a leader, Piano Interpretations. In a 1963 interview where he gave a quick rundown of his recordings as a leader, Kelly referred to this album as ‘one I made in 1950 [sic] when I was 19 that doesn’t even count’, but it actually shows the beginnings of what would make Kelly a unique, pivotal and sought-after accompanist and soloist in mid-twentieth-century jazz. Kelly also pays tribute to Bud Powell in the interview, saying: “I respect Bud as one of the main figures in starting modern jazz piano.” In his version of Cherokee, Kelly begins his solo with a phrase very similar to the closing move from Powell’s ‘Buzzy’ solo. (The release date of ‘Buzzy’ makes it possible Kelly might have heard it, while ‘Un Poco Loco’ was not released before the time of Kelly’s session.) On his second use of the lick at 1:09, Kelly incorporates the first six notes of Powell’s phrase (F-E-Eb-D-Bb-G) and adds his own tail (G-Gb-F-Eb). Kelly continues to return to the idea throughout the solo, never reproducing it exactly but working with shorter variants of it, playing it higher registers than Powell did, but in the same key.
While Kelly is working with many Bud Powell-inspired phrases in the right hand, his left hand alternates between compound-tenth voicings typical of Powell’s playing and the higher rootless voicings that would become a trademark of his sound in his work with Miles Davis. In comparison to the nearly non-stop right-hand monologue that Powell carried on in his solo on Serenade to A Square, which uses the Cherokee chord progression and which Kelly may have also heard, Kelly’s solo is distinctive and ground-breaking for its use of what George Colligan calls ‘hand to hand conversation’ to create space within his solo. Through taking a more conversational approach initiated by his left hand, Kelly introduces the crucial element of space, allowing the listener to hear Powell’s language in a new way – as one half of a conversation rather than a monologue.
It is a sign of how indispensable Kelly became as a sideman, as well as perhaps a clue about his personality, that he did not record another album as a leader (other than a session co-led with Lee Morgan) until the album Piano seven years later. In the interim, he recorded with a ‘who’s who’ of jazz soloists, most prominently Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Benny Golson, Dinah Washington and Dizzy Gillespie. On Piano, Kelly returned to his personalized version of the Bud Powell lick to open his solo on the tune ‘Action’. This time, he adds to his chromatic tail with a mordant (D-Db-D) leading down to the root.
The recording of Buzzy was likely an awkward situation for Bud Powell; whatever the reason Powell had missed Parker’s first session, it was the first time Parker got to test out his erratic bandmate in the isolated environment of the recording studio. In a similar way, the recording of Miles Davis’ now classic Kind of Blue may have been awkward for Wynton Kelly. Davis had hired Kelly in 1958, prior to the recording of Kind of Blue, and continued to use Kelly in live concerts through the early 1960s. As Ashley Kahn writes, when Kind of Blue was recorded, ‘despite having hired Wynton Kelly to take over the piano spot[in his band]…Davis called [Bill] Evans and set up studio time at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio.’ In Miles: The Autobiography, Davis writes that ‘ Wynton joined us just before I was going into the studio to make Kind of Blue, but I had already planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans, who had agreed to play on it with us.’
A more magnanimous bandleader might have have been motivated to bring Kelly in on one tune of the album at least partly to appease hurt feelings. Davis, however, was famously single-minded and unsentimental in his musical decisions. According to Cannonball Adderley, he fired pianist Red Garland, with whom he recorded five of his most influential albums, and hired Kelly when he happened to be in the audience at a gig for which pianist Garland was late. So it is more likely that his reasons for having Kelly on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ were purely musical. The form and style of the tune – straight-ahead jazz blues – is one that Evans avoided throughout his solo career, and one at which Kelly excelled and which he chose often on his solo records. Davis was quoted as saying, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’
In his Freddie Freeloader solo, Kelly finds yet another variation on the lick that had started out as an echo of Bud Powell’s phrase. In this permutation, he gives the phrase a different ‘head’, replacing the opening triplet with a three-note ascent (Bb-Db-D). He also alters the ‘tail’ he had added to Powell’s lick through the use of a phrase common in Charlie Parker’s solos, identified as the ‘four lick’ by Barry Harris (F-Eb-C-Db-D natural.) This alteration of both ends of the phrase is one reason I would say the Freddie Freeloader solo marks the ‘innovation’ stage in Kelly’s use of Powell’s lick; another way that Kelly innovates is in the way that he begins the lick on a ‘weak’ beat (beat two). In all his other uses of the lick, Kelly makes the main accent of the phrase fall on a strong beat. Moving the lick to beat two, as well as compressing it into sixteenth notes, allows Kelly to fit the lick into a ‘hand to hand conversation’ phrase where the strong beat is occupied by the left hand ‘chord question’.
