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Analyzing Improvised Jazz

Author(s): Gary Potter

Source: College Music Symposium, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 64-74
Published by: College Music Society
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Jazz Studies

Analyzing Improvised Jazz

Gary Potter


are applying their diverse techniques to improvised solos, it is approp

review what is being done in jazz analysis and to suggest a direction for
The three purposes of this article are: to present an overview of several
for analysis of improvised jazz, including bibliographic references for fur
to introduce an analytic format which approaches a synthesis of aspects
methods; and to apply that format to a classic solo, both to demonstrate
and to acquaint the reader with a fine piece of music to share with s

Overview of Various Approaches to Jazz Analysis

downbeat magazine was regularly publishing transcriptions and analy

solos by the early 1950s.1 One early analytic tool would relate each pitch
to the root of the chord in effect as that note is played (for example, noti

leap from the 7th to the augmented 11th of a particular chord). Pro

immediately in deciding which chords to use as reference points. The "ori

changes (harmonic progression)? There may be no authoritative set of ch
progression played by piano and bass? They may not even agree with on
and the soloist may not always be relating to either of them. The changes
is "thinking" as made evident in the solo itself? Trying to recreate the solo

process is difficult and dangerous. Nevertheless, even with these pr

attempt to relate melody to the underlying harmony in this way has pr

to improvisation students and is still important in jazz education.
Often it is even more useful to show the relationship between a longe
passage and the underlying harmony than to deal with each note individ
example, pointing out that a passage of music over an E-flat major seven
"uses the E-flat lydian mode" summarizes the pitch material and ties in
the chord-scale correlation approach of many jazz improvisation cour

See Bill Russo and Lloyd Lifton, "Jazz Off the Record," an irregular series beginn
17, No. 1 (January 13, 1950). I am indebted to Barry Kernfeld, editor of the New Grov
Jazz, for reminding me of a column by Sharon Pease which appeared regularly in downbe
1937 through the 1940s. Each column contained a pianist's biography, a notated piano
a few analytical comments as well.

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A second approach to analysis of jazz solos entails reco

many solos seem to be constructed not in terms of note
certain chord, but in terms of complete melodic pattern
a chord or series of chords. Jazz writers have long point
reuse musical ideas from solo to solo, to one extent or another. But it was Thomas
Owens who made it clear just how pervasive formulas could be in the solos of Charlie
Parker. Owens's dissertation, a labor of love which included some 250 transcriptions,
catalogued the appearance of about 100 formulas which Parker reworks solo after
solo.2 Such evidence of formula playing in perhaps the greatest of jazz improvisers
suggests that formula identification and cataloguing is a fruitful analytic pursuit.

And it also adds a new aspect to improvisation pedagogy: the student learns not
only scales which fit various chords, but also a series of melodic formulas which
can be plugged into appropriate spots in the chord progression.
Recent jazz writers have noted the similarity between this sort of formulaic jazz
improvisation and a kind of poetry in which a story-teller relies on often-used phrases
when retelling a poem which has not been fixed into written form. Borrowing from
analysts of Homer's epic poems, jazz analysts have applied some of their techniques
to improvised solos.3 Some of the problems in poetic analysis have carried over into
music analysis as well, however. In both areas it has proven to be difficult to decide

exactly what qualifies as a formula. Must it be of a certain length? Must it be

sufficiently unique to be recognized as a formula? How does one decide whether

a certain musical idea is one long formula or two shorter formulas? Gregory Smith,
in his dissertation on Bill Evans,4 discusses these problems and determines formulas
primarily according to direction of motion (up or down) from one tone of "relative
stability" to another. In one solo alone he identifies 190 formulas which he then

divides into categories about which generalizations can be made and conclusions


Barry Kernfeld has circumvented the problem of delineating specific "formulas"

by identifying "formulaic networks" in a solo or solos.5 Using an ingenious and

informative display, Kernfeld clearly shows recurrent patterns without having to
define the formula. Although a complete explanation is beyond the scope of this
article, Figure 1 sums up formulaic playing by John Coltrane in one solo consisting
of 22 blues choruses. In all, Coltrane plays B-flat-C-D-(E-flat)-F in eighth notes 36
times in this solo. The figure also shows that the context of that pattern - the two
or three beats on either side - varies rather little as well.

