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I'm curious about the development of modern (post-bop-ish) jazz harmony. In Mark Levine's Jazz Theory Book, he shows how modes of the melodic minor scale can be used to form and improvise over chords with various types of alterations and functions. This would most famously include alt chords and their association with the seventh mode of the melodic minor, but also the Lydian dominant chord (fourth mode) used on a tritone sub, Lydian Augmented (third mode) subbed for a tonic chord, and playing melodic minor over a minor ii-V-i (sixth, seventh and first mode). These sounds have become closely associated with "straight-ahead" jazz as it's currently practiced. It's clear that Levine's approach was developed in hindsight from listening to (among others) Miles' and Coltrane's groups from the early sixties.

It's clear though that those groups were building on techniques that had been developed during and since the development of Bebop and even earlier (I've certainly heard sharp 5s and flat 9s played all over in swing-era recordings). I'm guessing the chord alterations were being used well before the associations with particular scales. I'd also guess that the "altered scale" (seventh mode) was "discovered" first, since it can be used over both the dominant and its tritone substitution.

How did melodic minor harmony develop in jazz, and when did it start being thought of as such in jazz pedagogy?

Can anyone suggest a source that provides a detailed account of this history?

  • I've found several short histories of jazz harmony, but none emphasize the melodic minor. Mostly they talk about how 7th, 9th etc chords were added, and then came to dominate. I also see talk of functional harmony. – hpaulj Oct 29 '15 at 2:00
  • @hpaulj I edited to make a little more clear exactly what harmonies I'm interested in and that Levine's Theory Book is my main source of knowledge on melodic minor harmony. That said, I'm broadly interested in how musician have thought about "playing changes" historically (even outside of jazz) so I'm interested in any historical account of musical improvisation, short or long, even if it doesn't answer this specific question. – Benjamin Frabecka Oct 29 '15 at 18:39
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I’ve talked to my jazz teachers about this over the years, and it is one of the great ambiguities of life!

In the 70s I took a bunch of lessons from a very prominent vibraphonist/pianist who had transcribed hundreds of great jazz solos and whose instructions revolved around the idea of reading through & memorizing the solos and then applying parts of them to your own soloing. I’ll never forget coming back to him and asking “but where are the notes Jackie McLean is choosing from come from?” To this, he replied “don’t worry about that; just keep learning the solos and you’ll figure it out.

30 years later, at Guitar Center, a friend of mine and I happen to be in the “quiet room” when he said “Jeff I’m gonna show you something” and he played “the Jimi Hendrix chord”... An E seven sharp nine chord... “Now watch this: I’m going to play an F melodic minor over top of it.” At the time I frankly was irritated with being schooled at Guitar Center, and just mumbled something and left, but about two weeks later I was sitting in front of the piano and it hit me like a ton a bricks. “How is that possible?”

I spent about two more weeks exploring and coming to the realization that the melodic minor presented the player with all of the voicing opportunities expressed in jazz. In other words, I reversed engineered that one seven sharp nine aspect and applied it to all of the other shapes & clusters formed in that scale including learning all the alternative names to each chord... so that I could see the commonality and apply the source scales improvisationally in any key.

And I’m still working on that because it takes a lot of maintenance.

The melodic minor model was so much easier and immediately accessible than thinking of the altered notes as “non chordal tones.” Was I upset? You bet I was. Right up until I visited Mark Harris up at CSUN in the jazz department and re-counted my story to him. “Why didn’t my teacher Mr. Jones just tell me about the melodic minor?” Mark: Well I’ll tell you Jeff... that approach to jazz harmony came after he learned how to play, and a lot of the older guys didn’t learn it that way.”

My current teacher, Terry Trotter, has a very informal attitude about this harmony and refers to its use in soloing as “source scales,” which is very descriptive and convenient. I describe this melodic minor approach to jazz harmony as “the Berklee method,” but you’ll not be surprised to know that I’m still intent on finding out when the transition happened and who gets the credit.

I’m pretty sure the primary organizer of this evolved strategy is known and I’ll get to the bottom of it. Whoever you are... thanks so much buddy!!!!!

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I will post a few links, but I really hope someone else posts better resources, because I too would like to know the history from the perspective of the jazz musicians rather than reading deeper into the theory.

Two articles cited in the Wikipedia article for "altered scale"

I suspect the history is something along the lines of jazz musicians admired the music of the Impressionist (Ravel & Debussy) and consciously incorporated scale and harmony elements from their music into jazz.

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