Radio Faux Show Volume 3, Number 2: Intro To Jazz (Anatomy of a Jazz Tune)

Radio Faux Show Volume 3, Number 2: Intro To Jazz (Anatomy of a Jazz Tune)

The Anatomy of a Jazz Tune

As I explained in my last announcement, the format of the Radio Faux Show is changing to one focused more on music education. How to start this new format was easy to decide because there is one type of music that I believe I am well versed in but is also one of the main genres that tends to scare people away – jazz. I think a lot of people struggle with jazz simply because they don’t have the foundation to understand how it works. That is not to say that all jazz is the same, but most jazz follows a basic structure that is more enjoyable once the listener can better interpret the music.

The next few shows will aim to serve as an Intro to Jazz. I don’t yet know where it will lead, as I will probably improvise the themes of the shows and the song selections rather than plan too much. After all, that is one of the main tenets of jazz!


I am not a trained jazz musicologist, and I am not interested in writing about the compositional details of jazz music from its beginnings in African folk traditions and European classical music, to the melding of those original techniques with the music of the United States, through its evolution across the 20th century, and up to the modern sounds of jazz today. If you find that interesting, then there are thousands of resources in published works and simple Google searches all over the internet.

I am an amateur jazz historian, but I have no interest in writing a detailed history of jazz styles, artists, tunes, instrumentation, or recordings. That is an incredibly rich topic that can also be studied with simple online tools. This is not to say that I don’t find these topics interesting, because I very much do and have devoted much of my adult life to an amateur study of all of them. It is just that other people have already covered those topics through lifetimes of research, writing, and publishing of their work. To be honest, if you are interested in expanding your understanding of jazz in these ways, then this may not be the post for you, although you are welcome to read on.

My humble goal with this series of Faux Shows focused on jazz is to present a beginner’s guide to jazz music for those who, for whatever reason, have never learned how to appreciate it. If you have never learned to love jazz, perhaps because you have been brainwashed to believe that it is elitist, confusing, scary, and/or complicated, or perhaps because you’ve never had the opportunity to talk about jazz or learn about it from someone, then this series is made for you. I plan to keep it simple and use both written description and audio to provide a basic understanding of jazz with the goal of making you a fan. I believe that jazz is one of the most misunderstood forms of music but also the richest and most rewarding. If you have read the Faux Show, then you know that I believe that music connects all people around the world and is the best way to learn that we are much more similar than we think. I have written previously about this connection between all of us as the human condition, and I think that jazz is the best way to learn of this connection through music. I hope that this Faux Show series helps to provide context for that belief in a way that makes the reader understand that a love of jazz is within everyone’s grasp and can provide a lifetime of listening enjoyment.

Three Basic Components of Jazz

Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I am not a jazz musicologist. There are many ways to study jazz, and no one method is the best. This Faux Show series is simply my explanation of how I learned to understand and appreciate jazz throughout a lifetime of listening. Let me also reiterate that this is a Jazz for Beginners discussion. I want to keep it simple with the assumption that you are reading this as someone who wants to learn about jazz without being made to feel like you aren’t smart enough to do so. I think that a lot of jazz education is provided as an intellectual discourse that, even if not its true intention, comes across as snobbish elitism designed to weed out most people from those deemed worthy of learning its secrets. I also think that a lot of people confuse the concept of something being “jazzy” or “swinging” with jazz and this can make a true understanding and love of jazz difficult without some basic background understanding. Most people grow up listening to music that uses jazz influences presented as pop music, but not in a true jazz structure. I think this may serve to make true jazz seem foreign and incomprehensible. I believe that confusion can be avoided with some basic knowledge. Having said all that, let’s get going!

Not all jazz tunes are arranged the same, but there are some basic components that make a tune a jazz tune. Although there are other basic components, let’s focus on three.

It swings

So, we’ve just started and we’re already going off into complicated territory. Swing is a feeling as much as a definable trait. Also, not all jazz swings and not all music that swings is jazz. Let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, let’s stick with this basic musical concept. Music has a tempo. That tempo is often counted. For example, we’ve all heard someone count off a song at the beginning by saying “1, 2, 3, 4” and then the music starts. You should do it yourself, right now. Count out loud from 1 to 4 over and over again with a constant beat (tempo). “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4.” Now, when you say 2 and 4 emphasize them. Like this, “one TWO three FOUR one TWO three FOUR.” If you want to, you can snap your fingers or clap your hands on 2 and 4. At its most basic level, that is swing.