2Thomas Owens, "Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation*' (Doctoral diss., Univ. of California
at Los Angeles, 1974).
3For jazz analysis relying heavily although not exclusively on formula identification, see Lawrence
Gushee, "Lester Young's 'Shoeshine Boy,'" in International Musicological Society, Report of the Twelfth

Congress, Berkeley, 1977, (Kassel, 1981). See also Barry Kernfeld, "Adderley, Coltrane, and Davis at
the Twilight of Bebop: The Search for Melodic Coherence (1958-59)" (Doctoral diss., Cornell Univ., 1981).
Sources on formulaic composition in literature include Ruth Finnigan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance
and Social Context (Cambridge, 1977); Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, (1960; reprint, New York,
1965); and Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry , ed.
Adam Parry (Oxford, 1971).
4Gregory Smith, "Homer, Gregory, and Bill Evans? The Theory of Formulaic Composition in the

Context of Jazz Piano Improvisation" (Doctoral diss., Harvard Univ., 1983).

5Barry Kernfeld, "Two Coltranes," Annual Review of Jazz Studies 2 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1983),

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Figure 1. Barry Kernfeld: Formulaic Recurrence T




Other writers have discussed pattern terminolo

mula," "motive," and "lick."7 One point still se

Owens's dissertation appeared: many jazz impro
melodic ideas, and a study of these recurrences

the improvisation process, helps us understand co

(or in several solos of the same musician), or possib

in a solo. It can therefore be an important aspe

A third analytic approach applies Schenker's an

In a recent dissertation Steve Larson makes a st
Schenkerian analysis to improvised jazz.8 Some
kind of relationships Schenkerian analysis might
neous composers - improvisers - cannot be exp
terms. But Larson demonstrates that the best
capability, and he cites a Bill Evans solo and Evans


Larson is not alone in applying Schenkerian techniques to jazz improvisation.

Milton Stewart has studied Clifford Brown's style from a Schenkerian perspective,9
and Thomas Owens has included several Schenkerian graphs of Charlie Parker solos
in his previously-mentioned dissertation.
A fourth approach also uses reductive techniques. Kent Williams applies implication-

realization theories of Leonard Meyer and Eugene Narmour10 to bebop "heads"

(composed melodies) noting that bebop improvisations differ little from bebop heads.
Simplifying Meyer and Williams greatly, various musical gestures carry the seeds
6Ibid., 26.
7See Lewis Porter, "Lester Leaps In: The Early Style of Lester Young," Black Perspectives in Music,
9 (1981), 3-23. See also the formulaic approach incorporated into a broad eclectic study of Lester Young's
music in Lewis Porter, Lester Young (Boston, 1985).
8Steven Larson, "Schenkerian Analysis of Modern Jazz" (Doctoral diss. Univ. of Michigan, 1987).
9Milton Stewart, "Some Characteristics of Clifford Brown's Improvisational Style ," Jazzforschungl
Jazz Research 11 (1979), 135-64.
l0Leonard B. Meyer, Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations (Chicago, 1973); Eugene Narmour,

Beyond Schenkerism: The Need for Alternatives in Music Analysis (Chicago, 1977); and James Kent
Williams, "Themes Composed by Jazz Musicians of the Bebop Era: A Study of Harmony, Rhythm, and
Melody" (Doctoral diss., Indiana Univ., 1982).

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for their continuation. Scalewise motion often tends to continue in the same scalar

direction to a point of stability. Melodic leaps may be the beginnings of arpeggiate

chords or they may be gaps which imply a scalewise "fill" of that musical spac

in the opposite direction. Whatever the implication of a gesture, the realization of

that implication may or may not take place; that is, the listener's expectation may
or may not be fulfilled, or the expectation may be fulfilled after a delay.
Figure 2 diagrams a network of interlocking implication-realization patterns.
While Williams's graphing techniques cannot be discussed in detail here, notice tha
the gap Et-F in m. 1 is filled in by the scale passage completed in m. 5. Then anothe

gap almost reaches "satisfactory" closure on G (mm. 5-8), but stops short on A
That implied G is left unrealized until m. 15 when its appearance also represen
closure (or realization) for two separate linear descents. Thus that G represents the
simultaneous realization of three different implications reaching as far back a
m. 5.

