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I'm wondering how to reharmonize a jazz song using a traditional jazz style that avoids modern substitutions and extensions.

As an example, I've got this score here. You can see the two reharmonizations on the first two A sections that I tried on the score below, but am not totally satisfied. On the one hand, I don't want to just sit on the same chord all the time, but the challenge is that there is a lot of chromaticism in the melody that makes it hard for me to think of straightforward chords using circle of fifths type ideas. I want to use 30s style harmony, which is closer to classical, rather than jazz. The original A section harmony is on the bottom two lines.

Can anyone help me out with some ideas and general techniques for achieving a traditional jazz reharmonization?

"You're the Cream in My Coffee" score

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    "am not totally satisfied" Do you have a more specific issue with that last line? I don't this question quite works in its current form - as it stands, it kind of sounds as though this is asking us to write music for you. What have you tried so far? What did the original do? What is the reason you can't come up with a reharmonization you like for that specific line? Et cetera... An edit with more details may be in order here. – user45266 Mar 29 at 18:45
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    One thing, bar 7 of all the A sections should not be the I, it should be the V (or the ii-V) and the I chord should land on the 8th bar. Personally I like the first 4 bars of your second A section best followed by 3 more bars of ii-V’s. Simple I know but it works and is in the style. – John Belzaguy Mar 30 at 5:29
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    A good tip when reharmonizing is to compare the chords to the melody. This can reveal places where the two clash. For example, in m. 1, the Bb7 clashes with the A natural in the melody. (A natural is the ♮7, but the chord has the b7.) In m. 3, the C dim clashes with the E and G in the melody. Also, I agree 100% with everything @JohnBelzaguy said harmonically. – jdjazz Mar 31 at 3:19
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    To make this question more fitting for the site, I've edited it to ask about techniques in general for achieving traditional jazz reharmonizations. That sort of question will be more valuable to future readers, and I tried to structure my answer that way, describing the approaches you take to reharm lots of songs in a traditional jazz style. If this change isn't appropriate, let me know here in the comments and I'll revert it back, or you can roll back the change yourself. There's 1 vote to close this question, and I think the slightly different phrasing I added will make the Q more on-topic. – jdjazz Mar 31 at 16:11
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    Please fix the spelling of You’re in the song title! – Howlium Mar 31 at 18:08
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Consider taking advantage of the basic movement of the melody: G-F-G-F and D-C-D-C. For example, FM7-F6-FM7-F6 Em7b5-C7/E-Em7b5-C7/E Gm7-C7/G-Gm7-C7/G FM7-F6-FM7-F6. Note that the Em7b5 is perfectly fine in 30s American Songbook music.

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  • Is there an intended difference between Em7b5 and C7/E besides the note D vs. C being included in the voicing? – jdjazz Mar 31 at 3:06
  • @jdjazz No. The idea is that they provide a stable harmonic core via identical triads (E-G-Bb) with the back-and-forth of the D-C operating alongside the D-C melody. Since I want the constant E in the bass, that requires Em7b5 rather than C9. – Aaron Mar 31 at 4:15
  • Would C7/E - C9/E - C7/E etc. be equivalent, then? – jdjazz Mar 31 at 14:16
  • No, because C9/E contains C, which would undermine the intended effect. Em7b5 makes explicit that there should be no C in the chord. – Aaron Mar 31 at 15:39
  • Got it, I see what you mean. I'm not sure Em7b5 - C7/E successfully implies the voice leading that is desired. At least, it's definitely not as effective or as clear as FM7 - F6. The challenge with Em7b5 - C7/E is that the harmonic function isn't changing from V7 to vii7b5, then back to V7, and then back to vii7b5 all within a single measure. This fact doesn't prohibit us from nonetheless writing Em7b5 - C7/E, but if we do, then we're not using the chord symbols to convey the actual harmony. To me, this makes that notation look a little odd. But maybe it's the best choice for the voice leading – jdjazz Mar 31 at 16:01
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tl;dr - General approach

To get a more traditional jazz reharmonization:

  • add chords in spots where the melody pauses (e.g., where a horn would fill)
  • utilize back-cycling, chromatic bass movement, and tritone substitutions
  • preserve important chords that are central to the song
  • when substituting chords, don't change the original harmonic function

Here's a basic method:

  1. Write out the most important chords that define the song's harmony. Different people will come up with different essential chords, and that's great--there's more than one good way to reharmonize a song.
  2. Add chords back in using the techniques above.
  3. Check the chords you've added against the melody to make sure the two don't clash.

