[This article first appeared in Contemporary Keyboard magazine in 1977.]
In every generation, jazz musicians have their preferences in melody, harmony, and rhythm, and there are many older musical forms and devices that can be dusted off and given new life by musicians who find them useful. Many young musicians who have learned all the clichés of their generation and are seeking to extend their vocabularies begin studying traditional harmonic devices. There is much to explore, and each player can find many ways to develop a personal approach to utilizing traditional harmonic patterns in various other styles of jazz.
Given below are a few progressions that use common tones (tones that are held when moving from one chord to another). Progressions like these should be practiced in all keys. In transposing, one often hears new solutions to musical problems.
The keyboard player can discover a wealth of harmonic devices in the compositions of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Benny Golson, and many other jazz composers. Lead sheets don't always indicate the composer's voicing of the chords, so it helps to listen to and analyze the approaches of several pianists who play in different styles. Check out the recorded solos of Hank Jones, Jimmy Jones, Stanley Cowell, and Roland Hanna for starters, and then note how Willie "The Lion" Smith, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk handle similar musical devices. In many of my published piano solos [Hansen Publications, 1842 West Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139] I use common-tone progressions and other devices which, though similar to progressions found in European classical music, are to be found in abundance in the jazz repertoire.
Jazz harmony has a vitality all its own because so many jazz artists use harmony to express themselves in a very personal way. This is easy to hear when a jazz artist plays his or her own compositions. Simple harmonies can sound rich when run through sophisticated electronic equipment, but even keyboard players who have been satisfied with this sound are increasingly searching for more complex progressions in order to relieve the monotony of music, which is highly oriented toward rhythm.
So experiment. Study the jazz repertoire and traditional European harmony as well. Make up your own examples. You'll be amazed at where your imagination can take you.