Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Intermediate
14:12

Learning Focus
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Blues
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Have you ever noticed how no two recordings of a jazz standard are exactly alike? That’s because playing jazz standards is a fundamentally creative endeavor. To embrace jazz repertoire on piano, not only do you need to be able to play jazz—you must also be able to think jazz. In today’s Quick Tip, Play Summertime Lead Sheet on Piano, John Proulx shares his perspective on performing this classic song from the Great American Songbook with a fresh and exciting approach. You’ll learn:

By the end of this lesson, you’ll have a better understanding about how to tackle a jazz standard like “Summertime” and make it your own.

Intro to Summertime for Jazz Piano

Learning to play a jazz standard like Gershwin’s “Summertime” is a little bit like putting together a puzzle. Some of the obvious puzzle pieces are the melody, the chords and the song form. The difference, however, is that there really is no definitive picture on the front of the box when it comes to what your finished puzzle should look like! Remember, no two recordings are the same. In fact, as a jazz pianist, you have the freedom to craft your own arrangement in a way that suits your musical tastes and preferences. In other words, you also bring your own pieces to the puzzle!

So how do you acquire your own puzzle pieces? In a way, that’s what the study of jazz is all about. That’s also what we’re about here at PWJ. Our learning materials are made to help piano students understand genre-specific idioms and musical conventions that are transferable. Therefore, a more accurate analogy for learning a new jazz standard might be something like baking a cake. Although there are some essential ingredients, the finished product is always unique and is made to reflect a particular occasion. In fact, it’s common for jazz pianists to perform the same jazz song in different ways over the course of their career.

If you are already a PWJ member, you can download today’s PDF lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Also, be sure to visit the Smart Sheet Music version of this lesson for value-added content. You can access the Smart Sheet Music from the blue bar at the top of this page when you’re logged in. Due to publisher’s restrictions, the lead sheet containing Gershwin’s original melody that appears in John’s tutorial is available via MusicNotes.com.

Summertime: Song Facts

“Summertime” is a popular song by American composer George Gershwin. The song was composed in 1934 as part of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which debuted in 1935. The lyrics for “Summertime” come from the novel Porgy, by Dubose Heyward, who worked with the George and Ira Gershwin to craft the libretto for Porgy and Bess.

The story of Porgy and Bess is set around 1930 in Catfish Row, a fictional Depression-era black community in Charleston, South Carolina. Musically speaking, Gershwin composed “Summertime” to resemble an African American spiritual. Indeed, the tune is set in a minor key and the melody is drawn almost exclusively from the minor blues scale. Many have drawn connections between Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the well-known spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”¹

The first recording of “Summertime” is from 1935 and features soprano vocalist Abbie Mitchell accompanied by Gershwin on piano with an orchestra. In 1936, Billie Holiday achieved early success with a recording of “Summertime” that reached #12. The song gained increased popularity after a 1942 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. At present, the total number of “Summertime” recordings is unknown, but different sources cite numbers ranging from 2791 to 67,591.² ³ The most commercially successful recording of “Summertime” is by R&B singer and keyboardist Billy Stewart, whose 1966 version spent seven weeks on the top 40 and peaked at #10.⁴

Summertime: Song Analysis

One of the interesting anomalies about Gershwin’s “Summertime” is that there is disagreement among music critics as to which style of music it belongs. Gershwin’s catalogue spans genres that include classical composition, musical theater and jazz. Gershwin himself considered Porgy and Bess to be a folk opera, and he envisioned “Summertime” as a lullaby. However, the piece contains palpable characteristics of the blues. In addition, “Summertime” is widely recorded and performed among jazz musicians. Nonetheless, “Summertime” has a rather unconventional form for a jazz tune.⁵

Song Key

Gershwin originally composed “Summertime” in the key of B minor. However, it more commonly appears in fake books in the key of A minor. Nonetheless, John Coltrane recorded it in D minor and Mile Davis recorded it in B♭ minor. Hence, almost any minor key is fair game for this popular tune on a jam session. For the purpose of our lesson today, we’ll be in the key of C minor.

