My understanding is before 1970, few Jazz players thought about modes. For certain, Charlie Parker, Colman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Monk, etc never thought in modes.

Barry Harris shows how they did think*, a simpler, deeper way: more true to the form before Kind of Blue. Russell's Modes, inspired by a fellow patient in a tuberculosis ward, and now taught as the foundation for improvisation, seem to me a projection of Western Academic ideas unto African American idioms, with little understanding or respect to the ideas behind those idioms. Basically a "takeover" of Jazz tradition by a counterculture generation of modern Jazz players, and explainers interested in creating course curriculum. The emphasis on "Modal Theory" and scales today appears way out of porportion to it's influence in the body of recordings we now classify as Jazz.

The modal approach was used to define and frame a new form with an extreme paucity of chords. Why is it relevant to the complex progressions which came before?

Please set me straight.

ref* Alternative to modal approach: http://bit.ly/2GsJpBm

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    I think that George Russell introduced modes into jazz theory in the early '50s. Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and others knew Russell, valued his work, and were inspired by it. People still teach and use other approaches to improvisation, e.g. triad-based, arpeggio-based, neighbor-tones for chromaticism. The commonly seen chord-scale theory is just one aspect of jazz improvisation that makes a good soundbite.
    – user39614
    Apr 15, 2019 at 1:39
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    I think that Jamie Aebersold's play-a-long series had a lot to do with this transition, even more so than George Russell. Every volume has the same explanation of chord-scale theory, and those books have been the introduction to jazz theory for millions of people.
    – Peter
    Apr 15, 2019 at 2:06
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    @Peter -- that's a good point; Aebersold, the rise of jazz clinics, the institutionalization of jazz with the advent of jazz schools like Berklee pumping out players to spread chord-scale theory. All of this really seemed to take off in the '70s and '80s.
    – user39614
    Apr 15, 2019 at 2:20
  • @Kilian Froth: Respectfully, I don't think that was significant enough of an edit. A few spelling mistakes that don't change the meaning of the post at large seems very trivial. Unless not capitalising "African American" is disrespectful?
    – user45266
    Apr 15, 2019 at 6:24
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    The glib answer is "so students don't need to learn functional harmony" Apr 18, 2019 at 16:45

1 Answer 1


My understanding is before 1970, no Jazz players thought about modes.

This is incorrect, see this question: How does modal jazz use chord progressions?

A: Modes became of interest over time as a way to organize what pitches to use over certain chords and sounds. This is a naturally arising phenomenon when there are many sounds to consider and memorize what notes work over each sound. Chord scales are a convenient way of organizing what notes to play over what chords, and chord scales are inherently modes. Naturally, musicians began to play around with these modes because they offered a different way of looking at the same notes they already knew. There was no "takeover", unless jazz musicians were trying to "take over" jazz itself and expand its lexicon with new ideas.

Modes seem to me a projection of Western Academic ideas unto african american idioms, with little understanding or respect to the ideas behind those idioms. Basically a "takeover" of Jazz.

This is a projection that jazz somehow existed before ... well, before it existed. The part I highlighted is also in my estimation an egregiously bad projection that ideas somehow aren't allowed to (or simply can't) meld into one another, borrow back and forth, and so on. This is bad because this is precisely how Jazz came about. Jazz arose out of the musical traditions centered around New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, which was a hot pot of everything you could imagine - namely military march music, funeral march music, dance music of the time, and music played in brothels. Remember, also, that New Orleans was a very important port city in the 1800s, meaning that much influence also came from the Caribbean and various Hispanic nations to the south. Improvisation is also nothing new even to European music: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were well known in their day for being able to improvise - and in the Renaissance era, improvising over a cantus firmus was an important tool for teaching counterpoint (i.e., composition). However, improvisation in the way we think of it today tends to come out of the Jazz, Blues, and Rock idioms that developed in 20th century America.

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    I think the OP is trying to say that students who are taught chord-scale theory and modes as a way or the way to know what notes to play over everything without sounding blatantly wrong, lack the more essential and more true-to-the-nature-of-jazz-standards way of older traditional functional approach to harmony. Which is, I think, what Barry Harris and some other people criticize - that they didn't know anything about modes, but they could play jazz, and that teaching students modes without teaching the more essential traditional approach is harmful and creates bad musicians Apr 15, 2019 at 10:38
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    Modes and chord scales are a tool, that's all. Don't get too hung up on them. That's the point.
    – LSM07
    Apr 15, 2019 at 14:45
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    This is the internet, where things are either black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, thumb up or thumb down, upvote or downvote. The OP is basically saying, "hey I found these Barry Harris videos and he's saying that modal thinking sucks, and it isn't even proper jazz, and Bud Powell and Monk didn't do it like that, so isn't it true that there's something wrong with the way jazz is taught" - and you begin by saying "this is incorrect", which can easily be interpreted as invalidating the essential idea. :) Apr 15, 2019 at 17:35
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    @CharlieWebster -- "So What" is a jazz standard. You are thinking of tunes from The Great American Songbook, Tin-Pan Alley tunes, and other earlier forms that were elaborated earlier in the history of jazz. If you want to play historically, don't think about modes (probably). There is nothing wrong with thinking in terms of modes, although I don't know any good players who only think that way. Earlier greats, like Coleman Hawkins, thought more in terms of harmonic elaboration. Modal players came into a world interested in melodic elaboration.
    – user39614
    Apr 17, 2019 at 18:44
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    @piiperi -- agree that he is talking about standards predating "So What." That is why I commented: Standards often refers to music that was not specific to jazz, but to songs from vaudville, tin-pan alley, showtunes, and other popular songs. On the other hand, the term Jazz Standards refers to songs that were composed as jazz which have found their way into the standard repertoire; this includes many modal tunes. OP seems to have a misunderstanding of what a jazz standard is. I know what was meant, but a correction was needed. You lost me with the rest.
    – user39614
    Apr 17, 2019 at 22:23

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