This article is copyright 2007 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in Down Beat, Vol. 74, No. 5, May 2007. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.


Unlocking Standard Tunes: Use Your Keys!

“Woodshed” Pro Session

by Antonio J. García

“Don’t you notice how HOPELESSLY I’M LOST...???”

It happens frequently: a somewhat inexperienced jazz musician is soloing over a standard tune, say, Misty, when some key-shift within the tune catches him or her totally by surprise.

Let’s say that Sam is sitting in and doesn’t know the tune well. But the veteran next to him whispers, “The tune’s in Eb. Bridge goes to Ab. You’ll hear it.”

Sure enough, Sam can create ideas using the Eb scale over the A-sections and the Ab scale over the opening of the bridge and is sounding pretty good. But suddenly he is crashing and burning in the fifth and sixth bars of the bridge, and all the dancers have stopped and are staring at him.

“Oops,” says the veteran. “Forgot to mention that the bridge goes to G major in bar five.”

Sometimes that omission happens accidentally—sometimes on purpose, just to test “the new guy.” But have you ever checked out the lyrics to Misty at the pickups to measure five of the bridge?

“Don’t you notice how HOPELESSLY I’M LOST...???”

It’s great tone-painting by the composer, Erroll Garner, and the lyricist , Johnny Burke. The lyrics speak of conflicted emotions as the key-center drops from Ab to G: a spin of five keys on the circle of fifths! Improvisers have stumbled over this spot for decades.

Reach for Your Keys

A standard tune such as Misty might have nearly 50 chord symbols on the page. But most of them simply represent tension and release in a given key. Thus Misty has only four major key centers within the tune: Eb, Ab, and Gb within the A-sections, plus G halfway through the bridge. If you know those four major scales, you can improvise lyrically over Misty right now—without thinking of a single Dorian, Plutocrian, or Demented scale.

Why does this work? The tune is a “standard” because it was popular, meaning the public can sing them. And in the western world, the most singable scale is the major scale.

So, if the melody of a standard is mostly made up of major scales, then that’s good enough for your first solos on the tune. You can learn about all the other kinds of scales later.

On a Scale of One

Some tunes’ chord progressions allow you to solo over the entire tune using just one major scale. Look at your basic C major scale and run a scale from C to C, D to D, etc. Each of these new scales is called a “mode,” and each has a very formal-sounding name:

[Example 1]

I could call the Dorian mode “Fred” and the Locrian mode “Pass the Salad”; they’d still just be the same notes of the C major scale but starting on different scale steps, right? And if you stacked a series of chords in thirds above each note of the C major scale, all notes staying in the key of C, then all the chord tones would also be the same notes of the C major scale but starting on different scale steps.

[Example 2]

Therefore you can play the C major scale over not only a C major chord (I) but also over a D minor (ii), E minor (iii), F major (IV), G dominant (V), A minor (vi), or B half-diminished (vii) chord and be completely consonant with the chord changes.

More Seasoning, Please

But what if you want some spice in your solo?

Dominant chords can handle any tone you can throw at them. Let’s look at what happens when you play a G major scale over a not-so-G-looking B7 chord—a chord that jazz theory tells us is in the key of E major, three additional sharps away from the key of G. If that’s not extreme enough a difference for you, then check out the G scale over an F#7 chord—a chord in B major.

[Example 3]

Look at all the great chord alterations you can hit over other chords if G happens to be the tonic major scale of the tune! Musicians practice for years to find the altered fifths and ninths of chords, but they’ll often fall right into your reach with the tonic scale.

What’s the difference in key between your average ii, V, and I chord? None. And if the progression’s in minor, check out its relative-major scale!

So when looking at a standard tune for the first time, would you rather start soloing from the standpoint of 50 chord changes or from a mere four major-scale key-centers? Start improvising over these great tunes! Reduce all the iii-VI-ii-V-I progressions and the like to their home key-centers; and you’ll never have to say...

“Don’t you notice how HOPELESSLY I’M LOST...???”


_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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