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Musical Elements






1. By the word “every” we really mean “most.” Some jazz, such as avant garde or free jazz, is not based on a predetermined set of chords but is completely improvised (for an example of free jazz, brace yourself and listen to Cecil Taylor’s “Enter Evening” on The Instrumental History of Jazz).

2. Chorus is one of those terms in music that has several different meanings, depending on context. For instance, a chorus can be a group of singers (a choir); in musical theater, the chorus consists of those who sing and dance but don't have a speaking part; in rock and pop music, the chorus is the middle part, often the “hook” of the song (pop tunes most often proceed something like verse-verse-chorus-verse). But in jazz, a chorus is one time through the chords of a song.

3. For information on ordering The Instrumental History of Jazz 2-CD set, click here.

VI. Form

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Quincy Jones

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Count Basie

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Parker Quartet

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Horace Silver

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Miles Davis

A. The Tune's Blueprint


Form is the tune’s blueprint, that is, "what gets played when." 



All jazz musicians must know the form of a tune before they begin playing (otherwise they could “get lost” and not know where they are in the music). 



While some forms in jazz are complex, most are easy and are standard, especially for combo playing (a combo is a small group consisting of 1 to 4 horn players plus piano, bass, and drums). 

B. Basic Structure


Basic structure of a jazz tune for a combo: 



Every1 jazz tune is built on a set of predetermined chords that accompanies the melody (each jazz tune has its own set of predetermined chords). 



Playing through the set of chords one time is called a chorus2



Playing a jazz tune consists of playing several choruses, one right after the other, with something different occurring during each chorus: 



During the first chorus, the written (composed) melody is played; this melody is called the head



Then, on each subsequent chorus, each jazz musician in turn improvises a solo. The solo can last for one chorus, two choruses, three, four -- as many as the soloist wants (within reason!). Toward the end of his/her last chorus of improvising, the soloist tapers down the intensity (like being at the end of a story) and nods to another player in the band, signaling him/her to begin his/her solo; this keeps happening until all the musicians in the band who want to take a solo have done so (not everyone has to take a solo). The audience usually applauds at the end of each solo, acknowledging not only that the soloist played well, but also that he/she improvised what was just played! 



After the last musician finishes his/her solo, the band plays the head again -- this is the last chorus. When finished, the audience applauds again and, if it was truly an outstanding performance, whistles and cheers as well (even in the most formal concert halls like Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center in New York). 



In a nutshell, the format of the performance of a jazz tune is: head for one chorus - improvised solos for several choruses - head for one chorus 



A good analogy: Jazz is like a sandwich. The first chorus (head) is like the top piece of bread, the last chorus (head) is like the bottom piece of bread, but what goes in the middle is up for grabs and is the best, most important, and most fun part. 

C. Arrangement


For a big band (10 or more instruments), the structure is similar, but because there are so many players, more of the music must be written out ahead of time to keep everybody organized. In jazz, when portions of the music are composed ahead of time, it is called an arrangement; for an example, look at and follow the Listening Guide that goes with Fletcher Henderson’s “Wrappin’ it Up” and Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" while listening to their respective recordings on The Instrumental History of Jazz (IHJ)3

D. Further Examples of Form


For more information on Form, including audio and visual examples, click here

the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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