Wall, cardboard and paper pianos as practice tools

In 1947, the great jazz pianist and composer Bud Powell was sent to Creedmoor State Hospital, ‘one of the largest and most highly populated psychiatric facilities in New York State at the time’, writes Powell biographer Peter Pullman in Wail: The Life of Bud Powell.  A story from that time indicates how challenging it is for any musician, and particularly one of Powell’s caliber, to be involuntarily confined without access to their instrument.  Pullman writes that “a visit, which has been recounted in a number of printed sources, was supposed to have been made by Elmo Hope. The tale has Powell pointing to the wall above his hospital bed, where he had drawn some piano keys. ‘What do you think of this new tune that I’ve written?’ Powell supposedly asked, as his fingers struck the keys on the wall.” 

Two years into his time at Creedmoor, on February 23, 1949, Powell was given a day pass to do his first recording session as a leader.  Although Powell had had little access to a piano at Creedmoor, he had participated in a show performed at the institution by current inmates and community members called “The Rodeo Minstrel Revue of 1949”, an event for which Pullman writes that hospital administrators had ‘held up Powell’s release’.  Pullman also deduces that Powell’s likely found a way to include some of his original tunes in the show, because when he arrived at the recording session he ‘came prepared with four original compositions…he had cleverly used his Minstrel Show rehearsal time to practice his repertoire and work on the improvisations.’  One of those original compositions was ‘Celia‘, dedicated to Powell’s daughter whose birth he was not able to attend, as she was born during his stay at Creedmoor.  Pullman writes that ‘this hopeful, vernal melody had been composed during the previous year’s hellish incarceration.’  It seems likely, then, that ‘Celia’ may have been the tune that Powell silently played for Elmo Hope using the piano keys he drew on the wall of the institution. 

The story of Powell drawing piano keys on the hospital wall and playing them is one of a number of accounts I’ve found of both professional and aspiring pianists drawing silent keyboards as a way of continuing to practice.  A New Yorker article by Demetrius Cunningham describes his practicing on a homemade cardboard piano, which made it possible for him to become the accompanist for a prison choir.  In a BBC profile, pianist Andrew Garrido tells of how practicing along with recordings on a paper piano got him through the first five grades of the Royal Academy of Music piano curriculum and began a career that eventually led him to study piano in a conservatory.  In these times when the occasional need to quarantine is a fact of life, these stories remind us that musicians who find creative solutions through which they can continue practicing can both make the conditions they face a bit more bearable and move their musical progress in new directions.

If you are quarantined without access to a piano or keyboard, but you have access to a printer, you could download and print out the two attached keyboard jpgs that can be found below.  Fold over or cut off with scissors the left-hand 8 and 1/2 inch side of the jpg titled ‘Keys 2’ (the one with F on the left side) and attach it to the right-hand 8 and 1/2 inch side of Keys 1 (the jpg with C on the left side) with scotch tape if possible or masking tape on the upper and lower edges where the pages come together. 

Another option is the Virtual Piano Keyboard at onlinepianist.com. On this keyboard, white keys C3 to E4 on the virtual keyboard correspond with the  keys for letters Q,W,E,R,T,Y,U,I,O,P on the alphabetic keyboard.  On the numeric keys, 2,3,5,6,7,9 and 0 correspond to the black keys for that range.  The middle and lower rows of alphabetic keys correspond to black and white keys from F4 to Bb5.  On Virtual Piano, the ‘sustain pedal’ (usually played with the right foot on an actual piano) is a button above the piano (next to buttons marked Letter Names and Keyboard Marks).  The sustain pedal is automatically ‘on’ when the page loads, so you’ll need to click on this to turn it off (so it goes grey rather than white.)  The sustain on Virtual Piano is an odd effect not really the same as the actual pedal.  I recommend having Google metronome open in another window set to a slow tempo. If you turn on the Letter Names button on Virtual Piano, it will display letter names on the keys, which may be helpful.  Navigating Virtual Piano via the QWERTY keyboard is quite different from navigating the piano keyboard, but it has enough similarities that it creates a useful virtual modeling of the keyboard.  Here’s a video where I played one of the pieces from my beginning piano class on Virtual Piano.

