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Ric Amurrio Jun 19


Coltrane’s notebook showing his reharmonization Fifth House

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Albert Einstein

Creative inspiration reveals itself through the diligent study of previous generations and the mastery of established skills. Schools of thinking must be studied, styles are to be imitated, and techniques will need to be ingrained creating the new from the old. This idea of continual reinvention and self expression is prevalent throughout the history of this music and you’d be hard pressed to find a lasting piece of music or style that didn’t have a direct line back to the creative work that came before it.

Deja Entendu”. You know that “deja vu” (French for “already seen”) is that strange feeling that you’ve experienced something in the exactly the same way before. Over the years I’d noticed a number of distinct similarities between one jazz composition and another. Some of that is intentional, and there’s even a word for it; the term “contrafact” refers to a piece of music in which a new melody is played over a familiar chord progression.

There was a territorial struggle in the 1940s between the performing rights societies, ASCAP and BMI; they collect royalties and distribute them to artists when their music is performed live or aired on stations, it’s a way to ensure that artists are compensated when their music is used. ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) was founded in 1914, and pretty much had a monopoly on licensing until 1939, when it demanded a 100-percent increase in fees.

The National Association of Broadcasters responded by creating BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), both to offer an affordable alternative to ASCAP and to license emerging genres of music that ASCAP wasn’t interested in — namely, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, country, folk, Latin, and, eventually, rock and roll. Radio stations essentially banned ASCAP recordings from the airwaves, giving BMI a huge win and making it a major player overnight.

But this posed a serious problem for recording artists. When they realized that the vast library of ASCAP-licensed songs were off-limits, the more creative artists circumvented that obstacle by taking advantage of a loophole in the laws then governing intellectual property. This proved to be a windfall for beboppers, who simply applied new melodies to the chord changes of familiar songs, changed the titles, and registered them as their own compositions.

The opportunity to create new work using existing harmonic material was attractive to musicians and record companies, as chord progressions are not subject to copyright infringement law. It enabled bands to record songs that could exploit the popularity of older ones and increase sales; but among more creative and innovative musicians, developing new work on older songs re-cast the song in a contemporary context, but expressed in the idiosyncratic style of the artist.

It even can be said that this development did as much to put bebop itself on the map as it did to launch BMI, because it played right into the bebop mindset. In swing and other kinds of music up to that time, improvisation was modular, relegated to pre-ordained sections, similar to the (usually short) cadenza passages in classical music. Bebop, however, reversed that model — musicians would play the head, or main theme, of a piece, then break out into extended, exploratory, melodically complex soloing over the tune’s harmonic foundation, before finally returning to re-state the head.

In informal jam sessions and club dates these pop tunes were used as proving grounds for new musical ideas.

“I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing.”

Charlie Parker

The most famous contrafact is Rhythm Changes, which is based on the chord progression of I Got Rhythm. So why not get 10 for the price of one? By learning just a couple chord progressions, you’ll actually have memorised progressions to lots of different tunes.

In this way, the musician has a chance to “own” the work, both in terms of royalties and individuality. In earlier recording history this was done through the solo, as Coleman Hawkins did on Body and Soul in 1939. As record labels developed rosters, they focussed more on “The New Thing” ― invariably this meant a soloist or band leader with an strong improvisational voice, and for the composing musician this meant creating new forms and harmonies, or disguising the old ones.

Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm harmonic structure, along with its numerous variations, has spawned thousands of contrafacts. Composers from Duke Ellington to Ornette Coleman have written new melodies over this venerable set of chord changes.

Two famous I Got Rhythm-based compositions are Charlie Parker’s Dexterity and Crazeology by Parker and Benny Harris. .

And that is the origin of many of the contrafacts of the 1940s, including “Ornithology”, written by Benny Harris and Charlie Parker and recorded by Parker in 1946, six years after Morgan Lewis and lyricist Nancy Hamilton wrote the song, “How High the Moon”, for the 1940 Broadway revue, Two for the Show. The songs share the same chordal movement, with Bird’s overlaid melodic materials differing from the previously established tune enough to preclude legal problems.

What is a contrafact?

Contrafactum is the term for a Medieval era process of applying new texts to older melodies. This was connected to the practice of troping, where new words were added to pre-existing song texts. There are two results from troping: the trope, where the additional words had some context or shared meaning with the older lyrics; and the sequence where the new words did not refer to the original work.

However, the contrafact is not an exclusively jazz phenomenon, the tradition of taking an existing song and altering it started in the 16th century. During this time the lyrics for secular songs were often replaced with religious text. In doing so the harmonic backdrop was preserved while a more “meaningful” text was applied.

