Giant Steps - by Jerome Kern

July 17, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Coltrane died fifty years ago today. (The rest of this post is a bit technical. My apologies.)

The “Giant Steps” album of 1959 was a turning point in jazz. The title tune represented a new idea in chord sequences.  “What are those chords, man?” everyone seemed to be asking.  “B D G Bb Eb - how do you play through that?” Even the great Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the “Giant Steps” date, seems to be struggling with the changes.

As Wikipedia says, “The ‘Giant Steps’ cycle is the culmination of Coltrane's theories applied to a completely new chord progression.”

Instead of the usual progression (C, Am7, Dm7, G7) and its small variations, “Giant Steps” is based on the augmented triad B, G, Eb, with passing chords in between. Wikipedia charts the usual ii-V-I sequence against the Coltrane version.

That progression soon became part of the jazz vocabulary.

Of course, nothing is totally new. One night as I was sitting at the bar at Bradley’s, the guy I was talking to said, “You know, the ‘Giant Steps’ changes are in the verse to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’” That song was written by Jerome Kern (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) in 1917 – the earliest days of the golden age of the American popular song.  I was skeptical. Coltrane’s revolutionary changes? C’mon, man. Eventually I found the sheet music, and sure enough, there they were.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here’s the classic recording, with Coltrane’s solo transcribed and animated.


David J. Littleboy said...

For what its worth, the sabi (oops, bridge) in Have You Met Miss Jones (Rogers and Hart, 1937) also does the Coltrane changes thing, although the target chords get 4 beats and the leading chords also get 4 beats (and are ii V as opposed to just V).

Oops, again. I thought Shiny Stockings was doing something similar, but it's just going up in whole steps.

(I'm learning jazz/bebop guitar, but have been avoiding Coltrane. At some point I'll try playing it. Just not for the nonce.)

Jay Livingston said...

You’re right that the bridge of “Have You Met Miss Jones” uses the augmented triad notes as its centers. But it’s not the exact same “Giant Steps” sequence as in “Till the Clouds Roll By,” which was written 20 years earlier.

Most jazz players still learn to become comfortable with the “Giant Steps” changes. I’m not sure about the more general use of the Coltrane substitutions. In fact, after the “My Favorite Things” album, where they figure prominently in “But Not For Me,” I’m not even sure how much Coltrane himself used them.