Song Form

The song form for “Summertime” is rather unusual in that it contains a structure of just 16-bars. While the melody of “Summertime” bears an A-B-A-C phrase structure, this should not be confused with A-B-A-C form, which is typically 32 bars in length. Instead, it makes more sense to understand the form of “Summertime” as having just one section, which can be described as a 16-bar chorus. This is similar to the way that we understand the standard blues form, which typically contains a single 12-bar chorus. The technical name for the form of “Summertime” is strophic form—a compositional structure in which multiple verses are sung to the same melody.

There is one other important performance consideration about the song form for “Summertime.” Even though the melody is comprised of four 4-bar phrases, the last phrase sometimes segues into a repeating vamp over the chords Ⅰm6→Ⅱm6, which extends the form to 18 bars in all when such a device is employed.

Understanding the Chords for Summertime

In today’s featured Inside the Arrangement video tutorial, John Proulx demonstrates how to perform “Summertime” with a bluesy medium tempo swing groove modeled after the playing of jazz pianist Gene Harris. We’ll examine a lead sheet for that arrangement later in this lesson. First, however, it is important understand the harmonic structure of “Summertime” in a more general sense. This will help you understand why various “Summertime” lead sheets often contain substantially different chord changes.

Summertime Basic Harmonic Structure

The following example depicts the 16-bar form of “Summertime” with basic chords only. Seen through this lens, it’s rather easy to notice how “Summertime” is reminiscent of a traditional minor blues, particularly in measures 1–6.

George Gershwin Summertime Basic Chords Outline

Even though the example above accurately reflects the overall harmonic framework that Gershwin used to compose “Summertime,” you’re not likely to find a lead sheet containing such minimalistic chord changes, although Miles Davis’s 1959 version comes fairly close.

In music theory, we use the term “harmonic stagnation” to describe scenarios like the example above in which a single chord lasts for a prolonged period of time. Often times, jazz arrangers approach harmonic stagnation with some degree of reinterpretation or reharmonization. For example, one common technique is to punctuate a prolonged 1-chord with intermittent 5-chords.

Summertime Traditional Chords

The next example closely follows the chord changes that Gershwin himself used in his original orchestral arrangement of “Summertime,” except that this example has been transposed to C minor. Notice that measures 1–4 toggle back-and-forth between Cm6 to Dm6. The underlying structure for these measures is still a prolonged tonic chord. In other words, the harmony isn’t going anywhere just yet. It’s just dressed up a bit. Furthermore, it’s important to note that Dm6 (D–F-A–B) has a dominant function because sounds like a G9 chord (G–B-D-F-A) in 2nd inversion. In fact, some “Summertime” lead sheets express the chord changes in bars 1–4 as Cm6 to G7/D.

George Gershwin Summertime Traditional Chords

If you want to perform “Summertime” as a ballad, then the chord changes above are right in line with of how the tune is often interpreted at slower tempos. For example, these chord changes are very similar to those used by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (1957).  This example is also similar to the chord changes that Jonny uses in our full-length course on Summertime—Slow Blues (Int, Adv).

 Summertime Jazz Chords

Let’s consider now how our harmonic approach might change if we want to play “Summertime” at a medium swing tempo like Wes Montgomery’s 1959 recording. Even though the underlying harmonic structure remains the same, we’ll take a different path to get to each of the main target chords. For example, the following “Summertime” jazz lead sheet uses 2-5-1 progressions to break-up the harmonic stagnation. (In the analysis, a straight arrow indicates a secondary 2-chord and a curved arrow indicates a secondary 5-chord.)

Gershwin Summertime Jazz Fake Book Chord Changes Lead Sheet

Hopefully, the three examples that we’ve examined in this section have helped you to understand why different fake books will often show different chord changes for “Summertime.” All three harmonic approaches are valid. Performance considerations like tempo, genre and vibe should be used to determine which chord changes are most appropriate for your context. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the chord changes that John Proulx uses in today’s Inside the Arrangement tutorial.

Summertime: Inside the Arrangement

In the previous section, we’ve look at three different sets of chords for “Summertime.” We also cited a reference recording that closely resembles each harmonic approach. In this section, we’ll examine the “Summertime” chords that John Proulx uses in his Inside the Arrangement performance. John’s arrangement was inspired by a performance he heard from Gene Harris with the Ray Brown Trio (circa 1990).

