Weekend Chops Builder: Jazz Improvisation - Harmonic Perspectives

Image placeholder title

[This article first appeared in the May 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

Jazz is America's classical music. It is a musical language which has developed steadily from beginnings as a single expression of the consciousness of Americans of African descent to become a national music which expresses the culture of Americans with all kinds of backgrounds. Jazz has its own standards of form, complexity, literacy, and excellence, and like the classical music of other cultures it has developed its own traditions and parameters.

During my 35 years as a professional jazz pianist, I have witnessed and participated in much of the evolution of the music. In my lifetime I have been able to personally document the progress of jazz piano from the ragtime of yesterday to the abstract and electronic jazz of today, and I have seen how each generation has developed its own musical vocabulary. Improvisation is the best known aspect of jazz playing, but forget improvisation for a moment and take a serious look at the repertoire of ragtime, swing, bebop, and cool, four generations of jazz, each with its own approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm. In each generation there were many innovators who never received proper credit for their contributions. Do the names Tony Jackson, James P. Johnson, Clarence Profit, or Milt Buckner mean anything to you? They should, because you're likely to be familiar with their musical concepts as expressed by Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and George Shearing.

In this column I plan to discuss many aspects of jazz piano, cutting across styles and periods to show how jazz is used as a personal medium of expression by musicians who have many diverse viewpoints. There are fine jazz pianists who play music that sounds like European classical music, others whose music sounds like country music, and still others who show an undeniable pop influence. There are also jazz musicians who demonstrate their versatility by playing creatively in a wide variety of styles: The recordings of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea display this flexibility, and other artists who are not so well known use the same capabilities to influence those around them.

I feel that it's important to note the contributions of some of the lesser-known innovators, so we can consider specific musical contributions from a better perspective. Take Clarence Profit, for instance. He was best known for his Fats Waller-like left hand and his composition "Lullaby In Rhythm," but pianists in Harlem in the Twenties and Thirties considered him a harmonic genius. Pianists like Willie "The Lion" Smith and Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts loved to alter the harmonies of the tunes they improvised on, and Profit took their concepts a step further by adding more complicated harmonies, including clusters and other devices not generally associated with the jazz of his generation.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Profit had a profound influence on Art Tatum. They often jammed together, and one significant feature of their piano exchanges was that they liked to play chorus after chorus of the same melody, each time with a different set of harmonic progressions.
Tatum's out-of-tempo explorations of the show tunes of the Twenties and Thirties provide excellent examples of the way he incorporated this practice into his style. Compare his early version of "Tea For Two" with his later ones, and listen to his version of "Over The Rainbow" or "Aunt Hagar's Blues." Incidentally, the harmonic structure Bud Powell used on "Over The Rainbow" was based on what he heard Tatum do.

The manner in which jazz pianists use the musical vocabulary of their particular generation varies from pianist to pianist, but the evolution of their harmonic thinking hasn't been given as much attention as the evolution of the melodic and rhythmic devices. To improve their ability to deal with chord progressions, I sometimes have my students do as Tatum and Profit did—take a well-known tune and play the melody five times, each time using a different set of harmonies. It's not always easy to do, but it can lead to some interesting progressions.

Next month I'll have some suggestions for types of left-hand patterns to use when playing solo jazz piano.

Among the giants of jazz piano, Billy Taylor is uniquely qualified to write the monthly instructional column, which begins in this issue. In addition to pursuing a full recording career, he has authored a dozen books on jazz piano, and lectures on the subject (in which he holds a Ph.D.) at Howard University. His other credits, which are legion, include acting as Musical Director of The David Frost Show and composing several film scores.

Image placeholder title