In my view, it is not a coincidence that the last solo in this chronological sequence is also the one in which Kelly employs the ‘hand to hand conversation’ strategy most clearly. In a future blog post, I will discuss how Kelly went on to develop the conversational strategy in his improvising as a problem-solving technique for tunes where composers including John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter presented him with the challenge of improvising on unfamiliar chord progressions.
Although jazz musicians are usually understood either as solo artists or members of bands, there is another important kind of relationship between them that sometimes escapes the attention of listeners and historians. Throughout the history of jazz, many players have belonged to musical collectives, groups that may include musicians who may perform together, but who gather primarily to exchange ideas about music and build a common repertoire and musical aesthetic, usually outside the functioning spaces and hours of the musical marketplace. Recent decades of jazz history have included a number of formalized collectives, including the Jazz Composers Guild, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, M-Base and more recently the West Coast Get Down, but earlier jazz history includes a number of less formalized collectives. It is a sign of gender equity in jazz being an ongoing challenge that all these collectives are either exclusively male or consist largely of male players; more recent groups like Jazz Women and Girls Advocates and Women In Jazz Organization have begun to offer some much-needed balance.
The history of literature
includes a number of well-known collectives, such as The Inklings, which
included the British writers J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and
Hugo Dyson, whose discussions on their shared interests in world mythology and
Christian spirituality influenced their individual literary creations. When one can discover the existence of a
collective during any period in the development of an art form, it often
reveals details of how artists influenced each other that are downplayed
or even completely hidden when the story of an individual artist is
One important musical collective whose association has, until recently, often been left out of jazz history is a group that was by one account called ‘The Three Musketeers’ – pianists Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope and Bud Powell. Monk and Powell became acquainted around 1942; Powell became a protégé of Monk’s, emulating his sound on the piano and learning his tunes. Not long after this, Monk and Powell began hanging out with Hope, who was between Monk and Powell in age. Powell biographer Peter Pullman writes that “Hope was well connected locally…He was clever, aggressive when he needed to be, and a good talker. That gave him a lot of confidence on the street.” Of the Three Musketeers’ gatherings, Pullman writes: “When they started getting together, the three found each other’s company, around a piano, to be the greatest fun: each so eager to show what he could do with the idea that one of the other two had just played…Monk was content to listen most of the time, so Powell and Hope alternated at the keyboard-or played four hands…[Powell] never bumped Hope off the bench-unless it was done playfully, with the respect of a colleague, an equal…The piano chair constantly rotated…As soon as Hope finished playing, Powell jumped up to play Hope’s idea but put his stamp on it.”
In studying the
compositions and improvised solos of the pianists in the ‘Three Musketeers’
collective and comparing their recorded output, I have found a number of kinds
of musical evidence that they influenced each other. Further
research has led me to think of the collective as extending beyond the three
players to include Mary Lou Williams and Bertha Hope, two players who had
substantial influence on and interaction with Monk, Hope and Powell. Like many other female instrumentalists, their
work and their stories are either left out of many versions of jazz history, or
not discussed in the same detail as their male contemporaries, despite the fact
that they are pivotal figures. Pullman
writes that, within the salon atmosphere that Williams fostered at her
apartment, ‘Monk, Powell and, as well, Elmo Hope subjected themselves here to
Williams’ instruction. She charged herself with getting them to strike the
piano with more authority.’ As I’ll mention shortly, Williams’
influence on them extended beyond the confines of piano technique.
