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Jazz Forms - The 32 bar Song Form

One of the many skills a jazz musician must possess is the ability to improvise within a given harmonic structure. This practice has been present in jazz since the first spontaneous paraphrasing of popular song melodies. As many of these popular songs were of a 32 measure length divided into four eight measure phrases, this song form has become a regular occurrence in the traditional jazz medium.

The jazz soloist approaches the 32 bar form using the same logical phrases the composer uses to create the song's progression. These phrases are then labeled as sections using rehearsal letters [A, B, C, etc.], repeating the same letter for any section which is the same or similar to a previous one. Harmony patterns are broken down and memorized, and similarities between sections of different tunes are explored.

The most typical 32 bar song form is represented by the form A, A, B, A. Many popular melodies follow this structure, such as Frosty the Snowman, Aura Lee, and Au Clair de la Lune. Jazz standards which follow this form include Thomas "Fats" Waller's Honeysuckle Rose* and Ain't Misbehavin', Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing and Sophisticated Lady, and George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.

I Got Rhythm became very popular during the BeBop era, not for the melody but for the underlying harmonic progression. Charlie Parker wrote many complex melodies over these changes, including Little Bennie (originally Crazeology), Anthropology, and Ko Ko. Other 'Rhythm Changes' heads include Sonny Stitt's Eternal Triangle, Sonny Rollin's Oleo, and Dexter Gordon's Dexterity. For many years one 'cutting' test of a player's worth was their ability to handle Rhythm Changes effectively and individually.

Other variations of the 32 bar song form are also in regular use. The popular jazz vehicle Out Of Nowhere by Green and Heyman follows an A,B,A,C song form, as does Morgan Lewis' How High The Moon, which Charlie Parker used to create Ornithology. Parker used Indiana's harmony to support the BeBop standard Donna Lee**, both following the A,B,A,C form.

Jazz listeners and jazz improvisers can explore the 32 bar song form in the same ways, through listening, feeling the beat, counting measures, and learning to hear the connections and flow of the harmony. One crucial step in this process is to sing, hum or imagine the melody throughout the improvisations after the melody is stated. By hearing the architecture of the chord patterns in relationship to the melodic variations, the immense logic and spontaneous creativity of the jazz improviser will be revealed.  [top]
- article by Frank Singer 2002

* A recording of Honeysuckle Rose can be found on the CD Tito In Wonderland Cat's A Bear plays Honeysuckle Rose on Tito in Wonderland / click here for more info

** A recording of Donna Lee can be found on the CD oFF tHE tOP: standards 1 Frank Singer plays Donna Lee on oFF tHE tOP: standards 1 / click here for more info



Jazz Origins
I - Beginnings 
II - Jazz and Technology
III - Radio and the Industrial Beat    
The Swing Era
I - Precursors
II - The Decade of Swing
III - The BeBop Strain
A First Look Back
New Orleans Revival

Jazz Forms

The Blues
The 32 bar Song Form
The Latin Influence
Hard Bop
Evolution 1 - A New Dialogue
Evolution 2 - Into The Seventies
Evolution Of The Jam Session
Post Modernism


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