The Importance of Melodic Playing in Jazz

“There are hundreds of jazz method books on the market today analyzing harmonic playing in jazz,” says Ron Kearns, MENC Jazz Mentor for March 2009. “Young jazz players can learn how John Coltrane and others exploited jazz harmonic progressions and extended basic chord structures. What they don’t get is how Coltrane and his compatriots used those harmonies to play melodically.

“While playing with Miles Davis,” continues Kearns, “Coltrane learned how to interpret the melodies of standards like ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ by playing off the melodic structure of the song and creating new, short melodies through sophisticated harmonies. Young players often fail to recognize that hardly anyone listens to a song and remembers the improviser’s harmonic interpretations/explorations, but everyone remembers a good melody.

Tension and Release

A lot of contemporary method books will present transcriptions of an improvised solo on a song without ever referencing the melody. They’ll touch on the use of modes, arpeggios based on simple and advanced harmonies, but give no attention to how the composer crafted the song’s melody. Without prior knowledge of the melody, phrases in improvisation make very little sense. One of the keys to jazz improvisation is tension and release. Rhythmic and harmonic tension in solos is most often based on how the melodic line relates to the chord structure and progressions.

Variations on a Melody

What I try to get across to my students is that improvisation is basically playing variations on a melody. Once a student grasps this concept, then the studies in the method books become easier to comprehend. Instead of just being a technical study, the piece becomes a song. When students become aware of the form of a piece and how the melodic contours relate to the chord structure, they’re less apt to throw in a flurry of notes that make no sense to jazz players. The comparison I draw is using a multi-syllabic word for no other reason than to show everyone you know that word.

A Conversation Between Peers

I have my students listen Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue. Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wynton Kelly all play variations of the melodies. But rather than trying to show off their technique (which is considerable), they take turns ‘discussing’ the melodic content. Jazz musicians will tell you that playing the music is basically a conversation between peers.

In the Large Ensemble

For those who wish to use big band charts to teach this concept, you can’t do much better than Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, both masters of melody. Their arrangements offer intriguing variations on beautiful melodies. Sammy Nestico’s arrangements for the Count Basie band are also readily available for school ensembles, have wonderful lines and provide opportunities to teach melodic concepts in a large ensemble rehearsal.

For Advanced Students

If you have advanced students, they’re probably playing bebop tunes. Most of these tunes are based on Broadway songs where melody is the essential component of the music. Many of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s compositions were based on the chord structures and simple melodies of these show tunes. The number of original jazz pieces based on ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ is innumerable.
Attempting to learn jazz improvisation without learning how to play melodies is one of the reasons so few bands can play ballads well and so many players sound so much alike. Re-interpreting a melody requires a player to develop a distinctive style. Teach your students to play melodies, fast or slow, and you’ll be teaching them how to become an original.”

Adapted from “The Importance of Melodic Playing in Jazz” by Ron Kearns, originally published in Summer 2005 Maryland Music Educator

Ron Kearns is a composer, leader of his own group, the Ron Kearns Quintet, an adjudicator and clinician for Vandoren of Paris and Heritage Festivals. He also taught instrumental music and jazz in the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school systems for 30 years.

—Nick Webb, January 14, 2010 © National Association for Music Education