There is a structure

This is the most important thing to know about jazz, and I think this is the main misconception people have about jazz. Jazz is not a bunch of notes played however the musician wants to play. There is a structure. There are rules. Musical rules. The rules are simple. There are always exceptions to the rules, but basic jazz follows a few simple rules.

Songs have chords. The players know the chords.

Songs have melodies. Notes of melodies must fit within the chords.

If we take it a step further into the music theory realm, songs have tempo, time signatures, rhythm, and other basic musical qualities. The players know all these qualities of the song before they start playing. You don’t have to know what any of this means from a music theory perspective. All you must know is that when you listen to a jazz song, you can easily figure these things out for yourself by just listening.

What is the tempo? Fast, slow, both, many? Go back to number one and imagine you are counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. How fast are you counting? That is the tempo.

What is the time signature? Does it sound like a waltz when you count? 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3? Or like a basic rock song? 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Or maybe you start counting and it seems like the group is doing something weird to your ears. Try counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and see if that fits. Or maybe it actually is 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 but the way the beats are falling is a little different than you are used to hearing. In all of these cases, once you figure out how to count the beats then you know the time signature, or at least you know enough to follow along.

What is the rhythm? We already know it swings because it is jazz. But does it feel like most songs you know? Listen to the drums to get a feel for it. Is the drummer just playing one sound per beat, like da, da, da, da? Probably not. They are probably playing something like da, dada, da, dada with a cymbal. And maybe they are filling in the space between the da, dada, da, dada with some other drum sounds on the snare drum or the kick drum. Once you figure out what the drummer is doing, then you can start to figure out what kind of tune is playing. If it is Latin they may be playing a bossa nova rhythm or a samba rhythm. If it is fusion then it may sound more like funk or rock. Most jazz follows a basic swing rhythm, but there is an endless variety of rhythms found in jazz. You don’t have to know what kind of rhythm it is. You just need to listen and then feel the rhythm. The rhythm drives everything.

There are many more distinctions you can hear in the structure of a jazz tune, but we’ll stop there.

There is improvisation

We’ll get into this with more detail in a bit, but for now let’s just say that jazz allows the musician to play different notes for a song every time they play it. There is still a basic structure to the song, and since it is a song then it has a defined chord structure. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know what a chord is. All you need to know is that when you listen to a song, there are chords, and usually a melody.

Let’s use a simple example. The song “Happy Birthday” has chords (G, D, D7, and C). You don’t have to know what that means. Just trust me that they are there. On top of those chords, the singer sings the melody. We all know the words. You can sing out loud if you want to. When you sing “Happy Birthday,” you are singing notes. They are always the same. That is the melody. If you know how to play the piano, then you can most likely play the chords with your left hand and the melody (notes) with your right hand. Unless you choose to sing the song in a different key, almost everyone knows to sing “Happy Birthday” the same way. It is always the same. Year after year, generation after generation, throughout most of the world. But, if you play a jazz version of the song, you don’t have to play the same melody all the time. In jazz, you can play any notes that fit the chords. You can play them in whatever order you want. You can play less notes than you would normally sing, or you can jam ten times as many notes in there. It is up to you. That is improvisation.

    There is plenty more I could write about, but let’s stop there. Three things: swings, structure, improvisation. That is all you need to know to start to understand jazz. To be honest – and this is the cool thing to realize – if you take out the swing and improvisation aspect then that is all you need to know to understand almost all music. I think that is my basic point. Jazz is not much different than any other music. It isn’t complicated. It doesn’t require years of training to understand. It is just a way to play music. Almost every song ever written can be played as jazz. If there is a structure and melody, it can be jazz.

    The Anatomy Of A Jazz Tune: Example One

    Remember, this is an introduction to basic jazz. There are exceptions to everything I have written and everything I am about to write, and there is a lot more you can learn about jazz theory, composition, performance, and recording. But we’re going to stay simple, and this is where we start to really understand how jazz is played. You can get through this next section of reading and listening in less than thirty minutes, and hopefully gain a basic understanding of jazz. This is the fun part, so get ready!

    Most jazz tunes are made of three basic sections. The head, the solos, the ending. It doesn’t matter if the tune is three minutes long or twenty minutes long. It doesn’t matter how many instruments are playing, or if there are vocals. It can be a small three-piece combo or a twenty-piece big band. It can be straight jazz, Latin jazz, smooth jazz, fusion, and all types in between. It can even be experimental jazz, free jazz, or some type of jazz that hasn’t been invented yet. The basic anatomy of a jazz tune is the head, the solos, and the ending.

