Unit 3 Form


Target Objectives

  • Student (teacher) will be able to describe what "swing" is in jazz.
  • Student (teacher) will be able to identify arrangement performance practices within a given form of jazz
  • Student (teacher) will reflect on their guided listening.


"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." -Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

The utilization of "swing" is the defining characteristic that makes jazz. The term "swing" has been debated in terms of it's true definition. Defining it in text is difficult, it is better understood when heard in practice. The following clip is from a jazz educator that remains anonymous. The information he gives on the definition of swing is extremely easy to understand and therefore must be included here.

While watching this video, look to answer the following questions...

  • What beats are the foundation of rock or classical music?
  • What beats are the foundation of jazz that is thought to swing?
  • What is "fix?"
  • Is jazz or classical in "fix?"


"When?"...Arrangement Performance Practices

Contrary to popular belief, the jazz musician follows a very strict structure when playing. In this unit we will experience different stylistic forms that make up the jazz practice. We will begin with the concept of improvisation. To do this, we will come back to George Gershwin's piece, "I Got Rhythm."

The form , or underlying structure of "I Got Rhythm," is similar to other pieces in that are of "traditional" from or labeled "AABA." In musical form any original introduction of new material is given a letter to designate it's occurrence. For example, with your class, sing the children's song "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" together. The class will see that the song has a form of ABBA. The verses starting with "Twinkle, twinkle...." are "A" and the "Up above the world..." and "Like a diamond in the sky" are the "B" material.

In the case of "I Got Rhythm" the material in "A" occurs twice in a row, followed by new material in "B" (also called a "bridge") and finally, the "A" material is repeated one more time for consistency. You might now ask, "then what?"

Answering this question, reveals the lifeblood of jazz itself...

With your class, sing the song I Got Rhythm to refamiliarize them with the song ( the Silver-Burdett reference is recommended) then show this clip of Arnett Cobb (1918-1989)...


Now, let's watch it with guided listening questions and statements for deeper insight...

  • While listening to this piece count to yourself the measures that make up the form. Along to it's quarter note pulse, you will count "1-2-3-4 "2"-2-3-4" "3"-2-3-4 "4"-2-3-4 etc. until "8"-2-3-4 upon after you will start counting from 1-2-3-4, "2"-2-3-4 etc.

How long is this melody? How long is each A or B section? (The answer is that it is 32 measures long in common time. each section is 8 measures long.)

Try to continue counting this form as you listen, it will help you to be able to identify musical interpretation within.

  • As the piece begins the melody (the musical material that was just sung in class) is now being played on the tenor saxophone by the great Arnett Cobb with rhythm section accompaniment.
  • What happens in the first "B" section? Does he play the melody as you've heard it before? No. Who plays instead? Does this other instrument not deliberately state the melody of the B section or is it embellishing the written melody of the B section? Arnett Cobb's musical decision to not play that melody himself adds a feeling of spontaneity to the performance, something crucial to jazz.
  • Notice the bass player plays the quarter-note pulse we learned about in the previous unit, here is what was described before as a walking bass line.
  • What beats are the drummer pressing down on the hi-hat? (The answer is beat 2 and 4)

After the melody is stated, the tenor sax solos first. Here now is a constant repetition of the piece's harmonic structure. The soloist takes the notes of the written chords and chooses, in the moment, which of them he will play. Overall, the notes to play in the chord must be excecuted as they occur at the rate of the song's tempo.

That having been said, how may times does Arnett Cobb improvise over the song's form before the next soloist begins? (the answer is - three times)

  • Among each of these repetitions the form (each known as choruses) can you give any adjectives or descriptive terms to state any differences between each of the three choruses? (there are no wrong answers here)
  • What instrumentalist solos next? How many choruses? Any distinctive impressions of it's musical content?
  • What instrumentalist solos third? How many choruses? Any distinctive impressions of it's musical content?
  • What instrumentalist solos fourth? How many choruses? Any distinctive impressions of it's musical content?
  • At the time 6:40 in the clip we come to what is known as "trading fours." Here the front line soloists have a musical conversation that goes back and forth between the group in 4 measure increments of the form. To guide your listening, which soloist is playing at the first four bars of each repetition of the "B" section?
  • After trading, the drummer solos over the form as well. How many choruses did he play? It may be difficult to discern how many at first given the level of excitement he generates!
  • Now, at the end of the piece the original melody (or "head") is to be restated. Based on your viewing, it the melody restated in the same manner as the first time they played the "head"? Give your thoughts on what happens at this point in the performance.

Other forms

As you will see, the previously viewed pattern of what instrumentalist solos when is not a hard and fast rule. It is decided upon at that time, in the moment...


Ballads are a rarely heard form in present day.

  • After seeing this clip, what elements of this differentiate it from the "I Got Rhythm" clip? Whatever your answer, it will be valid, it is what defines a Ballad.

This piece is an another example of a reinterpretation of a popular-song writers' work. In this case the composers are Rodgers and Hart.



The defining feature of a Blues piece is it's melodic reliance of the Blues scale for the soloist.

(Discuss here with the class what a blues scale is)

The other defining feature is that it is a form of 12 measures repeated. As you listen to this clip, try counting in repetition the 12 bars as you did in the Arnett Cobb clip (1-2-3-4 "2"-2-3-4 "3"-2-3-4..."12"-2-3-4 "1"-2-3-4...)


Fusion (Jazz/Rock) and the Avant Garde)

While the scope of this course is not to detail every single form of jazz (there are many less common ones in existence, as we end, let's focus on two forms that have had to most affect on the last 40 years of jazz. The two forms are Fusion (or Jazz/Rock) and the Avant Garde.

Fusion was developed in the late 1960s by fusing jazz elements with the then current elements of Rock and Roll. With the increasing popularity of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and such, younger generations of listeners (and jazz musicians) were influenced by the electric energy and messages of rock music. Two main characteristics of Fusion include a use of straight sixteenth note based pulse (not "swing"), and instrument amplification.

As you watch the clip of Miles Davis (credited with inventing Fusion) reinterpreting Michael Jackson's song "Human Nature" create a discussion among your class, on what their impression and your impression is.


Avant Garde

Jazz in it's original form, included African American folk song forms and rhythms as part of it's basic make-up. As time has gone on, the cultural background of any jazz musician influences their work. The alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn (1953-) is one example of the recent cultures influence on a contemporary jazz musician. Raised in the Jewish faith and being of his time period leads his work to reflect both Hebrew melodies and the popular music of his time.


Other jazz musicians have sought to retain their connection to African culture in other ways than previously thought of in the early days of jazz. The Art Ensemble of Chicago incorporates theatrics, costumes and breaking down of the traditional roles of jazz instrumentalists (including each member becoming a multi-instrumentalist)...


Finally, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-) reintroduced the practice of "collective improvisation" (everyone soloing at once) from the Dixieland era and combined that with his advanced form of improvisation, known as "harmolodics."


Go back to Unit 2 Performance/Interpretation Practices

Go back to Jazz in the General Music Classroom