Jan 20, 2016

An Incredible Jazz Concert, 50 Years Later

One of my formative early musical experiences was a concert I attended in 1966, my last year of high school. I was a dedicated jazz fan, and a fairly decent high school musician. I played tenor in the school jazz band, but my musical education was more on classical clarinet at that point.

In the 1965-66 academic year, Stanford University (a few miles from my house) booked a series of "Jazz Year" concerts - an amazing lineup that included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and other major jazz figures. I persuaded my parents to buy us tickets to two of the concerts. The first one, on January 23, 1966, was a double bill with Thelonious Monk's quartet and John Coltrane's ensemble.

Here is how I remember it, almost exactly 50 years later:

The concert was in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium. MemAud seated about 1600, and was sold out. Monk came on stage 30 minutes late with his quartet (Charlie Rouse, tenor; Ben Riley, drums; Larry Gales, bass). The band sounded great, and it was a thrill to hear all the tunes played live that I had only heard on record. At one point during an extended Charlie Rouse solo, Monk got up from the piano bench to "stroll," i.e. walk around a bit and stretch his legs, while Rouse's solo continued with just bass and drums accompanying. Monk seemed to be having some trouble walking straight. It actually looked to me as though the stage was slanted, sloping down toward the audience. After doing a little recent internet research, I think that this may very well have been the case - Memorial Auditorium has a "proscenium stage," which could have included a "raked stage" feature. Monk played a set and two encores.

After an intermission, John Coltrane took the stage with his group: Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, drums; Juno Lewis, percussion; Pharoah Sanders, tenor; Alice Coltrane, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; and Donald Garrett, bass and bass clarinet.

This was early 1966, after "A Love Supreme" had been released (I'd worn out the grooves playing that record), but before the release of "Ascension" or "Meditations." I was unprepared for what was coming.

Coltrane's group played an incredibly intense set, lasting an hour and 20 minutes. There was just one pause in the music; I guess that means there were two songs, maybe. It wasn't clear what the tunes were; there was no announcement, and I heard just a few recognizable pieces of melody. I could say that much of it was in triple meter, but with those three drummers, there were often different meters going simultaneously. Lewis Porter's The John Coltrane Reference quotes Phil Elwood's review in the San Francisco Examiner, listing the pieces as "Peace on Earth" and "Afro Blue." Ralph Gleason, in his San Francisco Chronicle review, listed "My Favorite Things" and "Crescent." For what it's worth, I remember hearing a fragment of "Afro Blue."

It was music at a high spiritual level and a high energy level, transcendent like "A Love Supreme," but perhaps more spontaneously organized. It was not as chaotic as the "Ascension" recording that was released shortly afterward. I recall extended solos from Alice Coltrane, Juno Lewis, and Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane gave his players more solo space than he took himself.

I had no idea that music could be this powerful. Gleason's review described "ensemble climaxes of stupendous intensity." Gleason called the concert "one of the most intense and exhilarating musical experiences I have ever had." It hit me the same way. I walked out of there a changed person. My parents were at the concert with me; I can only imagine what their reaction might have been. I don't think we discussed it.

This was one of the last times that Elvin Jones performed with the group. Some more details on this concert, and Coltrane's gigs immediately after, can be found in these pages of Porter's book.

While doing some internet searching for this post, I ran across this article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine by one of the organizers of the "Jazz Year." The author describes the audience as "underwhelmed" and "tepid." I don't recall, I was too blown away to notice. There was no encore; no encore was necessary.

I wonder if somewhere there is a recording of that concert.

The "Jazz Year" series also included concerts by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington with Ella Fitzgerald, the MJQ, Dizzy, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis. The Miles event (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter) was the only other one I made it to. It was a privilege to have been at that event too, but Miles was pretty subdued and straight-ahead, in comparison.

Jan 4, 2016

The "Back Door" Chord Progression

The use of IVm and/or bVII dominant chords in an otherwise-major progression is a common harmonic device in "Great American Songbook" tunes and jazz standards. When I was first learning theory, this device was described as "borrowing chords from the parallel minor" or "modal interchange" (i.e., switching briefly from major to minor). Some friends who had gone to Berklee in the early 1970s also used the term "subdominant minor" to describe these chords.

