Contrafacts in jazz: language, myth, method and homage

Corey Mwamba Creative Commons License


A major part of the developmental process in jazz involved the recasting of older musical structures with contemporary musical ideas, idiom and language ― creating a contrafact. Taking five variations of the 1940s popular song How High The Moon, this essay and analysis seeks to explore the various aspects of the contrafact: the ways that each one shows its lineage; how they can reinforce an emerging musical language; its position as homage to previous innovations; and its contemporary relevance.

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. The contrafact has a particular significance in jazz, particularly from the 1930s to late 1950s, where musicians extensively used contrafacts to generate new work. 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.

But within a "modernistic" art form such as jazz, why recast old material when you could write new material? 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. 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.

This bears many similarities to how "anti-languages" are formed and used: 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 from the late Thirties to mid-Sixties, 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). This is not to say that the new musical phrases had specific meanings; they are not analogous to denoted words, although they can have a connotation. Instead, the contrafact subverts the structure (grammar) and the sounds (lexis) of the original piece without necessarily having any effect on the denotation of the original. So in a sense it is not an anti-language that is formed in music, but an "anti-lexicogrammar", an entity that balances carefully between the two.

The source: How High The Moon

How High The Moon is a song written by Morgan Lewis with lyrics by Nancy Hamilton for the 1940 musical revue "Two For The Show". The song became very popular, having first been recorded by Benny Goodman's orchestra, played on radio by Nat "King" Cole's trio, and recorded by many vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Mary Ford.

The original song is thirty-two bars long and has a binary structure: two almost identical A sections. But this structure is fine-grained, consisting of small variations of three bits of melodic material.

AA'level 1
abaclevel 2
aa'bcaa'b'dlevel 3
aa1a'a1' bcc'b' aa1a'a1' b c'b'a2level 4
Melodic cell structure of How High The Moon. Each of the smallest cells is two measures. A prime (') indicates a harmonic variation; a number shows a melodic variation

In all but two contrafacts in this study, this form is not altered; nor is the harmonic progression (except again, in the same two).

In trying to visualise the commonalities and differences between the contrafacts and the original, I stacked all of them except contrafact #1 in a single score.

Comparative transcription of How High The Moon and contrafacts

Bop era contrafacts

The transition from swing to bebop was messy. Although it's commonly attributed to the work of a select group of musicians (Charlie Parker, "Dizzy" Gillespie, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, and others), on listening to jazz recordings around or after World War II one can hear many different possibilities as to how the new music could have turned out. For example, it's possible to hear extended phrasing and so-called playing on the upper partials of the chord from pianists Nat "King" Cole and Art Tatum; advanced harmonic improvisation from Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Ventura and Lionel Hampton – all of whom dealt with bebop in their own way; and shrieks and extended-octave playing from the multi-woodwind player Herbie Fields and the alto saxophonist Earl Bostic. But the main progenitors of the eventual "winner", Parker and Gillespie, were already heading towards the new style and formulating approaches systematically and studiously: Earl Hines commented in an interview that the alto saxophonist and trumpeter used to share ideas they had written in exercise books: ornamentations, melodic approaches, things heard to be used later or never. This bears some resemblance to the various passagi (ornamentation) pamphlets written by composers in 16th Century Europe for singers to use in extemporisation and embellishment in a song.

But bebop has a persistent mythology: built in jam sessions, the language was created through playing and pure inspiration. Analysing work written in this period reveals various connections with earlier work in the swing aesthetic as well as contemporaneous linkages, and breaks down that mythology.

