Cultivating the Art of Jazz Composition
Richard A. Helzer  May 2004

"Composition is the logical extension of a jazz musician's improvisational vocabulary." - Rick Helzer

A large part of the creative satisfaction that improvisation provides to jazz musicians is derived from the spontaneous interactions that shape the music during performance. The act of performing and "composing in the moment" affords jazz artists an avenue of creative expression that cannot be experienced in the performance of strictly written music. Given the interactive nature of the accompaniment role of the rhythm section, composing in the moment is at its best a group effort.

A jazz composer, on the other hand, working in the realm of written music, enjoys a different experience with creative expression. Composers have the luxury of cogitating, reflecting, and most importantly, revising. The composer's reward (or disappointment) is in the realization of the sound that his or her musical notation represents. The success of the composer's efforts is dependent on many factors. These include the creative marriage of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements, and the balance between contrasting and repetitious motifs, dynamics, and rhythmic textures. Along with this, the composer needs musicians with sufficient conceptual knowledge and technical skill to realize his or her creative intentions.

Even a cursory examination of classic jazz repertoire will reveal a massive amount of creative diversity. From Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton to Maria Schneider, the expressive evolution of the music has been nothing short of breathtaking. Having said that, the scope of this article, by necessity, must have a narrower focus. To that end, this discussion of jazz composition will be limited to music that is based on fixed harmonic forms.

At the most functional level, a tune, be it a standard or "jazz" composition, provides a structural platform for improvisation, and hence, is a cyclical harmonic form. The best jazz compositions, however, offer more than a set of "changes." Great jazz composers create a variety of emotional landscapes and moods with their music. Duke Ellington's Tourist Point of View, from his Far East Suite, is a good example. The piece creates a musical picture of the Orient Express. Billy Strayhorn's poignant ballad, Blood Count, from the album And His Mother Called Him Bill, is another highly evocative composition. (Johnny Hodge's performance of the theme is emotionally powerful.) Charles Mingus's extended multi-sectioned composition, Meditations on Integration, is a complex work that offers the listener a kaleidoscope of moods.

What makes these compositions artistically successful and significant? It is a large question that should take into account biographical, sociological, cultural, and political considerations that, frankly, are beyond the scope of this article. However, a study that focuses on musical elements will be very helpful to the developing jazz composer.

A Discussion of the Elements
The level at which a composer has command of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic concepts is directly related to the overall structural and creative success of his of her music. For instance, possessing a good sense of melody absent of a good harmonic or rhythmic knowledge will doom the effectiveness of the melody. Similarly, an interesting harmonic progression that is coupled with a poorly written melody will destroy the effectiveness of both. And rhythms that lack sufficient syncopation negatively impact the flow of the melody.

Download examples 1 - 9.

Example 1 serves to illustrate weaknesses in all three areas. The lack of rhythmic syncopation and intervallic color in the melody, along with the poorly voiced accompanying chords, makes this short phrase totally unmusical.

However, with a little modification, Example 1 can be improved. Examples 2 through 8 are variations that succeed in reshaping all of the elements of the original phrase. (Given the author is a pianist, idiomatic voicings and detailed chord symbols are provided.)

Example 2 is the simplest variation of the original. While it follows the basic melodic shape of Example 1, Example 2 has the "sound" of a jazz melody because of the voice leading and the chromatic lower neighbor tone (F#). Along with this, the rhythmic anticipation of the phrase on the upbeat of four is an example of a common jazz syncopation that enhances the cadence to the C7 chord. Lastly, the extended voicings add to the impact of the melody by providing a great amount of supportive color.

Example 3 and Example 4 contain significant melodic syncopation and greater harmonic dissonance in the C7 chord through the distinctive colors produced by the addition of the b9 and the #9 extensions. Example 4's pitch re-ordering of the first three eighth notes is also noteworthy. Example 5 adds more rhythmic motion, a dissonant Gmi chord, and a tritone substitution (GbMa7).

