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Exploring the Use of a Single Formula in Grant Green’s First Chorus Improvisation on “I’ll Remember April” (1961) [1]

Andrew Scott


There is no shortage of books on jazz improvisation. These have provided opportunities for both readers (who today are inundated with books on melodic patterns, transcribed solos, chord voicings and general “how-to” guides) and writers (who supplement their income as performers by working as instructors, clinicians, and authors). Many of these books focus on amassing knowledge; every solo of a particular musician is transcribed, pages of ii7–V7–I patterns, entire books notating all chord voicings imaginable, and while many of said treatises are valuable, few address the process of jazz improvisation—the concept that many jazz musicians rely less on an amassed knowledge of multiple “licks” and predetermined ideas than on a finite number of malleable formulas that can be manipulated rhythmically, harmonically and melodically in any number of ways for any number of musical results. As Lawrence Gushee points out, “Music claims transformation and varied repetition as a fundamental forming process.” [2]

Jazz scholars have long been aware of the concept of musical formulas and their employment by improvising jazz musicians. Henry Martin’s and Thomas Owens’s work on Charlie Parker; Howard Spring’s and Jonathan Finkelman’s work on Charlie Christian; Barry Kernfeld’s examination of John Coltrane; Gushee’s writing on Lester Young; Gregory Smith’s work on Bill Evans and Andrew Scott’s research on guitarist Sonny Greenwich have all addressed how jazz players use musical formulas as fundamental building blocks of the improvisatory process.

Grant Green

Perhaps nowhere are a limited number of highly malleable formulas used during the improvisatory process more in evidence than in the playing of St. Louis-born guitarist Grant Green (1935–1979). Noted for his keen melodic sense, driving rhythmic feel and crisp tone, Green was an amazingly prolific and consistent musician - appearing on twenty-one recordings as either a sideman or leader in 1961 alone (some sessions resulting in multiple issues) and acting as the unofficial ‘house’ guitarist for Blue Note throughout the early 1960s. He seemed to be able routinely to turn in excellent solos, thoughtful accompaniment figures, and the sort of rhythmic interplay that is the stuff of great jazz.

Like any musician, Green has his ‘pet phrases’—licks, as I originally classified them—that are repeated with frequency giving his playing both a sense of coherence and an immediately recognizable vocabulary. After working with transcriptions of Green’s improvisations and executing them on the guitar, I propose that these repeated passages are not standalone musical ideas that have been placed into the improvisation in a sort of ‘paint-by-numbers’ fashion. Rather, the recognizable phrases are the musical realizations of what could be achieved by varying a finite number of formulas. Such formulas act not only as a surrogate music theory for the self-taught Green, but form the basis of much of his improvising.

Curiously, Green’s music has largely escaped scholarly attention. Beyond the article “From Grant Green to B.B. King to T-Bone Walker: Consistent Approaches to the Blues,” [3] Green has been the subject of a biography by his daughter-in-law Sharony Andrews Green (Grant Green: Rediscovering The Forgotten Genius Of Jazz Guitar); the Hal Leonard Guitar Signature Licks Series devotes an entire book to Green transcriptions by Wolf Marshall (Best of Grant Green: A Step-by-Step Breakdown of the Guitar Styles and Techniques of the Jazz Groove Master); and there have been a few collected jazz guitar improvisation studies that have included work of Green’s (including Hal Leonard’s Guitar Standards which contains this performance of “I’ll Remember April”).

This short article will examine one single formula and its repeated presence in the first chorus of Green’s August 1961 improvisation on the Gene de Paul composition “I’ll Remember April.” [4]

Note: This article uses interactive musical notation produced using Sibelius notation software. The Sibelius Scorch plug-in allows for musical notation to be displayed as well as heard. Transcriptions are notated at concert pitch. The play button starts playback from the beginning. Clicking on any point in the notation starts the playback from that point. Key and tempo can be changed by the user. If you do not see the score, get the Scorch plug-in here.

The Formulaic System

For many of the aforementioned writers who apply formulaic research to jazz improvisation, their touchstone is the work of Homeric scholar Milman Parry. [5] Arguing that Homer belonged to a tradition of oral poets and striving to examine the differences between the “form of oral story poetry” to the “form of written story poetry,” [6] Parry examined Homer’s use of formulas—defined as “a group of words regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea”—in order to demonstrate the differences between the oral and written literary traditions. [7] Parry’s definition of a formula and his examination of how said formula(s) apply to the creative process of oral poetry share much with the improvisatory method of jazz musicians.

