By Jon Chappell
Here’s a situation that you could conceivably experience sometime in your life as a composer or arranger: You write a song for a friend’s wedding, crafting a beautiful piece containing a stately melody and majestic chords. A movie producer at the ceremony hears it and wants to use it for the final scene in a Hollywood romantic comedy (which always end in weddings). Lucky you! But then the producer throws you a curveball: he loves the melody and harmony, all right, but it’s “too serious.” He wants it “jazzy.” What does that mean? What do you do to music to make music “jazzy”?
Once you know the rhythmic, harmonic, and stylistic signatures of jazz, you can work to apply them to any virtually any melody, chord progression, song, or even other styles of music—including rock, classical, and folk. To “jazz something up” in the general sense means to make it lively, cool, and hip. And you can do the same with music, too, as long as you know the secret ingredients and sprinkle them into your musical mix with skill and taste. Jazz may be a deep and complex style of music in its own right, but when jazzy qualities often come down to just two primary aspects: the rhythm and the harmony. Let’s put on a beret and some sunglasses and look at those music fundamentals through jazz-colored lenses.
Jazz came of age in the early- to mid-20th century, and was a way for restless musicians to loosen up the popular music of the day, whose rhythms they perceived to be, well, a bit stiff. One of the things players did was to take a melody of consisting of normal eighth notes and “swing” them. Instead of dividing the quarter note up into two notes of equal length, they took those same two notes recast them as uneven eighth-note triplets. The first note in a beat of two swing eighths was always the long part of the triplet; the second was the short one. This conversion means that swing notes actually use triplets as their subdivision unit.
Figure 1 shows a drum part with the progression of straight eighth notes to swing notes. Note that the first bar of upstem notes (the ride cymbal) shows steady eighths in 4/4 time, eight to the bar. Bar 2 shows the same bass and snare drum parts, but the eighths have turned into triplets. Bar 3 now ties together the first two notes in the triplet group. Since two tied eighth notes equals one quarter note, bar 4 can be substituted for bar 3. So bar 4 divides the beat into two parts, just as bar 1 does, but bar 4 is swinging now.
Morphing into Swing
Fig. 1: The straight eighth notes in bar 1 progress to eventually become swing notes by bar 4.
Since it was cumbersome to write in triplets for dividing up the beat as shown in Fig. 1, musicians developed a shorthand: As long as everyone knew you were supposed to play straight eighths as swing notes, you didn’t have to write them as triplets. You could just give a score direction and use the much more user-friendly eighth notes. Figure 2 shows the direction known as a triplet equivalency, which says, Play two eighths as swing notes. So when you see the melody to “In the Mood,” the famous Glen Miller big band song, you know to swing the notes. Try playing the melody in Fig. 2 as straight eighth notes (ignoring the score direction), and you can hear how stiff and unnatural it sounds. This line was born to swing!
In the Mood
Fig. 2. The opening riff to the Glenn Miller classic swing melody. Note the score direction that tells you to swing the eighth notes. Try it both straight and swing to hear the difference.
Many melodies can be turned into jazz simply by playing their even eighth notes as swing eighth notes. The Jacques Loussier trio recorded J. S. Bach pieces in the 1950s using this approach, and in 1969 the rock band Jethro Tull made a swing version of Bach’s “Bourrée in E Minor” (see Fig. 3). This well-known piece has been part of the classical guitarist’s repertoire since it was written almost 300 years ago, but Jethro Tull transformed it. They kept the melody and bassline of the two-line composition virtually intact, but changed the rhythm so that the melody swung (played on the flute by Ian Anderson). Then they turned the lower part into another jazz staple: a walking bass—a steady, legato quarter-note bassline against which a more lively and syncopated melody line falls. Bach didn’t know it at the time, but he had written the perfect jazz tune. He just needed to swing that melody line a little!
Bourrée in E Minor
Fig. 3. Jethro Tull adapted J. S. Bach’s two-voice piece into a jazz duet, with a syncopated melody in the upper voice and a walking bassline.
