Let It Snow!

Here’s some more holiday cheer from four members of the WDR Big Band, Koeln.

  • Ludwig Nuss – trombone
  • Karolina Strassmayer – alto saxophone
  • Hans Dekker – drums
  • John Goldsby – bass

“Let It Snow” (Sammy Cahn & Julie Styne, arrangement John Goldsby)
ARD Morgen Magazin, Dec. 17 2013

O Tannenbaum

Here’s a little holiday cheer from four members of the WDR Big Band, Koeln.

  • Ludwig Nuss – trombone
  • Karolina Strassmayer – alto saxophone
  • Hans Dekker – drums
  • John Goldsby – bass

“O Tannenbaum” (Traditional / arrangement John Goldsby)
ARD Morgen Magazin, Dec. 17 2013




Flamenco Meets Jazz

I’ll be on tour in November with this incredible group of musicians. Here’s a short clip of our work with

  • Chano Domínguez, Compositions / Piano
  • featuring
  • Daniel Navarro, Dance
  • Blas Córdoba, Vocal
  • Israel “El Piraña” Suárez, Percussion
  • WDR Big Band Cologne
  • Vince Mendoza, Arrangements / Conducting

FlamencoJazz from Jochen Renz on Vimeo.

But Is It Music?

Chord/Scale Theory

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music!

I recently got an email from Hector in Florida asking for my thoughts on chord/scale theory and whether it’s okay to play notes outside the generally accepted chord/scale sounds. Hector boiled several far-reaching questions down to this one, simple question:

“Is it ok to play any note against any chord (without restricting your notes to those from a particular scale), as long as you’re aware of the chord tones, especially in jazz and improvisational music?”

My short answer to Hector is:

Yes, if you have trained your ears and fingers, and use your musical instincts, you can play any note on any chord, as long as you resolve the note in a way that makes sense and sounds good. You can play an Db on a CMaj7, but it’s going to pull towards the 9th (D) or the root (_DSC6254_WebC). You can play a B on a C7, but it needs to resolve to the root C, or down to the b7 Bb. If you don’t resolve the notes, there probably remains some tension in the line that sounds either unfinished, or in the worst case, like a mistake.

The notes of the chord are what are important. Scales are just a linear description of the notes of the chord:
Dmin11 = D F A C D E G
D Dorian scale = D E F G A B C

Those are 7 seven notes in the Dmin11 chord, and those notes laid out horizontally make up the D dorian scale.

There are 5 notes that are not in the scale. You could also use those notes chromatically, as passing tones, or as part of a melodic phrase that goes outside of the basic chord sound. If you play a note outside, the ear wants to hear the sound go back inside.

Sounds Good, So Far  . . .     

In traditional swing and bebop bass playing, outlining the root movement is most important. A common method that I use to describe the spontaneous creation of walking bass lines in 4/4 time to beginning bassists is: root, something, something, leading-tone, root. The two “something” notes on beats two and three can only be chord tones, scale tones, or chromatic passing tones. That’s all there is . . . simple!
But many of the great players were doing something else: They were only using their ears and their available technique . . . also simple! When I listen to great musicians playing jazz, I often hear the likes of Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath and thousands of others deviate from the root-something-something-leading-tone formula. When they are playing well, they are creating spontaneous counterpoint by using their ears, available technique, and musical instincts.

Percy Heath Talking About The Role Of The Bass

Most of those players—like Percy Heath—obviously knew the progression Dmin7, G7, CMaj7, but they did not think of that as a ii-V-I that can be described with D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian scales. They knew the C Major scale, and were most likely aware of the modes of C Major. In their performances however, they were outlining harmony by using counterpoint in their bass lines, and an ear for tension and release in their solo lines. They simply used their ears and played within the limits of their bass technique.

My point here is that the currently prevalent chord/scale methodology is not wrong, but it is not the only way that players think of chord tones, scale tones, and tones that are outside of the scale and chord. Indeed, many of the master swing, bebop, post-bop, R & B, pop, rock, funk players never think about, or thought about chord/scale theory. As the seminal New Orleans bassist Pops Foster says in his autobiography, “I just play any old go-to-hell note, as long as it swings !”

Hector’s long question requires more in-depth response. Here’s what he asked in full:

Hi John,
I recently had a “mind blown” moment. I’ve been playing bass for 21 years. I’ve practiced scales and arpeggios for a long time. I could basically spell out (in bass clef standard notation) and play for you any chord and most of the common scales and modes.