The Formula

Accepting Parry’s definition for formula, consider Example 1, a pivoted Cma7 arpeggio with an approach note.

Example 1. Pivoted Cma7 arpeggio with approach note (solo break).

The pivot, a term pianist Barry Harris uses in his own pedagogical work, indicates a sudden change in register. [8] Instrumental range is often the deciding factor for the employment of pivots, as this strategy enables the musician to continue along an arpeggiated trajectory but break up the ascending or descending teleology of the line by leaping either down or up the octave to the next ordered pitch in the arpeggio. In Green’s formula, the pivot is a descent that occurs between pitches two and three of the formula (the tonic and third of the major seventh arpeggio). Finally, when an approach from the scale tone immediately above precedes the pivoted arpeggio, the recognizable opening phrase of Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” is referenced. [9]

Returning to Parry’s definition of a formula—“a group of words regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea” [10]—one can see how this definition fits with the guitarist’s use of the formula. The regular employment aspect of the definition is addressed by the frequency with which Green executes the formula—eleven times over fifty bars, appearing on ten of the twelve four-bar lines of the transcription—and in each case an essential idea is expressed. Further, like the oral poet, Green’s manipulations of the formula (harmonically, rhythmically and melodically) bear related, but not identical, fruit.


While the pivoted major seventh arpeggio contained within the formula remains consistent throughout the improvisation, Green’s approaches towards it vary. As a result, the malleable formula is either five notes (one approach note plus arpeggio) or six notes (two approach notes plus arpeggio) long. There are six variants to Green’s approaches. The variant names, frequency of usage and example numbers relating to the accompanying transcription are detailed below:

A. Single chromatic approach from above (1 usage in Example 1—see above).

B. Single scalar approach from below (1 usage in Example 8).

Example 8. Single scalar approach from below (bars 31–32).

C. Double chromatic approach from above (4 usages in Examples 3, 4, 6, and 10).

Example 3. Double chromatic approach from above (bars 5–6).

Example 4. Double chromatic approach from above (bars 8–9).

Example 6. Double chromatic approach from above (bars 18–19).

Example 10. Double chromatic approach from above (bars 41–42).

D. Above then below scalar enclosure (2 usages in Examples 2 and 9).

Examples 2 and 9. Above then below scalar enclosure (bars 1–2 and 33–34).

E. Below then above scalar enclosure (2 usages in Examples 5 and 7).

Example 5: Below then above scalar enclosure (bars 13–14).

Example 7: Below then above scalar enclosure (bars 25–26).

F. Combination of enclosure and chromatic approaches (1 usage in Example 11).

Example 11: Combination of enclosure and chromatic approaches (bars 45–46).

Green resolves the formula with a whole step descent except in Examples 8 (bar 32) and 9 (bar 34).

The Improvisation

As mentioned, Green uses the formula as an improvisatory jumping-off point eleven times over a single chorus (plus a two bar solo break) of his improvisation. Adding currency to the conclusion that Green uses the formula not as a standalone “lick,” but rather as a malleable idea that can be manipulated to fit any number of musical contexts, Green rarely uses the formula in the identical way in a similar context. The numerous ways in which Green uses the formula are detailed below.

The crux of the formula lies in notes two through five. These notes quickly and clearly outline a key center (and/or suggest harmonic function) and offer an effective springboard to another passage.

In Green’s eleven usages of the formula, he never varies how the sequence between notes two through five of the formula are ordered (always a descending pivoted major third, followed by an ascending minor third and an ascending major third). Rhythmically, Green plays this segment of the formula in one of two ways. Most frequently, Green syncopates the arpeggio contained within the formula by leaving the duration of an eighth rest between notes one and two of the arpeggio (see Examples 3, 4, 6, and 10). Less regularly, Green plays the phrase as consecutive eighth notes (see Examples 1, 7, and 8). Examples 2 and 9 are identical not only in terms of rhythm, but also in pitch class, placement in the bar and relation to the overarching compositional harmony. Example 11 is an anomaly that combines approaches (enclosure and chromatic) and exhibits a rhythmic framework that is neither syncopated nor the straight articulation of eighth notes.


Harmonic Analysis

When analyzing the linear aspects of any jazz solo that can be classified as a “harmonic improvisation” [11] (Henry Martin’s designation for an improvisation where “the melodic qualities of the head do not seem to affect the solo motivically”), there is rarely a “one-to-one” relationship created between melodic lines and overarching harmonic movement. Good players manipulate a composition’s harmony by playing ahead of the chord changes, delaying harmonic resolution, imbuing chromaticism into the mix, or articulating pitches that purposefully challenge (or even subvert) the compositional harmony. Accordingly, Green’s usages of the formula have been subdivided into the larger “function” categories of tonic (major and parallel minor), predominant, and dominant, instead of relating each phrase to individual chord changes.

