How High The Ornithology: How Jazz and Improvisational Speech Collide

Posted by Tom Frey
May 23, 2014

by Tom Frey


tom-frey-1Some people think that Jazz is just playing whatever comes into your head.  Not true.

Some people also seem to think that people who speak “off the cuff” really well (in other words, improvisational speaking) are just saying whatever comes into their head.  Also: not true. (Except for Mel Brooks.  But never mind him.)

Jazz might be described as a combination of preparation and inspiration. The same is true for Improvisational Speech, or "Impromptu" Speaking. Jazz and Impromptu speaking require the ability to prepare in the moment, which sounds like an oxymoron, but let me show you:

In order to follow me here, you’ll need to listen to three recordings back to back.  You can read ahead without doing so, but all three are famous recordings, so why not? I’ve included youtube clips to make it easy for you. They are:

How High The Moon?, by Bennie Goodman and his Orchestra (Feb. 7, 1940)

Ornithology, by Charlie Parker, Dial Label (March 28, 1946,)

How High The Moon, First Take, by Ella Fitzgerald, Decca Recordings (Dec. 20, 1947) 


Go ahead and play the Bennie Goodman.



Here’s a little background as you listen to the first track:  How High the Moon is a song from a 1940 Broadway Review. If you’ve gotten as far as the vocalist, that’s Helen Forrest and she’s just swell (she’s nothing like what’s about to happen in the following tracks, but still…).  Look at the date of the recording.  1940!  Goodman snatched this tune up from Broadway and made it a Pop hit the very same year.  Theatre music and popular music used to feed each other back in the day.  Since then, How High The Moon has become a jazz standard, recorded countless times. In terms of this track and the idea of improvisation or “off the cuff” playing, there isn’t a lot of it.  Goodman is bending the melody here and there on the clarinet, but the rest of the band is reading from music orchestrated by Goodman, and Helen pretty much sticks to the script.  

Play the next track, Ornithology.



After a few bars, you may be wondering why I stuck this in between two How High The Moons.  Doesn’t sound anything like the first tune, does it?  Well, in fact, this is just another version of How High The Moon.  If you listen closely, you’ll hear that the harmony is exactly the same in this song as the in Goodman version, only the melody has changed.  This is an example of what’s known as a contrafact, a new melody laid over an existing chord structure, and Charlie Parker did it completely on purpose.  Here’s a little background on this one:

In the early part of the 20th century, the cutting contests (contests in jazz or blues clubs to see who was the better improviser) were mostly based on the chord progression of the blues, a predominantly three-chord structure over which musicians would “improvise” the same things, over and over.  It was predictable, and fairly easy for cats to sound good on.  Bird (Charlie Parker) and Diz (Dizzy Gillespie, Fathers of Bebop) got sick of the fact that other cats sounded like they could hang with them, so they started to blow (improvise) over different, more complex chord changes.  One of the first was over the Gershwin tune “I Got Rhythm,” the chord changes of which have been fertile ground for improvisation ever since.  Even the theme to the “Flintstones” is based on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”    

I digress, but the point is that Ornithology grew out of improvisation.  Charlie Parker knew everything about 

the chord structure of How High The Moon and could improvise on it in the moment without losing his place.  The main melody was written down, but in between, they were all getting to the destination via different routes.  Same map, different roads.

This track is also a great example of the old trope: Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, Tell ‘em, then Tell Improvisational-speech‘em what you told ‘em.  When you listen again (and I know you’ll want to), you’ll hear that the first theme is stated all together (Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell 'em), then everybody gets a chance to solo or say it again in a bunch of different ways (Tell ‘em), then at the end everybody in the band plays the theme from the top again (Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em).  In the world of impromptu speaking, we call this “Bookending.” 

(Incidentally, Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Bird,” hence the title of this cut, Ornithology.  Jazz cats sure have some crazy senses of humor, man.) 

Now we come to the last track, and here’s where it all comes together.  Please press play, and enjoy Ella Fitzgerald singing How High The Moon. 



The first part seems to be a lot like the Goodman version, structure- wise anyway, but keep listening.  A few verses in… are those the right words? Wait, no, she says the words may be wrong but we’re singing it because you asked for it and then… What?  Yep, a little while later she scats the melody to Ornithology exactly as Charlie Parker & Co. played it less than a year earlier.  She then quotes the melodies of about 10 other jazz standards without missing a beat, and then at the end wraps it up, restating her thesis in English:

“Though the words may be wrong to this song

We hoped you liked how high high high high is the moon.”

Aside from the incredible, fluid artistry, the impression is that she lost the words to the song, made them up for as long as she could, switched to another viable language (scat singing), then miraculously bookended it. 

Although it sounds like she just making this up, it required a tremendous amount of preparation to pull off.  Ella had to have known the Goodman version of the song, the Charlie Parker version, as well as all the other songs she quoted.  She also had to be able to remember the chord structure all along the way in order not to get lost and sing the wrong notes over the wrong chord. 

Finally, she had to be able to embrace several ideas of improvisation, ideas that relate to impromptu speaking as well.  First, when she lost the words, she didn’t treat it like a mistake.  Rather, it became an opportunity to speak in a different way about related subjects.  Second, whatever the band threw at her, she said “Yes” to and incorporated.  She also embraced the phrase “I don’t know…”- in the sense that she didn’t try to continue to fake the words, she just went into an area she did know about.   This all adds up to a great example of being able to prepare in the moment.

Jazz, like effective improvisational speech, isn't accidental. It takes a lot of preparation and skill to make the unscripted seem easy. This progression of How High the Moon, each recording unique and innovative in it's own right, is not a "fortunate mistake"- it is preparation meeting inspiration in the moment.

Here’s a final (bonus!) version of How High The Moon/Ornithology for you.  It’s by Sarah Vaughan and her Trio from 1957.  Like Ella, she loses her place too.  Why people couldn’t seem remember the words to this song I don’t know, but I’m awfully glad they couldn’t or we wouldn’t have these other incredible versions.  Like Ms. Vaughan says in the song, I “hope you enjoyed it/ We did the best we could/we did the best we could/ on How High the Moon."



Improvisation for Business  



Ringing Phone

Looking for help?