I had read an interview in Bass Player magazine many years ago with bassist Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. In it, he said the following:

“What I learned in music school was that in modern music, you can play any note against any chord and make it mean something. If you don’t know how you’re using it, or where it resolves, you’re an idiot-you shouldn’t be in music. I learned a couple of simple laws, and I utilized them.”

Then, I opened my copy of Aebersold’s How To Play Jazz and Improvise and looked at the scale syllabus. He lays out every common type of chord, and then the scales you can use with each in order of preference. If you look closely, you’ll realize that, when you combine all the notes from all the scales that you can play with, say, a Maj. 7 chord, all 12 tones are represented in one way or another.

So, my question is this: How right is Scott Thunes? Is there really an issue if I play a Db against a Cmaj7 chord while every other tone I play is from the C major scale? How about if I just add a flatted 6th? I don’t think there’s a scale that goes C-Db-E-F-G-A-B,  is there? But the point is, I think it wouldn’t matter.

Scott Thunes playing with Frank Zappa in 1988

My Long Answer

Hector, it depends on so many factors.
In the Jamey Aebersold scale syllabus, he concisely describes all of the basic types of chords, and spells the scales that are usually played over each chord. Aebersold’s theory and methods are correct — but after you master the scales and chords, then your ear should be your guide. Ultimately, your ear is what determines the notes that sound good to you, and your choices and instincts determine and support your unique musical personality.

Scott Thunes is a brilliant bass player who played highly complex, thoroughly orchestrated, sometimes-written, sometimes-improvised music with Frank Zappa. When I hear Thunes play, he is precisely outlining harmony and rhythm and serving the music. His comment that any note can fit any chord is indicative of a master player who does not feel constrained by any particular theoretical concepts—he’s got tons of chops, but he is using his great ears and musical instincts.

What’s the style of music? If everyone is playing freely and reacting to a certain rhythmic and harmonic structure, then anything goes. There are no set formulas. On the other hand, if we are playing Zappa’s “Black Page,” then we really have to play it precisely—there’s no room to play notes that are not the composer’s intent.

If we play a jazz gig in the style of ‘50s bebop, then there are certain unspoken agreements that the players abide by: The bassist outlines the root movement; the pianist plays the chords with proper voice leading, the soloist outlines the chords  (usually emphasizing chord tones on beats 1 and 3), and the drummer plays a repetitive swing ride pattern with the hi-hat one 2 and 4, and comps on the snare and bass drum. That still does not mean that the bassist is only playing the theoretically correct notes in the bass line—he or she should be listening to determine the best sounding counterpoint line to support the ensemble and play the song.

For example, in Israel Crosby’s classic bass line “But Not For Me,” there are plenty of non-chord and non-scale tones.

Israel Crosby With Ahmad Jamal, 1958

Hector Continues:

Here’s how I’m conceptualizing it. As long as I know what the chord tones are (so that I emphasize them in important moments), I could really play ANY note against any chord.

My response:

Yes! This is jazz and improvised music at it’s finest. Know the harmony, melody, rhythmic feeling—and then let yourself be free within the music. This might not work with a pop or rock band, where the role of the bass is more constrained.

Hector’s Conclusion:

I’m not saying I’m going to stop practicing scales. As the saying goes, “you gotta know the rules before you break them.” But, I’ve practiced the “correct” theory for far too long. I think it’s time to loosen up a bit. I don’t REALLY have to be thinking “I’m gonna play a diminished scale fragment for a few moments against this Maj7 chord.” I could just go with my ear, and, as Scott said, know where you’re headed in the form, what the next chord is and how to resolve from one to the next.  and you should be ok.

As bass players, we have to contend with our function as well. So, I figure that when it comes to building bass lines for most genres, this concept would not necessarily be applicable. But, in jazz, I believe it can work both during solos and walking bass lines. Again, you’d have chord tones on the important beats. Other than that, just go with the flow and your ears without worrying with stuff such as “Oh, this is a min. 7 chord, I gotta play Dorian now.”

My conclusion:

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music.

Right—don’t stop practicing scales! Scales are building blocks of technique, and we need technique to express ourselves. There are reasons why certain theoretical practices have become hard, fast rules: they describe things that sound good in particular situations. Scales (and arpeggios) are the musician’s bread and butter. The better one can play scales, the more fluency he or she has on the instrument. As I wrote in my first book, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist, “Great musicians are in control of their technique. If a great musician does not possess extraordinary technique, the musician still keeps his or her performance within the boundaries of available technique. If a musician knows the limits of his or her technique, great music is possible.”