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‘Blue Mercy Line’: doubletiming bop language on a I-IV vamp

Blue Mercy Line is a tune I composed on a chord progression in the key of A which could be described as A7-D7 or I7-IV7.  I wrote this tune as an exercise in using the melodic language of Charlie Parker, specifically his B flat blues ‘Bloomdido’, as a source of ideas for improvising on the I-IV progression that is often used for solos on Josef Zawinul’s ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’.  This type of progression can also be heard in the middle section of ‘In A Silent Way‘, Miles Davis’s early, extended experiment in electric instrumentation,  Eddie Harris’s solo on Les McCann’s ‘You Got It In Your Soulness’, and the solo section of ‘Jessica’ by The Allman Brothers.  A similar progression also appears near the end of Mike Gordon’s tune ‘Another Door’, which I would often solo on during my years playing in his band (2008-14).  This video of the end of the tune at Chicago’s Park West shows both how much fun I had playing in that band and how much trouble I had being adequately heard over the din of its stage volume. The I-IV progressions in these tunes also bear a resemblance to the imin7 – IV7 progressions heard in Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’. 

Cannonball Adderley’s original version of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ is, along with Duke Ellington’s ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’ and Ramsey Lewis’ version of ‘The In Crowd’ and ‘Hard Day’s Night’, one of the classic jazz recordings including audience participation.  In the liner notes for a later Adderley album, Michael Cuscuna mentions that ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ was recorded not in a club but in a recording studio with an invited audience and an open bar.  Josef Zawinul’s solo on Wurlitzer electric piano alternates between moving in eighth notes and moving in short bursts of sixteenth notes.  The relaxed groove of the recording derives from the way Zawinul alternates between these two note values just enough to maintain a sense of forward motion in his solo. 

In solos on later versions of the tune, like Tom Scott’s solo on the version of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ from the tribute album Cannon Reloaded, longer strings of sixteenth notes become a vehicle for introducing bebop melodic moves, such as ‘enclosing’ or ‘surrounding’ scale steps with chromatic neighbor tones and adding half steps on upbeats between scale steps.  Scott’s solo clearly shows the influence of Charlie Parker; my idea in composing ‘Blue Mercy line’ was to go directly to Scott’s likely source, Parker’s improvising as shown in the transcriptions from the ‘Charlie Parker Omnibook’, for ideas on how to construct a bop-style melodic line on a I-IV vamp.  I studied ways that Parker melodically navigated the change from the I7 to the IV7 chord during the blues progression in ‘Bloomdido’, and integrated them into a new melodic line over a I-IV vamp. 

I originally conceived Blue Mercy Line to be played at the tempo of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, and I performed it that way several times.  After my friend bassist Paul Rogalski (of the band Mojomama) posted a bass-and-drum groove on Facebook in the key of A, I realized ‘Blue Mercy’ could also work at this tempo, which is similar the tempo of ‘Another Door’.  The recording posted below features Rogalski’s virtuosic popping and slapping on electric bass. 

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‘You have to take a breath’: Bertha Hope’s inspired internal conversation (State of the Blues, part 9)

Recently I’ve been lucky to have connected with the great pianist and composer Bertha Hope.  She has recorded three stunning albums as a leader, ‘In Search of Hope’ (1990) , ‘Elmo’s Fire’ (1991),  and ‘Nothin’ But Love’ (1999).   Her first husband was the legendary bop pianist Elmo Hope. Hope and his close friends Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell hung out and practiced so often together than they became known as ‘The Three Musketeers’, and while Hope is lesser known than Monk and Powell, his influence is continues to be heard in jazz today. Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp dedicated a composition to him, and his music has been recorded by vocalist Roberta Gambarini as well as pianists Benny Green, Brad Mehldau and Tigran Hamasyan.  As I mention in my blog post Musical Neighbors, I consider both Elmo and Bertha Hope to be part of the ‘Three Musketeers Collective’ along with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Mary Lou Williams.  Her second husband was the bassist Walter Booker, who plays bass on all of her albums; he died in 2006.  Since then, Ms. Hope has continued to perform and compose, including a recent concert of Elmo Hope’s music at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. 

I was also fortunate to have Bertha Hope work with my student jazz ensemble at UVM in an online coaching session this past spring. My group performed tunes by Ms. Hope including ‘Gone To See T’ (a tribute to Thelonious Monk), ‘Book’s Bok’ (which she mentioned includes her variation on the changes to Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’, which I discuss in an earlier post) and Elmo Hope’s ‘De-Dah’. Here is a screen shot from the Q&A section of the workshop, taken while Bertha was in the process of answering a question by audience member Irene Choi, ‘What is jazz to you?’ As Irene remembers, Bertha’s answer began: ‘as Duke Ellington put it, ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’. The picture captures some of the wonderful interaction in the workshop between the students’ inquisitiveness and Ms. Hope’s deep knowledge.

