Learning a New Jazz Number Quickly


Have you ever wondered how easy or difficult it may be for a Jazz pianist to learn lots and lots of songs for a new gig?  The most common misconceptions are that the melody lines are difficult to remember, the chords are always different, the keys provide difficult chords to memorise and, even once you have slaved away learning it, you will probably forget it anyway.


Fear not, reader.  Learning a new song should not be associated with complicated melodies, chords, keys and the worry of never remembering the song when you need it.  I promise.  Let's have a look at a song I do indeed know, but, to be honest, haven't played for a while.  It means I need to stretch my memory a little bit (and I promise to not look in the Fake Book for the chords!)

A Foggy Day (in London Town).  Brilliant, brilliant song and one I did (and now do again) love to play.  It's in the key of F so one flat in the scale, the B to Bb.

You will now learn this song and once you apply it to any other Jazz song, you will learn that song and never forget it, in less than 30 minutes (excluding listening to it and getting the melody in your head).

Let's begin by listening to the song in it's original form without improvisation or no words.  Learning the words to a new tune is probably the best way to remember the melody.  As you listen, learn the words roughly while moving your head to the rhythm to internalise it and become one with it.  Do not be disturbed or you'll lose the 'path'.  Try this link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PsdBHtsss8&feature=fvwrel

I'm listening as I write.  What do you feel?  What chords could be used to produce these sounds?  What feelings do the words provoke?  You need to listen so closely.  Don't hear it, listen to it.  Move your head (on beat 2), tap your feet to the 1, 2, 3, 4 measure.  Like it?  I feel happy but can appreciate the sometimes 'serious' and 'mature' feeling of the song.  It's incredibly sophisticated as a song.  I expect (well, I know, but I would have said if I didn't know the chords) that is uses lots of minor 7ths, I think a diminshed in there too.  It touches over a major 7th.  Clearly lots of II/V/I progressions.  Really good Jazz stuff.  The words describe a scene, a setting, an environment, an ambiance:  Old London, walking around sad and miserable due to the weather, then sees a beautiful woman and the bad whether 'changes' to be better.  We can therefore introduce this change in feeling when we play it solo.  Talking of solo, listen to this version now:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwpD3-ojtqM

Are you still alive?  If you haven't bopped your head off or broken your feet, I'll be amazed and you should be ashamed of yourself!  That was just the most sublime example of a A Foggy Day on the piano that you could ever, ever hear in your life.  I'm going to play it again and discuss a few things:  It starts out with that sophisticated sound, the drums control the rhythm nicely without getting to excited.  His melody is simple, correct and not disguising the real melody too much.  He enhances the meldoy sometimes with block chords.  The stop before the solo is so beautiful, oh man.  Then his solo... for me, he captures the essence of sophisticated London.  I can imagine some old businessmen smoking in a jazz club and standing around the piano, appreciative of his casual playing which touches on those chord changes just right.  He hits major sevenths, his runs are short and elegant.  I can almost hear the guy walking around London and seeing a girl and getting all excited!

So, after that wonderfully passionate experience, you should know this song like the back of your hand by now.  I mean, you could 'hum' along with the song and know what comes next.  That helps.  Now let's learn the chords.  You can pick out the melody for yourself (or read the simple right hand music for it - I won't waste time talking about that because it couldn't be easier).

A Foggy Day chords (without complicated extensions, this lesson is about learning a new song quickly):

FM7 / / / | D7(b5) / / / | Gm7 / / / | C7 / / / || FM7 / / / | Ab13 / / / | Gm7 / / / | C7 / / / || FM7 / / / | Cm7 / F7 / | BbM7 / / / | Eb13 / / / || Am7 / / / | D7 / / / | Gm7 / / / | C7 / / / ||:

That's it.  First, remember the first chord; this is usually the key of the song, F.  You should know about II V I progressions.  Maybe you know about VI II V I progressions?  Perhaps you don't kow about III VI II V I progressions?  If not, basically, according to a Mode table, the 2nd, 3rd and 6th of a key (F, here) are always minor7's (but a 6th is usually converted into a dom7 chord type for Jazz progression sounding reasons).  The 5th is always a dom7, with 1 and 4 being Major 7ths and the 7th note (E, in the key of F) being a half diminished: m7b5.  Remember this:
1 - M7
2 - m7
3 - m7
4 - M7
5 - dom7
6 - m7
7 - m7b5

Our tune adheres to this table and to the progressions I noted above (3,6,2,5,1).  We simply start on F, play the 6, (D) as a dominant chord (as in, no minor or major 7), then 2 (G) as it should be (m7), then 5 (C) as it should be, then start again but play Ab.  Why?  You can remember this in two ways:  First time from F go down a minor third to D, second time up a minor third to Ab, followed by the II V I (Gm7, C7, FM7), or, more complicatedly, consider Ab as a tri-tone substitution of D, so you could imagine you're still playing D but you're substituting it for its tri-tone sub, Ab.  A tri-tone sub is easily found anywhere:  play the b5 of the chord you want to substitute and make that 1 (I).  The b5 of D is Ab, which is the second time you leave F for the 2 5 1.

So, it's F VI II V I, then F m3 (or VI tri-tone sub into Ab), II V I.  That's the first bit of the song.  Are you going to tell me you can't remember the most used chord progression in Jazz used in probably over 90% of Jazz songs?

Second bit:  Oh look, it starts again with FM7 (I).  It then does a II V I into Bb, the only flat in the key we're in, F.  Is that forgetable?  Not really!  We could say it goes up a 4th from F (Bb) and does a II V I (Cm7, F7, Bb), then just another 4th just once for that Eb13 chord.  So, we have 2 sets of VI II V I with a little mod on the second VI (but still a related chord), then a 4th up with its own II V I followed by another 4th step up for just one 13th chord.  The rest is so obvious too:  Key of F, still, and our famed III (Am), VI (D7), II (Gm7), VI (C7), I (F).  The second time round for the ending chords you simply climb from F to Gm7, to Am7, back to Gm7 then C7 and F to finish or, in other words, II, III, II V I

Now go and play it.  All we have done is segment/compartmentalise the chords in blocks which, 90%+ of the time, will be some form of III VI II V I chord progressions.  If they aren't, they will be something else very memorable, otherwise it can't really be a Jazz standard!

May I now recommend listening to that Red Garland recording again (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwpD3-ojtqM) and following the chords in your head.

Once you know the chords, you simply remember 3 'compartments' and you know the chords automatically depending on the key you are in, so no key is too hard.  Let's change the key to my favourite, Eb.

Two blocks of I VI II VI I with the second being a tri-tone sub of itself (or up a minor third (Gb) rather than down a third (C).  We get:  (I) EbM7 / / / | (VI = down minor 3rd) Cmb5 / / / | (II) Fm7 / / / | (V) Bb7 / / / | (I) EbM7 / / / | (tri-tone of VI = C = Gb so up minor 3rd) Gb13 / / / | (again II)  Fm7 / / / | (again V) Bb7 / / / |  Then Eb / / / | now 4th up (Ab) with the II V of that, giving (II) Bbm / / / | (V) Eb7 / / / | (I) AbM7 / / / | up another 4th for the 13th, Db / / / .... etc, etc.

I'll leave it there and let it settle and look forward to your comments on this subject!

Good luck learning lots of songs!

Best,
Dan