EDIT: Conrad’s partner, Ali Cork, has made a Eulogy site where memorial contributions can be submitted.
I was saddened to learn that Conrad Cork died on Sunday 25 April 2021. Amongst other things he was a UK-based jazz musician, educator and author of Harmony with LEGO Bricks.
Though I worked closely with Conrad and helped him produce the 2008 final edition of his book, we never met. I wrote summaries of all the chapters as well as suggesting changes as I read through the whole book. I used Sibelius to produce engravings to replace all the music staff examples from the previous edition. All contact was by email; there was not a single phone call. But Conrad was always very supportive.
Some of my suggested changes were too much for the stage that Conrad had got to with his book (which had evolved through various editions since first published in 1985) and his plans for retirement. But he encouraged me to take them forward myself with his blessing.
In the following year I collected the ideas that had formed from working with and on Conrad’s book and wrote my own book, Insights in Jazz, which was published in November 2009. I made a series of podcasts to support my book and generally tried to update to approach where I felt I could. I was asked to take over running the discussion group about the LEGO bricks method. Conrad volunteered to write a review.
Money was never the motivation for Conrad. He was a true educator and keen to help as many people as possible learn about jazz music. Shortly after publication of the final edition of his book he sold the rights to Charles Alexander for £1 and did not ask for any royalties on subsequent sales of his book.
In further posts to the discussion group in 2016, he made it clear that if ever his book became unavailable for sale, he would wish it to become free to all:
What I would really like is for the whole thing to be public domain, with people free to help themselves to as much or as little as they want.
Conrad occasionally contributed to our discussion group. An example of his passion for the LEGO bricks method:
Blue Bossa us an ideal tune to let the LEGO Bricks penny drop.
The second halves of each line are exactly the same as each other in terms of chords. So you could play them as just that.
But you would lose the sense of the song’s ‘journey’. Each time you arrive at that last cadence it is from a different place (and the second time is from a major, when the song is predominantly minor, which is a whole change of atmosphere).
By using the LEGO terms , sad backslider to get into it first time and sad downwinder to get into it the second time, you will feel different and so play differently.
I may say I got a big ‘Yes!’ from Barry Harris when I showed him why the tune was in my book.
In Nov 2020 I told Conrad that after almost 30 years working in IT consultancy, at the age of 55 I was planning on stopping to find another focus, but felt too young to retire. With characteristic insight he replied:
Don’t think of it as retiring. Think of it as entering a new period of self-fulfilment on your own terms. Jung knew about it, as did the Zen masters. You still have the health and energy to do it properly. If you give your subconscious the space, it will tell you what to do.
Impressive blog btw.
So, I took Conrad’s advice, resigned from my job and focussed on my musical activities full time: playing, teaching and writing.
In 2017 he wrote in an email to me: “Perhaps one day we will meet? If you can put up with an agoraphobic recluse. :-)”. I’m sad to say, we never did.
I’ll leave the last words to Conrad from an email to the discussion group: “Thanks guys. It has been a privilege to get to know the people here. Means more than I can say.”
EDIT: Conrad’s partner, Ali Cork, has made a Eulogy site where memorial contributions can be submitted.
I had a painful experience about 25 years ago and I found a really powerful solution that I know will help others and is worth sharing.
I was the pianist in a big band populated mostly by amateur players run by a retired professional trumpet player. We were on a gig in a local town hall and played the first half of our set of arrangements that we had rehearsed. All was going according to plan. And then it happened.
The leader chatting with the audience over the microphone suddenly said: “Any requests?”
Someone shouted back, “Pennies from Heaven”.
Our leader turned to me and said off mic, “Can you play it?”
I shook my head in a mild panic. He looked at me for a few seconds more, then said, through a Cab-Calloway-like smile, “Try.” Before adding, “In Bb.”
With that he turned back to the audience and started to play. He played once through the melody in order to fulfil his contract with the audience member and fashioned a small cadenza on the last chord which I joined him for, knowing it would be Bb. Almost every other chord I played before that was wrong. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do because I did not know what I was doing. In short, it was a train crash. For me at least.
