beginner's guide to improvisation


This page describes the philosophy underlying my particular approach to learning how to play jazz. Feel free to skip this and head right over to PART ONE to get started immediately. We don't call this site PlayJazzNow for nothing!


PART ONE - The Single Note Game → → →

PART TWO - Playing the Chord Changes → → →

PART THREE - It Don't Mean A Thing... → → →

PART FOUR - Making Melodies → → →

IMPROV LESSONS via Skype → → →
It's a process.

The first thing you need to know is that becoming an accomplished jazz improviser is a long-term project. And that may be the only statement you¹ll be able to get just about every musician to agree with. There are as many paths to this goal as there are players, and no particular set of rules will work for every student. That¹s one of the many challenges of jazz improvisation: you will have to discover for yourself what strategies help you to develop. Be wary of any musician, regardless of her level of mastery, who says she has "the one true method". There is no such thing.

That said, there are a few techniques that most musicians at the highest levels of mastery have used to get there. I¹m going to suggest a few things for you to try but you (perhaps with the help of a good teacher) will have to experiment to find which ideas work best for you. As you progress, you may find that different tools will come into play at different times. That¹s part of the fun of it. Try to keep in mind that this is a process and that the better you get at it the more satisfying it will become.

For the purposes of this curriculum, we¹re going to assume that you already have acquired a reasonable level of competence on your chosen instrument. Hopefully, you are capable of producing an acceptable tone, can play (or sing) with accurate pitch and rhythm and have the ability to execute all 12 major scales with ease. If you are at a less accomplished technical level you can still start to learn how to improvise, but you will have to split your attention between creative and technical skills. In other words, it¹ll be somewhat more challenging, but certainly far from impossible.
Why do you want to play jazz?

It sounds like an idiotic question, but a clear answer will help guide your first steps on the path. Are you really attracted to a certain style, like bebop or cool or swing era music? Do you have a "thing" for a certain musician? Do you like a particular composer (like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, George Gershwin or Cole Porter)?

It¹s important to recognize what inspires you, because you will likely need to use that aspect of the music to keep your internal fire lit. There are rare individuals who have an all-consuming artistic drive that keeps them focused, but most of us need a focal point or model - someone or something specific to emulate. You can think of this as your "gateway" into jazz.

So your first task is to get clear on why you want to pursue this form of art. The answer to this question will fuel this ambition in you. The more specific you are, the easier time you will probably have choosing the skills you want to concentrate on and maintaining the level of commitment you¹ll need to master those skills.

Many would-be musicians get interested in jazz by the sound of a certain player or singer. A lot of saxophonists heard Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Michael Brecker and immediately knew they wanted to play the alto or tenor. Likewise trumpet players with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie or Freddie Hubbard. Aspiring pianists may have fallen in love with Bud Powell or Oscar Petersen or Bill Evans. Many vocalists wanted to sing because they heard Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra or Mark Murphy. A number of more contemporary players are drawing young musicians to jazz, like Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Dave Holland, Jason Moran and many others.

So who do you want to be when you grow up (musically, that is)?
Learn to listen like a musician.

Jazz is an aural art. To improvise (or to accompany others) at the highest level you must be able to listen and respond to what¹s going on around you in real time. You don¹t have the luxury of sitting down with a written score and analyzing it formally, thematically and harmonically, although that kind of analysis is a useful skill. You have to be able to analyze instantaneously and respond with your musical instinct "in the moment".

So you must be able to listen like a musician. Civilians (for the most part) don¹t have the training necessary to do this. But jazz musicians must develop the ability to hear and process multiple layers of musical information as they happen. If this sounds like a daunting task, don¹t worry. Your musical ear will develop quickly as you begin your journey as an improviser. We'll discuss some specific ear training techniques a little later, but it will be helpful if you develop the habit if listening analytically to whatever music you're exposed to in your daily life. You'll start to hear and recognize that there are certain rhythmic, melodic and harmonic patterns (or clichés) that occur repeatedly and across stylistic boundaries.
Play what you hear.

Simple enough, but when you're just starting to play jazz you're facing two major roadblocks: First, it's doubtful that you're generating anything that is specific enough in your inner ear and, if you are, it's unlikely that you're able to translate that idea to your instrument in real time.

If you think of jazz as a language (which it is) then the former problem is solved by filling your musical well with what musicians call "vocabulary" and the latter issue is approached by learning how to "speak" by forming coherent musical phrases using that vocabulary. In computer terms this might be akin to first acquiring and storing some data, then applying some specific operations to manipulate that data in a meaningful way.

I've had potential students contact me and tell me that they want to learn how to play but they don¹t want to study scales or chords. My standard answer is that this is like telling me you want to be a poet but you don¹t want to learn any words. If you¹re going to learn how to improvise within the context of what is commonly referred to as the jazz tradition, you must organize your vocabulary (or musical data) by using the rules of common practice music theory and harmony.

Jazz players have moved far beyond the major/minor diatonic system of keys, scales and chords, but the vast majority of master level musicians began their journey by internalizing that basic system. And so, you must as well.
The swing thing.

"Swing" is one of those musical terms that is both richly meaningful and disturbingly difficult to define. It's almost as if the word itself moves around; as soon as you try to pin it down it sashays down the street to another part of the dictionary. Swing is a verb, a noun and an adjective. It evokes a kind of rhythmic feeling and is used in a technical way to describe that feeling. It defines an historical period (the Swing Era, primarily the 1930's and 40's), describes a kind of musical organization (a swing band), is used as a qualitative measure (does a certain ensemble, tune or tempo swing?). Swing dancing is a category that includes a number of different styles of movement. And so on.

One thing that's certain is that rhythmic feeling is central to the jazz tradition. The ability to play with a strong rhythmic sense can be one of the most elusive skills to acquire. Some people "get it" easily, through the process of listening and imitating. Others need to put serious time and effort into it. Jazz players must be able to maintain a steady internal tempo (without rushing or dragging), but there¹s quite a bit more to it than that.
The most fun work there is.

There are lots of tools available to help you in your "jazz quest" - both on and offline: books, CDs, videos, websites and so on. A lot of it is valuable, some of it not so good. How do you tell the difference? Use your judgment, ask the good musicians you know, try out various methods.

Above all, remember that this is supposed to be fun. You're working on an art - a way to express yourself and communicate to others what can't be said in words or pictures. Our mission here at PlayJazzNow is to help you on your way.
GO to:

PART ONE - The Single Note Game → → →

PART TWO - Playing the Chord Changes → → →

PART THREE - It Don't Mean A Thing... → → →

PART FOUR - Making Melodies → → →

Go HERE for more info on getting some individual help with your improvising.
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