Remembering the Changes
I posed a question last week asking if anyone could offer insight into the development of the letter-based chord system(s) used by so many improvising musicians today. While no answers were offered, a question was posed, “Have jazz compositions ever shown voice leading using anything like figured bass notation?”
The short answer is, “Yes.” But there are quite a few variations of how it’s done. Pianist/pedagogue and thorn-in-the-paw of the House Un-American Activities Committee John Mehegan proposed a non-triadic Roman-numeral system geared specifically for jazz musicians in the fourth volume of his Jazz Improvisation series that never really took off beyond the ivy-covered halls of esoteric academes.
It is, and has been for a long time, common to see a letter-based chord symbol, such as Gmi, followed by parenthetical extensions to describe voice motion. The symbols, ||: Gmi / (+5) / | (6) / (+5) / :|| (forward slashes represent a repetition of the previous beat), instruct the player to repeat a two-measure progression where the fifth degree of a G-minor triad ascends every other beat in the first measure and descends every other beat in the second measure (the motion extends across – or “crosses” – each measure’s bar line). A more explicit (and cumbersome) approach might use “slash” chord symbols (||: Gmi / Eb/G / | Edim/G / Eb/G / :||), since the parenthetical version allows for a four-note chord, Gmi6, at the beginning of the second measure. (This particular progression is the well-known introduction to the themes for the Danger Man television series and James Bond movies.) While it seems “unwieldy,” it’s actually no more so than the Roman-numeral system of the Baroque tradition.
I’ve been googling around a bit on the subject, though, and see that several message boards mention Ferde Grofé as the inventor of the system as a kind of shorthand for banjo players who hadn’t learned to read music. The date mentioned is 1914, which is contradicted by a post linking to sheet music from 1913 that includes guitar tablature with letter names above. Fortunately, I’m taking a class on the history of big bands that might shed some light on my original question.
For now the letter-based system is the most used shorthand for harmonic improvisation. It is ubiquitous to the point that many musicians who don’t consider themselves improvisers can read charts using it. The system has made life easy for large groups of musicians with dissimilar repertoires to congregate and perform together. This will be the case in many of the upcoming September Concert performances being staged around the nation and the world this weekend. I hope everyone goes to at least one concert in their locality. I’ll be at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar on Sunday for the September Concert: The Heart of Jazz series along with many New York musicians who play the music that has defined our culture while remembering the events of 10 years ago that redefined it.