Bertha Hope, a fine pianist and composer in her own right, is a crucial fifth
member of the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective.
She is a still active player and composer whose music displays the
influence of the collective in a unique way.
The most obvious evidence of mutual influence within the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective can be seen in a common repertoire of songs that Monk, Hope and Powell all recorded. As I mentioned in a previous post, Monk, Powell and Hope all recorded their own arrangements of ‘Sweet and Lovely’, with Powell and Hope’s arrangements appearing to be personal revisions of the arrangement by Monk, who was the first to record the tune. There were at least two other tunes that all three members of the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective included in their studio recordings and/ or live performances: ‘All The Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and ‘A Night In Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie.
Bud Powell’s studio recording of All The Things You Are includes some characteristically ambitious and virtuosic double-timing, as well as an allusion to stride in the left hand and to George Shearing-style ‘locked hands’ melody interpretation in the head out. Powell’s romantic flourishes during the head in and out are in keeping with the Dizzy Gillespie introduction he uses, which is a reference to the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-Sharp Minor. Thelonious Monk recorded ‘All The Things You Are’ a number of times. His personal approach to and mastery of the tune is most evident in a live version from 1948, which includes a repeated descending scale fragment similar to the one found in the bridge to the Monk tune ‘Trinkle Tinkle’. Monk recorded another version of ‘All The Things’ later the same year with vocalist Kenny Hagood and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Although Hagood’s soulful long tones find an odd and yet satisfying coexistence with Jackson and Monk alternating between comping and filling frenetically, one can also see why Monk’s approach to accompanying vocalists – surrounding the melody with short chordal bursts and cascading fills – did not make him particularly sought after as a vocal accompanist. Elmo Hope’s trio version of the tune from his album ‘Meditations’ includes both the ii-V to the tritone substitution found in Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ (more on this tune below) and a Monk-like whole-tone scale approach to the last chord of the bridge. It makes sense that Hope, being the third of ‘The Three Musketeers’ to join, was the best positioned to absorb the influence of both Monk and Powell.
Some members of the Three Musketeers collective also recorded tunes by other members of collective. Powell’s first version of Monk’s ‘Off Minor’, which was recorded ten months before Monk’s own first version in 1947, includes a number of characteristic Bud Powell moves, including an un-Monk-like pedal point intro and the switching of a melody phrase into the left hand during the bridge (recalling Powell’s own ‘Tempus Fugit’.) Monk’s version from October 1947 includes a more spare approach to the tune’s unusual harmony; many of the chords go unplayed in the left hand until the second A section. The most pronounced difference between the two versions is in the solos: there is copious space throughout Monk’s solo, which builds by drawing Art Blakey’s drums into a conversation, rather than building energy within a more continuous eighth note line as Powell does. Powell’s album ‘A Tribute To Thelonious’ includes a second version of ‘Off Minor’ and three other Monk tunes. This album commemorated a longstanding mentor-student relationship between Monk and Powell; Mary Lou Williams said of Powell: ‘He idolizes Monk and can interpret Monk’s compositions better than anyone I know.’
