Do You Speak Jazz? Jazz Slang Glossary

AABA– the most common form in pop music. Typical of songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen etc.

Axe– an instrument

Back-beat– beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time, particularly when they are strongly accented.

Bad– good

Bebop– the style of jazz developed by young players in the early 40s, particularly Parker, Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian and Bud Powell.  Characteristic stressed instrumental ability expressed through rapid, busy, chord-progression-driven improvisations using irregular, syncopated phrasing with many tentions and aliterations. Small groups were favored, ground beat was moved from the bass drum to the ride cymbal and the string bass, and the rhythmic feel was more flowing.

Birdbrain – Charlie Parker imitator.

Block Chords– a style of piano playing, with both hands ‘locked’ together, playing chords in parallel with the melody, usually in fairly close position. Also known as locked hands.

For better understanding, listen to Red Garland at the beginning of the following tune from Miles Davis’ Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet album

Blow– playing any instrument but mostly associated with horn players.

Boogie Woogie – A early piano blues form that was popularized in Chicago in 1930s. For the most part, boogie-woogie tunes are twelve-bar blues.

Typical boogie woogie bassline:

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 10.12.48 AM

Break– a transitional passage in which a soloist plays unaccompanied.

Bread – a jazzman’s term for money.

Burnin’ – used to describe a particularly emotional or technically excellent playing/soloing (also smokin’).

Cats – folks who play jazz music.

Changes – chord progression; also short for rhythm changes.

Chart– a) any musical score b) a type of score with only the melody line, words (if any) and chord symbols. Key signature and meter are given only once, at the beginning.

Chord tones– the root, third, fifth and seventh of a chord, as opposed to tensions.

Chorus– a complete cycle of a tune, one time through from top to the bottom.

Combo – a performing group of musicians that varies in size from 3 to 10.

Chops– refers to any musician’s level of ability. Originates from the physical changes that occur in a brass player’s mouth and lips.  Term is also used for a musician who had significantly improved his or her playing.

Counting off – giving the tempo and meter by snapping fingers and counting out loud.

Dig – to show appreciation of someone’s playing and musical expression.

Double time feel – a time feel twice as fast, so that written eighth notes now sound like quarter notes, while the chords continue at the same speed as before.

Fake book– a collection of Jazz charts published without paying royalties and not in the public domain.

Front line – the horn players in a band, those who aren’t in the rhythm section.

Gig – musical engagement; paying job.

Half time feel –a time feel half as fast, while the chords go by in the same amount of time.

Harmonic rhythm – the structural organization of chord progressions in time.

Head – the first (and last) chorus of a tune, in which the song or melody is stated without improvisation or with minimal improvisation.

Hip – a term used to describe someone who knows or understands. Originally “hep” until the 40’s or 50’s.

A Hot Plate – a great recording.

Improvisation(improv) – the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes of a tune.

In the Pocket – refers to the rhythm section being really locked in.

Jam – to improvise.

Jam Session – musicians playing/jamming by improvising without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements. They are often used in order to develop new material, establish suitable arrangements but primarily as a social gathering and communal practice session.

Jive – a versatile word which can be used as a noun, verb or adjective. Noun—an odd form of speech. Verb—to fool someone. Adjective—phoney or fake.

Jump – to swing.

Licks – pattern or phrase consisted of a short series of notes that is used in solos, melodic lines and comping.

Line-up – the personnel of a band.

Montuno – a term characteristic in Latin music. An indefinitely repeated pattern of 1, 2 or 4 bars in the piano, typically with ingeniously syncopated moving inner voices and a differently syncopated bass line

Open voicing – one in which the chord tones are spread out over a greater range.

Pedal – a bass line that stays mainly on one note (or octaves) under several changes of harmony. Also known as the pedal-point. The most common is the dominant pedal (bass on V).

Progression– a definite series of chords, forming a passage with some harmonic unity or dramatic meaning.

Riff– a relatively simple, usually bluesy and catchy repeated phrase. May be played behind a soloist or as part of a head.

The Real Book – usually refers to any number of popular compilations of lead sheets for jazz tunes, but is generally used to refer to Volume 1 of an underground series of books transcribed and collected by students at Berklee College of Music during the 1970s.

Rusty Gate – someone who can’t play.

Scat – improvising lyrics as nonsense syllables. Said to have originated on the “Hot Five” song “Heebie Jeebies” when Louis Armstrong dropped his sheet with lyrics during a recording session.

Sideman- any member of a band or small group other than the leader.

Sharp -fashionable.

Shed – to practice diligently.

Solo – any one player’s improvisation over one or more choruses of the tune (occasionally, especially in ballads, less than one chorus).

jazz collage

Syncopation  the process of displacing “expected” beats by anticipation or delay of one-half a beat. The natural melodic accent which would usually land on the beat, is thus heard on the off-beat. This adds a flavor of ambiguity as to where the beat is

Top– the beginning point of each chorus, the first beat of the first measure.

Tag – used to end the tune, repeating the last phrase three times.

Take five – a way of telling someone to take a five minute break or lay down.

Trading 4s (or 8s, 2s) – an arranging technique in which musicians consistently alternate brief solos of pre-set length (for trading fours, four bars; musicians may also trade twos, eights, and so forth).  Trading fours usually occurs after each musician has had a chance to play a solo, and often involves alternating four-bar segments with the drummer.

Tune – a single jazz composition or jazz performance, a musical piece.

Turnaround-a faster, more complex series of chords that comes in the last two bars of a blues or the A section of an AABA form.

Vamp – a short, repeated chord progression usually used as the introduction or space for improvisation.

Walking bass – an energetic bass line featuring four even beats per bar, usually serving as the rhythmic foundation for the jazz ensemble.



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