There was a recent question on the Jazz Arrangers’ Facebook group: “What is your favorite last chord?” There were quite a few responses, including mine, which was “It depends on the context.” Over the course of writing in excess of 1000 arrangements, I’ve employed many different last chords, but after thinking about this question for a week, I thought it might be interesting to take a sampling. Here are the titles on my Hindustan CD with their corresponding final chords:
Stompin’ On A Riff: G13 (tonic 13th)
No Refill: unison C (tonic in Cm)
Hindustan: Bb13+11 (bVII7 in C)
Monkey Business: Fmaj13+11 voiced in 5ths (tonic chord)
Bumper Cars: Unison Db (tonic unison)
Poor Butterfly: Ab unison (tonic unison)
Too Marvelous For Words: Ebmaj13 (tonic chord)
The Very Thought Of You: D6/9 (tonic chord)
I Don’t Hurt Anymore: F13 (tonic 13th chord)
Do It Again: B triad with +11 (triad built on the b5 of the key of F)
The Rising Storm: Cmaj7 (Picardy 3rd—tonic major 7th chord in Cm)
A Whole New You: Eb13+11 (bVII7 in F)
Parting Words: Gmaj9 (tonic chord)
Hmmm. Not very adventurous. But, each one is satisfying in its own way when we get there. The only one that feels like the obligatory tonic chord television ending is Too Marvelous For Words, but that was the point. There is a break where Aria speaks, “You’re just too hip,” and the band pastes a big tonic chord with the 5th on top. Actually, when we used to perform this chart, Isaac would answer Aria with, “You dig!” before the last chord. He wasn’t loud enough on the recording for it to work, so we had to take him out in the mix.
The point of all of this is that it’s not really what the final chord is, so much as it is how we arrive there. When I was in high school, I asked my band director if every chart had to end on the tonic, to which he responded, “Yes!” In my experience, this is mostly true, but not always. Starting with Don Redman’s brilliant chart on Copenhagen for Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 (which ends a tritone away from the tonic), jazz has flirted with alternative endings.
Tonic chords give a feeling of finality. We don’t need to bang away with repetitive tonic/dominant like Beethoven, but just having the bassist land on the tonic at the end of a piece feels like home. It became a cliché to allude to the blues and end with a flatted 7th in the final tonic chord early on in jazz. A little later +11s entered the vocabulary. +11s can add a question mark to the end of a chart. Such is the case in Do It Again.
Ending a minor key piece with a tonic major chord harkens back to the Baroque practice of Picardy Thirds. I employed this technique in The Rising Storm to leave us with peaceful seas. This was built into the form of the chart—the A theme is in C minor, but ends on a Cmaj7.
Conversely, my arrangement of Thad Jones’ No Refill starts in C minor, but cadences on the fifth bar of each a section on C major. At the end of the chart, I never set up the C major, so the unison Cs sound as tonics in C minor.
Stompin’ On A Riff is in the classic Count Basie style, so the tonic 13th chord is most appropriate. Similarly, I Don’t Hurt Anymore is a bluesy shouter made popular by Dinah Washington. The tonic 13th completes the picture, but it really arose from the 8th note line that leads into it.
The short unison tonic notes on No Refill and Bumper Cars are the simplest solution to creating an ending. My mantra is: Less is more. The long unison tonic at the end of Poor Butterfly is another story. The chromaticism at the end of this chart is so disconcerting that we need to hold onto the unison tonic for a while, until it finally settles into its function. Here I tip my hat to one of my heroes, Bob Brookmeyer.
Another tip of the hat to Brookmeyer is the tonic major 9th chord at the end of Parting Words. This piece is a short requiem. When one of our fellow jazz musicians passes away, we perform this chart on our next gig as an expression of our love for them. The final chord reminds me of a Brookmeyer chart that I used to play with Gerry Mulligan. Its warmth and sincerity are undeniable. In the case of Parting Words, yes, we are sad about our loss, but the feeling is bittersweet as we remember the beautiful friendship and music of our departed comrade.
Monkey Business is an obvious allusion to Thelonious Monk. When I played in the National Jazz Ensemble in the 1970s, we had an amazing book. Some of my favorite charts were the orchestrations that Hall Overton made of Monk tunes. Chuck Israels studied composition with Hall shortly after that. Hall generously gave Chuck several of the scores, including my favorite, Four In One. I set out to write something in that vein. What I found was that Monk was the king of “Less is more.” Whereas most big band charts abound with dense harmony, Monk delights in the use of space and sparse harmony. The final tonic major 13th+11 chord is voiced with the saxes in their low register on an open F triad with a B on top, the bones on a unison E just above them, and in the treble clef, the solo trumpet and alto on a D a 7th above the bones, with the remaining 3 trumpets on the unison B a 6th above. The piano is free to chime in.
The two charts that end on bVII7 chords are completely different. Hindustan is highly evocative of the Middle East and abounds in exotica. The reprise of the improvised bass clarinet duet in the coda could have faded out, but I felt I needed a final chord for public performances. I liked the unsettledness of this bVII7 so much that we left it on the recording.
A Whole New You is a different case. This barn-burner is all about excitement. I set you up for a typical tonic ending, but that wasn’t satisfying. The bVII7 is just off-center enough to raise some eyebrows, but it contains the 9th and +11, which happen to be the root and 3rd of the tonic chord. The unison bones quickly add the 5th of the key, which solidifies everything and sells us on a bitonal tonic ending.
This leaves The Very Thought Of You. I wanted to write a sophisticated setting for Aria to sing on this tender song. The chromatic ending takes us smoothly to a tonic 6/9 chord. I was thinking of the suave Cary Grant wearing a tuxedo, drinking a martini in a swanky art deco New York nightclub circa 1938 with one of those sophisticated, gorgeous, witty actresses like Irene Dunne sitting across the intimate table, and knowingly smiling at him as he verbally tries to dig himself out of a hole of his own making, only to find out that he has it all, but he just doesn’t know it. As we watch, we think, how can he not see what we see? It’s easy for us to idealize romance, but not so easy to live it.