Members of the Three Musketeers collective didn’t compose for each other as often as, for instance, Duke Ellington wrote for members of his orchestra. (According to Ellington biographer Terry Teachout, Ellington based tunes including ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ and ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ on melodic motives he had borrowed from the intended soloist.) However, Peter Pullman quotes drummer Kenny Clarke as recalling that ‘All [Monk’s] music was written for Bud Powell, all this piano music, he…deliberately wrote it for Bud, because he figured Bud was the only one who could play it…He couldn’t play it.” Both Pullman and Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley confirm that Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ was originally written for a projected collaboration between himself, Bud Powell and Mary Lou Williams that was partially composed and rehearsed in 1944 but never performed. The recording linked in the last sentence is from another session including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, with whom Monk and saxophonist Sahib Shihab play the melody in unison. One can easily imagine Williams’ written description of the rehearsals as depicting a run-through of ‘Criss Cross’: ‘I used to laugh at Bud & Monk. Monk reaching over Bud’s shoulder to play his chords & Bud turning around giving Monk a mean look. This went on some time until I got sick of it…’ (Kelley p. 93)
One of Mary Lou Williams’ contributions to the collaborative suite was ‘Bobo’, a tune with a number of deliberate references to bebop including unusual chains of ii-V progressions and what sounds like a quote from Dizzy Gillespie’s intro to the tune ‘Bebop’ (which was not recorded until January of 1945 but may have been performed earlier.) She was also planning to arrange the ‘Scorpio‘ movement of her Zodiac Suite for the three pianists to play. The prominent use of the flatted fifth in the bassline of this piece predates’ Monk’s recorded use of that sound in his first sessions as a leader two years later; it is also rhythmically identical to the bassline that opens Elmo Hope’s Stars Over Marrakesh. Williams dedicated the ‘Libra’ movement of the Zodiac Suite to Monk, Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum; the chromaticism in the melody of its midsection seems to reference to the melodic adventurousness that the younger players inherited from Tatum (among other sources.) The ‘Aries’ movement of the Zodiac Suite opens with the same four-bar series of eight dominant chords moving through the circle of fifths that Monk later used in ‘Humph’, the first tune on his first session as a leader.
Members of the Three Musketeers collective also composed tunes that were in some sense based on chord progressions of songs in the common repertoire of the group. Both Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugit’ and Hope’s ‘Stars Over Marrakesh’ have been described as having structures that closely resemble A Night In Tunisia. Both tunes are in the same key as ‘Tunisia’ and use its AABA form; the A sections of Powell’s tune more closely resemble Gillespie’s, while the bridge of Hope’s tune is more clearly derived from ‘Tunisia’ (with its A section reduces the Gillespie’s tune progression to a single chord with a similar bass line.) A Monk tune that, to my ear, shows traces of possibly having been derived from ‘Tunisia’, although in a more abstract way, is ‘Well You Needn’t’. Monk’s tune reverses Gillespie’s descending half step progression to an ascending half step. ‘Well You Needn’t’ begins with a phrase the same length as the first phrase of ‘Tunisia’ (nine notes), with nearly the same rhythm and melodic shape as Gillespie’s first phrase. Where Gillespie’s second phrase removes one note from the first phrase, Monk’s second phrase redirects the last two of the original 9 notes. In both the Gillespie and Monk tunes, the third phrase is identical to the first, and the concluding phrase is an overall downward move. Kelley’s biography mentions ‘Well You Needn’t’ as having been in existence as early as 1943, but at least one account of ‘A Night In Tunisia’ dates the tune to 1942, although its first recording was a vocal version by Sarah Vaughan in 1944. Again, as with ‘Bebop’, Gillespie’s tune may have begun to be influential before it was recorded.
While the tunes based on Night In Tunisia were all fairly abstract reworkings of Gillespie’s material, Monk, Hope and Powell also composed or chose for their repertoire tunes that added new melodies to chord progressions in the common repertoire of the group, with little or no alterations to the original harmonies. All three recorded a tune based on the chord progression to ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’; these include Monk’s recording of Ike Quebec’s ‘Surburban Eyes’, Powell’s recording of Benny Harris’ ‘Reets and I’, and Hope’s recording of his own ‘Later For You’. All three of them also recorded tunes based on the harmonies to George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Lady Be Good’. The first of these is ‘Hackensack’, a tune credited to Monk but which is largely based on eight bars of Mary Lou Williams’ arrangement of ‘Lady Be Good’, a borrowing for which Monk never credited Williams. One has to wonder whether the decision not to credit Williams is due to conscious or subconscious gender discrimination, as the names of other male Monk collaborators (including Sadik Hakim, Idrees Sulieman and Denzil Best) appear on the credits for a number of his tunes (including one of his best known, ‘Bemsha Swing’.) Powell also recorded his own version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Dewey Square’, also based on ‘Lady Be Good’. (This was on the slbum ‘Bud Plays Bird’, recorded after Parker’s death but not released until 1997; like Powell’s renditions of ‘All The Things’ and ‘Tunisia’, it is more evidence of a musical dialogue with Parker carried on more in Parker’s absence than in his presence.) Finally, the chord progression to one of Hope’s best known tunes, ‘So Nice’, matches that of ‘Lady Be Good’ except for some harmonic departures in the bridge.