Example 6 is a (relative) minor key re-harmonization of Example 2. Due to the resulting different melodic/harmonic relationships, the aural perception of the melody is changed. Example 7 pushes the melodic and harmonic envelope even further by altering chord quality (e.g., now E13 instead of Emi9), and by employing greater melodic chromatic content.

While Example 8 is a functional V7 to IMa7 in the key of D major, it is the most harmonically abstract variation. Along with another rhythmic variation, pitch reordering is again applied. Back in the early 1970s, the altered Ma7 voicing was a staple in the music of Ralph Towner and the group, Oregon. The use of two chordal fifths in the voicing imparts a very unique color and "de-stabilizes" the otherwise expected repose of the tonic chord.

As illustrated in Examples 2 through 8, a simple phrase can be transformed from mainstream to abstract.

Where to Start
Structural analysis may be the first order of business for someone new to the process of jazz composition. Standard tunes should be used for this exercise. Next, the process of writing an original melody over a simple preexisting harmonic progression (such as a blues) should be practiced. Beyond that, writing an original melody over the chord changes of a standard tune is also an excellent vehicle for learning about jazz composition. This type of activity is really an honored jazz compositional tradition. Resultant compositions of this type are called contrafacts.

Gershwin's I Got Rhythm harmonic structure, along with its numerous variations, has spawned thousands of contrafacts. Composers from Duke Ellington to Ornette Coleman have written new melodies over this venerable set of chord changes.

Two famous I Got Rhythm-based compositions are Charlie Parker's Dexterity and Crazeology by Parker and Benny Harris. Example 9 shows the first eight measures of Dexterity. Harmonically, the tune is pretty straight-forward in that it makes use of a secondary dominant and a tritone substitution of a secondary dominant (measures 3 and 7, respectively), as well as an ascending bass line (measure 5 leading into measure 6), which momentarily establishes the subdominant key. Melodically, Parker makes good use of chromatic color tones in most measures.

Download examples 10 - 14.

On the other hand, Example 10 shows how Crazeology takes an interesting harmonic detour in measures 5 and 6 of I Got Rhythm. A more typical harmonic variation would have measures 5 and 6 going into Eb major via the iimi7, V7, IMa7, and IV7 progression. The more distant modulatory departure into Gb major via its iimi7, V7, IMa7, and IV7, adds a refreshing element of harmonic surprise. The melody of Crazeology is largely diatonic to the key centers of Bb and Gb major, with the exception of measure 7 with its use of the b5 over the F7 chord.

In contrast to the original melody of I Got Rhythm, the melodies of Dexterity and Crazeology have a classic bebop identity. The complexity and density of each of these melodies evoke the sound of an improvised solo. Lastly, the more conventional harmonic variation of Dexterity contains greater chromatic content melodically, while Crazeology combines chromatic harmonic content with simpler diatonic melodic content. This is an important compositional study in contrasts.

Another important contrafact is Lennie Tristano's Ablution, which is based on the chord changes of the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein tune, All the Things You Are. While Tristano stays true to the original chord changes, his melody is very unique. Example 11 shows the first eight measures of the piece. Here, there are two important items of interest. First, there is a great deal of chromaticism in the melody, much more than contained in Dexterity. Parker's use of chromatic tones is limited to conventional chord extensions while Tristano employs notes beyond those typically found in chord/scale relationships.

This is evident in measures 1, 2, 7, and 8. The melody in measure 3 is based on the Eb Altered Dominant (or Eb Super Locrian) scale. This altered scale, which uses the b9 and #5 chord tones, lifts the melody away from the Ab major tonality. To balance that chromaticism, Tristano's melody in measures 4 and 5 is strictly diatonic. Measure 7 combines C major with C Lydian, while measure 8 blends Ab major on beats 1 and 2 before cadencing to a #11 of the C Lydian mode. Second, the melody in measures 1 through 5 rhythmically crosses the bar line (a form of hemiola). Starting on the second beat of measure 1, and continuing to the downbeat of measure 5, the melody is phrased in an implied 3/4 time signature. The rhythmic tension that is created by this effect is released at measures 6 through 8. Over-the-bar syncopation is common in Tristano's compositions and improvisations.

