Making the Changes

I often find myself trying to explain to people why I love listening to Jazz. Most people either don’t know much about it or don’t like it at all, especially if it’s “modern”. The trouble is, explaining why it’s so hard to play jazz doesn’t usually make people want to go and listen to it.  “There’s no proper tune”  and  “It’s just noise” are just a couple of the comments I heard in a pub a few weeks ago when somebody put a Miles Davis track on the internet jukebox.

It’s partly a matter of language, of course. The most exquisite Japanese poetry probably sounds like noise to a Westerner who can’t understand the language. When it comes to jazz,  even if you do know a bit about the music you’re by no means guaranteed an easy listening experience. But, played at the highest level, with a driving rhythm section and a star soloist improvising through a constantly shifting pattern of harmonies, there’s no music to match it for sheer white-knuckle intensity.

Far from being “just noise”,   jazz is a tightly disciplined musical form. The freedom given to the soloist to create their own melody comes in fact at a very high price because the melodic line of a jazz solo must constantly recalibrate itself in relationship to the harmonic changes going on beneath it. The chord progression within which the original melody was embedded provides the soloist with the challenge of playing something that fits as well as being new and interesting to listen to.  Usually the actual tune is played only briefly at the start and thereafter becomes pretty much irrelevant until recapitulated at the end of the performance. What really matters to a jazz soloist is not the original melody but the chords.

Each chord establishes a tonal centre and a related scale that  furnishes a reference frame in the space of possible musical notes. When the rest of the band makes the chord changes the soloist must transform to a different coordinate system. The progression of chords as the tune unfolds thus has the effect of pushing and pulling the soloist in different tonal directions. A great jazz solo requires strict adherence to this framework and it imposes tremendous discipline on all the musicians involved.

In a slow 12-bar blues the gravitational effect of the relatively simple chord pattern is especially strong, which is no doubt why it has such a powerfully expressive effect when the soloist plays a “blue note” such as a flattened fifth on top of major scale chords.

In more complicated tunes keeping your place within the constantly shifting harmonic framework is a real challenge, especially if the chord progression is complicated and especially at fast tempi in which the chord changes go flying past at a rate of knots. Such numbers turn into a rollercoaster ride for both musicians and audience.

It’s not just the speed of fingers that makes great soloists so electrifying, but their astonishing mental agility. I remember seeing the great saxophonist Sonny Stitt at Ronnie Scott’s club in London playing the jazz standard How the Moon. Nothing unusual about that because it’s part of the jazz repertoire. The thing was, though, that he played 12 choruses, each one in a different key. How he managed to keep track of everything is completely beyond me. I wasn’t the only one in the audience shaking his head in disbelief.

Giant Steps by John Coltrane is an example I posted a while ago of a supreme piece of high-speed improvisation, and I thought I’d follow it up with this wonderful performance  in which the legendary Charlie Parker plays an extended solo, very fast.

The tune is in fact a variation of a 1930s hit  called Cherokee. Most popular tunes have a 32 bar basic format of the type AABA, with B representing the bridge or middle eight. Cherokee has a similar structure, but is 64 bars long. Its chord progression is both complicated and unusual, with lots of changes to remember especially in the (16-bar) bridge which is fiendishly difficult to play. This makes it fertile ground for improvising on and it quickly became a standard test vehicle for jazz soloists and a yardstick by which saxophonists in particular tended to measure each other’s skill.

During the bebop era it became fairly common practice for musicians to borrow chord sequences from other tunes. Many Charlie Parker pieces, such as Anthropology, are based on the chords from I Got Rhythm for example. There’s a famous story about a recording session involving Charlie Parker during which the band decided to do a version of Cherokee (i.e. using the chord sequence but with a different melody). During the take, however, they absent-mindedly played the actual melody rather than playing something else over the chords. There was a cry of anguish from producer in the control room who had hoped that if they stayed off the actual tune of Cherokee he wouldn’t have to pay composers royalties and the performance ground to a halt.  Shortly after, they did another take, called it Ko-ko and it quickly became a bop classic. This is a later version of Ko-ko, played live, during which Bird runs through the changes like a man possessed. What it must be like to be able to play like this!

24 Responses to “Making the Changes”

  1. I think a few phrases in there hit on exactly why I don’t much care for the experience of listening to jazz. As a musician, I can certainly appreciate it from a technical standpoint, but as a listener, I’m not particularly interested in music that makes me “shake my head in disbelief”, or wonder how to “keep track” of it all. It always feels like an intellectual excercise rather than an emotional one, which is the level at which I look to connect to music. I’m not denying that people find the emotional connection to jazz, but personally, I’m not looking for a “challenge” when I put on a CD.