An example: You're the Cream in My Coffee

Using the method above, here's a pretty straightforward reharm for the A section of You're the Cream in My Coffee:

| F | Aø Eb7 D7 | Gm C7 | Aø Eb7 D7 |

| Gm Db7 C7 | F7 E7 Eb13(b9) D11 | Db7(b9) C7 | F D7b9 Gm C7b9 |

Walking through the process

Let's take it one step at a time.

Step 1: Write the crucial chords of the A section. This is just my own attempt.

| F | | C7 | |

| C7 | | C7 | F |

Step 2: Approach the V7 chords. In m. 3, I'll add the relative ii chord, Gmin. In m. 7, for a greater sense of finality, I'll lead into C7 with Db7 (a tritone sub of the V chord to C7). In m. 5, I'll do both (because it pairs well with the melody). You can think of all this as forms of back-cycling.

| F | | Gm C7 | |

| Gm Db7 C7 | | Db7 C7 | F |

Step 3: Approach the ii chords. Let's approach the Gmin chords in m. 3 and 5 with the relative iii-iv. For added interest, I'll lead into the D7 with a tritone sub:

| F | Aø Eb7 D7 | Gm C7 | Aø Db7 D7 |

| Gm C7 | | Db7 C7 | F |

Step 4: Add a turnaround at the end. So that m. 8 leads back into m. 1, I'll add a vi-ii-V turnaround.

| F | Aø Eb7 D7 | Gm C7 | Aø Eb7 D7 |

| Gm C7 | | Db7 C7 | F D7 Gm C7 |

Step 5: Add chromatic bass movement. Let's add some chords to m. 6. Even though m. 7 starts with Db7, I'm thinking "m. 7 is basically Gm-C7, and so the last chord of m. 6 should be D7." Then I work backwards: the V of D7 is A7, the V of A7 is E7, etc. Use tritone substitutions to achieve chromatic bass movement:

| F | Aø Eb7 D7 | Gm C7 | Aø Eb7 D7 |

| Gm Db7 C7 | F7 E7 Eb7 D7 | Db7 C7 | F D7b9 Gm C7 |

Step 6: Check the chords against the melody. We can add alterations so that the chords don't clash with the melody:

| F | Aø Eb7 D7 | Gm C7 | Aø Eb7 D7 |

| Gm Db7 C7 | F7 E7 Eb13(b9) D11 | Db7(b9) C7 | F D7b9 Gm C7b9 |

We're done! This is a pretty good, straightforward reharm.

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  • This is a very cool method, but the actual harmonization needs refinement. For example, in m. 2, the D7 chord doesn't work against the F in the melody. The extended chords in mm. 6-7 are also especially problematic. – Aaron Mar 31 at 16:34
  • All of the D7 chords would be altered (#9), but I can add that in specifically. What's wrong with the chords in measures 6-7? They all fit with the melody. – jdjazz Mar 31 at 18:19
  • The D7s are implicitly altered -- explicitly notating it isn't necessary -- I just think it doesn't sound good here. Measures 6 and 7 I'll revisit when I can get to a piano. I see now I misplayed the melody there. – Aaron Mar 31 at 18:26
  • @Aaron, I love the D7alt sound there--I can put together a recording to share too. Hearing voicings is always helpful to understanding a reharm, of course. – jdjazz Mar 31 at 18:37
  • Well, obviously there's no accounting for taste. :-) I was voicing the D7 as D7/A with the F# on top, so that sounded bad; it works much better in root position with C on top. Mm. 6 and 7 were partially my fault for mis-playing the melody, but I don't care for the G against F# in the D11 or the D (not Ebb) against the Db7b9. Still worth the upvote, because the method is nice, regardless differences in aesthetics. – Aaron Mar 31 at 19:15

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