Despite the almost child-like simplicity of this popular song written by Ray Henderson, Bye Bye Blackbird has become one of the most important jazz standards of all time. It has everything that improvisers love in a standard: an infectious melody, beautiful chords, an elegant structure and enough space to let you really stretch out and express yourself creatively.
The song begins with a fascinating stretch of wide open space in the 1 chord. The entire first line is like a blank canvas that you can paint any way that you like. It's hard to imagine a more inspiring way to begin a solo than to play with complete freedom over such a minimalist background. Then the second line provides a nice contrast, letting you improvise melodies over a very simple and beautiful chord progression. This progression begins with a provocative diminished chord which we will discuss below, and the line ends in tension with the two-five progression:
The next set of eight bars raises this same idea up one scale degree to the 2- chord. This section starts with a long stretch in the 2- chord, and again follows the same pattern of alternating one line of stillness with one line of movement. Notice in this case, however, that the chord progression in the second line of this section starts in tension and returns us home to the 1 chord:
The third set of eight bars feels a bit like a bridge in the style of "I Got Rhythm" and its countless variations:
And predictably, the song ends by restating the opening melody in a compressed form that allows the song to end:
IFR tonal analysis:
Probably the most interesting chord in the whole song is the b3dim chord that appears in measure 6. Diminished chords always generate lots of interesting discussion because there are multiple ways to imagine the harmonic function of these perfectly symmetric chords.
While you can certainly paint any musical shape you like over this diminished chord (or any other chord for that matter), I think it's helpful to first decide which notes YOU feel are the most consonant in this moment. In other words, what is the complete scale that you hear in your mind when this chord sounds?
When I go through this exercise, these are the notes that I come up with for the first two lines of the song:
Note to advanced IFR students: As you're exploring the sounds shown above in the b3dim chord, notice how similar these sounds are to the harmonic environment of the 2D chord which we study in IFR Exercise 4. So another way you could express the chord-scale of the b3dim chord would be to simply call it a 2Db9 chord. This is an example of a principle that holds true generally, which is that in jazz standards you can always relate any diminished chord to some other secondary dominant chord. In fact, one of the ways that jazz music evolved over the 20th century was to replace many of the old-fashioned diminished chords (which recall the sound of 19th century romantic music) with much more modern-sounding secondary dominants and two-five progressions (like you hear in be-bop music).
The chords that make up the second section of the tune need no introduction, as all three of these chords come directly from the major scale. For the sake of completeness, here are the tonal maps of the three chords that appear in this section:
The third section (or what I'm calling the "bridge" section) brings in just one new chord progression. This is the path to the 2- chord which we also study in IFR Exercise 4:
And the final two lines are made from chord progressions that we have already analyzed above.
Improvising over Bye Bye Blackbird
I hope that the tonal maps above give you a clearer understanding of the harmony to this beautiful song. And I hope that this clarity of vision empowers you to improvise your own solos with complete freedom over this chord progression.
If you're new to improvising, then a good first step is just to practice creating the sounds shown above in my tonal map drawings, since these are the most consonant notes in each measure of the tune. By limiting yourself to just the notes shown above and using these notes as your palette of colors for improvising, you can be assured that you will always be in perfect harmony with the rest of the musicians.
If you're already an experienced improviser, then the tonal maps shown above are just a jumping off-point. I hope they help you to see the 'big picture' of the harmony so that you can grasp the entire harmonic flow of the song at a glance. But what you choose to paint over that harmonic backdrop is totally unlimited.
Bye Bye Blackbird is one of five beautiful standards included in IFR Standards Workout 2. For each standard you'll have a complete IFR tonal analysis similar to what you saw above, plus high quality backing tracks in all 12 keys so you can explore all of these concepts and practice soloing over each standard. Just click the icon to the right to see the complete product.
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