In hindsight I displayed “masterless effortry” (an amusing take by a friend of mine on the title of Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, a book I would not come across for another 15 years or so).
The sense of shame I felt for not being up to the job was extreme. I quickly dealt with that uncomfortable feeling inside my head by blaming the leader (again, inside my head) for taking such an irresponsible risk by creating these unhelpful thoughts:
How could he be so rash/stupid/unkind?
If I’d had a chord sheet, I could have read it with ease.
It was not my fault! No one else in the band could have done it.
Why is the job of pianist so much harder than that of any of the other musicians in the band?
It would be ridiculous to expect me to know the chords to random jazz standards in whatever key he decides.
If I had read Nick Bottini’s, Just Play book about overcoming our unhelpful thoughts, I may well have handled the thoughts in my head better. Nick recently gave me a free copy of his book for making him laugh on his Wellbeing and Excellence Facebook group with a Limerick:
There was a young man called Bottini
Whose methods were rather unseemly
He’d post up a graphic
With words psychopathic
And host Zoom calls in just a bikini.
But I digress; back to my story: I received sympathetic looks from the rest of the band. We finished the set, packed up and went home. Nothing more was said about it.
Playing in jam sessions I occasionally found similar experiences would occur. I remember being so ashamed of my performance after being called to play on a standard tune I had not learned that I had to leave the building and walk the city centre for half an hour just to calm down. And when accompanying singers, it was often worse because you were lulled into a false sense of security by being given a chord chart in their key that usually turned out to be completely useless.
The Penny Drops
Eventually, I realised that the problem was never going away if I kept expecting the world to change. You can only change yourself and how you respond to the events that come your way:
Deal with your internal thoughts: Problems for musicians commonly occur becasue of the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what other people think of our playing and what they expect of us. Learning to clear this out of the way can remove a massive barrier to our enjoyment of playing music. See the reading list below for a couple of books on the subject.
Learn the territory: You need to identify and practice in many keys the chunks of chord progression that occur in the kinds of music you play. If you focus on the perfect voicings of Bill Evans playing with no-one else but his own trio, you will not be well prepared for what the world throws at you. There is so much listening and responding needed in a jazz performance, it is not possible to do if you don’t know the material and impossible if you are reading.
Something had changed. I knew that I wanted to know how to hear and memorise the changes to a song without having them in front of me to read. And I was on a journey to find out how I needed to change in order to achieve it.
I’d never had an experienced jazz teacher who could teach me about the oral tradition, common song forms and how chord progressions work. What I did know, I had mostly taught myself from books. Though I had done quite a lot of transcription, it was of random songs that I liked in order to learn a cool voicing from Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans and I rarely transcribed more than a few bars. And, therefore, I did not get to understand how songs are put together and, thereby, how to hear where a song will probably go next.
Another friend of mine mentioned a book by Conrad Cork about an approach to learning jazz harmony like LEGO bricks that join together to make songs. It was sold by Jazzwise, a UK publisher, at the time. This was in the days of books printed on paper. I read it from cover to cover.
I was hooked because I knew this was the key to the answer to my problem. Not only did it explain the method of analysing and memorising chord progressions in a key-independent manner, but it had at least half of the book dedicated to explaining how jazz should be taught and explained why most teachers from the classical music tradition simply don’t understand how to teach jazz. His approach is based on listening to recordings of the masters and the oral tradition. But also he explains very well the difference in mindset between classical and jazz musicians. One idea that really helped me was the notion that each jazz performance is just a report on progress on playing that song. It is not meant to be some kind of perfectly finished product.
It all made so much sense to me. So much, in fact, that I started to analyse jazz standards using the approach in order that I could analyse and memorise them.
I can be a bit obsessive about things. I soon found that I had analysed over 200 songs using a spreadsheet to build visual roadmaps for each song. It occurred to me that others could benefit from my work and, with Conrad’s blessing, I wrote my own book extending the method and including all the song roadmaps.
Conrad’s book is no longer available. My book was also published in paper form by Jazzwise for a few years, but I decided from the beginning to also publish it myself as a PDF e-book which continues to be a popular form.