Figure 2. Kent Williams: Analysis of Bud Powell's "Wail"11

EbA ^*^f1 Ab~6 A7 E^Bb c"7

Mi jj UJJJJ^ h P r t i $ irt r'r

F-7 Bb7 (T)EbA F-7 F|7


A fifth approach to analyzing improvise

and spoken language. Although drawing

a dangerous pursuit, Alan Perlman and D

provocative ideas.12 For example, the struc

may have analogues in jazz; deep, shallow

respectively be seen to parallel underlyi

which "fit" the harmonies, and the particu

nested within other II- V-Is - common bebop h

"Williams, 1, 211.

l2Alan Perlman and Daniel Greenblatt, "Miles Davis Meets Noam Chomsky: Some Observations
in Jazz Improvisation and Language Structure" in The Sign in Music and Literature, ed. Wendy Steiner
(Austin, 1981), 169-83.

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phrases in sentence structures. Quotations may be se

and language. And, just as one must know a langu

that language, one must learn the jazz language to ful

Perlman and Greenblatt point out, however, that

jazz audiences for whom a given solo has different k
be meaningful in some way for us to hear an impassi

by the prime minister of Japan, especially if we see and

While such parallels between spoken language a

nating - and Perlman and Greenblatt present many

of linguistic techniques to jazz analysis has, to my k
writer takes a linguistic approach in an attempt (larg
that, by quoting melodic fragments from pieces with
talists can and sometimes do communicate specific v
members, literally "telling stories" in their solos.14
A sixth approach involves pitch class set analysis.
in Contemporary Jazz,"15 Jeff Pressing applies set a
as vertical structures in a Thad Jones arrangement
Coltrane improvisation. In a recent presentation entit
in Free Jazz," Steven Block demonstrates that pitch
tool in understanding improvisations of Cecil Tay
Braxton, and others.16

Toward a Synthesis

Certainly there are variations on all these appr

probably some quite different approaches as well.

interesting and informative; all of these focused app

applied to many solos, and their results made availabl
I wish to suggest, however, that there is a need for
upon various focused analytic approaches, combining
An analysis of a particular piece might ultimately c
individual approaches, but initially it should be broa
open to the great diversity among improvised solos.
different reasons. A list of positive improvisation c
and even contradictory attributes. For example, it w

of a solo or soloist valued for each of the followi

l3Ibid., 181.

14Nicholas Strout, "I've Heard That Song Before: Linguistic

Quotation in Instrumental Jazz Improvisation" (Masters thesis
15Jeff Pressing, "Pitch Class Set Structures in Contemporary

14 (1982), 133-72.
loSteven Block, Pitch Class Transformation in Free Jazz, paper delivered at the annual meeting
of the Society for Music Theory, Baltimore, November, 1988.

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Great speed
Wide range (particularly high range)
Tremendous endurance

Beautiful legitimate tone and flawless intonation (or)

Wonderfully bizarre and unique sound; unusual approach to intonation
An excited, propulsive, on-top-of-the-beat feel (or)
A loose, relaxed, laid-back feel

Showing empathy with past eras of jazz (or)

Being novel, original, non-derivative
Quoting often and effectively (or)
Refusing to "mar" the solo by "sudden quotation"17
Showing restraint and classical balance (or)
Making expressive use of growls, honks, squeaks, and split tones

And this is just the start of a long list. David Baker, in a series of monographs
analyzing the music of Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro and
others, does take into consideration many seldom-discussed features.18 He employs
a standard two-page form on which the features are listed; the analyst checks off
those features present in a given solo.

Many factors may contribute toward making an improvised solo "good" or

"great." A solo which shows little motivic or formulaic coherence, or which will
not reduce to a Schenkerian model, or which leaves implications unrealized may
nevertheless be a great solo for other reasons, reasons harder to theorize about or
harder to uncover by applying one specific analytic methodology. Although there
is a place for analysis in which one method is applied exclusively, the analyst must
realize that it provides only a single view.
Any music analyst needs to ask two questions: Why analyze this music? And
for whom is my analysis intended? My answers to these questions determine the
direction of the rest of this article. Why analyze jazz? Jazz deserves to be studied
because, at its best, it is glorious music, worthy of appreciation on all levels including
the intellectual. For whom is my analysis intended? Any fairly well-trained listener-

reader, whether jazz lover or not, particularly the musician who may have little
exposure to jazz and who can be guided to greater understanding and, therefore,
greater appreciation.
With these answers in mind, my analysis strives to adhere to three guidelines
as closely as possible:

1. The analytic perspective should be eclectic, holistic, using whatever approaches help explain a solo's effectiveness.
2. The improvised solo should be transcribed in "playable" notation, that is,
without elaborate additional symbols which can clutter the notation by striving

to include every expressive nuance.