  2. Dear Dr Dave,

    Yours is a comment I’ve also heard. We’ll have to agree to differ. Whilst I enjoy many kinds of music there’s definitely a place in my library for music that challenges. I think art is always more rewarding if you put something in to get something out.

    As I tried to say at the start of my piece, knowing how hard it is to play isn’t really going to make people want to listen to it. Clive James once said he really enjoyed listening Charlie Parker’s music until somebody tried to explain it to him…

    In any case the head and the heart are connected, and the fact that it’s a bit complicated to play doesn’t mean that it lacks emotional power (for me anyway). Listening to Charlie Parker makes my heart leap as well as making my head spin.


  3. Bach is a good comparison, I think. I know a lot of people who think his music is technically beautiful but also dry and unemotional. I can’t agree. Much of his music may look on the paper like exercises – the three-part inventions are terribly difficult to play (so I’m told) – but listen to them and you can feel the their beauty without needing to understand how tough it is to play them. But knowing a bit about how it’s put together adds another dimension to your enjoyment of what music sounds like. That’s what I think anyway.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dr Dave,

    I agree with you. I can hear the heart as well as the head in dixieland ‘trad’ jazz, but only the head in this music.

    Peter likes this stuff, we don’t. So why do we – and Peter – find it difficult to leave it at that? Why can’t we be glad that he gets joy from it; and why does he show obvious regret that we don’t? I think it’s for both a good and a bad reason. The good reason is because we know that as human beings we have certain universal human traits in common with those we disagree with (eg, we all have both a head and a heart), and we want to bridge that gap. The bad reason is that we may want to ‘win’ the discussion.

    In a discussion of literary criticism earlier on this blog I suggested that literary critics have two valid tasks: to elucidate the principles of what makes a piece of writing “good” (these principles exist by reductio ad absurdum, otherwise I am as great a writer as Shakespeare); and to apply our presentday knowledge of those principles to novels and plays so as to help people get more out of them. Analogously for music!


  5. Anton,

    I’ve been a fan of modern jazz for long enough that I know most people aren’t into it at all. For some reason, though, that doesn’t stop me wanting to try to explain what’s great about it. For me anyway. Perhaps its a sort of bunker mentality: don’t we all get a bit defensive when someone questions our taste?

    But I do think it’s more about wanting to share the joy than win an argument. I can understand why people love traditional jazz . I do, too as I’ve made clear on numerous posts. But I see Charlie Parker, Coltrane and the rest in the same tradition as Johnny Dodds and Benny Goodman so I find it hard to understand why people can’t get into Miles Davis as well as Louis Armstrong!

    There’s no right or wrong in matters of taste so it’s impossible to “win” anyway. It’s what you like that matters. Every now and again though somebody might introduce you to something you didn’t appreciate before and you find you love it. That’s happened to me many times (especially with classical music). It’s a great way of finding common ground with people, I think.

    Likewise with novels and films and other forms of art. It would be boring if everyone liked the same thing.


    • ps. I’m not sure what to make of the number of hits (1000+) this page has generated since I posted it, but if one or two have actually liked it then it’s worth it!

  6. Hey – nice post. I followed a link to get here a yesterday. Alas, don’t recall from where – but that might account for some of the hits.

    I’m a bit confused about what you mean by modern jazz – anything post bop?

    While I will grant different taste to different people, and can see why bebop for example doesn’t appeal to everyone, anyone who says bebop is just noise really has no idea of what they’re talking about.


    • Thanks, jazzbumpa. I followed my dad’s definition of “modern” (which is anything stylistically dated after about 1945). He was a traditional jazz drummer who didn’t approve of bebop anything that came after it. In fact during the 50s jazz fans in the UK divided into the modernists and the traddies in much the same way that we were later to have mods and rockers, including the tendency to fight in the streets.

      I would say, though, that bebop is traditional jazz in the sense that it is based on chords. To call something “modern jazz” it probably make sense to reserve it for when modal improvisation started to come in during the late 50s.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    For clarification, I respect the skill and certainly don’t regard it as noise; but it leaves me cold. If there is ambiguity in the word “trad” jazz then let me clarify that I was referring to Dixieland jazz.

    Peter – please say more about jazz brawls, which you imply took place…


    • Anton,

      In fact the word “mod” was inherited from the “modernist” faction in the 1950s. Fans of modern jazz dressed in sharp Italian suits, berets and sunglasses while traddies preferred duffle coats.

      When my dad went to see Humphrey Lyttelton’s band in the late 50s at Newcastle’s City Hall, the audience was dominated by trad fans, but Humph was always open to trying new musical directions. He had added Bruce Turner to his band by then who played alto saxophone. During an extended solo by Turner, the traddies started booing and shouting “dirty bopper”. After the concert there were punch ups outside. I gather similar things happened around the country.