Things have moved on since 2009 when I first published my book:
PDF e-book is more convenient than paper form because it is electronically searchable. Owners can print out pages should they wish to. Less paper is wasted, sunk costs are reduced and everybody wins.
I made a series of free podcasts about the method and examples song analyses.
I run a discussion group online where users of the method can share their experiences.
Practice charts for the chord “bricks and joins” are available for free on the iRealPro Forum. The iRealPro app can be used with the free charts to learn all the sequences in any key with auto-generated backing tracks.
Pennies from Heaven
So, back to my devastating experience with Pennies from Heaven. What have I learned since then? Well, it is actually one of the simplest jazz standards and its chord progression is very easily memorised in a key-independent way.
The chords are written in the key of C, but once the bricks and joins are understood, can be played in any key.
A section: a common jazz turnaround. (Many variants are possible and you can find them by listening to various recordings of this song to see what people play.) Play the turnaround twice and that is the first eight bars covered and the key is firmly established.
B section: Cadence to IV followed by the Slow Launcher (II7 V7) that we learn to expect at the end of B sections.
A’ section: Starts like the first A section but ends with a cadence to IV like we saw at the beginning of the B section.
C section: a “meta brick” over eight bars that is probably the most common sub-sequence in jazz. A variant of this is the last eight bars of the 12-bar blues, so it’s sound will be familar to you for sure.
One of the advantages of this approach is that you are not phased by chord substitutions. It encourages you to think in large chunks of chord progression within which some chords might be substituted, but you still know where you are in the song and where you are going.
As an illustration of how powerful this approach is, take the last eight bars of the chord sequence. This brick is labelled as the “Pennies Ending” after this song it is found in. But it is well worth becoming familiar with because it (or a close variant) is also found in the chords for the following songs:
Last eight bars of the blues.
The More I See You
There’ll Never Be Another You
A Weaver of Dreams
You Go to My Head
I Thought about You
It Had to Be You
You Turned the Tables on Me
I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me
East of the sun
I Fall in Love Too Easily
It Could Happen to You
It’s You or No-one
In a Mellow Tone
Taking this approach allowed me to memorise hundred of jazz standards and retain a trio gig for 12 years before the global pandemic temporarily stopped live music.
If you would like to read more about my book, download sample pages or purchase it, please check out my website. If you would like to read more about handling your own thoughts and emotions which are stopping you playing music, check out the reading list below.
One of my favourite Oscar Peterson videos is C Jam Blues in Denmark in 1964 with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. This article links to specific parts of this video to illustrate each point.
It’s tremendous swinging playing, as you might expect. But when you start to dig, there is so much more. The tune is an old Ellington blues jam tune of no particular merit except that it gets the blues changes ticking over to allow the band to take solos.
There is a live jam session recording from 1967 with the Peterson trio but, nothing unusual about this, apart from the front line sound like they just got out of bed (Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges). The young (27) Peterson quartet also recorded it in 1952, but as a kind of novelty boogie-woogie number. The song form is straightforward on both of those recordings: 12-bar blues all the way.
The jazz blues form
The blues is traditionally a 12-bar form and the jazz blues chords have become standardised as something like this:
This notation for analysis is explained in another article. Peterson often plays the II chord at bar 9 as a dominant 7 (D7). Some would analyse this as V/V but it is really still functioning as Pre-Dominant. In the same way, bar 1 may be C7 but it is both tonic and V/IV. This is the blues. Not all classical harmony analysis applies.
What cannot be denied is that there are chains of dominant 7 chords round the cycle of fifths which propel strongly from one to the next. This is what the arrows are showing.
Add into the mix the fact that F#o7 sounds like D7b9 and C7/G sounds like G-6, we have two more potential arrows propelling is forward from bars 2-3 and 6-7. Peterson makes the most of this in his solo choruses (see below under That Gospel Thing.
The original Ellington arrangement added an extra 4-bar break for each new soloist at the beginning of their solo. Peterson did something similar but different with the song form on his Night Train album recording of C Jam Blues. After the head he added an extra four bars at the beginning of each chorus where the band stops and he takes solo breaks showing off his incredible blues-lickery skills.