A musician practicing scales is like a basketball player doing wind sprints, stretches, drills and lifting weights. The exercises are not the game, but they provide the technique and facility to play the game well. Scales in themselves are not music, but they provide the framework that connects our instrumental ability to our musical intuition.

The value in studying theory books and methods, is that we can look inside the mind of a particular author/improviser. Many great musicians have written practical books about jazz theory and how they apply their theoretical technique to achieve musical results. Recently I had the pleasure of working with saxophonist Gary Campbell, who has written several books that have influenced my thinking and playing very much: Connecting Jazz Theory, Expansions, and Triad Pairs for Jazz.

One of the first and finest scale compendiums was written by pianist Dan Haerle, Scales for Jazz Improvisation. Haerle’s book shows you many of the typical scales that are used by jazz, rock and pop players—it’s a thorough compendium which I often used when I first learned to play. And the best bargain on the market is Jamey Aebersold’s Free Jazz Handbook (that’s “Free” in that it costs nothing).

So, practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but scales and chord/scale theory do not by themselves magically yield great music. I think the following video from a true jazz master sums up how great players really learn to play.

A Master Speaks: Jimmy Raney On Chords and Scales

The legendary Jimmy Raney was one of the greatest bebop guitarists, alongside Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Smith, and Jim Hall. In this brief workshop video, he talks about using scales and chords and how he learned them. “We didn’t have it worked out like Jamey (Aebersold) and all those guys do now,” recalled Raney. “I of course learned scales, because the classical teachers they assume that you are going to play classical … scales are very helpful. I think I just did it on my own more. I knew chords. I just picked up what I call grips.”

Talking about the value of only relying on theoretical knowledge, Raney says “To be very honest with you—playing scales or modes, or seventh chords—in the last analysis, it’s here — your ear guides you or fails to guide you. As E.B. White says about prose—all the rules of grammar and syntax ain’t gonna’ help if you don’t hear it. It’s good to know all that stuff, but it’s not going to make you play. Don’t think it will.”

Jimmy Raney On Using Chord/Scale Theory

Jimmy Raney Playing ‘Out Of Nowhere’

Whaddya’ Know? Learning Jazz and Standard Repertoire

I recently got a dub from a cassette recording of a gig I played in 1979. I was young, in over my head, and playing with Buddy DeFranco and Jimmy Raney, a couple of true jazz masters, plus the swinging Louisville drummer Darryl Cotten. DeFranco and Raney were featured for a week at Stanley J’s, a club in Louisville, where Darryl and I had the steady gig as house rhythm section.

When I listen back on my performance from 33 years ago, I sound like myself—just very unsophisticated. Here we play the Gershwin standard, “But Not For Me.” I learned tunes like this by listening to recordings, playing them at gigs and jam sessions (usually with no chart), using Jamey Aebersold’s playalongs, and sometimes referring to fake book versions of the song. There are various ways to approach the chord changes of “But Not For Me,” and in this version we start on the dominant II chord.


One of the recurring themes I encounter when I teach jazz is repertoire—which standard songs should players know? Is there a canon of must-know jazz tunes, and does an improvising musician need to have a large command of American-style jazz repertoire to effectively offer something new on the modern improvised music scene?

In contrast to learning tunes from records or other musicians, I’ve noticed another trend lately: I’ve experienced both student and professional players using iPhones or iPads to read tunes in lessons and even on gigs. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, especially in a lesson—but it’s different than the way I learned to play standards. Using an iPad as a folio to carry original tunes to a gig is a huge convenience, but it becomes a crutch if a player calls up every standard on the gadget just because he can’t remember “where the bridge goes.” I would contend that if a player is reading a tune chorus after chorus, he’s not learning the tune, rather just playing with the eyes and reading the chart—over and over.

It’s less work to pull out an iPad or phone and play a tune from the PDF fake book. But this means that the player is playing visually, and not using their ears as much as they could. Musicians should be learning tunes from recordings (as in, just put on the recording and learn to play along with it), but most of the time due to convenience, rehearsal time constraints, laziness, or fear of making a mistake, many musicians seem to prefer just reading a chart. Another issue for consideration is that some electronic fake books are legal (iReal Book), some are in a legal gray zone (a PDF copy of an illegal fake book) and some are downright illegal (PDF collections of Sher, Aebersold, Hal Leonard, etc. that you didn’t purchase). But this post is about repertoire rather than law.

