When The Saints Go Marching In (Lesson in Jazz Harmony)

Memorial Weekend 2020 felt like a relevant time to revisit this recording of When The Saints Go Marching In, to honor the lives of heroes lost during both the past and most recent of days. The concept of my arrangement was similar to a New Orleans Funeral or Celebration of Life – a contemplative piano introduction, followed by a jubilant jazz band send off:

Years ago I gave my Jazz/Pop Piano class at Santa Barbara City College an assignment: Learn to play a melody by ear; next find the 3 main “bare bones” or skeleton chords to The Saints, then explore all sorts of possible ways to connect between the I, IV, and V chords, plus add rich sounding upper chord tones, passing chords & substitutions. Not one person in that class of 20 came up with the same arrangement – it was a creative endeavor and a delight to hear the wide variety of great sounding ideas!

Take a listen to the video above of When The Saints Go Marching In. I’ll be sharing below my own ideas about finding the basic chords to a tune, followed by adding common logical extra chords. Please understand there are many right & great sounding ways to reharmonize a tune – whatever sounds good is hereby proclaimed to be good! Below you’ll find some pages taken from my instructional method, The Complete Church Pianist: A Piano/Keyboard Method With Tips For Inspired Improvisation and Worship.

First thing I had my students do was to pick out the melody to the famous public domain hymn When The Saints Go Marching In, and play it in the key of F major. They began by playing an Fma chord to determine which tone of the scale the melody started on (Root? Third? Fifth?), and came up with this:

Next, I had the students find the 3 main skeleton chords in the key of F, to apply at the appropriate places: The I chord (Fma), the IV chord (Bbma), and the V chord (Cma or C7). They only changed the chords when necessary:

Then I showed my students some common substitutions typically played on this tune. The following chart is similar to the draft I handed to the horn player Jon Crosse, the bassist Robert Kim Collins, and drummer James Antunez at our recording session to use as a basic lead sheet for improvisation (with a few spontaneous changes we did to the tune, after all – it IS jazz):


And finally here is my own personal rehamonization for the piano solo introduction played twice using 2 sets of different chord changes, before the band kicked in with a joyous swinging version of The Saints:

Additional ideas about improvisation for church and other styles found here:


And the 41 track play-along audio part to The Complete Church Pianist here :


I hope you enjoy applying chords your own way to this spirited tune!


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