What is unusual about these breaks is the that they are additional four to the 12-bar form, rather than just taking a solo break in the first four bars and the band rejoining for the last eight bars. This makes the choruses temporarily 16 bars long.
He does this after the head and for a few choruses before reverting to the usual 12-bar choruses and finally finishing with twice through the head.
Money up front
In the Denmark video, this distortion of form is even more extreme than in the Night Train recording. He plays a solo introduction which is all in 8-bar sections. The eight bars of chord progression that he chooses to use are the last eight of the blues progression. What Conrad Cork in his Harmony with LEGO Bricks called the Pennies Ending after the fact that these chords are the last eight bars of Pennies From Heaven. An incredibly useful family of bricks to know since they occur in many jazz standards from Bill Bailey to I Fall In Love Too Easily.
After setting the tempo with repeated C notes, he starts his intro repeating the 8-bar Pennies Ending form with single line lefthand bass line and mostly single line right hand. Bass and drums are mostly tacet, tapping along with their fingers on their instruments digging Peterson’s deep groove.
He plays the Pennies Ending four times before reverting to the full 12-bar blues form and taking 7 solo piano choruses before signalling the band to join for the head.
During his solo piano blues choruses he does an interesting reharm in bars 3 and 4. The rising bass line from the start of the chorus (C E F F# G …) continues to rise (G# A) before tumbling chromatically down (Ab G Gb) to the expected F landmark at bar 5.
The implied chords for each bar are:
A-7 Ab7 G-7 Gb7
As usual, the diminished 7 chords can all be thought of as dominant 7 b9 chords with missing roots.
The G-6 is really C7/G. The additional move using G#o to get to A-7, the relative minor, has a real Gospel music sound and was one of Peterson’s favourites.
Give us a break!
So, in the Denmark video the form of the performance so far is:
8 bars of solo piano repeated C notes to set the tempo and groove
8-bar Pennies Ending x4
(1:02) 12-bar blues solo piano x7
(2:37) 12-bar head (tune with full band) x2
16-bar solo choruses (made up of 4-bar break and 12-bar blues)
12-bar blues solo choruses
Surely that is enough? Head twice more and out, right? Wrong.
It may seem a bit odd for Denmark, but Peterson signals the band again and they switch to the “Swedish Blues” changes used by Charlie Parker on his recordings in Sweden in 1951, such as Blues for Alice. Some also call these the Parker Blues changes.
See this marvellous moment for yourself on the video at 4:57. I’d love to know what Peterson said to the Ray Brown to signal the change. “Parker”? “Swedish”? “Here we go”? “Mine’s a schnapps”? Who knows.
Block chords are us
Peterson reverts to the regular blues changes and plays a few choruses of rhythmic block chord figures like a big band arranger might write, giving Thigpen something predictable to phrase with as he does perfectly.
Twice through the 12-bar head to end as expected. I don’t know why the audience start clapping before the end. Perhaps they were lost? (8:44).
Somebody has made an edited version of the Denmark video which lasts one hour. After the head is played for the first time, a clever edit is made to repeat a few bars for the rest of the hour and then tag the original ending on. One to play to those who claim all jazz sounds the same.
For more, such as which other jazz standards use the Pennies Ending, check out my book, Insights in Jazz, in my link tree: https://linktr.ee/Jaelliott.
We are all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And, to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually changing those habits, which is to say the network of our memory. No lasting work of art was ever created by an external memory.
In 2007 I read a book about memorising jazz chord progressions by breaking them down into manageable ‘chunks’ and noticing how they join together to make a song. It is no exaggeration to say it changed my life.
In 2011 I read a book by Joshua Foer about techniques used by memory experts called ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’. None of it was about musicians, but it helped me understand why the impact of memorising jazz standards was so great.
The life-changing book I read in 2007 was ‘Harmony with LEGO Bricks’ by Conrad Cork. In 2008 I worked with the author produce the final version of his book before he retired. The book contains very interesting discussions about how badly jazz has been taught by music schools with classical music traditions and how this can be improved.