Monk, Elmo Hope and Powell also all composed tunes based on rhythmic or harmonic variations on chord progressions in the common repertoire of the collective. Monk’s ‘Humph’, Hope’s ‘De-Dah’ and Powell’s ‘Monopoly’ are all reharmonizations of the chord progression from Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’. In writing these tunes, the younger Musketeers were following in the footsteps of Mary Lou Williams, who had written hit tunes based on the rhythm changes progression in the previous decade, most prominently Walkin’ and Swingin’ from 1936. One of the later sections of this tune is famously the source for the opening of Monk’s ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (another uncredited Williams borrowing by Monk); it also sounds likely that the bridge of ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’ may have inspired the bridge of Sy Oliver’s ‘Opus One’.
Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ and Hope’s ‘Vaun-Ex’ both take unusual harmonic routes through the twelve bar blues. “Freffie’ was Hope’s own twist on the ‘Bird Blues’, a harmonic alteration of the blues progression found in Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice’. The main harmonic innovation of ‘Infidels’, a ii-v progression widened to include a ii-V to the tritone substitution chord, appears in places as remote as Wayne Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’ ‘Infidels’ was also adopted by Miles Davis as the progression for his ‘Sippin’ at Bells’. Monk was a traditionalist when it came to the blues progression; his blues tunes hew closely to the traditional folk blues or ‘jazz blues’ progression. ‘Straight, No Chaser‘ uses this traditional harmony but the melody employs one of Monk’s favorite devices – also heard in ‘Four In One’ and ‘Criss Cross’: repeated rhythmic displacement of a short melodic ‘cell’ (i.e. repeating the cell but using a different rhythmic placement for each repetition.) More recently, Bertha Hope has also used a series of dominant seventh chords to reharmonize the blues progression in her Bai Tai Blues. Another Bertha Hope composition that makes unique use of both the circle of fifths and a motive from Monk’s blues ‘Misterioso’ is her Gone To See T. This tune challenges the improviser by alternating between straight and swing eighth notes (as Misterioso does) and alternating frequently between familiar pairings of chords and unusual pairings. While many composers have tried to evoke Monk’s sound and approach, in Gone To See T, Bertha Hope manages to do so while speaking in her own musical voice.
Some of the most advanced signs of the influence these musicians had on one another is in compositions where they borrowed something smaller than an entire chord progression, which makes the borrowed material more challenging to detect. Williams, Monk, Powell and Hopes were physical neighbors in New York City, and one might also say they were (and still are) musical neighbors in the repertoire and history of jazz. Just as physical neighbors can progress from the large scale communal activities like visiting each other’s homes and gardens to small scale communal activities like borrowing tools or cooking ingredients, musical neighbors in a collective can progress from sharing large structures to sharing the smaller building blocks of music. Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’ and Bertha Hope’s ‘Gone To See T’, two tunes separated by many years, are both based on a melodic fragment from a composed piece or improvised solo by another member. The melody for ‘In Walked Bud’ uses an enclosure move (down a whole step, up a half step, ‘enclosing’ the 3rd) that appeared frequently in Powell’s melodic language. It can heard in one of Powell’s earliest recorded solos on ‘Jay Bird’ with J.J. Johnson, which was recorded in June 1946, well before the first recording of ‘In Walked Bud’ in November 1947; this makes it at least possible that Monk borrowed the enclosure move from Powell. Powell also uses the enclosure move in many other solos including those he takes on his own version of Hackensack and his iconic tune Un Poco Loco. (A larger fragment of the ‘Jay Bird’ solo, also using the enclosure move, is borrowed by Chick Corea in his tune ‘Bud Powell’.)’ Bertha Hope’s ‘Gone To See T‘, continuing in the melodic borrowing tradition, begins with a sophisticated variation on Monk’s melody to ‘Misterioso’ which inverts some of Monk’s intervals.