Ornithology: an exercise in apocrypha

Who wrote Ornithology is a complicated matter. Alyn Shipton states it was Charlie Parker; the original recording states co-authorship with the swing-to-bop trumpeter Benny Harris; and David N. Baker wrote that Benny Harris wrote it. Chuck Haddix gives an account of how Charlie Parker sketched out the melody in a car on the way to the recording session for Dial at the Radio Recorders studio, Los Angeles on 28th March 1946: this is only partially reinforced by another account by Carl Woideck which states that Parker introduced his group to the song in the Finale Club, Los Angeles in February or March 1946; this was documented in a radio broadcast (but a contradiction is caused if this was the case, as Parker could not then have sketched out the melody in the car, as Haddix suggested – the radio session happened before the recording date for Dial, and the personnel are different). There is one sole (but disputed) discographical note of Parker playing the composition with an unknown orchestra in late 1945. However, "Dizzy" Gillespie recounted how Harris was obsessed with a Nat "King" Cole recording of How High The Moon and may have written Ornithology at some point between 1942 and 1946. Harris would commonly call the tune at jam sessions, and the pianist Al Tinney recalled that How High The Moon was Harris' favourite song.

Don Byas' Quintette (of which Harris was a member) recorded How High The Moon in 26th November 1945 for Savoy Records at the WOR studios in New York.

In his solo, Harris clearly plays elements of Ornithology in his solo at bars 9 – 11, 23 – 24 and 26, albeit with a rhythmic aesthetic that comes from swing. Also, at bars 29 – 30, Harris plays a figure that describes the harmonic descent Bm → Bø → Am → A°, closely matching the chromatic descent at the same place in Ornithology of Bm → B → Am → A.

Transcription of Benny Harris' solo on How High The Moon, stacked with Ornithology.

On the same day after this session, also for Savoy, Charlie Parker took a group into the same studios and recorded five songs, including the classic version of Ko Ko with "Dizzy" Gillespie (because Miles Davis could not get the introduction right; Gillespie also played some piano on the session), but the group did not play Ornithology that day.

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.

However, none of this takes anything away from the fact that Parker did have a strong involvement in the creation and popularisation of the song, even if he may not have written it entirely by himself. The rest of the melody has phrases directly from his lexis, and rhythmically it entirely fits with his conception of structure. Parker solidified his connection with the song a few years later by writing a new melody line and it is this version that is considered here.

At the fourth level, the melodic form departs from the original dramatically, yet it still holds the majority of the original shape at the third level:

aa1bc c'b1'dd' aa1bc c'b1'ee'
Melodic cell structure of Ornithology.

Within the finest structure, the composition sets up a "question" phrase, re-states it with a variation, and then provides an "answer" (A → A1 → B; then C → C' → B1). These are then followed a melodic comma lasting two measures in the first sixteen bars (D → D') and then a melodic resolution also lasting two measures in the final sixteen (E → E'). In this way, Parker and Harris distort the squareness of the melodic form to a 3:3:2 pattern.

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 directly states that his concern is communicating with people through music, in direct contradiction to Ralph Ellison's assertion (see Footnote 4) that Parker, Gillespie et al. rejected the role of the musician as entertainer. In the many live recordings of this song we can hear Parker consistently applying his inventiveness while still thrilling the audience.

Parker's solos on the song always depart from the main theme radically, as the concern is to communicate directly to the listener, but using the musical language he created for himself. Thomas Owens gives a detailed analysis of some of Parker's "formulae", and he goes so far to state that 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

The pervasiveness of Parker's influence started almost as soon as he came onto the scene. 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 and someone with a caring personality. 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.

Tristano's composed solo as theme has similarities to what he saw as Parker's melody. Apart from a few slight displacements, the rhythmic stresses in bars 1 - 5, 7, and 8 (and thus bars 17 - 21, 23 and 24) are practically identical; and the harmony of the figure played in bars 29 - 30 (Bm7 → Bm → Am → D7) is very similar to Ornithology's chromatic descent. And yet the new work also skilfully reveals the pianist's dialect of the new music: the chromatic substitution in the third bar is entirely his, as well as the sense of motion created by the fluid and shifting melodic line.

aba'b1' c'def aba'b1' cdge'
Melodic cell structure of Lennie Bird.

