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Playing the Changes

Willie Thomas | February 20, 2011

I can't remember the first time I heard the term "playing the changes" uttered, however, the ensuing discussions about its relevance in playing jazz have always been somewhat amusing as well as perplexing. I can, on countless occasions, remember being confronted at a gig by a fan laying it on me, like, "I really dig the way you play the changes." I sensed that it was meant as a high compliment, possibly, in recognition for not playing any sour notes. On the other hand, who actually determines or distinguishes between the sweet and sour notes.

Over the years, I have given considerable thought to what "playing the changes" means to me. In developing my own understanding of this cliche, I began by analyzing how I learned to improvise playing jazz. It all started for me as a natural part of my life situation; a very good fourteen year old trumpeter, a high school swing band member during World War II, playing "stock arrangements" of all the tunes that are now jazz standards and being the only one that could and would stand up and "take off" in the solo spots. I'm sure there were some chord changes there to play, but little Willie just took the notes of those melodies and "got hot". Rhythms, sounds, embellishments, glisses and smears were all I needed to get some applause and my $5 at the end of the gig.

In high school, the impossible happened in Orlando, Florida, my home town, twenty-eight recently drafted NYC and New Jersey musicians arrived on the Air Base where I sold nespapers. They came fully equipped with horns in leather gig bags, cardigan jackets, pegged pants, tams, horn rimmed glasses and suitcases full of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell records. By the end of that first week I was jamming with those cats on most days after I sold my papers. I was soon personal friends with several musicians and they spent hours at my house eating some home cooking and teaching me new "jazz heads" and introducing me to some basic music theory.

Time spent with the music theory was always short and the blowing took center stage. When I learned the head to Donna Lee, I already knew Indiana, so I took some of the bop licks and put them in the tune in the right places and my natural creative instincts did the rest. Chord changes never seemed to be a part of the equation when trying to decide what to play. I had a good ear and once I did some shedding and got these patterns under my fingers, I could move them around the keys. I soon realized that the licks I learned in Donna Lee worked in all of the tunes with certain modifications.

It didn't take long to figure out that these licks were being hammered out nightly by the NYC jazz hierarchy and within weeks this new vocabulary was being played all around the country. When Bird found a new tune he liked, like Slow Boat to China, the licks he played on the changes became the licks everyone played on the same changes. This is where, when and how the basic jazz language still being played today was formed and passed on. Along the way, for better or worse, players started realizing that most of these jazz patterns have a basis in music theory and can be identified, named and classified.

By the mid 1950's everyone was talking about chord changes. For sure, many of the early exponents of pre bop like Coleman Hawkins among others, were firmly grounded in basic theory concepts and how they related to jazz. Diz, Bird, Tad Dameron and the rest were also well equipped with a knowledge of how things worked. How much of their playing was actually affected by that is anyones guess. It no doubt factored into their profound understanding and use of the tri-tone, as exhibited by jazzers making a V with their first two fingers and holding them upside down to symbolize the flatted 5th.

Most kids today with a real penchant for jazz are on the campus of one of the many Universities offering jazz degrees. They are required to study jazz harmony, transcribe jazz solos and play and analyze everything on a beat to beat basis. My time in college was spent in a jazz wasteland, the U of Alabama. We had a very good sixteen member swing band, The Alabama Cavaliers, that played several times a week. I also had an excellent trumpet instructor, so, my degree in Trumpet performance wasn't a total waste. The lack of an environment and the opportunity to play jazz with any real players was nil, never the less, it did keep me off the front lines in Korea.

My two year stint in the 3rd Army Band in Atlanta, GA, is where it all happened for me. I was fortunate to be stationed with Wynton Kelly, who patiently mentored and helped me hone a working background between the music and theory as it applied to jazz. It was the discovery of how the two note melodies formed on the 2-3, 5-6, 1-2 formed a basic melody chaing through the II-V-I chord changes. There it was! Embellish, connect and extend those pentatonic pairs through the diatonic system and the diminished ladder and you've got the basic harmonic framework for any tune with chord changes.

My past forty years years have been spent hammering this principle into a system that combines the basic jazz language with the important music theory concepts that allows a player to focus on how the music fits the tune and not the chord symbols and scales that often incumber performance. That's how the Jazz Everyone language system and online jazz lessons were born. So, there you have it, my idea of what "Playing the Changes" means and how that term can represent a useful tool for self expression through jazz music. Bird Lives!

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3 responses to “Playing the Changes”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!

  2. Thank you Elvina …. keep that 5-1 alive! Bird Lives!

  3. elvina jones says:

    muy brilliante!

    thank you for developing and teaching your concepts 🙂

    where’s the bebop? where’s the music?

    I have been wondering about that for awhile now, feeling like the proverbial monkey randomly typing hoping to come up with Shakespeare – thank you Willie, for illuminating bebop and music in general – five One five One five One five One five One – haha 🙂

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