Sep 17, 2015

Coltrane and the "Delta" Symbol for Major Seven Chords, part 1

A friend sent me a copy of Yusef Lateef's Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns a few months ago (thanks, Bill!). I've been having some fun with it, playing through some cool patterns, just splashing around on the surface of this obviously very deep book. I'll get around to reviewing it at some point (it's been around since 1981, but it's new to me). But this post takes off from just one brief sentence in the book:

"DELTA (△) SYMBOL. Introduced into music notation to symbolize a major seventh chord by the late John Coltrane."

Really? John Coltrane invented the delta symbol for major seven chords? Well, Yusef was as fallible as any of us, but then again, he was a friend of Coltrane's. Yusef was one of the greats, and had been around jazz for a long time (b. 1920), so maybe he knew what he was talking about.

Then I remembered that I had a copy of the catalog for the 2005 Guernsey's Jazz Auction, with thumbnails of a number of Coltrane manuscripts that were up for bidding. Below is a chart for "Lady Bird," possibly in Coltrane's hand, showing the delta symbol (I commented on this chart in a previous post, in connection with the turnaround). This chart was not advertised as being in Coltrane's hand, and was grouped in the catalog with some Tadd Dameron charts that had been owned by Coltrane. However, the manuscript style looks similar to other charts that are definitely in Coltrane's hand (see below), and looks not at all like the other Dameron charts. Click to enlarge.

This chart for "Naima," also from the auction catalog, is definitely Coltrane's. The catalog leads us to believe it is in his hand, and it came to the auction from the family of Juanita Coltrane (John's first wife; Naima was her middle name). Coltrane recorded "Naima" in May 1959. If you have ever wondered about the correct changes to this song, this chart should help.

But then, this chart for "I'm a Dreamer! Aren't We All?" uses "maj 7" rather than the delta symbol. Coltrane recorded "I'm a Dreamer" in 1958. The coda to "Dreamer" seems to be an arranged addition, and matches the end of Coltrane's 1958 recording. (Interestingly, the melody in the "Dreamer" chart is transposed to tenor key, while the changes appear in concert pitch. Why?)

Some observations about these charts:
1) The treble clefs in "Naima" and "Dreamer" are the same. "Lady Bird" clefs are a little different. See my "Lady Bird" post.
2) In "Naima" and "Dreamer," Coltrane mostly doesn't bother with bar lines at the left- and right-hand sides of the page. In "Lady Bird," bar lines appear at the beginning and end of each line.
3) Coltrane recorded "Half Nelson" (changes based on "Lady Bird") in 1956, "Dreamer" in 1958, "Naima" in 1959.
I thought for a moment that the chronology of the charts might help us figure out when Coltrane started using the delta symbol (1959?), but it's not that easy.
1) The "Dreamer" chart seems to be from around 1958, judging from the coda "arrangement" and the date of the recording, but might be earlier.
2) The "Naima" chart might date from 1959, the date of the recording, but could be earlier. Coltrane and Juanita were married in 1955.
3) The "Lady Bird" chart could be from any time at all. I'd assume that Coltrane knew the tune well enough to not need a chart. "Lady Bird" goes back to at least 1947.
The discrepancies in the treble clefs, bar lines, and in "△" vs. "maj7" can be explained by plain old personal inconsistency. Speaking for myself, I'm sometimes inconsistent when handwriting chord symbols - for example, m7 vs.  -7, m7b5 vs. ø, and △ or △7 vs. maj7.

So while it's an interesting exercise to try to figure out when Coltrane started using the "delta" symbol, I don't think these charts really give us an answer, except to say that he was using it in 1959 for sure, and maybe earlier.

If any readers know of any pre-1958 examples of the use of the delta symbol, by Coltrane or anyone else, please send in a comment!

For your listening pleasure, here is the Coltrane recording of "I'm a Dreamer! Aren't We All?" using the ending from the chart above. Coltrane just burns.

And here's "I'm a Dreamer" in its original setting:

Update 10/8/15 - I looked at some more charts in the auction catalog - Click here for Part 2 of this post.


  1. I think I've seen the delta used as symbol for simple triads. This would be more direct: 3 = 3

    1. My experience in Europe was, e.g. CΔ is a triad, and CΔ7 is, well, a 7th chord. Pretty widespread use there. But it's true for myself (as well as others) that I mix up 'maj', 'j', and 'Δ'when writing quickly. I shouldn't.

  2. This blog post is getting some traction because it was shared by the Coltrane Facebook page. From the time I've spent looking at reproductions of Coltrane-manuscript charts, I'd say that "Lady Bird" is definitely not in his hand. The notation is entirely uncharacteristic of him and the lettering is different too.

    1. Thanks, A.Y. - That explains the massive amount of page views today. I was wondering. Glad that so many people have found it interesting. The composer credit on the "Lady Bird" chart looks like it might be in Dameron's hand. However, the music in the chart doesn't look like the style of the other Tadd charts in the I don't know.

  3. The Dreamer chart appears to be the trumpet part (our at least the lead harmony at the end)... Perhaps the chart was copied for the trumpet player in the recording to read (Wilbur Harden?), but hten they copied the changes in concert for whatever reason.

  4. maybe you could find someone still alive who went thru the ornstien
    music school in philly in the forties, like trane, and ask how
    they were taught to write major 7th chords....

  5. Hey Peter, nice analysis, take care!

    1. Thanks, Carlos! Great to hear from you!

  6. I first saw the triangle on handwritten charts from a Nashville guitar player, back in the 70s.

  7. It were the way that Coltrane thought to improvise? All the triade's stuff...