17Gunther Schuller, "Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation," Jazz Review 1
(1958), 6.

18David N. Baker, The Jazz Style of Cannonball Adderley (Lebanon, Ind., 1980). See additional
volumes in this series on Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins.

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3. As much of the analysis as possible should be displ

Some verbal description is inevitable, but it shoul

I try to present as much information as possible in n

solo itself. A four-line score works well, at least for pr

line is the transcribed solo, at concert pitch rather

instrument. Chord changes are indicated above the solo

to decide which changes to indicate; those of the rhythm
weight as do changes implied by particular pitch patter
or "fake book" changes are considered, but suspicious
may be a compromise or an educated guess. This top line
the relationship of individual pitches to chord roots
nothing should obscure the solo itself.

The second line focuses on pitch continuity, part

resolutions of tendency tones, and stepwise motion a

Schenker and Meyer inform the approach but are not fo

range pitch continuity seems to disappear, nothing a

no need to manufacture a continuity or coherence whic
The third line deals with motivic patterns. It might d
1. Motives from the head which are woven into the solo.

2. New motives which are repeated and developed.

3. Formulas (recurrent melodic patterns of various lengths). I seek recurren

patterns only within a single solo and make no attempt to relate them to t

soloist's overall style. Nothing would preclude taking a broader perspect

but an analyst can generalize about overall style only after studying a substa
percentage of an improviser's recorded output.

4. References to the original melody or quotations from other sources, whi

can alternatively be indicated on the top line, provided they do not clutter
transcription itself.

An optional fourth line in my preliminary score allows for inclusion of any o

matters for which musical notation or a brief comment would be clearer and more

immediate than a separate verbal statement. Various rhythmic and expressive features
might appear here.

l9There is certainly no necessity for using a 4-line display for every solo, although I have found
it useful as a working format for new transcriptions. In a letter to the author in which he supports an
eclectic analysis, Lewis Porter warns against "a 'cookbook' approach to analysis. For me analysis is an

inspirational, creative activity, like making music .... Every piece suggests its own approach ....

I tend to resist any kind of standardized analysis where each piece will be presented along with a standardized
chart or with the staff setup you suggest." And while Porter values "analysis that doesn't rely so heavily

on words," he points out that his article on John Coltrane ("John Coltrane's *A Love Supreme': Jazz
Improvisation as Composition," Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 [1985], 593-621) would

have been less effective without substantial text.

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Separate tables or notated reductions could be added

information could not as effectively be presented parallel

danger in placing so much emphasis on musical notatio

important but hard-to-notate features may be ignored. A b

such features, highlighting important aspects of the notati

drawing conclusions, is therefore usually part of the an

The value of this analytic format can best be demonstr
solo several times while studying the notational analysi

brings the listener-reader closer to an understanding of th

makes the solo effective. The eye of the listener-reader m
and analysis lines. Shifts from one analytic tool to anothe

they suggest tactical changes in the improviser's appro

The following sample analysis begins with a brief verbal

improvised solo by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Figur

melodic material. My transcription of the improvisation its

of the analytic information are presented in Figure 4.

Sample Analysis

In a classic recording of Thelonious Monk's Straight,

Adderley improvises on alto saxophone over five choruses

bar-blues chord progression; pauses at or near the end

improvisation into five almost equal sections, and the indiv

divided - by rests for breaths - into two to five phrases e
tempo, the soloist's rhythmic approach is relaxed, often "
the pulse of the rhythm section). In portions of all but the
melody moves primarily in sixteenth-notes; these flowing
sections demonstrate absolute technical control of the ins

contrast to the primarily eighth-note motion of the rest of th

and inventiveness are strikingly demonstrated by an area i

6-8) in which accented notes create an implied 3/8 meter agains


References to the "head" (Monk's composed melody), at least its structural

pitches, occur frequently: at the beginning of choruses 1, 3, 4, and 5, and also at
the end of the last chorus.