The Big Problems
Most jazz students I’ve encountered recently have thousands of songs stored on their phones, iPads or computers. But they only really know a handful of songs.

There are fewer chances now to learn standards on the bandstand compared to a few decades ago, and most tune-learning today is done through fake books (not through recordings or through live playing experience). Many young jazz students see standards in a historical perspective—the compositions exist mainly as versions on old recordings, or as versions in fake books. Many non-American jazz players see the canon of material that was recorded from the 1920’s to the ’60s as distinctly American, and dated from the start.

Many young jazz players are encouraged to write their own compositions long before they have a handle on how to improvise on classic standards. Being an improviser is hard; being a great songwriter is also hard. Not many players do both well. A lot of players do themselves a disservice because they always choose original compositions over some classic standard compositions that might be better vehicles for their improvisational voice.

Books About Songs

I’ve recently read two books that deal with jazz repertoire: The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia, and The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians by Barry Kernfeld. These books have also made me think about the state of jazz and whether young improvisers absolutely need to know standards to the extent that older generations knew them.

In The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, Gioia convincingly makes his case for just over 250 jazz standards and why he thinks they belong on top of his list. He cites over two thousand recorded examples of the tunes to point out that these are truly among the most important. The Jazz Standards highlights a lot of essential songs that a jazz player should know inside and out, but by its nature the book also highlights many great standards by omission. Gioia is a thoughtful writer and he makes a good case for the inclusion of each of his selections.


The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians looks at the history of selling sheet music and fake books to musicians. Barry Kernfeld tells the whole history, from the Tune-Dex sheet music subscription service to the development of legal and illegal fakebooks. Pat Metheny and Steve Swallow weigh in on the development of the Real Book at Berklee in the ’70s. There are a couple of surprising points about the marketing of song sheets and the distribution of legal and illegal fake books, but I’ll let you read about those for yourself.

Lists Of Songs

When I did a workshop recently for the Monk Institute, I saw their list of 100 “must-know” jazz standards, which is available for download on their resource site here (bottom of page). This is a thorough list of basic should-know standards, compiled by Dr. J.B. Dyas at the Monk Institute.

Jamey Aebersold’s list of all the tunes on his playalongs is worth checking out. Not every tune can be considered a standard, but almost all of his playalong songs are good vehicles for improvisation. Download Jamey’s list here.

Jazzstandards.com has nice lists of songs in their own “most popular” ranking system, along with analysis plus recommendations for definitive recordings.

No discussion of fake books or tune lists would be complete without mentioning the valuable work and products that Chuck Sher has delivered over the years. I’ve especially enjoyed The European Real Book, which highlights hundreds of beautiful, contemporary jazz compositions from the pens of European composers. These tunes cover styles from very modern to completely straight-ahead.

How I Teach

I teach on the premise that I play in the tradition of American-style jazz, where there is a standard repertoire and everyone knows most of those tunes. That’s because I learned to play those tunes by playing them with other people, from recordings and also from fake books. Although I’ve named several fake books here, I still think the best way to thoroughly learn a song is by hearing it, and playing it over and over.

“Teach what you know” is a valuable tidbit of advice that I received from a jazz teacher when I first started teaching jazz in about 1980. At that time, I was worried that I didn’t have the goods to talk about and demonstrate good jazz techniques and practices. I could do a few things: I had a good sound on the bass, good time, a pretty good beat, and I understood the importance of learning tunes by ear and committing them to memory. I could remember standards because I listened to them on records a lot, and I played them every day at jam sessions and on gigs.

When I first started teaching, that’s what I tried to teach: good sound, good time, and playing jazz standards—the repertoire. Although I’m a much better teacher now, I still encourage my students to work on the exact same things: sound, time, and repertoire.

How I Learned Lots Of Tunes

When I began learning to play jazz, I also had the good fortune of steadily working five or six nights a week playing jazz standards in clubs. As I remember, almost no musician at that time was using a fake book on the bandstand.

In 1977, I got a call to work a steady trio gig five nights a week at the Jefferson Club, on top of the Citizens Fidelity building. It was a private club, visited by business people. I’m not going to mention the piano player’s name because I think he was either on the lam, or in the witness protection program. The gig paid union scale, which at the time was $6.20 per hour, 4 hours a night, 5 nights a week—good money at the time for an 18 year-old bass player who only knew a few tunes, but who claimed to be able to fake his way through anything.