Before Ms. Hope worked with my combo, I transcribed her solo on the title tune from ‘In Search of Hope’, which she co-composed with Walter Booker.  I find it to be a great example of what George Colligan terms ‘hand-to-hand conversation’.  In an interview shortly before the workshop, I had the chance to ask Ms. Hope whether she thought carrying on a conversation between left-hand chordal comping and and right-hand melodic improvising.  Her answers, transcribed below from our conversation, are an elegant demonstration in words of concepts that her solo demonstrates in music, including breathing, listening and taking time to shape phrases deliberately. 

” [Pianist and educator] Ronnie Matthews said to me, ‘contrary to public belief, always let your right hand know what your left hand is doing’.  You know the old saying ‘don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’? [Perhaps the original source of this saying is the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 3, verses 6 and 5: ‘But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’]  Musically, that doesn’t work for the piano.  You have to always let one hand inform the other, so that they’re engaged in a conversation.  Sometimes there are blocked chords, you know, you play a chorus of locked hands, or a single line, and it’s kind of an internal conversation that you have with yourself, the two parts of the brain that are handling your fingers and all that information.  And I think that’s what individualizes people’s playing.  I don’t have any really hard and fast rules about it.”

I mentioned that a common challenge for developing and aspiring jazz pianists, particularly right-handed ones, is getting a conversation going between the left and right hands, because it is so easy for the right hand to take over.

Bertha continued,  “And part of that is because they have so much to say!  They’re so intense.  You have to stop and think about breathing when you talk to people.  While you’re listening, you’re breathing.  Even inside of your own conversation, your own delivery, you have to take a breath.  So breathing while you play, into your phrases, is a very important thing to try to get your students to manipulate while they’re learning how to improvise.  Breathe!  What is this next thing you want to say?  Are you delivering run-on sentences that don’t go anywhere?  Do you have something in mind about where you end and where you begin something else?  Are you just so intense about keeping your hands on the keyboard that you play something that doesn’t have any real meaning, that doesn’t satisfy you enough so you keep going, keep going, keep going?  So you have to stop and think about…just the way a singer has to stop and think about a meaningful breath so that the words have continuity.  The instrumentalist has to think the same way.”

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Afternoon River Bop: a line on the changes to Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s ‘Tune Up’

‘Tune Up’, by the alto saxophonist Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, is one of a number of tunes which Miles Davis claimed to have written but which were actually composed by others.  Other tunes in this category include ‘Four’ (also by Vinson), ‘Solar’ (by guitarist Chuck Wayne), the ‘old ‘ ‘Milestones’ from the sessions with Charlie Parker on tenor sax (by a number of accounts, composed by pianist John Lewis) and ‘Blue In Green’ (by pianist Bill Evans).  In a live recording by Vinson, the tune is played as a sixteen-bar form, starting with three ii-V-I progressions the keys of which descend by whole steps, followed by a phrase where the V and I chords in the key of Bb (F7 and Bbmaj7) are bookended by the ii and V chords in the key of D (Em7 and A7). Miles Davis recorded the tune twice, first a 1953 version for the album Blue Haze, followed by a 1956 version for Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. In the Blue Haze version, he makes what appears to be his only contribution to the tune, extending it to a thirty-two bar form; I borrowed this progression for my original tunes which are shown below. 

Below you will find links to videos and sheet music for two different versions of my tune ‘Afternoon River Bop’, which borrows phrases from tunes by (in order) Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Arthur Hamilton, Miles Davis (a different tune) and John Lewis.  ‘Afternoon River Bop #1’ makes each chord change a separate ‘question’ with a separate melodic ‘answer’, and is somewhat more approachable in terms of technique.  The video for ‘Afternoon River Bop #1’ also includes a demonstration of a scale outline for the progression, which I have also included a notated version of below. In the video I also play a slightly different melody and use mostly root position voicings rather than the rootless chord voicings shown in the chart. In ‘Afternoon River Bop #2’, I have more chromatic phrases that melodically connect the ii-V chord pairs (Em7-A7, Dm7-G7, Cm7-F7).  These phrases are ‘bookended’ by chord voicings on either side of the phrase.  ‘Afternoon River Bop #2’ works particularly well as a countermelody to ‘Tune Up’. 

