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So You Want to Play Jazz?

By Joan Sommers

If you want to play jazz, then you must include the mastering of the following Scale Modes:

  1. Ionian: C to C, all white keys (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step)

  2. Dorian: D to D, all white keys (whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, and whole step)

  3. Phrygian: E to E, all white keys (half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole, whole)

  4. Lydian: F to F, all white keys (whole, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, half)

  5. Mixolydian: G to G, all white keys (whole, whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole)

  6. Aeolian: A to A, all white keys (whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole)

  7. Locrian: B to B, all white keys (half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole)

Many accordionists have heard about scale modes but have never tried them. However, strange as it may seem, it is the great jazz musicians who learn them and use them interchangeably without even thinking.

You might want to check out the accordion solo “Iridescent Rondo” written by the American composer, Henry Cowell, and commissioned by the American Accordionists’ Association. It will give you several practical applications of the above modes in a very attractive solo. Also see page 29 in the Ralph Stricker/Frank Marocco book “Jazz Theory and Improvisation Studies for Accordion” for an in-depth look at the use of modes in jazz improvisation. This book is one of the very best and most thorough study guides ever compiled. It is also both interesting and fun to play the exercises.

“Iridescent Rondo” is NOT a jazz solo. It is a very interesting solo with sections using the various Scale Modes. While the player can experience these modes by learning this solo, it is also a solo you will like to play and your audiences will also like to hear it.

The composer, Henry Cowell, (1897 – 1965), was one of America’s most innovative composers of the 20th Century. He was a tireless musical explorer and inventor, growing up surrounded by a wide variety of Oriental musical traditions in California as well as his father’s Irish folk heritage, and his mother’s Midwestern folk tunes, he was already composing in his early teens. He began formal training at age 16; further studies focused primarily on world music cultures. His use of varied sound materials, experimental compositional procedures, and a rich palette colored by multiple non-European and folk influences revolutionized American music and popularized, most notably, the tone cluster as an element in compositional design. He earned many awards, grants, and honorary degrees and was elected in 1951 to the American Institute of Arts and Letters. Among his students were John Cage and George Gershwin. We are fortunate to have an accordion solo written by Henry Cowell, especially one which offers so much musical information to the player. I recommend it very highly, especially if you are interested in the various Scale Modes.

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Murl Sanders
Nov 20, 2022

Here's a quote attributed to the great jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker, about learning jazz:

"Learn all your scales and chords and then forget them."

I would add, start listening to great jazz records. Play along with a song you know. Find good players and jam with them. Find a good teacher.

Murl Allen Sanders

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