Jazz harmony

Olivier Manoury skrifar:

Last time I wrote on this blog I pointed out that jazz had become an art for initiates, which explained why the public at large ran away and went to easier forms (soul, rock, pop etc).

What makes jazz an art for initiates is mainly harmony. Jazz musicians, especially pianists and guitarists spend most of their time and energy finding chords to harmonize or reharmonize standard tunes. Not sure the audience makes much difference between those thousands “weird” chords. “What’s the difference between a jazz concert and a rock concert?” asks a nasty joke – “in a jazz concert there are one thousand chords in the music and three people in the audience, in a rock concert it’s the other way around!”

Western tonal harmony has been constantly developed through the 16th to the 20th century. What is harmony anyway?

Let’s consider two axis of music: Time (horizontal) and pitch (vertical). A melody is a horizontal series of notes of various lengths and pitches. Counterpoint is a superposition of melodies, where notes of the different melodies are played at the same time. The notes of the melodies used in counterpoint must match in what is called consonance. Consonance is a cultural notion that varies between countries and periods, but it also has some physical grounds: Intervals of fourth, fifth, octave and third correspond to natural harmonic (or overtones) generated by strings, pipes and plates when set in vibration. When a note corresponds in frequency to the natural harmonic of a lower note played at the same time there is consonance. This consonance is used by all human cultures, whether or not they are conscious of its physical nature. Consonance is a vertical element.

During the 16th century, among the vertical accidents that occurred in counterpoint some superposition of intervals have been more successful than others. Because of the pleasure provided to the listeners by their consonance, they have been classified as chords.

Counterpoint reached an extreme complication during the 18th century, especially in Germany. Like with jazz today, the audience little by little went to easier music. To severe German 5 voice intricate fugues which require intense concentration, it preferred the beautiful Italian melodies. (A typical example is the evolution in Bach’s family from Johann Sebastian to his sons).

The melody was here, supported by the chords inherited from counterpoint. Behind the melody a new complex science is developing, it is called harmony. Chopin, Mendelsohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Berg, Debussy, Stravinsky, Messiaen to name but a few, have reached summits in combining intervals, backing melody with a wide range of different colours, generating a rich array of emotions for the listener.

Then, as an eternal return, harmonic complexity came to a saturation. The basic eight tone scales used in what is now called tonal music exploded in altered intervals. Dissonance became an element of composition. Finally in the beginning of the XXth century Shoenberg, Webern and Berg abandoned tonality – and the audience at large!

When abstract painting appeared, more or less at the same time as “atonal” music, enthusiasts pretended that it would be forever. Now that we have photography, why paint a tree, a human body, a landscape? The same occured in music. Who needs tonality nowadays? Who still uses scales, chords? Tonal composers are mocked by the elite as obsolete, outdated.

But while this elite is overpublicized, backlashes occur. In the 60’s Francis Bacon triumphed painting the human figure, and in the end of the XXth century abstract painting was dying. Pop, rock and film music still use tonal music, atonal music is reserved to a confidential audience. People read more about it than they actually listen to it.

Ok what has all this to do with jazz? Here it comes:

In the forties, jazz became fashionable for white audience. Mainly for the dance floor, but also for clubs and concerts. Pianists like Art Tatum or George Shearing used advanced harmony, big bands developed, orchestration was needed, talented and high ranking professionals like Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington wrote and arranged complex forms.

The blues (not strictly tonal music) combines with the harmony of the musicals (inherited from Wagner and Richard Strauss, and brought to America by German and Russian Jews like Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin). Jazz feeds on classical music for its technique and harmony. At the same time classical composers dig on jazz, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky include jazzy features in their pieces. Stravinsky writes Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman (don’t panic, he is white, ebony is just the wood his clarinet is made of). At this time, few American classical composers are ready to give up tonal harmony.

Many black jazz musicians in the forties have musical education, almost all of them can read music. Pianists are very often classically trained. Improvisers are constantly confronted to the chord/scale relation. Famous tunes are re-harmonized using modern harmony, which leads to enlarge the scale material, using frequent key shifts.

One composer, conductor and teacher had a great influence on jazz musicians, Nicolas Slonimsky, (St-Pétersbourg 1894 – Los Angeles 1995) He used a lot of experimental composition techniques, and wrote in 1947 a book called Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, intended for advanced composer to enlarge their musical vocabulary. The book had no great success among classical composers but fell in the hands of jazz players, especially John Coltrane who studied it all through and used it to compose his more famous and complex pieces like Giant Steps and Count Down. Then this book became like a bible for many rock musicians. Old Slonimsky became friend with Frank Zappa, they even performed together.In a way we could say that jazz picked up harmony where classical composers had left it and developed it further.

One can say that a lot of what is now jazz harmony is potentially present in Alban Berg Sonata Op. 1 composed in 1909, but jazz players have codified it as a common language, and can improvise in it. 

Pianists are the most inventive thanks to their polyphonic instrument: Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson enriched the Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson heritages. Bill Evans renewed the harmonic language in the 70’s, often skipping root notes and basic chords and using a lot of extensions and alterations. Herbie Hancock used harmony based on fourths and fifths rather than on piled thirds and used extensively pentatonic chords and blues scales. Keith Jarrett is the most versatile of all. Although his style and sound are immediately recognizable, he spans from baroque polyphony to atonal music, blurring the line between jazz and classic contemporary. His harmony is nevertheless typically jazzy.

Music and art in general are not always obeying the market economy, harmony is a good example where the artist gives more than the customer is asking for!

See further: https://davidliebman.com/home/ed_articles/a-chromatic-approach-to-jazz-melody-and-harmony-brief-overview/

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