Summertime Lead Sheet

The following lead sheet contains the chord changes that John uses to play “Summertime” on piano in the style of Gene Harris. Harmonically speaking, this arrangement features a blended approach that combines both blues and jazz characteristics. For example, John breaks up the harmonic stagnation in bar 1–4 in a different manner than we’ve seen previously. Instead of using Gershwin’s Ⅰm6→Ⅱm6 or a jazzy Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ progression, John alternates between Cm7 and F7 (Ⅰm7→Ⅳ7). This gives the arrangement a strong blues flavor. John also uses this progression to setup the groove and during the coda. However, in measures 4–6 of the form, John uses a sequence of Ⅱm→Ⅴ7 progressions (Gm7→C7, Fm7→B♭7, E♭m7→A♭7). This is a harmonic device that is commonly found in jazz compositions of the bebop era.

Summertime Lead Sheet (Gene Harris Style)

Jazz Piano Techniques for Summertime

John’s performance demonstration of “Summertime” incorporates a number of intermediate and advanced jazz piano skills. In this section, we’ll highlight many these techniques and link to resources where you can explore them in greater depth.

Rubato Introduction

John opens his performance of “Summertime” with a rubato introduction. Rubato is a musical term that describes expressing a melody with an elastic sense of time. Part of this elasticity comes from arpeggiating the chords. However, usually jazz pianists also employ the use of passing chords and reharmonization when playing rubatoFor example, when John plays the opening melodic line in a rubato tempo, he breaks up the initial prolonged tonic chord with a minor 2-5-1 progression (Dø7→G7→Cm7). You can learn more about reharmonization in our full-length course on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Int, Adv). Also, for another great example of rubato playing on “Summertime,” check out Oscar Peterson’s 1959 recording.

Walking Bass Line

After his intro, John transitions into a medium swing groove that features a walking bass line in the left hand. This technique is structured around quarter notes that outline the harmony in the lower register of the piano. However, more advanced players frequently incorporate a mixture of quarter notes and eighth notes in their walking bass lines because this helps heighten the swing feel. To learn more about this topic, visit our full-length courses on Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv).

Chord Pops

Once the swing groove comes in, John plays a lot of comping figures in the right hand. These rhythmic stabs are known as “chord pops.” The voicings that jazz pianists use for chord pops many contain as few as 2 or as many as 4 notes. The voicing density often varies depending on how active or sparse the melody is at any given moment. Two-note chord pops are usually constructed from the 3rd and 7th of the chord, which we call guide tones. For three-note chord pops, jazz pianists typically play the guide tones plus one additional chord extensionsuch as the 9th. When there are rests in the melody, jazz pianists may use four-note rootless voicings for their chord pops. To learn more about chord pops, check out our Quick Tip on Jazz Articulation with Ghost Notes (Int).

Melodic Interpretation

If you look closely at the lead sheet for “Summertime” and compare it to what John is playing, you’ll notice that he is taking some liberties with the melody. This is a standard performance practice for jazz musicians. In fact, the rhythms on the lead sheet are not intended to be taken literally. Not only that, jazz musicians also frequently add or even omit melody notes. For a thorough discussion on melodic interpretation, check out our Quick Tip on 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int).

Improvisation

Once the melody is over, John breaks off into an improvised jazz solo. For the 1st, 3rd and 4th phrases of the form, John play solo licks that are drawn primarily from the minor blues scale. You can learn how to improvise with the minor blues scale in our courses on Traditional Minor Blues (Beg, Int, Adv). Then, over the 2nd phrase, John incorporates melodic sequences into his solo (see tutorial discussion at 8:29–9:04). John also draws on the altered scale when soloing over some of the dominant 7th chords.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Play Summertime Lead Sheet on Piano. With the concepts that you learned in today’s lesson and a bit of practice, you’ll be jam session ready on this tune in no time!

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Raskauskas, Stephen. “The Surprising True Origins of Gershwin’s Classic ‘Summertime.’” WFMT.Com, 10 Sept. 2018.

² “Summertime.” SecondHandSongs.com.

³ “Most Recorded Song.” Guinness.WorldRecords.com

“Summertime by Various.” Songfacts.com.

⁵ Gioia Ted. The Jazz Standards : A Guide to the Repertoire. Second ed. Oxford University Press 2012, p 411–413.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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