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How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

In converting a tune from sheet music to jazz, the essential problem is a harmonic one. The melody, of course, remains intact, the final problem being to make the tune swing.
To a jazz musician, there are two swinging har­monic sounds that he must constantly strive for. Both of these sounds lie in the bass line or roots of the chords; they are:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

As we will see, these two devices are interchange· able and may function quite freely as long as the intention of the composer is in general respected.

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This brings up a point of conflict between the jazz man and the composer. The jazz musician approaches a tune as a set of changes that swing; the composer is concerned with a melody and its wedding to a lyric. Somewhere underneath, the latter is, of course, conscious of a harmonic structure, but it never receives the attention in his mind that it will receive from the jazz musician.

The composer generally approaches harmony as vertical chunks of sound,

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

each chunk fulfilling its more immediate melodic requirements; the jazz man (on the other hand) thinks of harmony as a series of horizontal voices,

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

moving contrapuntally against each other.

Before we can proceed with our analysis, we must first establish the harmonic basis with which a jazz musician functions. Jazz harmony is tonal harmony and operates on the simple basis of piling 3rds on top of each other in a tone row.

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

( FOOTNOTE: recent developments in jazz have shown the partial abandonment of 3rds and, instead, the use of 4ths and 2nds, but for practical discussion here, we will be concerned with the traditional 3rds.)

1-3-5-7 constitutes the basic structure of a chord, 9-11-13 are ornamental tones. If we build 1-3-5-7 on each tone of the scale of C fol lowing the signature of C, the following scale tone 7th chords are derived:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

On the scale of G, following the signature of G, the chords would appear as follows, and so through the 12 keys:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

The next step is to evolve a simple shorthand in order to easily determine these various clusters of tones. This is done by assigning fixed values to the 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths of each chord.

If a 3rd or 7th falls in the scale of the bottom note, they are Major … lowered, minor … lowered twice, diminished. If a 5th falls in the scale of the bottom note, it is perfect … lowered, diminished … raised, augmented.

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On the basis of these rules, the scale tone 7th chords, in every key have the same values. These are the symbols:

M – Major P – perfect x – dominant
m – minor o – diminished o – half-diminished

These interval combinations represent the follow­ing chords:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

We now have 5 quality possibilities on each tone; there are 12 tones in the octave, hence we have 60 chords. The 5 chords on C appear as follows:

C Major – C E G B
C dominant – C E G Bb
C minor – C Eb G Bb
C half-diminished – C Eb Gb Bb C diminished – C Eh Gb A

These chords may be altered at will, also chromat­ically raised or lowered. We are now in a position to establish a harmonic framework upon which to build our improvisation.

The jazz musician is willing to respect the basic functions in the chords of a tune; however, he re­serves the privilege of adding whatever ornamental structures are necessary to give a tune color and substance. He also prefers chords that move in half note values, 2 to the bar; or, in “up tempo” tunes, whole note chords or a mixture of both depending upon the fabric of the tune.

Once the chord chart is established and a tempo chosen, the next problem is to ‘blow’ a line on the tune, using the chords as a framework.

All improvisational lines are composed of 2 basic structures: adjacent tones – scales and alternate tones – arpeggios. The arpeggios are self-evident, since they essentially involve broken chords.

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

Scale patterns are more complex; the following table describes the 5 chord values and their accom­panying scales:

Major 7 – normal Major scale, root to root.

dominant 7 – Major scale a perfect 4th above,
root to root.


minor 7 – Major scale a Major 2nd below root to
root.

half-diminished 7 – Major scale a minor 2nd
above, root to root.


diminished 7 – chromatic scale, root to root.

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

Each one of these scales uses 7 tones of the octave, in each case omitting 5. These are the passing tones, which may also be used so long as the tones of each scale remain the principal tones.

So much for the tonal materials. The rhythmic structure of jazz can be most easily expressed by the following example:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

A rhythmic counterpoint in jazz is best assured by employing the right hand, 1 /8th notes or any of the quicker rhythmic combinations up to the 32nd note. The rhythmic spectrum usually employed includes the following:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

The following set of rest values completes the rhythmic picture:

How to play Jazz Piano? Jazz Harmony

These are the tonal and rhythmic elements which go to make an interesting improvisation.

The voicing of chords in vertical blocks is, of course, extremely complex, although the adherence to 2 basic rules will go far to insure interesting tonal combinations:

( 1) Avoid doubling the bass note.
(2) All chord structures must contain a 3rd and a 7th, and usually employ the ornamental tone of the 9th

The Birth of Jazz

Born in the heart of New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz made its way onto the scene. With African-Americans at the helm, the red-light district housed this new genre of music and talented artists during what is now known as a monumental moment in American history.

Blending various styles, musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith found their star rising. But as the genre grew, many obstacles came along with it.

Controversy around the genre led to the military shutting down the creative hub for good in 1917.

In this episode of Black History in Two Minutes or So hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., with additional commentary from Farah Griffin of Columbia University, we unpack a genre created by African-Americans that, despite the controversy, still found a way to thrive on the international scene.

Archival Materials Courtesy of: Alamy Images Everett Collection, Inc. Getty Images Library of Congress National Archives and Records Administration The New York Public Library

Additional Archival by: Hello Dolly performed by Louis Armstrong The New York Times Tiger Rag performed by Original Dixieland Jazz Band Executive Producers: Robert F. Smith Henry Louis Gates Jr. Dyllan McGee Deon Taylor Music By: Oovra Music