Where Jazz Theory Got It Wrong

The status quo of jazz education has transformed songbook standards into bizarre jumbles of church modes for decades. I want to give you an overview of the theory problem and how you can have greater success playing standard jazz repertoire.

Chord Scale Mess

The modal jazz revolution

Today’s jazz theory is rooted in chord/scale unity from George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept. This revolutionary concept influenced the writing of Miles Davis and Bill Evans on the iconic 1959 album Kind of Blue. (If you have never heard George Russell’s brilliant compositions, check out Manhattan from 1959 featuring John Coltrane, Bill Evans, John Hendricks, Art Farmer, and many other greats.)

The foundation of Russell’s concept is that a seven-note Lydian chord is more consonant than a seven-note Ionian (major scale) chord. Play these chords on the piano and experience the concept for yourself:

Ionian chord

Lydian chord

In the harmonic language of modal jazz, chords and scales are unified. C Lydian and CMaj13(#11) share the same seven tones. Modal chord/scale theory is the harmonic language of the tunes “Maiden Voyage,” “Milestones,” “So What,” “Impressions,” and “Little Sunflower.”

The theory problem

Before 1958, jazz was based on tonal harmony from the European classical tradition. Understanding and internalizing diatonic harmony, chord function, tension and release, and voice-leading will help you play music from the New Orleans, swing, and bebop eras.

George Russell’s concept was an abandonment of tonal harmony.

The Lydian Concept is based on the unity of chord and scale. When Miles saw how he could use the Concept, he said that if Bird were alive, this would kill him.

George Russell, The Making of Kind of Blue

The status quo of jazz education applies chord/scale theory to all jazz repertoire, even pieces written decades before modal jazz revolution. This theory doesn’t reflect how jazz musicians before 1958 approached improvisation, and it’s confusing for students.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the harmony of the first eight measures of Jerome Kern’s 1939 standard, “All the Things You Are”. Here is a tonal analysis:

all the things tonal

This piece opens with a diatonic progression in Ab major and modulates C major in measure six. The right hand voicings (with added 9ths for color) show linear voice leading through each of the four voices.

Here is an chord/scale analysis of the same passage:

This jumble of notes contains less useful information because it obscures chord function the voice-leading. Acknowledging that chords and scales aren’t actually unified, jazz education introduced “avoid tones.” George Russell’s theory is about unitythere are no “avoid tones” in modal jazz. When chords change twice per bar, a modal analysis is insanely complicated (see the graphic at the top of this post).

In measures 1-5, the chord tones change, but the tonic (scale degree 1) is Ab throughout. The first eight measures of “All the Things You Are” contain seven chords from two scales. In tonal music, the tonic names the scale, not the root of each chord! When approaching a tonal piece, instead of asking, “what scale do I play over this chord?” ask yourself, “what scale did this chord come from?”

My criticism is more than an academic argument. In my experience working with hundreds of young musicians, presenting tonal and modal harmony separately is more effective pedagogy than the status quo. Once you have mastered both harmonic languages, you can layer colorful modal sounds onto tonal progressions. If you want to dive deeper, my book The Living Jazz Tradition guides you through the basics of tonal harmony and modal harmony with integrated repertoire.

– ST

Also see my follow-up post, The Status Quo and the Purpose of Theory

Get free downloads of drum groove and drone tracks from my book when you subscribe to my email newsletter

Subscribe to the Creative Music Blog to receive new posts by email