Figure 3. Thelonious Monk, "Straight, No Chaser," principal melodic material



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The third line of the analysis (Fig. 4) shows these

patterns which recur during the solo. A four-note p
particularly in the double-time sections.20 More imp
recur virtually intact at different points in the solo
harmonic progression recurs as well. For example, in
and fourth choruses, a long pattern appears almost
instance, m. 11 of the first chorus and mm. 6 and 7 of the second are similar in
pitch but varied rhythmically. The third line of the analysis also shows how a wellknown melodic fragment from an improvisation recorded by Charlie Parker thirteen

years earlier is quoted, extended, and varied at the start of the fourth chorus.
Coherence in the solo is increased both by references to the head and by other recurrent

patterns, all shown on the third line.

A different kind of coherence is clear from the second line. Large portions of

the solo can be perceived as elaborated scale passages - step progressions - which
are indicated on the second line either with connecting beams or dotted lines. The
first six measures of the improvisation demonstrate this clearly as do all twelve
measures of the third chorus in which a scale begins on a high A\ (m. 2) and falls
two octaves in ten measures.21 Few emphasized pitches in the entire solo are left
unresolved. Most are, within a measure or two, heard to move stepwise to another
important pitch. The double-time areas show less of this kind of stepwise organization,
however. One might speculate that a different improvisational aesthetic comes into

play in these areas - more technical, displaying more emphasis on the sweeping
gesture than on individual notes, perhaps representing a higher heat-to-light (emotion-

to-intellect) ratio. Pattern repetition is correspondingly more prevalent in these

double-time areas.

Remarkably, in spite of the large number of improvisational techniques employed in just sixty measures - reference to the head, quotation, and pattern repetitio
all performed with great rhythmic diversity - there is no sense that the solo is a
disconnected series of ideas resulting from a confused assortment of improvisationa
tactics. On the contrary, there is a feeling of balance and controlled momentum. Th
music "breathes," particularly as Adderley moves between eighth- and sixteenth-not
sections, explores the entire range of the saxophone, and at several places (e.g., th
first four measures of the fifth chorus) "plays outside," - i.e., deliberately choosi
pitches at odds with the operative chord progression. And although the five choruse
are not unified by a single idea, Schenkerian or otherwise, Adderley's solo is a singl

20Gregory Smith, author of the previously- mentioned "Homer, Gregory, and Bill Evans? The Theory
of Formulaic Composition in the Context of Jazz Piano Improvisation," argues persuasively that my pattern

"a" should include a fifth note in each instance, and that it should be identified as a figure common
used to embellish a descending third.
21Descending step progressions, such as this, are also seen as important contributors to melod

coherence in Charlie Parker's improvisations. See Peter K. Winkler, "Toward a Theory of Popu
Harmony," in theory only 4 (1978), 3-26.

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unified musical statement. The last few measures return t

range, and even the structural pitches of the solo's begin
in particular reflect the opening gesture, and the solo en
it began.22

Figure 4. Transcription and analysis by the author of Cannonball Adderley's Improvised Solo on "Straight, No Chaser."23

(1)1 F Bb7 F [G7 C7]



fo r
P ' ^
I Nr













roots. "F" indicates a major triad on F. In pr

major sixths and ninths above the root are c
as "Straight, No Chaser," minor sevenths a
an F major-minor seventh. When a major-mi
is used. "Bl7" is thus a Bl> major-minor sev
inversions are infrequently specified. When
In "Straight, No Chaser," F7/A indicates an
inversion. Similarly Dt/B indicates a Dl> ma
inversion. F/C indicates an F major triad in
In Fig. 4, measures are numbered by chor
(1)5 refers to the fifth measure of the first
^Milestones. Columbia Records CL 1 193 an
on record, tape, and compact disk reissued

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Analysis of improvised jazz is still in its infancy. Various analytic approache

mentioned in this article have begun to illuminate the music, and other as

undiscovered analytic techniques will undoubtedly contribute to our understand

Meanwhile, a broader analytic approach is also needed, one which draws upon
various focused approaches and presents the music and its explanation to interes
listener-readers, including musicians who lack extensive jazz backgrounds. Too oft

non-jazz music teachers and students assume that jazz is esoteric, that one n

years of study and perhaps even a special sort of talent to appreciate it fully. T
often, jazz lovers themselves have encouraged this assumption, enjoying stat
the privileged few able to understand such difficult music. In fact, jazz music is
for the most part, not at all difficult, and the best jazz quickly rewards study.
lovers have an obligation to share their music. College music teachers in particu

should be given the opportunity, in part through clear broad-based analyses

understand it themselves and pass their understanding on to others. Generation

music students must not be allowed to miss the beauty and depth of this unique
American music.

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