Counterpoint and Jazz

I’ve been thinking a lot about counterpoint and its application in jazz lately. In fact I’ve become obsessed with how some of the classic arrangers and players thought about counterpoint and used it in their music.

Obviously the concept is not new and it has informed a large part of my musical taste over the years, but recently, while studying 16th Century Counterpoint at City College this past fall some points have hit home. Researching Jimmy Giuffre for a school project I read about how he and many west coast jazz composers, including Shorty Rogers, studied with composer/mystic Wesley La Violette, who emphasized counterpoint in his teaching. Giuffre claimed to incorporate contrapuntal thinking into all of his work after that point, thinking of each instrument’s individual line, even down to notating specific drum parts with a melodic sensibility. The album Tangents in Jazz(1956) is a nice example of his writing for small group. Condensed arrangements for most of the tunes on this album were published in the 1960’s and have been uploaded on Scribd (Giuffre Sketch-orks).

Of course Gerry Mulligan’s work is a great example of polyphonic jazz, and you can hear him talk about it briefly in this interview:

Gerry Mulligan Interview (text)
Gerry Mulligan Interview (audio)

Today I read through arranger Bill Russo’s chapter on counterpoint in Jazz Composition and Orchestration. Russo wrote for Stan Kenton, and was a student of classical composition. He was a forerunner of the Third Stream movement. This book includes great straightforward exercises on how to use counterpoint in a jazz setting, without adhering to strict Fuxian species rules. Happily, the whole chapter is on Google Books here:

Bill Russo’s Jazz Composition and Orchestration

Russo also cites Mulligan, Giuffre, John Lewis and George Russell as the finest examples of contrapuntal jazz writing at the time and credits the books of Hindemith as inspiration for his writings on the subject. Hindemith’s book on two part writing is a great resource, though I’ve only worked through some of it and can’t fully evaluate it.

Speaking of Kenton arrangers, Bill Holman is a great example of someone who puts the line first. Listen to the first track of his first album as a leader. It’s a good example of how counterpoint permeates much of the west coast jazz sensibility.

The more I think about it, this is the way I want to look at music, and jazz in particular. My favorite players: Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Bill Crow, Jim Hall, Ted Brown and more all emphasize the line and contrapuntal concepts. I guess it’s also no surprise that I have a project that specifically plays the music of the polyphonic golden age in the Luce Trio. I am also working away at my book of Bach melodic structures for saxophone. The current of counterpoint running through music becomes clearer to me as time goes on and I hope to dig deeper this year with more study and a potential big band arranging project on the horizon. I hope some of these materials are helpful, I encourage all jazz players to think a bit more about counterpoint in their playing and writing.


  1. Great article. This really helped tie a lot of things together for me. I’m a guitarist trying to find some new ways to play solo, and using polyphony/counterpoint as a way to ease the burden of a “rhythm section” seems to have some strong roots in west coast jazz, etc.

  2. Yes it seems to be something that got left behind with bebop a bit, but the west coast kept alive, like Gerry said, continuing the dixieland tradition in a way. Thanks for reading!

  3. Just an addendum: Charlie Parker’s “Ah Leu Cha” and “Chasin’ the Bird,” from 1947-48, should be taken into account in discussing counterpoint in jazz.

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