Outside Forces: "Autumn Leaves" in the 1960s

Waters, Keith

Is there a problem of form in the jazz tradition? Does the reliance upon
repeated 32-bar frameworks create an unavoidable formal, harmonic, and
metric redundancy? How do jazz improvisers transcend or evade this
cyclic regularity?
These are crucial questions. Jazz players have extended privilege to the
32-bar AABA and ABAC song form (along with 12-bar blues structures)
since at least the 1930s, when the 32-bar song form replaced the 16-bar
sectional forms of ragtime and early jazz. Yet repeated cycles of thirty-two
bars result in a hypermetric consistency on several levels: single measures
group into four-measure units, which then combine into eight measure
sections; the four eight-measure sections comprise the 32-bar form, which
becomes repeated, normally for the duration of the composition. In the
Western European tradition (with the occasional exception of the theme
and variations genre and dance forms) form is typically not generated by
regularly repeating structures, structures that are consistently built from
measure groups of 4, 8, 16, and 32 bars. Yet this formal model, with its
foursquare regularity and its repeated harmonic and metric organization,
has been one of the primary vehicles for jazz improvisers and composers.
Historically, jazz players have kept the structure, merely renovating it periodically
through stylistic change. Thus, while stylistic development and
evolution has rapidly taken place in the area of instrumental technique,
harmony, and rhythm, the domain of form has remained relatively static.



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Columbia University
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November 19, 2014