Jazz Theory and Analysis

An Introduction and Brief Bibliography

Henry Martin

Jazz theory and analysis concerns itself with the kinds of topics investigated by music theorists more generally, but dealing with jazz. These topics include but are not limited to (1) harmony, with investigation of tonal, modal, and atonal grammars; (2) melody; (3) rhythm; (4) scales and their relationship to harmony; (5) coherence and structure of jazz compositions, improvisations, and popular songs favored by jazz musicians; (6) stylistic features and historical development of players, ensembles, and repertory; (7) pedagogy; (8) cultural interactions and the thought processes involved in learning to play jazz; (9) interrelations and intersections of various cultures (African, European, and Caribbean, for example) in the formation of jazz and its substyles; and (10) relationship of jazz theory to classical Western theory. A brief history of jazz theory and analysis can be found in Martin 1996c (an article that also provides the basic material for this overview). Detailed summaries of jazz harmony and improvisation (and other relevant topics) can be found in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. The Annual Review of Jazz Studies and Jazzforschung / Jazz Research are journals with significant coverage of theoretical and analytical topics.

Jazz theory can be traced to the 1920s with the first publications of solo transcriptions – the beginnings of jazz pedagogy. Sargeant 1938 is perhaps the first technical discussion of jazz with music examples and analysis. In the 1950s, speculative work on jazz theory begins with Russell 1959 (2nd ed.), which establishes chord-scale theory. Important pedagogical contributions by Mehegan follow in 1959–1965. Schuller 1958 is a significant analysis of a Sonny Rollins performance, beginning a tradition of the close analysis of improvised solos. Schuller 1968 and Schuller 1989 are historical surveys that contain much analysis.

Owing perhaps to Schuller’s influence and the increasing recognition of the importance of music outside the Western classical canon, scholarly work in jazz theory begins to expand rapidly during the 1970s. Owens 1974 and Stewart 1974–75 are the first jazz-theory dissertations of consequence. The Journal of Jazz Studies and Jazzforschung / Jazz Research begin publication in the 1970s. (The Journal of Jazz Studies is now the Annual Review of Jazz Studies.) Beginning in the 1990s, books and articles on jazz theory and analysis become more common. Articles may now be found in general-interest journals of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory as well as in publications dedicated to jazz scholarship.


Berliner, Paul F. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Block, Steven. 1997. “Bemsha Swing: The Transformation of a Bebop Classic to Free Jazz.” Music Theory Spectrum 19: 206–31.

Burbat, Wolf. 41994. Die Harmonik des Jazz. München, Kassel, Basel, London, New York: DTV and Bärenreiter. (Unpublished English translation, Robert Wason).

Coker, Jerry. 1964. Improvising Jazz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Demsey, David. 1991. “Chromatic Third Relations in the Music of John Coltrane.” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 5: 145–80.

Folio, Cynthia. 1995. “An Analysis of Polyrhythm in Selected Improvised Jazz Solos.” In Marvin, Elizabeth West, and Richard Hermann, eds., Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Since 1945 – Essays and Analytical Studies. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Forte, Allen. 1995. The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924–1950. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gushee, Lawrence. 1981. “Lester Young’s Shoe Shine Boy.” In International Musicological Society, Report of the Twelfth Congress, Berkeley, 1977, ed. Daniel Heartz and Bonnie Wade. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 151–69. Reprinted in Lewis Porter, ed., A Lester Young Reader. Washington and London: Smithsonian, 1991.

Jaffe, Andrew. 1983. Jazz Theory. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown. (2nd edition, Advance Music).

Kernfeld, Barry. 1991. “Improvisation.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. (originally publ. Macmillan, 1988). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 554–63.

Larson, Steve. 1987. Schenkerian Analysis of Modern Jazz. (3 vols.). Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan. (Forthcoming, Pendragon Press).

. 1998. “Schenkerian Analysis of Modern Jazz: Questions About Method.” Music Theory Spectrum 20: 209–41.

Levine, Mark. 1995. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music.

Martin, Henry, ed. 1996a. Annual Review of Jazz Studies 8 – Special Edition on Jazz Theory.

. 1996b. Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.

. 1996c. “Jazz Theory: An Overview.” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 8: 1–17.

Mehegan, John. 1959, 1962, 1964, 1965. Jazz Improvisation: Vol. 1: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles; Vol. 2: Jazz Rhythm and the Improvised Line; Vol. 3: Swing and Early Progressive Piano Styles; Vol. 4: Contemporary Piano Styles. New York: Watson-Guptill.

Owens, Thomas. 1974. Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation. Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Russell, George. 21959. The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation. New York: Concept Publishing Company.

Sargeant, Winthrop. 1938. Jazz: Hot and Hybrid. New York: Da Capo, reprint of 3rd ed., 1946.

Schuller, Gunther. 1958. “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Motivic Improvisation.” The Jazz Review 1. Reprint Musings, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

. 1968. Early Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press.

. 1989. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Milton L. 1974–75. “Structural Development in the Jazz Improvisational Technique of Clifford Brown.” Jazzforschung/Jazz Research 6: 141–273.

Strunk, Steven. 1985. “Bebop Melodic Lines: Tonal Characteristics.” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 3: 97–120.

. 1979. “Early Bebop Harmony.” Journal of Jazz Studies 6: 4–53.

. 1991. “Harmony.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. (originally publ. Macmillan, 1988). New York: St Martin’s Press: 485–96.

Walser, Robert. 1995. “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis.” In Gabbard, ed., Jazz Among the Discourses. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Waters, Keith. 1996. “Blurring the Barline: Metric Displacement in the Piano Solos of Herbie Hancock.” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 8: 19–37.