Composing a new melody over a preexisting set of chord changes is an excellent way to enter the realm of jazz composition. This type of exercise helps one to make an important connection between improvisational language and its creative manifestation in composition. And with each composition of this type, a new concept is usually learned. Writing music, therefore, can be seen as an act of addressing and creatively solving a problem.

Going Beyond Contrafacts
The next step in developing jazz compositional skills involves introducing original harmonic progressions into the writing process. By creating the harmonic layer of a composition, the composer is in full control of all the elements, thereby making the music more personal. However, the harmonic layer can, in some ways, be the most challenging component to conceive, as, unlike the single-note melody layer, writing vertical structures is often a complex process. This complexity manifests itself in two basic ways. First, the succession of one chord to another is wrought with innumerable choices. Second, the ways in which any chord type can be voiced are immense.

Analysis of standard repertoire was mentioned earlier as an important first step in writing contrafact jazz compositions. In regards to composing original chord progressions, the analytical process is also essential. Harmonic progressions usually fall into one of three general categories. The first category is simply called "tonal progressions." This covers a great amount of harmonic territory, and includes harmony that has traditional dominant to tonic movement, ii-V-I progressions, secondary dominants, borrowed chords, transient key cells (typically non-resolving ii-V progressions), and tritone substitutions. The second category is something that composer and educator Ron Miller (of the University of Miami) calls "chromatic modal harmony." This includes music in which adherence to conventional tonal progressions and cadences are minimized in favor of more unusual and abstract harmonic sequences. The third classification is a combination of the tonal and chromatic modal harmonic idioms. This category could be called "hybrid harmonic progressions."

In the tonal realm of jazz composition, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus come to mind as major composers. A serious study of their music will reveal a diverse palette of melodic, harmonic and structural innovation. In the realm of 1960s post-bebop composition, Wayne Shorter's contributions are of major importance in conceptual and historical terms. Of the 35 compositions recorded on Miles Davis' E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Water Babies, and Miles in the Sky albums, 17, or nearly half, were penned by Shorter. Wayne Shorter had a significant role in not only shaping the direction of the Miles Davis classic 1960s quintet, but also in jazz composition's new direction during that decade.

Example 12 is a contrafact based on the chord changes to a well-known Wayne Shorter composition. The piece doesn't fall entirely into the chromatic modal rubric. Because it has some tonal aspects, it may be placed into the harmonic hybrid category. In measures 1 through 4, the harmonic motion from the E7 (#5, #9) to the F6/9 is unusual. The upward half step root motion and chord quality types create an absence of stable tonality. In measures 5 through 8, the movement from the E7 (#5, #9) (the tritone substitution of Bb7) to the Eb6/9 creates a tonal cadential motion. This is a subtle and creative harmonic contrast to the first four measures. During measures 9 through 11, the upward half-step root motion by means of Dom7(#9) chords creates harmonic ambiguity and tension. In measures 11 and 12 there is a very short repose, via the last upward half-step motion to the FMa7(b5) (this recalls measures 1 through 4). Measure 12 is significant in that it is the only measure in the first half of the tune with two chord changes. The movement from the Eb13 to the Dmi7 is another dominant to tonic resolution using a tritone substitution.

Melody is the other noteworthy component of this contrafact. Throughout this excerpt, chord extensions are frequently used. These color tones give the melody a special lift and character that would not be possible through the use of roots, 3rds, or 5ths. Another unique aspect of the melody is the fact that it moves relatively slowly in contrast to the note density of a typical bebop melody (e.g., Dexterity, Crazeology, and Ablution). Wayne Shorter's Nefertiti, Fall, Paraphernalia, Masqualero, Footprints, Dance Cadaverous, and Sweet Pea all reveal this characteristic.