But what interested me most of all were the chapters about memorising chord progressions. Cork’s book was a real path finder originally published in 1985, more than 10 year’s before books by David Baker and Jerry Coker about how to memorise tunes.
In 2008 I landed a jazz piano trio gig with a bass player who seemed to be able to play any song in any key. I felt ashamed and very limited by the real books that I carried along to the gigs. So I set to work applying what I had learned in the ‘LEGO book’ to a bunch of jazz standards and making myself play them on the gig without music and in various keys.
I found that in applying the LEGO method that various extensions were needed to accommodate the chord progression I found in the songs I chose. Cork’s book only had space to analyse a couple of dozen songs.
My day job was as a technical consultant, my degrees being in Computer Science and Electronics. I naturally found it easiest to build visual roadmaps for each song in a workbook of spreadsheets. After I had over 200 songs analysed, I realised that this work might be of interest to others. Though it had not been my original intention, I decided, with Cork’s enthusiastic encouragement, to write a book about the extended method and include the memorisation roadmaps. My book, Insights In Jazz, was published in 2009. I make it available as a PDF which has the advantage of being electronically searchable. Once you know what progression you want to learn, you can find in which standards it occurs.
Since his retirement, Cork’s book is increasingly difficult to get hold of. I made sure that my book stands alone without the reader needing Cork’s book to understand the approach. There are free podcasts about the method and there is also a Google Group where members can discuss and share their efforts in applying the method.
The fact that I had used spreadsheets meant that I was able to perform some simple statistical analysis on the jazz standard chord progressions I had analysed to reveal some interesting observations such as:
What are the most common song forms? (AABA 50%; ABAC 25%)
What are the most useful chunks of LEGO bricks to learn first for most rapid payback?
What are the most common joins between bricks, what do they achieve and where do they occur in song forms?
The process really helped me develop in confidence and ability as a jazz pianist. The jazz piano trio gig residency I was lucky enough to land in 2008 ran for 12 years until the global pandemic stopped live music in 2020.
The remainder of this article is about the how the techniques of memory experts described in Foer’s book can be applied to playing jazz.
Memory experts refer to what they call ‘chunking’: reducing the number of things to remember by increasing the size of them.
Contrafacts. Does this song use the chords of a song you already know? Or perhaps at least the bridge is borrowed from I Got Rhythm?
Song Form. Is it AABA or ABAC or something else? The As are the same so only need to be learned once.
Families of progressions: You will have heard of cadences (such as ‘II V I’) and turnarounds. These are families of chord progression which are functionally similar and can therefore be used to substitute each other.
Memorising at a glance
Chess experts are able to memorise positions of all the pieces in a game at a glance. This is because they know what combinations of pieces arise and what to expect. They have seen most if it many times before. It is the same for a jazz master. They can memorise at a glance a new jazz standard chord progression because they have seen most if it before and they just need to spot the unique hooks that make the song special.
For this same reason, chess masters can reconstruct long-ago games from memory. Jazz masters can do the same with songs they have not played in a long time. They just recall the hooks.
Studies have shown that a chess player’s ability to memorise games is a good indicator of their level of playing. The same is true for jazz. There are no jazz masters who cannot memorise songs. There are no jazz masters who would choose to read common standards from sheet music on a gig, rather than learn it beforehand, because they know the benefits. If you are reading, half of your brain is not available for improvising.
We are not computers
The human memory works nothing like computer memory. It works by association. We are bad at recalling sequences, which looks like bad news if you want to internalise chord progressions. Many give up and rely on reading from real books and apps.
A chess master does not compute many moves ahead like a chess computer does (this is why they no longer generally beat the computers!). They recognise the position and respond intuitively. A jazz player in the middle of a song will recognise the context and intuitively know what to play.
It is not about memorising streams of chords with no understanding like a computer might be programmed to do. Masters are not especially gifted at memorising in general; it is because they are experts in the patterns that appear in their fields that they can do it. Give a jazz master a random sequence of chords and they will struggle to memorise it as much as anyone else.
