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I've read several times that John Coltrane practiced extensively from the Slonimsky Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns and that Coltrane's Giant Steps is strongly influenced by or is even a direct quote from those scale exercises.

My question is twofold:

  1. Is the claim true?
  2. Which Slonimsky exercise is Giant Steps reputedly based on?
  • 1
    Please post citations/references where you read this. That helps us evaluate the quality of the claims. – Carl Witthoft Jun 5 at 13:18
  • Coltrane might indeed have been influenced by that, but perhaps that isn't the only possibility? Perhaps he'd also heard "Ondine" from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, particularly this passage. FWIW the first chord's root is B, same as in Giant Steps, and AFAIK not a common key in jazz. – Rosie F Jun 5 at 15:41
  • Some of the comments in this video mention Slonimsky (and Quincy too!) youtube.com/watch?v=30FTr6G53VU – Brian THOMAS Jun 5 at 17:34
  • You spell rumour "rumor" and I spell practiced "practised". :o) – Brian THOMAS Jun 6 at 10:57
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I just ran across this Masters dissertation on Coltrane and Slonimsky! It is as comprehensive an answer as could possibly be hoped. It does address Giant Steps (there are 39 references to it), but in addition, Coltrane's "use" of Slonimsky in many tunes and improvisations. (I was searching for something about One Up, One Down, which I found)

http://www.scottlernermusic.com/ftp/coltrane%2520dissertation.pdf

Orthogonal p.s. I also highly recommend Slonimsky's autobiography: Perfect Pitch. I used to hear him interviewed on KCRW in the 80s, back when he was well into his 90s. A total character!

  • What a find that pdf is! I've just had a skim through and it looks great. I'll spend more time on it later. – Brian THOMAS Jun 21 at 12:00
  • Sure thing. All hail Jeff Baer and his work! It looks like he bound the book also, but it is only available in a few libraries... – Bruce Kamolnick Jun 22 at 23:16
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In Slonimsky's book, page 27 (page 39 on your pdf) "Ditone Progression, Equal Division of One Octave into Three Parts" you see that Slonimsky uses the notes C E G# and C again. They all are a major third apart and they divide the octave into three equal parts.

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Now let's look at the sheet music of Giant steps:

enter image description here

The piece has 3 different tonalities. It starts off in B major, it then goes to Eb major and finally to G major and all over again.

If you notice, all of these tonalities are a major third apart*, like the scale Slonimsky mentions. So basically, Coltrane took what Slonimsky created as a scale and used it as different tonalities.

I've heard this rumor as well, read about it as well, but I'm not sure if Coltrane ever actually claimed this, or if people just deduced it. The rumor does make sense though.

*okay, ascending a major third from B you get D#, but its enharmonic equivalent is Eb. It's easier to play in Eb rather than in D#. Also another possible reason might be that the major third of D# is Fx, and the major third of Fx is Ax and it just gets confusing; it's easier to substitute D# with Eb

  • Just to cause trouble -- is there any JSBach piece which uses the same or similar progression? – Carl Witthoft Jun 5 at 13:19
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Giants Steps bears a striking resemblance to this "12-tone progression" from the Introduction to Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales (pg. vi):

Tonal Harmonization of a 12-Tone Pattern from Thesaurus of Scales

This was mentioned by Quincy Jones in a recent documentary and confirmed in this Tweet from composer Darcy James Argue:

https://twitter.com/darcyjamesargue/status/962436071794585600

Blogger Peter Spitzer has surmised that Coltrane may have combined Slonimsky's harmony with a theme from Harold Shapero's String Quartet (1941):

http://peterspitzer.blogspot.com/2018/05/coltrane-morton-gould-francis-poulenc.html

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