Within jazz itself, sometimes the more popular contrafacts can become better known to musicians than the original composition: calling Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies or Bob Carleton’s Ja-Da sees people rooting for fake books (and perhaps not finding them), but calling Thelonious Monk’s In Walked Bud or Sonny Rollins’ Doxy is less problematic in a modern jazz jam session.

The best known contrafacts in jazz are the many versions of the blues. The blues has no true “original” melody: it is an eternally unfinished song form. The blues have a few distinct harmonic and metrical forms of their own, of which (simplistically) the most common in jazz is a twelve-bar structure in duple or compound time that moves from tonic to subdominant, then usually to the dominant before returning to the tonic. Each musician creates a new melody within this framework, sometimes with minor alterations to the harmony, but almost always with a different melody.


By rejecting, modifying and replacing elements of the lingua franca, members of small groups and communities were able to communicate subversively. This can certainly be seen in the advances in American jazz, where rhythmic and harmonic innovations divided some musicians and critics into various factions or schools, somehow apart from the main body of jazz (for example, perceptions of the “Tristano school” of players being unemotional and detached; Parker and Gillespie playing music that was too complex and designed to not entertain the audience

Coltrane being described as “anti-jazz” by someone, somewhere at almost every major stage of his career.

The second take of Ko Ko and Byas’ version of How High The Moon were released on the same single by Savoy in April 1946; Ornithology was released by Dial, but Parker didn’t record a studio version of this song until 28th March 1946. It is unclear how parts of a “newly-written” song came to appear in an improvised solo that preceded it.

Parker expresses this musical sentiment referring to his experimentation over Ray Noble’s standard Cherokee. Take a listen to Parker’s contrafact KoKo on Cherokee:

Check out this NPR story on KoKo for a little more insight.

Tunes like Ornithology, Koko and Donna Lee were the natural result of the experimentation and study of these standards.

It’s important to keep in mind though, that an effective contrafact is not just another blues head or rhythm changes tune or haphazard melody over a familiar progression. For the greatest improvisers, the contrafact was a way to explore a new harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic concept — to instantaneously stick with tradition and move it forward.

Here are a few common jazz contrafacts that you’re probably encountered.

In contrast to the original melody of I Got Rhythm, the melodies of Dexterityand Crazeology have a classic bebop identity. The complexity of each of these melodies evoke the sound of an improvised solo. Dexterity contains greater chromatic content melodically, while Crazeology combines chromatic harmonic content with simpler diatonic melodic content.

Another important contrafact is Lennie Tristano’s Ablution, which is based on the chord changes of the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein tune, All the Things You Are. While Tristano stays true to the original chord changes, the first eight measures of the piece. First, there is a great deal of chromaticism in the melody, much more than contained in Dexterity. Parker’s use of chromatic tones is limited to conventional chord extensions while Tristano employs notes beyond those typically found in chord/scale relationships.


In a radio interview Parker said

Ever since I’ve ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise — as clean as possible, anyway, and more or less tuned to people. Something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know? Because definitely there are stories and stories and stories that can be told.

Parker’s solos on the song always depart from the main theme radically, communicate directly to the listener, but using the musical language he created for himself. Parker’s improvisational performances were in fact a form of pre-composition, which might be an overstep if we take “pre-composition” to mean that he wrote entire solos out (although there is no reason why he may not have done this). Charlie Parker’s ideas around the placing of his phrases and ornamentations in musical time are more revolutionary than the harmonic and melodic devices he used. Because of this, Ornithology hides its ancestor very effectively: the influence of Parker is so pervasive that the only reason we know they are related is through the chord progression. From a compositional standpoint, Parker and Harris troped on How High The Moon to create a sequence, obscuring the rhythm, stress, melodic contour and meaning of the original to express the new language.

Lennie Bird: homage to the present time

In a short amount of time, there were already many musicians emulating Parker’s style. One person who did not was Lennie Tristano. Tristano was a pianist who had very definite ideas about how the music should go, and how be-bop was formed: he thought that bebop should be “cool, light, and soft”, and saw the new form as an evolutionary step in jazz. He formed a school of players like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who through his teaching methods learned a way of improvising and composing which has an intelligent focus on the line, contrapuntal collective improvisation and advanced harmonic substitutions. Tristano encouraged his students to write solos on existing songs ― essentially contrafacts ― as part of musical development.

Tristano met Parker in 1947, and saw him as both the most talented progenitor of bebop. Each man respected the other’s skill and musical ideas, with Tristano teaching his students to transcribe solos by Parker so as to study his innovations closely: whilst decrying many other musicians as superficial copyists of Parker’s original style.

