Sweet Georgia Brown

Sweet Georgia Brown was probably the first jazz standard I heard. Maybe that's not unusual for people growing up in mid and southwest suburbs during the seventies and eighties. It probably exposes me as a poseur that the Harlem Globetrotters and Scooby Doo had more impact to my jazz education than Wynton Marsalis, Sunday brunches, Starbucks, or wherever I thought I should have heard jazz.

At any rate, Sweet Georgia Brown is probably between most Americans' ears at some point, the melody falls naturally on top of the chord changes, and it's a comfortable starting place to learn 2-5-1 chord changes....   theory wonk alert.... but this is important stuff for improvising and learning new tunes.

I'll refer in my notes to Brian Oberlin's version in F.

Chords

The chords to Sweet Georgia Brown are almost entirely a chain of a variant of ii-V7-I changes, and once you can chain those together on the mandolin (which is easy), you have most of the tune under your fingers.  The variant II7-V7-I7 is simpler than the "pure" ii-V7-I, but it's simpler, and pretty common in swing, dixie, and blues.

When, Ray, my first mandolin teacher, showed me this trick, I thought it was magic.  There are only two three-finger shapes you need for the trick.  Here's how to do it going from G7 to C7

  • II7 (D7): Start with the root-on-top triangle dominant-7th chord.
  • V7 (G7): Rotate your left hand slightly so that the bottom two notes each move one fret (half-step) down the neck, and you'll form a rootless dominant-7th chord.
  • I7 (C7): Rotate your left hand back to the root-on-top shape, but move your fingers down two frets down from where you started....
2-5-1

Hey, you're almost back to where you started! You can continue the 2-5-1 walk... and it actually sounds like music, and it works in any major key from any place higher than the second fret. 

More theory wonkery -- the F7, E7, Eb7, D7 sequence at the turnaround is also a 2-5-1 progression, just with some tritone substitution.  Try "un-substituting" on the turnaround, or applying the substitution for other 2-5-1's in the song, and you'll see some variety in chord choices and voicing.

Those two three-finger chord shapes moved up and down the neck will get you everything you need to play Sweet Georgia Brown, except for D minor and F.  For the former, a two-finger bar at the 7th fret is easy, but putting the root on top at the 5th fret of a three-finger might sound better in some places.  For the remainder, the F major chord, you could even substitute F7 and be OK.

For me, a swinging chop seems pretty natural.  Don Julin has a good free lesson/video.

Melody

Once you're comfortable with the chords, simply noodling with the major pentatonic scales with the chords, it might not surprise you to find the melody on your own.  There are a couple of odd runs, at least I thought they were odd, until I looked at the chords' scale notes, and then the melody becomes much easier to remember, feel, even.

Follow Brian Oberlin's notes thinking about where the first, third, fifth, and flatted seventh are in the chord, and the melody will seep into your finger memory.  I like swinging the melody, and alternating playing the chords and melody reinforce the syncopation.

Sound Bites

I'll circle back, soon, with some audio samples.