Jazz Contrafacts

I first came across the term contrafact back in my college music days in one of jazz educator David Baker’s books. In that instant, I gained a word for a practice which, until then, I had been only dimly aware of. Good thing I found out when I did instead of laboring any longer in ignorance, unaware of how much easier life could be.

A contrafact is a new musical composition built out of an already existing one, most often a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure. As a compositional device, [the contrafact] was of particular importance in the 1930s/1940s development of bop, since it allowed jazz musicians to create new pieces for performance and recording on which they could immediately improvise, without having to seek permission or pay publisher fees for copyrighted materials (while melodies can be copyrighted, the underlying harmonic structure cannot be).–From the Wikipedia article

Nice, eh? What this means for the jazz musician is, learn the changes to one tune and chances are you’ve learned the changes to several others as well. Here is a list of just a few common tunes, and of jazz contrafacts that have been derived from them:

  • Blues–only a zillion heads exist for the blues.
  • I”ve Got Rhythm–Anthropology, Oleo, Who’s Got Rhythm?, Moose the Mooch, Altoitis
  • Cherokee–Ko Ko
  • What Is This Thing Called Love?–Hot House
  • Back Home Again in Indiana–Donna Lee
  • How High the Moon–Ornithology

With the exception of the blues, the changes to “I’ve Got Rhythm” are easily the most contrafacted in jazz. That’s one reason why it behooves you to spend time mastering “Rhythm changes.” Learn them and you’ve instantly added scores of tunes to your repertoire–you just have to learn the melodies to them!

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