    The Head

    Let’s take a song that most people know – “Jingle Bells.” You are probably already singing it at the mere mention of it. You may have gone straight to the chorus and have “jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way” stuck in your head now. Or maybe you started with “Dashing through the snow” and went from there. In any case, there is a basic melody and as soon as you hear it you know the song. In jazz, a version of “Jingle Bells” starts with the head of the song. Let’s use one of my favorite jazz versions of the tune – the 1995 recording by Oscar Peterson.

    The tune starts with the head – a ten second intro followed by the main melody. If it makes it easier to understand this, feel free to sing along with the recording. After a 10-second intro, the trumpet plays the verse (dashing through the snow) and then the chorus (jingle bells, jingle bells) from 0:10 to 0:58. The piano then plays the verse again from 0:59 to 1:21. There is nothing going on here that should seem too weird. It is swinging, but otherwise you can easily sing along to the song. That is the head. Simple.

    The Solos

    The solos come in next, starting with the piano at 1:22. Instead of playing the chorus again (jingle bells, jingle bells), Peterson starts to improvise and play around with the melody. However, you can still sing along with the song. Try it. At 1:22, keep singing the chorus along with the improvised piano. At 1:46 the guitar takes a solo. Then at 2:31 the trumpet takes a solo. If you kept singing, great. You can sing along to this entire recording. The chords are still the same, it is just the improvised notes that are different. Those are solos.

    The Ending

    Finally, at 2:56, the whole group plays a 15-second closing. It is a simple little riff based on the chords and then the song ends.

    That was easy. An entire jazz tune with a head, solos, and ending in just over three minutes.

    The Anatomy Of A Jazz Tune: Example Two

    Now let’s break down a jazz standard into its components. You may not know this tune, but that is okay. If you start to listen to more jazz, then you will become familiar with it. The tune is called “Autumn Leaves.” Like most jazz standards, it was originally a popular vocal tune. This particular tune was made popular in the 1950s by artists including Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra.

    This is Doris Day’s version. Listen to it. It is only 3 minutes long. It has a basic song structure – intro, verse, chorus, instrumental verse, chorus, closing.

    Isn’t that a beautiful song? It is easy to see why it has become a jazz standard. Unlike some jazz standards, which become standards years after their pop life, this song was concurrently made a jazz standard by artists including Stan Getz, Errol Garner, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. My favorite version is by Cannonball Adderley from his 1958 album Somethin’ Else. The lineup on that album is classic, but we aren’t going to get into musicians or albums in this week’s Faux Show. That will come later. For now, let’s break the song down into its components. If you know the song, or just listened to the Doris Day recording, feel free to sing along.

    The Head

    This tune is a little more complex than the version of “Jingle Bells” we just listened to. It starts with a solo piano intro followed by a full band segment from 0:00 – 0:53. One of the many interesting components of jazz tunes is that the musicians are “allowed” to play around with any part of the tune they want. In this case, the group has arranged a 53-second-long intro that leads into the main melody. Following the intro, the melody is presented on trumpet from 0:53 – 2:02 with the rhythm section (drums, bass, piano) comping in the background. Comping is when a tuned instrument plays chords along with the soloist. These are usually rhythm instruments such as piano, bass, guitar, or vibraphone. We’ll get into musicians and instruments in a future Faux Show, but we may as well note that the trumpet on this tune is played by Miles Davis, one of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century.

    The Solos

    After the trumpet finishes the head, the saxophone comes in with the first solo. As with “Jingle Bells” from before, the notes of the solo are no longer the notes of the melody. The musician may bring the main melody in occasionally, but the solo is improvised such that the notes fit with the chords but are “invented” by the musician in whatever way they desire. However, as with “Jingle Bells” from before, you can still hear the chords behind the melody and sing the song along with the soloist. The solos on this tune are played from 2:02 – 7:43; first the sax comes in off of the trumpet’s intro melody, then the trumpet comes back in for a solo, and then the piano moves away from comping duties and provides a third solo. This is all very basic jazz tune structure. Not all instruments always solo on every tune, but it is common for the horns to have a solo and at least some of the rhythm instruments to solo as well. In this case, the bass and drums do not solo, but they could have.

