The following article from our archives originally appeared in our April 2011 issue. To read the full article, click here
“Let’s play rhythm!” It’s a phrase that jazz musicians often hear during jam sessions or at the bandstand. It means, ‘Let’s improvise on the harmonic structure of the great classic American song, I Got Rhythm.’ Jazz musicians used the shape and harmony of “rhythm changes” (the jazz term for the harmonic structure of I have rhythm) for years as the basis for new melodies and jazz improvisations. The most enduring and widely played forms of jazz are the twelve-bar blues and “rhythm changes”.
In this article, we’ll use walking basslines to explore some of the many harmonic variations of “beat changes.”
I have rhythm was written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1930 and found its way into the series Crazy girl. After Ethel Merman’s performances in the original Broadway production, jazz musicians of the day quickly picked up the song’s melody and harmony as a vehicle for improvisation. In 1938, clarinetist Benny Goodman recorded one of the most famous versions of I have rhythmwith Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, released on Sony as Jazz concert at Carnegie Hall.
The song’s most famous recording as a bass comes from a concert at New York City Hall in 1945. Leroy ‘Slam’ Stewart and tenor saxophonist Don Byas play an incredible duet to the tune. Slam weaves its way into a driving two-beat bass line under Byas’s solo, then delivers its own incredible solo, with its signature vocals, in unison, an octave above the bowed bass.
The performance is hard to find on CD, but is currently available at most digital music stores. During the swing and bebop era, many jazzers used the harmonic structure of Gershwin’s classic as the basis for new melodies. When jazz musicians talk about “rhythm changes,” they’re referring to the harmony, or chord progression and shape of the original song. A jazz melody based on the harmony of a different song in this way is called a contrafact.
Songs like Duke Ellington’s cotton tailLester Young’s Lester leaps In and Nat King Cole’s To sort out and fly right are all classic swing songs based on “rhythm changes”. Anthropology, Moose the Mooche and Steeplechase are some of the famous contrafacts of “changes of rhythm” composed by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker during the bebop era. Other notable contrafacts of “changes of pace” include Sonny Rollins OleoThelonious Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ningand cartoon theme Meet the Flintstones by Hoyt Curtin.
Playing over the harmony to the “rhythm changes” has become one of the ultimate tests of jazz mastery. It provided a common canvas for the past 80 years of jazz history, with everyone from Duke Ellington to Pat Metheny painting a piece of the picture.
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