Unlike Ornithology, Lennie 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.

Satellite: going different places

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. After a confrontation with bassist Reggie Workman he confined himself to his house, and with the help of his wife he drove out his addictions and began a new chapter in his life. A new recording contract with Prestige in 1957 and a short tenure with Thelonious Monk moved him back into the critical spotlight again.

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:

chordsBmBm AmD7GmGmFmB7Em
Bars 1 - 5 of Straight Street

This continued with Moment's Notice from his only album for Blue Note, "Blue Train"; and then by 1958, he had written Giant Steps, a song with a relentless minor third → perfect fourth motion performed at breakneck speed which he recorded in 1959. There are two pieces of evidence for the year of authorship: Wayne Shorter recalled when he used to visit Coltrane in 1958 that he was playing piano mostly. I think it was the beginning of Giant Steps; and the saxophonist Carl Grubbs (a cousin of Coltrane's first wife, Naima) remembers his first encounter with the composition:

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 voicings 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.

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.

Melodic cell structure for Satellite

The progression itself is made up predominantly of a series of descending major seconds, which in the solo occasionally morphs into the minor third → perfect fourth motion by raising every other chord by a perfect fourth. This allows the bassist Steve Davis and Coltrane at least two approaches to performing the piece. The other main change that Coltrane makes is with the form of the piece itself, adding eight bars over a d pedal bass to the existing form.

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.

How High The Bird: maintaining tradition

Steve Williamson was one of the original Jazz Warriors, a collective of predominantly second-generation African and Caribbean jazz musicians that all but dominated the British national jazz scene from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties. Williamson's début album from 1990, "Waltz For Grace", revealed a forward-looking, searching saxophonist and composer who had absorbed the technical knowledge of Coltrane, Parker and more contemporary music, and combined it with complex folk and dance rhythms, as well as modern jazz.

So in some senses, his contrafact How High The Bird stands out on this album. Although jazz was enjoying a resurgence, some of the songs that had formed part of its standard repertoire were between thirty to fifty years old: Ornithology was already around forty-five years old by the time Williamson recorded his contrafact and neither it nor How High The Moon could be said to be popular. But this reawakening of jazz was based on a highly mythologised period of the Fifties and Sixties; a form of neo-classicism arose, and the mainstream media chose a champion for this movement in the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis: sharp-suited, clean-cut young men, serving and maintaining a tradition through apparel, attitude and musical language.

Clip of How High The Bird

Williamson follows this pattern by first mapping the beginning of the song to sound reminiscent of the original, and then retaining the third level melodic structure of Ornithology. Williamson's fourth-level fine structure has more distinct phrases than the Parker/Harris tune, but paradoxically it is more "square" – the measures group up as 4:2:2, staying well within duple/binary boundaries.

abcd d1'eff1 abcd d1'egh
Melodic cell structure of How High The Bird.

The melody is sparse and fragmented, very much in keeping with the post-bop aesthetic of sharpness and angularity, but it's the influence of Parker that haunts this song, and in comparison to the rest of Williamson's work (on that album or after) the song is not fully reflective of his musical language of the time. Here the contrafact connects the young player to an older tradition. Williamson is in effect "paying his dues" on record and acknowledging a primary influence through homage: his concern is not to "own" the song or to re-frame it in a relevant contemporary context, as he does in his original compositions.

Contrafact #1: associative play

Part of the challenge I set myself when thinking about this was writing a contrafact for my working group (a trio with Dave Kane on bass and Joshua Blackmore on drums) that reflected our personal voice. The trio's leanings are towards totally improvised music: thus, it's very rare for us to perform written material – we've only knowingly done it twice. We have an unspoken and unpremeditated performance practice, akin to that of the medieval period, and that is the most important facet of our improvisational language. So the contrafact would have to highlight this in a way that sounded natural to us, as well as sounding "improvised" to the audience.