Link to video of Afternoon River Bop #1

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One Time Only (in memory of Ellen Powell)

In memory of my friend, mentor and musical colleague, the great Vermont jazz bassist Ellen Powell, I wrote ‘One Time Only’, a tune based the changes of the jazz standard ‘There Will Never Be Another You’. Here’s a link to a video of my solo piano rendition of ‘One Time Only’. Like the vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn, Ellen was committed to exploring slower tempos, including ballads and slow Latin jazz feels like bossa nova, so ‘One Time Only’ is a slow bossa. (I wrote about Horn and transcribed one of her rare but highly swingin’ piano solos in an earlier post.) The melody of ‘One Time Only’ is inspired by some beautiful phrases Ellen played in a solo on a recording we made together; a link to that recording and a transcription of the solo is below. In building a new melody out of the phrases of a player whose improvising I admire, my model is the lesser known trumpeter and better known composer Benny Harris, who built his tune ‘Ornithology’ out of Charlie Parker phrases (see my blog post on that tune), repurposed a phrase from Bud Powell’s tune ‘Strictly Confidential‘ in his composition ‘Reets and I‘ (also originally recorded by Powell), and built ‘Crazeology’ (a.k.a. ‘Little Bennie’) out of phrases by Powell and Dizzy Gillespie.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that both Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ begin with chord progressions that seem to be excerpted from the opening of ‘Another You’. As Joel mentions in an interview with Judy Carmichael, he studied briefly with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, who had ‘Another You’ in his repertoire and recorded it a number of times, including this version from the mid-1950s. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, McCartney mentions that some of his earliest piano playing was accompanying family singalongs where ‘all the old aunties’ would sing ‘all the old songs’. Given that he mentions specifically songs as old as ‘When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along’ from 1926 and ‘Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)’ from 1922, it seems likely that ‘Another You’, which was published in 1942, might have been included, as we can assume the singalongs he was playing for were likely in the early 1950s.

‘One Time Only’ was inspired by Ellen’s solo on her tune ‘Good Dog, Want A Cookie?’, which we recorded for a compilation CD by local jazz players who played in the 1997 Discover Jazz Festival. It was produced and engineered by Joe Davidian and his father Rich Davidian at their home studio. Rich has also made a wonderful video for the tune featuring pictures of Ellen’s dogs, to whom she was very devoted, particularly Elsa and Muffin.

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Tonight these chords belong to me: a history of the ‘Cherokee’ progression

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.

A number of pop songs from the 1960s and 70s, including The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence‘, Billy Preston’s ‘You Are So Beautiful‘ and Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘That’s the Way Of The World’, derive their harmonic motion from looping the four chords with which ‘Cherokee’ begins.  In 2015, Kamasi Washington brought ‘Cherokee’ full circle by combining it with a groove similar to that of ‘That’s The Way of The World’. 

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 which I find helpful in improvising piano solos on jazz progressions: 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’.

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Ellavolution: Ella Fitzgerald’s Evolution as an Improviser

Many thanks to Professor Judith Tick, a music historian at 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 crucial to 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.  

One of the earliest examples of Ella’s ’emulate’ stage can be heard in her 1945 re-creation of Illinois Jacquet’s 1942 ‘Flying Home’ solo.  For most of the first chorus of this solo, she alternates between her own vocal interpretation of four bars from Jacquet’s solo and four bars of her own melodic ideas, essentially ‘trading fours’ with the immediate past. 

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.

It is very likely that she is borrowing here from Harris’ 1945 solo on ‘How High’ with Don Byas Quintet, where he uses the same fragment of the Carmichael tune at the same point in the form of ‘How High‘.   In both solos she follows this with a more overt nod to Parker and Harris: a second chorus of solo which is a largely unaltered rendition of ‘Ornithology’.  I consider both of these examples of the ’emulate’ stage, as she is using this material in its original context. Given the strong association the tune has with Parker, the quote reads as a tribute to him, but the more recent information about the tune’s authorship suggests that it is likely an instance of Fitzgerald borrowing from another borrower, Harris.  After this initial extended use of ‘Ornithology’, Fitzgerald would go on to incorporate its opening motive as a piece of her melodic vocabulary, using it in the ’emulate’ stage in her 1957 ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ solo (where it is a repeated motive, as discussed later) and in her 1961 solo on ‘Perdido’ from Twelve Nights In Hollywood.

 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. 

In her 1960 version of ‘How High’, Fitzgerald expands the number of quotes used only once.  While the third chorus still includes the quote from ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’, in the 1960 version she concludes the phrase with a three-note quote of Turk and Ahlert’s ‘Mean to Me’.  

‘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. 

Fitzgerald finishes the bridge of the second chorus of this solo with a nine-note reference to ‘Ornithology’ that becomes a three-stage motivic development of its last five notes.  She returns to this motive in the same section of the third chorus, finding a chromatic conclusion that contrasts the octave leaps with which she followed her first use of the phrase.  This shows that in addition singing ‘Ornithology’ in its entirety for a number of years as part of her set piece solo on ‘How High’, she also used its opening motive as the basis of her own melodic developments. 