Examining Tristano’s song Lennie Bird there are some signs of this admiration.

Unlike OrnithologyLennie Bird remains faithful to the transposition of the first musical phrase that occurs in How High The Moon: but other than that, it is more closely bound to Ornithology, and it could be declared a contrafact of its contemporary.


The second technique of reinventing the standard songbook used by improvisers is reharmonization — altering a chord or sequence of chords in a song’s progression while retaining the original melody and structural outline of the tune.

After experimenting with altering the melody through the contrafact, the next logical step is to actually change the chord progression of a tune — reharmonization. For example, take a look at the normal 12 bar blues progression and Bird’s reharmonization of the blues:

12 Bar Blues

Bird Blues

Certain chords have been altered or substituted to create a more dense harmonic motion, yet the overall form of the tune remains the same. You can also check out this article, Basic Bebop Reharmonization, for more on this concept.

Here are a few common reharmonizations that you’ll probably encounter at some point in your musical journey:

Blues = Blues for Alice

Rhythm Changes = Eternal Triangle

How High the Moon = Satellite

Rosetta = Yardbird Suite

Satellite: going different places

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”

John Coltrane

By the time Charlie Parker had died in 1955, John Coltrane’s career seemed to be on an ascending path: the trumpeter Miles Davis formed a critically-acclaimed and popular quintet with him, and he was seen as one of the up-and-coming young tenor saxophonists along with Sonny Rollins. At the same time, his life was in free fall — his dependence on heroin and alcohol affected his ability to work, eventually forcing Davis to disband the group in 1956.

During this time, Coltrane had a dream in which he says Charlie Parker had told him to keep on those progressions ’cause that’s the right thing to do― something he certainly took to heart at this time: his writing around this period involved different harmonic configurations relying on alterations of sequences based on seconds and fourths, and creating the instrumental and musical agility to create many alternatives on the same sequence. It’s rarely pointed out, but evidence of this work can be seen as early as on the septet album “Coltrane” with the song Straight Street, where the rhythmic pattern of functional v-I progressions creates a descent in the tonal harmony of a major second each measure:

We were sleeping at their place at 103rd and Broadway, and we knew John was awake when we heard him playing tenor sax for an hour… John explained that he was playing the intervals to his recent composition, Giant Steps; he even showed us the voicing on the piano.

Along with that landmark song, he conducted his harmonic experiments using contrafacts, as shown in Countdown (based on Eddie Vinson’s Tune Up — which was popularised and then attributed to Miles Davis), Fifth House (on Tadd Dameron’s Hot House, itself a contrafact of Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing called Love), 26–2 (Charlie Parker’s Confirmation), and his contrafact on How High The Moon called Satellite.

In the late fifties John Coltrane began to experiment with reharmonization and the concept of non-diatonic or chromatic third relationships. Below is an example of this reharmonization technique he created on a ii-V7-I in the key of C.

In Coltrane’s reharmonization of the standard ii-V7 -I progression shown above, the new key centers are Ab, E and C. The basic outline is still D-7 to G7 to C, but he doubles the harmonic motion and introduces new key centers moving by chromatic thirds.

Additionally, related dominant chord (V7) is then placed before each of the key centers to accentuate its arrival.

Apart from being a trope on the original title, Coltrane’s contrafact puts the original melody in plain sight from bars 10 to 14, showing its roots. The rest of the song is typical of Coltrane’s writing in this period of his development; like Giant Steps and all the contrafacts mentioned, the melody of Satellite is tied to the minim of each bar, and the chord changes are also mapped to this duple rhythm. This has the effect of removing the structure of the melody at the fourth level.

With Satellite, Coltrane is not just expressing his language through melody, but more through obscuring the old harmonic progression and adjusting it to fit his own needs, all the while keeping hold of the root of the original.

Below is a list of tunes that Coltrane tunes and reharmonizations that utilize the above chord relationship:

  • Body and Soul
  • But not for Me
  • Fifth House = Hot House
  • Countdown = Tune Up
  • Spring is Here
  • Satellite = How High the Moon
  • 26–2 = Confirmation

Going Beyond Contrafacts
In the realm of 1960s post-bebop composition, Wayne Shorters contributions are of major importance in conceptual and historical terms. Of the 35 compositions recorded on Miles Davis E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Water Babies, and Miles in the Sky albums, 17, or nearly half, were penned by Shorter.

Musical quotation is the practice of directly quoting another work in a new composition. The quotation may be from the same composer’s work (self-referential), or from a different composer’s work (appropriation).