In maybe the last 15 years or so, I've been hearing the term "back door progression" to describe this device, and "back door II V" to describe the combination IVm bVIIdom (leading to the I chord). I've been trying to get some clarity on this term. The first instance of the term in print that I could find is in Jerry Coker's book, Elements of the Jazz Language (1991). Coker briefly describes IVm bVIIdom as a substitute for V7, calling it the "back door progression." A later Coker book, Hearin' the Changes (1997) - a terrific book, by the way - gives a more complete description of the device.

As described in "Hearin' the Changes," the "back door progression" is "a cell made up of IV-7 and bVII7 chords, leading to I." He never actually uses the term "backdoor II V," preferring to call it a "progression."

The book goes into more detail (below, with my comments):

  • Historically, this progression began as a simple bVIIdom, substituting for V. "At least as early as the bebop era, the IV-7 was added...providing a quasi II function..." 

Comment: I'm not so sure about this. Certainly bVIIdom was used occasionally in standards as a substitute for V (e.g., "Speak Low," "Georgia"), but IVm or IVm6 was used earlier and more often, not necessarily as a V substitute but rather as a way of importing minor-key color, with jazz players later sometimes adding the bVIIdom to form a quasi II V shape. At least, that's how I see it.

  • "The back door progression operates in one of three ways: (1) as a substitute for the II V progression (or just the V); (2) as a means of returning to the original key center after a brief modulation to IV major; and (3) as a free-standing cell, usually sandwiched between two I chords."

Comment: I agree. This is a nice breakdown of the harmonic situations where IVm and/or bVIIdom appear. My only reservation about this explanation is that it disregards the "minorizing" function of these chords, which I think is the basic reason that they are there.

In many, many tunes (e.g., Thad Jones' "A Child is Born," any number of tunes by Cole Porter, etc.), the IVm is obviously there to add minor color. bVIIdom can be used as a substitute for IVm; or the two chords can be used together as IVm bVIIdom. Sometimes IIm7b5 V7b9 can be used in these same spots. All of these variations include the "minorizing" b6 note of the key.

For a good example of early use, check out the original sheet music of "After You've Gone" (1918), bar 2 of the chorus (after the "verse" introduction). It's a IVm chord (not bVIIdom) in the key of C, following a IV. It fits Coker's category (2) above. The lyrics in this bar are "...and left me crying." The composer was clearly supporting the lyrics with evocative minor color. At the same time, the sequence incorporates some voice-leading from the A in the F chord, to Ab in the Fm chord, to the G in the C chord.

It's this sort of use that I think originally was (and still is) the main function of "parallel minor" chords, although it's true that bVIIdom has occasionally been used as a substitute for V.

But beyond the "descriptive" side; there's also the "prescriptive" consideration. That is, how can improvisers work with these harmonic areas?

Coker, who knows his stuff, suggests using IVm and/or bVIIdom as a substitute for V alt (I assume he is talking about both soloing and arranging). I'd add that the reverse can work too - playing V alt over the IVm bVIIdom - as seems to be the case in Clifford Brown's solo in "Joy Spring" (see this post).

As mentioned in that post, another possibility is to simply treat IVm bVIIdom as a II V. That is, if Fm7 Bb7 occurs in a tune in the key of C major, you could play as though it is a II V in Eb major. (Note, though, that I was looking at solos in two jazz tunes, "Lady Bird" and "Joy Spring," where the composer's melody itself was written as a II V lick in those spots.)

I still think that the way I was taught is the approach that is most to-the-point: Treat IVm and/or bVIIdom as borrowing notes from the parallel minor, and use the color brought by the b6 note of the key.

The b6 (Ab, in the key of C) is the important note. The chord progression is not necessarily a complete flip into the parallel minor. E natural, although it is not a note in the key of C minor, can work just fine over Fm6 or Bb7, depending how it is used.

Although it's a convenient shorthand, I'm not sure that "back door progression" is the best term for describing this device. "Chords borrowed from the parallel minor" describes its function a little better, as I see it. I should also mention that the term "back door" has also been used to describe a sequence like F#m7b5 B7 Cmaj7, a rather different concept.

Quibbles aside, I'm a fan of Jerry Coker's educational publications. The book mentioned here, Hearin' the Changes, is a well-written survey of the formulas that comprise most of the harmony in jazz standards. The book is aimed at giving players a means of more easily hearing and memorizing changes. It should be interesting to any fairly experienced jazz player, who enjoys digging into this kind of harmonic thinking.