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