Green’s use of the formula can be divided fourfold into a tonic function, a dominant function, a predominant function and a minor function. For reasons illuminated below, I argue that one of those usages (the minor function) can be grouped into another category (the predominant function). Initially, however, the functions, their frequency of usage and example numbers are below.

  1. Tonic function (1 usage in Example 6).
  2. Dominant function (2 usages in Example 2 and 9).
  3. Predominant function (7 usages in Examples 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 11).
  4. Minor function (1 usage in Example 3).

1). Tonic Function

Example 6 (bars 18 and 19) demonstrates Green’s usage of the formula over a tonic sound. Here, in the key of B♭ major (the only pitch class other than C major wherein Green uses the formula), the formula details chord tones 1 (anticipated slightly), 3, 5, and 7. This usage is the most harmonically obvious of the four and clearly outlines a tonic sound.

2). Dominant Function

Although Green is dealing with four measures of the tonic major chord when he utilizes the formula labeled as dominant function (Examples 2 and 9), I suggest Green is engaging in the common jazz practice of superimposing V7 over static harmony to create variety. The chord of the moment may be G major (four bars of tonic major), but Green’s improvised lines suggest the superimposition of I–V7–I–I or (in the key of G major) G major–D7–G major–G major (bars 1–4 and 33–36). That Green plays the formula not on the first or third bar of this four-bar phrase (as that would create incorrect harmony) but on the second bar in both cases (bars 2 and 34 respectively), coupled with the strong presence of the perfect fourth (C) on beat one of the tonic chord (beat one in bars 2 and 34) argues against a tonic interpretation.

3). Predominant Function

Green most frequently uses the formula in a subdominant setting. In reference to the Ami7 that precedes D7 (Examples 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 11), Green’s formula details a number of chord tones: pitches 4, 3, 5, 7, and 2. Extending the phrase further, Green most often continues his descent to 1 of the Ami7 chord (usage 1 [the solo break] , usage 4 [bars 8–9], usage 5 [bars 13–14], usage 7 [bars 25–26], usage 10 [bars 41–42] and 11 [bars 45–46]) and further continues the phrase to the third of the related dominant chord (F♯ on D7 in usages 1, 5, 7, 10 and 11). Interestingly, Green avoids clearly articulating the predominant to dominant change. Rather than executing the F♯ on the moment of harmonic alteration (from Ami7 to D7), Green consistently delays the resolution (usages 4, 5, 7, 10, and 11) by striking either a G (the fourth of D7 in usages 5, 7, and 11) or a B (the thirteenth of D7 in Examples 4 and 10). From there, Green works his way to the F♯ in similar scalar fashion (usages 5, 7, 10, and 11). Usage 4, where Green employs a combination of scalar movement and chromaticism to get from the B to the F♯, is the lone exception. Green’s consistent delaying of the V7 chord stands in stark contrast to his treatment of the formula on tonic chords (usage 6 in bar 19) where, as explained above, Green clearly and immediately delineates the tonic sound.

A second use of a predominant chord occurs in bar 32 (usage 8) when Green takes notes three through five of the formula and moves them down a semitone from E to E♭ to create a D altered dominant tonality (♭13, 3, ♯9, ♭9 against D7 in beats 3 and 4 of bar 32). Doing so, Green creates a line that outlines the related predominant chord (E♭mi7) of the dominant chord (A♭7) located a tritone away from the chord being stated (D7).

4). Minor Function

In bar 5, when the composition moves to its parallel minor key (G minor), the guitarist consistently treats this four bar section not as “pure” minor, but as a Dorian minor (G, A, B♭, C, D, E, F). It is as if Green hears this section less as G minor and more as four bars of C7 and, accordingly, uses the formula in the predominant setting detailed above. This sort of free interchange between minor seventh chords and dominant seventh chords located a fourth higher is a common jazz practice.