Sometimes the quotation is done for the purposes of characterization, as in Puccini’s use of The Star-Spangled Banner in reference to the American character Lieutenant Pinkerton in his opera Madama Butterfly, or in Tchaikovsky’s use of the Russian and French national anthems in the 1812 Overture, which depicted a battle between the Russian and French armies.

Sometimes, there is no explicit characterization involved, as in Luciano Beriousing brief quotes from Gustav MahlerClaude DebussyMaurice Raveland others in his Sinfonia.

From Wiki

Quotation vs. variation

Musical quotation is to be distinguished from variation, where a composer takes a theme (their own or another’s) and writes variations on it. In that case, the origin of the theme is usually acknowledged in the title (e.g., Johannes Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn).

In the case of quotations, however, an explicit acknowledgment does not generally appear in the score. Some exceptions are found in Robert Schumann’s Carnaval:

  • in the section “Florestan” he quotes a theme from his earlier work Papillons, Op. 2, and the inscription “(Papillon?)” is written underneath the notes (he quotes the same theme in the final section “Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins”, but without acknowledgement)
  • in the final section, he also quotes another theme first used in Papillons, the traditional Grossvater Tanz (Grandfather Dance), but this time the inscription is “Thème du XVIIème siècle”.

Where are the contrafacts now?

Tristano, Parker, and Coltrane were applying contrafactum on a popular song: A quick look at recent jazz releases shows that it’s more common to cover a song than apply contrafactum.

The context for working with popular material shifted from one black Amercian art-form (jazz) to another — the rap and turntablist elements of hip-hop culture. Through the process of sampling and mixing, turntablists and DJs pay homage to the pre-existing song, even as they manipulate its form for their own musical structures.

In early hip-hop the sources of material were just taken from anywhere they could be found: but as hip-hop-influenced pop music and hip-hop itself has become globalized and commercialized, it has had to deal with the consequences. Where jazz rarely asked permission to borrow even in its popular phase, hip-hop and pop are now constrained by law and economics.

Some of the key contrafacts are:

I Got Rhythm

Anthropology ~ Parker

Moose the Mooche ~ Parker

Cotton Tail ~ Ellington

Daphne ~ Reinhardt

Don’t be That Way ~ Goodman

Lester Leaps In ~ Young

Oleo ~ Rollins

Rhythm-A-Ning ~ Monk

The Eternal Triangle ~ Stitt

All the Things You Are

Ablution ~ Tristano

All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother ~ Mingus

Bird of Paradise ~ Parker

Boston Bernie ~ Gordon

I Want More ~ Gordon

Jahbero ~ Dameron

Prince Albert ~ Dorham

Back Home Again in Indiana

Ice Freezes Red ~ Navarro

Ju-Ju ~ Tristano

Lex ~ Byrd

Donna Lee ~ Parker

Cherokee Apache Dance ~ George Coleman

The Injuns ~ Byrd

Ko-Ko ~ Parker

Warmin Up a Riff ~ Parker


26–2 ~ Coltrane

Denial ~ Davis

Doujie ~ Montgomery

Juicy Lucy ~ Silver

Meteor ~ Farlow

Striver’s Row ~ Rollins

Weeja ~ Elmo Hope

What Is This Thing Called Love?

Barry’s Bop ~ Navarro

Hot House ~ Dameron

Subconscious Lee ~ Konitz

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am ~ Mingus

What Love? ~ Mingus

Stompin’ at the Savoy

The Kangaroo ~ Les Paul

Relaxin’ With Lee ~ Parker

Sweet Georgia Brown

Bright Mississippi ~ Monk

Dig ~ Davis

Sweet Clifford ~ Brown

Teapot ~ J. J. Johnson

Just You, Just Me

Mad Be Bop ~ J. J. Johnson

Spotlite ~ Coleman Hawkins

Evidence ~ Monk

Lover, Come Back to Me

Bean and the Boys ~ Hawkins

Bird Gets the Worm ~ Parker

Quicksilver ~ Silver

Oh, Lady Be Good!

Dewey Square ~ Parker

Rifftide ~ Hawkins

Fats Blows ~ Navarro

Hackensack ~ Monk

Out of Nowhere

Casbah ~ Dameron

Jayne ~ Ornette Coleman

Nostalgia ~ Navarro

317 East 32nd Street ~ Tristano

How High the Moon

Lennie-Bird ~ Tristano

Ornithology ~ Parker

And countless others…

But do keep in mind that the chord progressions of contrafacts, while based on other songs, may have been reharmonized — so they won’t look 100% the same. But they are, nonetheless, based off the original song so it’s still worth learning the original chord progressions.


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