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’s familiarity with Charlie Parker’s music is evident from the way that, after incorporating ‘Ornithology’ into the 1947 ‘How High’ solo (the ’emulate’ stage), she frequently incorporates smaller fragments from his melodic vocabulary into her solos (the ‘assimilate’ stage).  In addition to the aforementioned ‘Ornithology’ quotes in the 1957 solo on ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ and the 1961 solo on ‘Perdido’, Fitzgerald quotes ‘Anthropology’ in her solo on ‘Flying Home’ from the 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert with Jazz At The Philharmonic (during which Parker can be heard playing fills behind her vocal) and at the end of a 1974 ‘C Jam Blues’ with a smaller group of JATP players that appears as ‘Conversation in Scat’ on YouTube.  Just how closely Fitzgerald continued to study bebop melodic techniques and the level of mastery she attained in that style can be heard in her version of ‘C Jam Blues’ from the Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic 1972.  This performance shows how her ability to spontaneously emulate, assimilate and innovate had continued to evolve since her improvising of the late 1940s and 50s, to the point where her exchanges with her musical interlocutors were on the level of the quasi-telepathy displayed by Parker and Davis on ‘Big Foot’. 

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.

Fitzgerald manages this complex maneuver with astonishing spontaneity, finishing by challenging Getz with a high E.  The chromatic motive returns and is developed during Ella’s trading with Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, climaxing in a phrase where she and Edison simultaneously play an expansion of the chromatic motive, leading to nearly a full chorus of Fitzgerald laughing.

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’.  

Ella’s evolution as a soloist demonstrates that ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ are all stages through which great improvisers are constantly moving.  The trading with Getz on ‘C Jam Blues’ from Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic, and on recordings from later in her career, show that rather than staying with established routines, Fitzgerald became increasingly daring, agile and innovative as a soloist in her later years.  Along with the transformations that she works on material from other soloists and the long stretches of original melodic material that precede and follow these transformations, another sign of her increasing fearlessness and abandon is her choice of bebop tunes to quote.  In versions of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ from a Chicago TV performance in the 1970s and a live 1981 Edinburgh concert, she quotes Parker’s ‘Moose The Mooche’.  More audacious is her quoting of ex-husband Ray Brown’s tune ‘Ray’s Idea’.  While this tune was in her melodic vocabulary as early as 1947, when she quoted it in a Carnegie Hall version of ‘How High The Moon’ with Dizzy Gillespie that predates the studio version, she returned to it in her trading with Eddie Lockjaw Davis in the 1972 ‘C Jam Blues’ and in another filmed ‘C Jam Blues’ from the 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival with the Count Basie Orchestra (mislabeled as ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’.)

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. 


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

Gillespie, Dizzy. 1955.  Groovin’ High  Savoy MG 12020  (Includes ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’)

Johnson, J. Wilfred.  2001. Ella Fitzgerald: An Annotated Discography; Including a Complete Discography of Chick Webb. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

McDonough, John. “Ella: A Voice We’ll Never Forget”.  Down Beat: September 1996.

Parker, Charlie.  1990.  Charlie Parker – Bird’s Eyes Vol. 1 Philology (It) 214 W 5  (Includes ‘Big Foot’.)

VIDEOS (YouTube)

‘Conversation In Scat’ – 1974 performance of ‘C Jam Blues’ – directed by Helmut Ros

‘Ella Fitzgerald & Count Basie – A Tisket A Tasket (Norman Granz Jazz In Montreux 1979) (actually a performance of C Jam Blues)- on Montreux Jazz Festival YouTube Channel

‘Ella Fitzgerald In Concert Edinburgh 1981’

‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ on Chicago TV station with Paul Smith Trio, Zoot Sims, and Roy Eldridge; probably 1983

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‘Sideslipping’ in clave: Arturo O’Farrill’s solo on ‘Blue State Blues’ (State of the Blues, part 8)

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. In a workshop with my piano students at UVM a number of years ago, Mr. O’Farrill referred to his improvisational 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.

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An excerpt from Harvey Diamond’s solo on ‘Tenor Madness’ (State of the Blues, Part 7)

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’.

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Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate, Part 3: echoes of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Rain Check’

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. 

The same section of the Strayhorn phrase used by McCartney also appears at the beginning in the iconic theme to the National Public Radio news program All Things Considered.  This pattern has become closely identified enough with NPR that when Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio used it in a composition, he titled the tune All Things Reconsidered.

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. 

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