My strategy for achieving this was to write something, but then not show the other two what I'd written. By beginning to play, the other two would find associative links, play what was required, and we could develop it from there.

Score and clip of contrafact #1

What I wrote could be viewed as an reductionist take of How High The Moon. Through all of the contrafacts discussed so far there are two main melodic commonalities, as well as harmonic ones:

  1. all the contrafacts start on a d either as the first note of the piece or as anacrusis; and
  2. they all use a b to either start (in bar 7) or lead into (from bar 6) the third layer C section.

When the d is in the pick-up bar, it sets up a harmonic resolution from the dominant to the tonic in G: Coltrane (the only one to use the d in the first bar) repeats the note, allowing the note to change function in relation to the bass notes from dominant to submediant to leading tone, but the beginning perfect consonance has already suggested the tonality to the listener.

With this in mind, I thought that playing a d would be just enough to suggest the tonality of G. At the same time, I had to be careful to not suggest the tonality of D – and so I repeated the d at the octave and then used an e, which is a semitone (or minor ninth) from d and a minor sixth from g.

My partially theoretical belief is that centuries of music listening has trained the human ear to "assume" certain harmonic and melodic movements (for an entertaining example of this, see singer Bobby McFerrin working with assumptions on the pentatonic scale), for example the dominant always resolving to the tonic and the minor sixth being heard as an augmented fifth and thus also resolving downwards to the dominant.

The d at the octave naturally leads down a perfect fifth to the g, and the e (heard as an augmented fifth from the assumed resolution, and not as a minor ninth from the first d) leads to a d. This octave → minor second pattern is followed by an improvised line downwards to a b, suggesting the dominant seventh of C, and creating a melodic "dependent clause".

The ear expects to hear the tonality of F and this is satisfied by repeating the "octave → minor second → line downwards" pattern, but starting from c. I give myself the option of playing an octave → minor third pattern instead, but this is just an aesthetic choice. I then lead to a "independent clause", which is a major third dyad on e (i.e. e and g). This is then followed by an improvisation that leads to a solitary b. This note acts as the final statement.

As this occurs, you can hear the bassist pick up on the implied harmonies of the line (within the square brackets on the score) and then echo the line (below the bracketed section) as we improvise. He then cycles g, d and e, as written within the brackets with arrowheads, but not in the way that I had written it.

The melodic cell structure for contrafact #1 is similar to the original song, but unlike the other contrafacts it doesn't fit within a strict metrical structure.

Melodic cell structure for contrafact #1
This allows the trio to push and pull against the initial melodic pulse and is entirely in keeping with our usual collective practice, whilst also reflecting the song on which it was originally based.

Where are the contrafacts now?

A quick look at recent jazz releases shows that it's more common to cover a song than apply contrafactum. This process is an extension of earlier musicians playing popular songs of the day. So an artist like pianist Vijay Iyer covering Michael Jackson's Human Nature in 2011 is working in the same tradition as Nat "King" Cole's trio playing How High The Moon in 1941. But there is a great difference between my writing contrafact #1 in 2013 and Lennie Tristano's writing Lennie Bird in the late 1940s, even if we are both using it to express our individual languages. Tristano, Parker, and Coltrane were applying contrafactum on a popular song: Williamson and I were applying it to an old song that had lost popular traction. 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, which eventually forked and became subsumed into current popular and dancefloor music. 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 globalised and commercialised, it has had to deal with the consequences. Smaller hip-hop clans have had their idiosyncrasies copied or emulated globally, and intellectual property law now plays an increasing factor in what can and cannot be used for the new music. Where jazz rarely asked permission to borrow even in its popular phase, hip-hop and pop are now constrained by law and economics. So when Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke performed contrafactum on Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up to create Blurred Lines, the only possible result was that the estate of Marvin Gaye would file a law suit, which is why Thicke and Williams filed one preemptively. The main threat to the contrafact is now litigation.