Mary Lou Williams biographer Tammy Kernodle mentions that Williams’ piece ‘I Love Him’, from her album ‘A Keyboard History’, is based on Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’. Because of Mary Lou Williams’ skill as a teacher at inspiring creativity among her contemporaries, and her skill as composer and improviser at assimilating influences into her own unique musical language, this piece is one of the most subtle and sophisticated expressions of the influence that the Three Musketeers collective had on one another. One clue that ‘I Love Him’ is likely a recomposition of ‘Round Midnight’ is that it was recorded in 1955, two years after Williams made her first recording of Monk’s tune on ‘Mary Lou Williams Plays In London’. she went on to record a number of interpretations of the tune throughout her career.) Unlike Monk’s obvious borrowings from Williams, the signs of Williams’ borrowing from Monk in this tune are harder to detect, as Williams’ use of his material is skillfully abstract.
To begin with, ‘I Love Him’ is in the same key as ‘Round Midnight’, and Williams begins the melody in its first eight bar section with the first three notes of ‘Round Midnight’, but only after an intro that features Williams’ brand of dissonance rather than Monk’s. Williams’ bass line alternates skillfully between borrowing from Monk’s progression and diverging from it. Williams’ melodic arc in this piece, which sounds freely improvised around a composed line, is full of moves which a modern listener would identify as influenced by Monk and other bop players. When one considers that Williams’ career predated the bop players by a number of years and that she was a major influence on many of them, however, one realizes that it is equally possible that some of this melodic material could have originated with Williams. Along with Charles Mingus’ Weird Nightmare, Williams’ tune for me belongs on a short list of tunes that likely borrow material from ‘Round Midnight’, but hide the borrowing skillfully. (The link for ‘Weird Nightmare’ is to Miles Davis’ version of the tune, titled ‘Smooch’, which includes Mingus on piano.)
It is clear that being part
of a musical collective had a strong and positive impact on the individual work
of all five pianists I’ve come to think of as belonging to the ‘Three
Musketeers’ group. In today’s musical
world, compartmentalized by social media, online distribution of music, and
quarantined life under the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe it is even more
important for musicians to form and maintain collectives. Today’s quarantined and socially distanced
musicians will need to take new and different steps to connect than Williams,
Monk, Powell, and the Hopes, who were able to discover their common musical
interests by congregating physically in private homes and nightclubs (something
most musicians are now unable to do for a temporary but indefinite period.) Here are some suggestions of how musicians in
a largely online world might develop and maintain the kinds of connections that
could lead to the establishment of a collective. These range from steps that are commonly
taken and encouraged on social media to others which social media makes it easy
– Share music which
inspires you, particularly music (pieces and exercises) you are working on
mastering as a player.
– Share recordings of yourself performing short excerpts of pieces you are learning to play or in the process of composing. In addition to sharing work which you think of as ‘finished’, share unfinished compositional work, including suggestions about what you might be interested in having others add.
– Listen to music
posted and created by others, and respond by incorporating music and exercises
others are practicing into your own practice routine. Experiment with adding your own
contributions to unfinished work by others.
Think and post about your current
musical goals and interests and how participating in a collective could further
Here are some suggestions
about the kinds of activities that can transform a musical group from a
collection of players into a musical collective. I have separated these in to three ‘levels’
of involvement, from simpler large-scale sharing to more advanced small-scale
Level 1 – Learn a tune in
the common repertoire of the collective to the extent that you are prepared to
be the lead player, playing the ‘head’ and to improvise on the chord changes of
the tune. In addition to learning the accurate melody and chord changes
for the tune, investigate what your personal artistic goals are with the tune,
i.e. what you could bring to your melody interpretation and improvised solo
that you have not seen explored in other versions of the tune. In
other words, what could make your version of the tune different than other
versions? Although trying to make your version ‘better than’ other
versions is one way to make it different, strive instead to focus on what about
the content of the tune seems most important and relevant and valuable to you.
