A Quick Jazz Anatomy Lesson
This one goes out to my mom. She writes: “I’ve been trying to read your paper [that I wrote on how to apply principles of jazz improvisation in the classroom]. You use all these terms that I don’t understand: head, chorus, and so on. And I have to admit: Jazz always sounds pretty crazy and chaotic to me, like it doesn’t have any structure…”
Mom, you just brought up the single biggest misconception about jazz. In reality, it is a highly structured music. Here: let's take a quick look at a basic, four-minute tune as an example.
"Someday My Prince Will Come" is from the Disney movie, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937), and after Miles Davis recorded it in the 1950’s, it became a jazz standard. It’s played here by a piano trio: Renee Rosnes on piano, plus a stand-up bassist and a drummer.
The song itself is 32 bars long. The group plays the song through five times. Each play-through is known as a "chorus". (see yellow pad doodle above.)
In the first and last choruses, Renee plays the melody of the tune faithfully on the piano. These are the "head" choruses (as opposed to the other, "solo" choruses.)
During the solos, the underlying chords of the song remain the same. The new improvised melodies sit atop this familiar bed of chord changes.
The song is in 3/4 time (or waltz time), unusual for jazz, which is often in 4/4 time. Until Bill Evans came along (he's my all-time favorite jazz pianist), nobody thought it possible that jazz could “swing” in waltz time.
A word about Renee Rosnes. She was adopted, and raised in Vancouver. About ten years ago she met her birth mother (a Sikh) who then died three months later. She made an album about it. I had an unusual and amusing encounter with Renee at the Village Vanguard the last time I was in New York, but that's a story for another time, place and post. Salut, ma mère.