Harmonic progressions that lean heavily towards the chromatic modal category will tend to have a more overall abstract sound. This is largely due to the fact that the chord qualities and bass motion are in opposition to tonal cadential movement. However, it should not be assumed that chromatic modal progressions lack resolution (repose). Chords in root position that have a Ma7th structure (usually Lydian), mi7th structure (usually Dorian or Melodic Minor) or Dom7(sus4) structure (Mixolydian), will tend to be perceived as restful or stable. And in most cases, voicings for Aeolian, Phrygian, and Locrian modes will be perceived as dissonant or active. For instance, a voicing such as CMa7(b5) with a B bass note (which is a Ma7 chord in 3rd inversion), will not sound like major quality harmony in repose. This is because a Ma7 chord in 3rd inversion creates a minor 9th dissonance between the 7th and the tonic. If the 7th is "tonicized," (i.e., B is designated as the root) a chord/scale relationship of B Phrygian results.

Chords with roots that move in ascending or descending minor or major seconds or thirds, and possess chord qualities that are chromatic in terms of the diatonic chord system, create progressions of greater chromatic diversity and tonal "instability" than those usually found in conventional bebop progressions. Static pedal points that utilize shifting harmonies as upper structures are also very effective in creating tension and release. Example 13 illustrates this technique.

Example 14 shows the first 10 measures of Herbie Hancock's He Who Lives in Fear, from his 1969 recording, The Prisoner. Of all of Herbie Hancock's recordings, The Prisoner stands out as one of his most innovative in terms of each composition's harmonic and structural elements.

The opening statement of He Who Lives in Fear (measures 1 through 6) is scored for only fluegelhorn, bass, and drums. The voicings reflect the harmonic structures that are played by the piano and the rest of the ensemble during the reprise of this section later in the theme (measures 17 through 22). The melody is uncluttered and spacious, and centers around two notes, Db and Bb. The accompanying bass line descends in half steps. The quality of the accompanying harmonies is dissonant and unstable. From a more traditional point of view, the chords in measures 3 through 6 have a supertonic to dominant (via a tritone substitution) function that leads to an unusual tonic voicing (Bbmi(Ma7)/D). However, the color of the harmonies counters any obvious aural recognition of ii-V-I movement. This is an important point. Chromatic modal progressions can employ traditional bass lines that belie tonal harmony. The dark-hued and abstract harmonies of He Who Lives in Fear effectively transmit the sense of the piece.

The compositional process manifests itself in one of two distinct approaches or as a combination either approach. Some composers devise a harmonic progression first and then compose a corresponding melody. Others first compose a melody then fit the harmonies to match it. The third process is one in which the melody and harmony come together at roughly the same time.

Composition is the logical extension of a jazz musician's improvisational vocabulary. It is through the process of writing original music that an improvising musician expands his or her abilities to compose spontaneously. Written composition and spontaneous composition through performance are two sides of the same coin.

Rick Helzer is assistant professor of music and Associate Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music and Dance at San Diego State University. He is also coordinator of undergraduate and graduate jazz theory programs at SDSU. His original compositions are published by UNC Jazz Press, and his many recordings have been reviewed in Jazz Times, Cadence, Option, Coda, Saxophone Journal, International Trumpet Guild Journal, Jazz Journal International, and the Los Angeles Times. He led successful performance tours of Costa Rica and Bolivia in June 2002 and 2003 respectively with a faculty/student jazz trio, and his Saxophone Quartet No. 1, commissioned by the Spectrum Saxophone Quartet, was premiered at the Festival Internacional de Música y Musicología Ensenada in Baja, California, in October 2002. Helzer writes for Jazz Improv magazine, contributing numerous solo transcriptions, annotations, record reviews, and most recently, a new ongoing column entitled Jazz Piano Perspectives. Helzer recently recorded two CDs, one with woodwind player Vinny Golia, and Face in the Mirror, under his own leadership and featuring guest artists Kim Richmond and James Newton, on the 9 Winds label. Both will be released this coming summer.

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