Green is able to make considerable music using this formula and his repeated usage of it here and elsewhere [12] affords him an effective strategy with which to navigate musically in any number of contexts. Curiously, while Green does continue to employ the formula throughout the remainder of his three chorus solo on “I’ll Remember April,” the formula does not appear with the regularity that it did in the first chorus. One suggested explanation for its reduced use in the ensuing choruses is that Green is perhaps more attuned to hear different musical ideas as the performance continues. We know from discographical information that the released performance of “I’ll Remember April” was the fifth take that Green and company recorded that day. [13] Further, that there was no studio mediation present on this recording (unlike some of Green’s later recordings) suggests that Green treated this session as he would have a live performance. As he was an improvising jazz musician used to working in the immediacy of the moment, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Green may have found himself frequently falling back upon the formula as a springboard towards additional musical ideas during the first chorus of the fifth take of this composition. Arguably, as the performance continued, more generative musical ideas poured forth. This explanation, however, is speculative and to my ears there is nothing reductive or hackneyed about Green’s use of the formula.

Of course, Green’s playing can hardly be reduced to a checklist of licks, formulas and patterns. As Martin argues, “overemphasis on formula overlooks much of the expressivity, the ‘music,’ of the artwork.” [14] Examination of what is not marked as an example and explained by the formula in this first chorus is equally illuminating as Green seems to balance the formulaic moments with points of particular interest such as the section in and around bar 36. By exploring how Green effectively exploits a single pattern to good end, however, I hope to have offered some insight into his improvisatory approach.



[1] Grant Green, Standards, Blue Note CD 72438 21284 2 7. Green’s 1961 performance of “I’ll Remember April” remained unreleased until 1979, first issued only on a Japanese LP titled Remembering (Blue Note (J) GXF 3071), and then not again until 1998 on the aforementioned CD issue.

[2] Lawrence Gushee, “Lester Young’s ‘Shoe Shine Boy.’” In A Lester Young Reader, ed. Lewis Porter (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 239.

[3] Andrew Scott, “From Grant Green to B.B. King to T-Bone Walker: Consistent Approaches to the Blues.” Soundscapes: Online Journal on Media Culture 8 (2005–2006).

[4] While it is beyond the scope of this focused article to test such a claim, I encourage readers to investigate this theory as it applies to other Green pieces.

[5] Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry Edited and translated by Adam Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1–239.

[6] Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales 2nd Edition, edited by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 3.

[7] Milman Parry, “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making. I: Homer and Homeric Style,” HSCP, 41:80 (1930).

[8] Howard Rees, The Barry Harris Workshop Video [workbook], (Mississauga: Bop City Productions, 1994), 4.

[9] “Honeysuckle Rose” is a composition with which Green would undoubtedly be familiar and which he would record in February of 1962 with the singer Joe Carroll (Joe Carroll, Man With A Happy Sound, Charlie Parker Records PLP-802).

[10] Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry Edited and translated by Adam Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1–239.

[11] Henry Martin, Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 39.

[12] Listen, for example, to Green’s entry into the bridge of his December 1961 recording of “What is This Thing Called Love” from Grant Green, Gooden’s Corner (Blue Note (J) GXF 3058, reissued more recently on The Complete Quartets With Sonny Clark, Blue Note CDP 7243 8 57194 2 4) for a rhythmically altered example of the formula used in a predominant sounding fashion.

[13] Michael Cuscuna and Michel Ruppli, The Blue Note Label, 2nd Edition (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 126.

[14] Henry Martin, Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 121.

Author Information: 
Andrew Scott is a guitarist whose latest CD for Sackville, Nostalgia, features Dan Block and Jon-Erik Kellso. Scott is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and of York University, where he earned his Ph.D. He has been published in The Journal of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, The Canadian University Music Society Review, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Music Research Forum, Jazz Education Journal, The International Association of Jazz Education Jazz Research Proceedings Yearbook, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Soundscapes: Online Journal on Media Culture, Coda, Down Beat, and Wax Poetics. An award-winning educator, Scott is on faculty at Humber College, York University and the University of Guelph.

Many jazz musicians rely on a finite number of malleable formulas that can be manipulated rhythmically, harmonically and melodically in any number of ways for any number of musical results. This article examines one single formula and its repeated presence in the first chorus of Grant Green’s improvisation on the composition “I’ll Remember April.”

Grant Green, guitar, solo, transcription, analysis, formula, I’ll Remember April

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Scott, Andrew. “Exploring the Use of a Single Formula in Grant Green’s First Chorus Improvisation on ‘I’ll Remember April’ (1961).” Current Research in Jazz 1, (2009).
  • MLA 6th ed.: Scott, Andrew. “Exploring the Use of a Single Formula in Grant Green’s First Chorus Improvisation on ‘I’ll Remember April’ (1961).” Current Research in Jazz 1 (2009).
  • APA 5th ed.: Scott, A. (2009). Exploring the Use of a Single Formula in Grant Green’s First Chorus Improvisation on “I’ll Remember April” (1961). Current Research in Jazz, 1

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