    The Ending

    After the piano solo ends at 7:43, the trumpet comes right in with a return to the main melody. There could have been variations of the transition back to the main melody ending, but it is common to do this in this way. The trumpet provides the main melody from 7:43 – 8:43 along with the rest of the rhythm section. At this point, the song could end in many ways. A common ending is to play the melody two or three times and finish. In this tune, however, the trumpet drops out at 8:43 and the piano provides a solo closing phrase followed by a segment by the rhythm section and then, finally, the full band for a gorgeous closing section. As with the intro, this is one of the interesting components of jazz. The musicians played around with the tune and arranged a beautiful closing that may not have been expected. Both the intro and closing sections are not improvised and would most likely be played the same by this group in future performances, but the solos would most likely be different every time.

    In total, this version of the tune is eleven minutes long. Most of the tune is comprised of solos (about six minutes in total), but there are also several minutes of basic melody in the head and closing, along with the intro and closing sections. Compared to the three-minute Doris Day version, it is much longer. However, I hope that with an understanding of jazz you can listen to tunes this long, and longer, and fully appreciate the music being presented. When a tune is good, it usually has a chord structure and melody that is interesting. In that way, listening to an eleven-minute jazz tune is not an exercise in tedium but, rather, an engaging journey through the positive aspects of the tune.

    That completes part one of this Faux Show series. I hope this gives you a basic understanding of what is happening in a jazz tune and helps you to enjoy jazz at least a little bit more than you did when you started reading. If you want to listen to some more jazz tunes to get familiar with the topics I just explained, I’ve put together a short playlist. I have provided the songs in pairs to present the tunes in their vocal form and then in their jazz form. There is also a variety of types of jazz presented to start getting you used to the range of jazz this series will cover. For fun, try to find the head, solos, and ending in the jazz tunes.

    The Anatomy of a Jazz Tune playlist (Amazon version)

    The Anatomy of a Jazz Tune playlist (Spotify version)

    Tracks 1 and 2: Doris Day + Cannonball Adderley “Autumn Leaves”: These are the two versions discussed above.

    Tracks 3 and 4: The Beatles + Lee Morgan “Yesterday”: This is often claimed to be the most covered song of all time. The Lee Morgan version is a standard jazz version, but with a bossa nova rhythm. The tenor sax is played by Wayne Shorter – we’ll probably learn about him in a future show.

    Tracks 5 and 6: Cliff Edwards + The Dave Brubeck Quartet “When You Wish Upon A Star”: This is the well-known song from the Disney film Pinocchio.

    Dave Brubeck composed “Take Five,” one of the most popular jazz tunes ever recorded. You may already know it, but you should listen to it in the context of its time signature. If you remember when we started, we counted “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4” in order to get a basic understanding of time signatures. Now listen to “Take Five” and count out the beats to see how a tune can have different time signatures. In this case, it is in 5/4 or “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.” In fact, the entire album, entitled Time Out, focuses on tunes in different time signatures, such as 9/8, 6/4, and 5/4, so it is a great record for investigating that aspect of jazz.

    Tracks 7 and 8: Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra + The Duke Ellington Orchestra “Take The A Train”: In case I don’t get around to this tune in a future show, I wanted to include it here. It was the theme song for the Duke Ellington Orchestra and is one of the most recognizable jazz standards. Rather than starting out as a pop song, it was composed for the orchestra by Ellington and his writing partner Billy Strayhorn. I included both the most well-known orchestral version and the version sung by Ella Fitzgerald on her 1957 album Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most important jazz vocalists and will be in a future show as well.

    Tracks 9 and 10: Mongo Santamaria + Herbie Hancock “Watermelon Man”: These are two jazz versions of the same tune performed in very different styles. Mongo Santamaria was a Cuban bandleader and percussionist, and this is one of his most popular tunes. The Herbie Hancock version is from his groundbreaking 1973 jazz fusion album Head Hunters. Amazingly, Hancock composed the tune in 1962 before Santamaria turned it into a Latin jazz standard, so Hancock’s fusion version is a great example of jazz evolving across the years, even through the performance of the original composer.

    Here is Hancock’s original 1962 version if you want to hear the complete picture.

    And that is a great place to stop because the next show in this series will focus on jazz standards like “Watermelon Man” and their importance in understanding jazz as both a performer and a listener.

    If you know anyone, especially youngsters, who are interested in expanding their knowledge of music, please forward this show on to them. And, as always, thanks for listening and reading!

    3 thoughts on “Radio Faux Show Volume 3, Number 2: Intro To Jazz (Anatomy of a Jazz Tune)

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