Clichés are essential
Jazz is an aural tradition. When you think about, it would not be possible to memorise hundreds of songs and play them in any key if their melodies and chord progressions were not full of things we have heard before.
Expert jazz players are always relating the song they are playing to the other songs they know. They can’t help but do that. This is why they often find themselves quoting other songs in their solos. It is not something they sit at home planning to do on gigs, it is a consequence of how all the circumstances conspire.
Just the gist
In a master jazz performance, the chords actually played will be different every chorus but this is not a problem. This is because the master knows how to substitute chords without changing the underlying function of the harmony. Therefore, in terms of memorising, we need to get to the essence, just the gist.
We are good at remembering the gist. We are very bad at retaining things verbatim. It was a tonic major chord. But was it maj 7 or maj 6? I don’t remember and I don’t care. We trust our ear to help us out if needed as we go.
Understanding families of chord progressions which can substitute each other becomes very important. By contrast, players who read chord progressions on gigs are highly vulnerable to getting lost and will not be robust to other players making substitutions on the fly.
Ancient orators used the idea of a memory palace to help them retain long and complex speeches without using notes. You may have seen a speaker do this; it is very impressive to watch.
The idea is that we are all know a house with rooms. We can easily imagine a tour through this house visiting each room in a particular order that makes sense to us. We place graphic mental images of the things we need to remember as we move though the rooms. The crazier the better. When we need to recall the sequence we recall the tour and our memory automatically recalls the images through association. Not only do we recall all the topics we planned to talk about, but they come in the correct order.
But is it really any more impressive than watching a master jazz musician play a set without music? The memory palace can be thought of as the melody. Let the melody be your guide. When we learn songs, we learn the melody first and then the bass line. By association, the melody takes us on a tour where we hear the roots of the chunks of chord progression.
Memory for words
Travelling bards used music to help them recall the tales they had to tell without having access the written word. Some jazz masters recommend always learning the words to the standards you play. One advantage of this is that if you are recalling the words as you play, you are much less likely to forget which A section you are on in an AABA-form song!
But other jazz masters (e.g. Bill Evans) said they never paid attention to the words.
Externalising or internalising?
The Moonwalking book says, “The proliferation of digital information at the beginning of the 21 century hastens the pace at which we externalise memories.” This is certainly true in the jazz world. I remember the time when the only real book was the illegal one and people were more likely to learn songs from the recordings of masters. If you didn’t know a song, you’d go and learn it for next week. Now it is commonplace for players to turn up to jam sessions with iRealPro on their smartphone or tablet and play songs all night which they have not internalised.
Three stages to learning a new skill
Foer asserts that there are three stages to learning a new skill:
Cognitive Stage: intellectualising, discovering new strategies;
Associative Stage: concentrating less, making fewer errors, being more efficient;
Autonomous Stage: Running on auto-pilot, the ‘OK Plateau’.
This is certainly true for learning to play jazz standards. Stage one is realising that the only way to play jazz better is to learn many jazz standards and starting to analyse.
Stage two is spotting the commonalities and using them to more rapidly learn new songs. For example, the chord progression in the bridge in Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple is the same as that in the bridge of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.
Stage three is just playing. The information has been processed and is available to your subconscious but there is no time to make calculations when playing.
Will we just keep getting better and better?
The benefit of this approach to memorising songs is that the hard slog at the beginning leads to an avalanche effect and our rate of progress increases. You might find yourself learning a song a month, then one per week, then maybe a song a day. However, most people don’t keep improving rapidly. Why is this?
Foer again: “What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focussed routine: ‘deliberate practice’ … To improve, we must watch ourselves fail and learn from our mistakes.”
There is no avoiding it. You have to be organised and do the work. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to help yourself to keep improving is learn how to spend your practice time.
“The single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he has played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he has spent alone working through old games.”
One way to keep yourself improving is to play faster than you are able. This will identify the areas you have not mastered and allow you to return to the conscious Stage 2 to fix them.
This is the opposite of the classical approach which increases the metronome in small increments. Both approaches have merit since slow practice is designed to ensure good control. But sometimes you find that you just cannot increase the metronome without making mistakes (the plateau).