That trio gig led to other, better gigs in hotels and jazz clubs. In ’79, I was working in the house rhythm section of a Louisville jazz club called Stanley J’s, along with pianist David Leonhardt and Daryl Cotten. We backed up all kinds of famous and not-so-famous jazz players who would join us for a one-week or two-week engagement. I was thrilled, but also scared to death because every week, a new guest soloist was coming with their own list of favorite tunes—Johnny Hartman, Jimmy Raney, Helen Humes. I remember learning “Airmail Special” with Barney Kessel showing me the bass line. When I couldn’t quite figure out “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” Buddy Tate honked out the roots through the whole tune until I got it. I was learning on the spot with the pressure of having to “do it right” at least the second pass through the tune, if not the first.

If I didn’t know a tune that was called, I would generally just say I knew it, ask what key it was in, and then listen like a maniac to the other players to hear the harmonic movement, melody and form. Since this was the way that I liked to learn tunes (put on a record and play along with it), I could get pretty far playing standard repertoire—even if I was learning the tune under pressure on the spot.

This is a fine way to learn standards. Of course, for more complicated songs—Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett—it’s practical to read a chart (at least for a few choruses) if there’s no chance to learn the song by ear.

Towards A Better Grasp Of Jazz Standards

Improvising musicians need to have a repertoire of standards that they understand deeply. The typical list of tunes—at least in an American college jazz program—would look like the Monk Institute’s list. The list of Aebersold play-along tunes is much more expansive, but it’s also a mainstream list.

A list of standards could also come from a different place than the Great American Songbook—like Chuck Sher’s European Real Book—but it would have to be a list of tunes that are often played and that the musician has worked on alone and in groups for years. I run into lots of  ‘modern’ players who don’t want to learn old American-style standards.

Musicians who only play their original music have double duty—they have to be composers and improvisers at the same time. Lots of modern players are taking this approach—composing their own material and playing that with their close-knit inner circle of like-minded colleagues. Some players do actually reach a high level on both counts—artful composing and incredible improvising. At best, they figure out a way to compose a framework where they and their band mates can shine through on the improvisational level.

I maintain that every improvising player needs to have a cache of musical material that they and their musical colleagues can play on the spot with no written music. In my opinion, that does not mean they have to play Jerome Kern, Charlie Parker, or Thelonius Monk. But when I play with a player, I can almost immediately tell if we share the same listening history and knowledge of standards. If a student tells me that their standard repertoire ranges from Kenny Wheeler to Dave Holland to Vijay Iyer to Coldplay to their own compositions, that’s cool with me. But they must have a repertoire under their fingers and in their ears to be able to effectively function as improvisers. They have to intimately know a large body of song-form material in order to freely improvise. Always reading everything does not encourage musicality and spontaneity.

During another college workshop recently, some of the students were supposed to play for me. Since they couldn’t decide on a tune, they all pulled out their iPhones and played “There Will Never Be Another You” (all of them except the horn player who was playing the melody, and the drummer). After letting them read from their phones for two choruses, I went over and took the phones away in the middle of the tune. At that moment, they started listening to each other—for the first time in that performance.

There are lists everywhere that suggest a canon of jazz standards that every player should know. My conclusion is that yes, a jazz musician must have a repertoire and repository of hundreds—or thousands—of tunes that are played over the course of weeks, months and years.

What do you say?

What are the most effective ways for musicians to learn tunes? Of the thousands that are considered standards, which tunes should be on the list? Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about iPads with gigabytes of fake books, the ultimate jazz standards list, or the best way to help students learn tunes.



“Clockwise” is from the album Space for the Bass, recorded on May 17, 2009 in Cologne, Germany at Topaz Studio.

John Goldsby (bass), Francesco Cafiso (alto), Martin Sasse (piano)

Workshop: John Goldsby

Interview: John Goldsby

Ligeti Split

‘Ligeti Split’ is from the album “The Innkeeper’s Gun” [Bass Lion, 2010] with Jacob Duncan (alto), John Goldsby (bass), and Jason Tiemann (drums). Recorded on Nov. 12, 2009 in the middle of their European tour, the Nachbar Trio (as they are also called), made a day trip to Topaz Studio, Cologne to work with engineer Reinhard Kobialka and document some of their original music. ‘Ligeti Split’ is a free-wheeling melody composed by Jacob Duncan.


Superbass: Two for the Blues (1997)



This is the “complete” version of the “Two for the Blues” performance, recorded live at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall in 1997. The group includes bassists Ray Brown, Christian McBride, John Clayton and John Goldsby, joined by John Riley, performing brushes on a phone book and Carmen Bradford on vocals.