Beyond swinging the melody and throwing in some syncopation for good measure, the other basic jazz hallmark is complex harmony. Jazz always involves harmony that’s goes beyond simple triads. In fact, if you add some extended harmonies (chord tones of the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th), you can make almost anything jazzy—even if you don’t swing the rhythm. “Oh Susannah” is a well-known American folksong written in the mid-1800’s by the prolific songwriter Stephen Foster. James Taylor turned it into a mellow jazz ballad in the version you see in Fig. 4. The original chords are in boldface, and there are only two of them: G and D. That’s how you’d normally hear the song. But play the additional and extended chords underneath—called reharmonization in jazz-speak—and voilà: instant jazz!
Fig. 4. This classic American folksong is the perfect vehicle for reharmonization—a key component in turning pop songs into jazz.
Altering the rhythm and the harmony was the way jazz initially got its start. Musicians took the pop songs of the day and applied swing, syncopation, and new chords to “jazz up” songs that were sung or played “straight.” Listen to the great Louis Armstrong and the way he would play a melody and then take variations. Gradually, musicians got more and more adventurous, until the song’s original melody was abandoned completely, and only the song’s harmonic structure—often highly extended and reharmonized—remained. This was the approach of bebop saxophonist John Coltrane. One of his best-known numbers is his 1961 version of “My Favorite Things.” This was a song from The Sound of Music, a musical on Broadway at the time, later sung in the movie version by Julie Andrews. You can’t get two more widely diverse interpretations than those!
You can also create jazz simply by adopting wholesale the qualities of a jazz sub-style itself, such as ragtime, swing, or bebop, or Latin. For example, the classical composer Claude Debussy was so captivated by ragtime that he composed one of his classical piano pieces completely in that style. Figure 5 shows an excerpt from Golliwog’s Cakewalk, and though the melody is pure Debussy, the time signature, the syncopated rhythms in the right hand, and the steady left-hand boom-chick are right out of the Scott Joplin playbook. Maurice Ravel, a late-Romantic composer who often wrote lush, beautiful music, uses heavy jazz and blues influences in his Piano Concerto in G Major.
Fig. 5. Claude Debussy wrote this solo piano piece as an homage to the ragtime style, but kept his own classical sense of melody and harmony.
Today, composers and arrangers can adopt several means with which to transform a song they love—of any style—into a jazz setting. No longer do jazz musicians have to stick to “standards” (songs written between about 1920 and 1960) as their source material. Saxophonist Joshua Redman has chosen both traditional fare as well as works by Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Prince for new avenues of exploration, and the University of Oklahoma plays a hard-swinging marching-band version of Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 hit “Welcome to the Jungle.” Even the Beatles ballad “Blackbird,” originally sung and played on acoustic guitar by Paul McCartney, can get an extended, multifaceted jazz treatment in the hands of pianist Brad Mehldau (see Fig. 6). Mehldau pays homage to the song by first playing the melody simply, using the basic major and minor chords as McCartney had played them. But when it’s time for the variations, Mehldau fires off knotty chromatic lines, pounds out complex harmonies, and renders two-handed syncopations, all the while retaining the framework of the original song.
Fig. 6. This gentle acoustic song gets the full-bore jazz treatment from virtuoso pianist Brad Mehldau.
Making music jazzy has become both a science and an art. To master the science part, first focus on swing rhythms and chord reharmonization, and then study the different types of jazz. As to the art, listen to the great performers of yesterday and today, both players of jazz as well as other styles, to hear how they have absorbed and adopted jazz in their own music to form something entirely new and unique.
Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major, Krystian Zimerman, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Brad Mehldau, Deregulating Jazz (Warner Bros.)
Joshua Redman, Timeless Tales for Changing Times (Warner Bros.)
Jazz Composition: Theory and Practice by Ted Pease (Berklee Press)
Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians by Robert Rawlins and Nor Eddine Bahha (Hal Leonard)
Popular and Jazz Harmony for Composers, Arrangers, Performers by Daniel A. Ricigliano (Music Exchange)
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