12 Keys, Joe Daley, and Mastering the Jazz Vocabulary

One of the fundamental principles of PlayJazzNow is that musicians who want to reach their highest potential as improvisors need to work on material in all 12 keys. Every aspect of your playing improves with 12 key facility: technique, harmonic knowledge, the ability to play by ear and so on. My belief in this principal is based upon 30+ years of experience as a bassist. Whether accompanying singers or playing with instrumentalists who prefer non-standard keys, my ability to transpose tunes on the fly has proven to be an essential skill. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extraordinary musicians during my career, including a few who like to play tunes in a variety of keys without telling the bass player. Yes, it can be annoying, but it’s also challenging and fun.

There are some well-known jazz masters who have stressed 12 key fluency, among them Bill Evans and Jim Hall. I remember reading the liner notes for a live duo recording by Hall and Red Mitchell (“Embraceable You” on the Artists House label) in which the bassist remarked that they would often ascend the bandstand without knowing what tunes or keys they might play in the next set. Red also wrote that he and Jim would decide in the moment which one of them would play the melody, so for them it wasn’t just a matter of transposing chord changes; they had the ears and experience to be able to play melodies and improvise regardless of key.

The other musician who influenced me in this regard was the legendary Joe Daley, the highly skilled and well respected saxophonist who spent his career playing and teaching in Chicago. I was fortunate enough to play in Joe’s quartet for about a year around 1980. Though I never formally studied with him, I was in The Joe Daley Academy every Monday night on the bandstand.  I often play with some of his students, who are among the best players in the Chicago jazz community and beyond. Joe stressed three things: physical technique (chops), relying on your ears and practicing everything in all 12 keys. 

Recently I was delighted to discover that Dan Hesler, one of Joe’s students, had published a book. If you’ve ever begun a practice session with the thought “what do I do now?,” Dan’s  Practicing the Jazz Vocabulary may have the answers you’re looking for. This book is not for beginners. It is written for creative musicians who already have some chops, know some tunes and have a good understanding of how jazz harmony works. Practicing the Jazz Vocabulary contains some great material that will keep you busy for a long while. Dan’s got a wicked wit, so you’ll be entertained along the way as well. The book uses some of Joe Daley’s ideas as a starting point, most notably with Dan’s insistence that the examples must be practiced in all 12 keys.

In the Introduction, Dan defines jazz as a musical language, a description I like very much. Although jazz is only a century or so old, it’s practitioners have created a deep, varied way of arranging musical materials, with many dialects and sub-genres. At the risk of pushing the metaphor to it’s limits, then, to master the art of jazz improvisation one must first learn the jazz vocabulary. I’ve had potential students contact me and say they want to learn how to play but don’t want to work on scales or chords. That’s like telling me you want to be a poet without knowing any words.

Dan also puts to rest the misconception that every jazz musician must strive to re-invent the musical wheel. He makes the point that there is really no such thing as “originality” in music, in the sense that we all have to work with the same 12 notes. Since we’re operating within a specific language, there are also rhythmic, textural and formal constraints. He writes that “this is a book about vocabulary; it wouldn’t make much sense to feature only things that people have never played before. Would you buy an Italian phrase book that advertised “guaranteed not to contain anything that anyone has ever said in Italian before?” I didn’t think so.” Well put, Mr. Hesler.

The first 30 pages of Practicing the Jazz Vocabulary are taken up with fundamentals – scales, arpeggios, and all things mainly diatonic. Much of this material is covered elsewhere in the jazz ed literature, but perhaps not quite so succinctly and certainly without Dan’s sly sense of humor. The teaching methods of the aforementioned Joe Daley figure prominently in this section of the book. After that, things get interesting in a hurry. As they do, Dan offers this advice: “Now that we’ve covered the academic stuff, let’s look at some melodic phrases used by actual real live jazz musicians. (Keep your windows rolled up, and whatever you do, do not feed them.)”

The next chunk of the book presents many examples of melodic shapes you can play on the infamous two-five-one progression, in major and minor.

You can get a lot of mileage out of the material Dan presents here. These pages also happen to go extremely well with the following sets of PlayJazzNow tracks: Major ii/V, Major Turnaround, Minor Turnaround, Bossa Turnaround, Samba Turnaround. These play-alongs will help you run these phrases, as Dan regularly admonishes, in all 12 keys. Just sayin’.

Ensuing chapters contain a lot of cool material based on the jazz language as “spoken” by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins,  Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, et al. There’s a couple of pages of material by the ingenious guitarist Neal Alger, who is certainly talent deserving wider recognition. There’s a section on cycles of dominant chords that would be tasty with PJN tracks Dominant Cycles. Then there’s a chapter on Trane changes (excellent with a side order of Trane Trax) and a chapter with another great title – Slippery Stuff –  containing a wealth of melodic material that doesn’t necessarily make reference to specific harmonic contexts.

In short, if you’re looking for a great new resource to delve into, I highly recommend Dan Hesler’s Practicing the Jazz Vocabulary. Joe Daley would be proud. Oh, and pick up some appropriate play-along tracks to go with it.

(The book is only available at Dan’s website)

2 Responses to 12 Keys, Joe Daley, and Mastering the Jazz Vocabulary

  1. Ted Gilley says:

    My approach to practicing the 12 keys is of a piece with my overall practice strategy: Practice twice a day for a brief period of time. And while I know that to get as good as Steve Rodby or Dave Holland will take more than two brief practices per day, my idea is more about meeting my objective, staying focused, and staying sharp. Hours and hours of practice? Great idea, but mine is about building a habit that will make it all easy for you.

    You can start with just fifteen minutes; everyone has fifteen minutes, right? I practice first thing in the morning, silently; and again at night. The practice consists of going over, let’s say, the ii-V-I movement in Eb, and jazz blues in Eb, one in the morning, and the other at night.

    For the duration of the practice, I work on NOTHING else but my chosen key (or topic); it’s too easy to slip into known territory and start noodling. When the practice time is up, it’s over. When I pick up the bass again, I’m ready to go. And before long, because my intense practices have paid off, I am ready, even eager, to extend the practice time.

    In two weeks, I’ve practiced 28 times; in three weeks, 42 times, and by focusing briefly but intensely on each key, one at a time, I’m hearing better, playing better, and feeling good about my progress. The key is: Do it every day and no cheating! This will become a great habit, and then you will have no worries.

    Thank you.

    • admin says:

      Great advice, Ted! I have advocated a “key a day” practice for many years with my intermediate to advanced students. I suggest playing everything one knows (scales, arpeggios, licks, even tunes) in ONE key per day. If you find that a certain key is especially challenging (Db? F#? whatever) work on it for a couple of days. As you suggest, doing this ensures that you will hit all 12 keys within a very short period of time. And each repetition solidifies your knowledge and confidence. “Do it everyday and no cheating!” Yep.

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