      Bruce Turner never really played bebop, of course, but the saxophone was emblematic of non-dixieland jazz and so its presence was sufficient to provoke hostility.


  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Which heavy-metal musicians? I generally found that their musicianship was significantly inferior to that of electric post-blues hard-rock bands, but perhaps you categorise these as heavy metal too so that we are actually in agreement. My listening was mostly back in the 1970s and I have as exemplars Black Sabbath and Deep Purple respectively. I still love driving to Deep Purple’s classics – does wonders for your average speed…

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    PS Technical competence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for great art. (Art in the general sense – painting, play-writing, composing, sculpting etc)

  10. Anton,

    I should mention that my dad was a great admirer of Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer although he didn’t like their music that much. Mitchell, Hendrix and Noel Redding were the bees knees as a rock trio, in my opinion.

    As for the general issue of technical proficiency, I think there are undoubtedly performers with limited technical abilities but with the gift of still making great music. Duke Ellington knew that many members of his band struggled with some aspects of their instrument. But he picked musicians who had an interesting voice when they played and who could do certain things in a way that was exceptional.

    Going back even earlier, the clarinettist Johnny Dodds had a way of playing that was really rather crude. But he was a great soloist and he appeared on what I think are some of the greatest records ever made. He would never have been able to play bebop, but he was great at what he did play.


  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, Ritchie Blackmore is a guitar hero of mine. (On my CV is an article in the Deep Purple Appreciation Society magazine about his finest solos.) I too saw DP Mk II only once, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in September 1972 (I still have the ticket stub), but have since seen their various incarnations another 7 times (including the Mk II reunion at Knebworth ’85, where the Scorpions also played). They are certainly happier for having heaved Blackmore over the side this time rather than Gillan, but I regret that we shall never again see the two (and Jon Lord, now retired) together on stage. Blackmore once said that few rock guitarists use the little finger on the frets, whereas he does.

    Jethro Tull were a great live act, although I could take only so much of their albums. Wishbone Ash produced in Argus my all-time favourite album; extraordinarily, it manages to swing and rock at the same time. Hendrix’s death certainly proved to be a good career move, to quote Gore Vidal (on Truman Capote’s death).

    Do you really believe that Greensleeves was written by Henry VIII? See Wikipedia…

    A little Escher goees a long way for me; what I most respect are the non-abstract shapes that go on interlocking indefinitely yet are not based on any repeating unit cell.

    Peter – Love the story of the jazz punch-up! Like the riots ouside premieres of Stravinsky compositions or Bunuel’s films it shows how deep ‘art’ goes. NB I didn’t say that you had to have *great* technical expertise to produce great art, just that you had to be technically competent. Most modern painters could not do even a passable copy of one of the old masters. They are true slaves to the tyranny of originality.


  12. Anton,

    I think the only circumstances I’d be tempted to punch someone at a concert would be if their behaviour ruined the performance for me. If you don’t like what’s going on you can leave. There’s no need to boo and ruin it for others. I have lost it once or twice with people with bleeping gadgets and phones in concerts, in fact, but never actually punched them.


  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Agreed Peter, I wouldn’t boo before the end. (At classical concerts which include Stockhausen etc as well as proper music I do leave early or come back late if this adjoins the start, finish or an interval.) And I’m glad the punch-up was outside. I’ve only lost it once, in a cinema where the bloke in front made one clever comment too many, and my response brought cheers from others who were equally fed up. Although things were definitely getting warm when I told that stripper in the East End pub you once suggested we meet in that I wouldn’t pay her anything because I didn’t ask her to take her clothes off. I wonder what would have happened if I’d given her my further thoughts, that I’d rather she had kept them on…


    • I should point out that I didn’t know that a stripper was going to be on when I suggested the pub, never mind one so unattractive…

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Best rock adaptation of a classical piece: Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance played by Love Sculpture with the versatile Dave Edmunds on guitar; see

    (can’t find a non-live version showing them playing it right through).

  15. Anton Garrett Says:

    URL truncated somehow by pasting into Peter’s box; just put “Sabre Dance Love Sculpture” into YouTube’s search facility.

  16. What seemed to happen was that that post got linked to by people with much more popular blogs than mine, so I got some traffic from them.

    The popular posts don’t often seem to be the ones I think are good. But that’s the same with papers and citations too!

  17. […] few posts ago I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This perfomance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull […]

  18. […] At the risk of becoming a complete bore on the subject of bebop I thought I’d follow up an earlier post on the joys of jazz with this brilliant performance of yet another Charlie Parker tune, not by the man himself, but by […]

  19. […] tune called Cherokhee that Parker used as the basis of the bebop classic Ko-ko I discussed in a post last year, and which shows him already playing in recognizably Parkeresque style, but only hinting at the […]

  20. […] years I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This performance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still […]

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