Write or find a tune based on the chord changes to a tune in the repertoire of the collective. ‘Contrafact’ is a term sometimes used in more academic settings to described this type of tune; this article explains the concept further and lists some of the more well-known jazz contrafacts.
Level 2 – Learn a tune
written by another member of the collective or write a tune designed to
feature another member of the collective as a soloist, based on your knowledge
of their instrument’s range and limitations as well as possibly their strengths
and interests as a player.
Level 3 – Write a new tune based on a fragment from a composed melody, improvised solo or chord progression by another player in the collective.
As usual, all kinds of comments are welcome in response to this post. I’d be particularly interested in hearing other examples of collectives in jazz, or other musical genres, or other art forms, and thoughts on what the organizing principles or central ideas of these groups are.
Gabrielle Stravelli is a New York City based vocalist and songwriter who I had the honor of performing with in 2016. She has recorded jazz interpretations of a wide range of songs, from the ‘standard’ jazz repertoire of Berlin/Porter/Rodgers/Ellington et. al. to composers less often found in the jazz canon such as Bob Marley and John Fogerty. With her most recent release, ‘Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli sings Willie Nelson’, she became perhaps the only artist to devote an album to exploring the jazz potential in the songs by this country icon, and the results, thanks to her gorgeous singing as well as great arranging by bassist Pat O’Leary and great playing by musicians including saxophonist Scott Robinson and pianist Art Hirahara, are beautifully surprising. Gabrielle has a seemingly effortless ability to execute acrobatic melody lines; this can be heard in the song Little Zochee from her 2017 album ‘Dream Ago’, an O’Leary composition on which she sings both a complex melody and a complex vocalese section doubling a Thomas Chapin flute solo note for note. On another tune from ‘Dream Ago’, ‘Bicycle Blues’, she adapts the vocalese approach to a duo setting, doubling Art Hirahara’s piano solo with with vocalist Kenny Washington. A live video of ‘I’m Just A Lucky So And So’ is a good example of her ability to ingeniously reshape the melodic line of a well-traveled standard tune.
The Karma Medley from ‘Pick Up My Pieces’ is made up of three Nelson tunes; two of these (‘A Little Old Fashioned Karma’ and ‘Nobody Slides’) use the 16 bar ‘gospel blues’ progression which also is found in jazz tunes including Sonny Rollins’s ‘Doxy’, Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’ and Jerome Richardson’s ‘Groove Merchant’. (I’ll be sharing my own entry in the ‘jazz gospel blues’ category in an upcoming post.) In this performance, after singing the first two tunes, Stravelli demonstrates her mastery of the scat vocal solo. This solo is a model of a swinging eighth-note based line; Gabrielle maintains a sense of forward motion by beginning phrases on the upbeat, and uses a wide variety of syllables to achieve a wide range of articulations. The first sixteen bars of the solo land clearly on the large-scale goals of the chord progression (I, IV and V chords). In the second chorus Stravelli outlines the G7 chord, which in this context is more of a passing chord. She does this with a phrase at m. 22-24 in which the last eight notes match m. 5-6 of Denzil Best’s ‘Move’, but with one note removed and two notes reversed. For me, this is a great example the kind of creativity with standard patterns that the musical Scrabble game of bebop requires. (Duke Ellington has been quoted as saying: ‘Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.’) Versions and fragments of this standard piece of improvisational language can be heard throughout jazz history from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Hotter Than That‘ vocal solo to Miles Davis’ solo on ‘Oleo‘ (from ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) solo to Clark Terry’s ‘Perdido Line‘. (All the linked examples are cued to the use of this melodic idea.) I hope the samples of Gabrielle Stravelli’s music in this post will lead you to check out more of her videos, albums, and live performances which are always adventurous and rewarding listening. Her YouTube show The Early Set, where she interviews fellow musicians, is also well worth checking out.