In order to play jazz, one has to master the basic elements of music. Apologies if that seems like a very basic statement. This article is aimed at those who are just starting out in jazz, or people who are thinking about starting. I strongly advise you to not invest in a pile of theory books. They do a great job of scaring beginners off and truth be told, many of them are not helpful at all. Come up with your own theories based on your listening. Theory books generally drivel on and on about how important scales and modes are and while scales are important, they do not hold the secret to playing jazz. Scales should be used for two reasons – 1) to gain and develop instrumental technique and 2) to become familiar with keys. Theory books tell you that scales are the secret to jazz improvisation because it is easy to formulate and write in a book. The reality is, knowing your scales is a prerequisite of learning jazz, not a means to play it. So if you are starting out, I highly recommend that before committing to any type of method or teacher, make sure you can at least play your major scales in all 12 keys, two octaves (at least) in different registers of your instrument without any degrading of your sound.
The jazz line is largely made up of components related to the chords and harmonic progressions: arpeggios, scale fragments and chromatic notes (which are often the chord extensions or alterations). Again, apologies if this is very basic but mastering the fundamentals is paramount. You have to be able to hear these structural elements if you want to improvise authentic, bebop-inspired lines. Why bebop? Bebop is the main artery of modern jazz so in order to get to the bottom of what Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker or Freddie Hubbard do, you must be able to play bebop as it forms a large part of what they do. If you follow exactly all of what I say regarding the technical aspects of the music, you WON’T become a great improviser. Yes, I did say ‘won’t’. You have to first listen to a LOT of jazz and the right kind of jazz. I remember being absolutely obsessed with the album The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 2 featuring Bud Powell on piano, George Duvivier on bass and Art Taylor on drums. Check out the music on this album and the other three in the set. I must have listened to this album more than 300 times. I listened until I knew every note, I could sing along with all of the solos in my head. At the time, I had no idea that this was really good for me, I did it because I loved the music. When I say this to people, I can almost see their faces drop. I have to listen to the same album 300 times? Yes, you do. If that seems hard or like a chore, you have to find out what you love in the music, find your ‘Bud Powell’, find your groove. If you can’t find anything then perhaps this music isn’t for you and well, that’s ok. You have to truly love it. I think it is also important to consciously listen to the earlier styles so you understand the rich history of the music. It will put you in a better position to understand the developments that took place. By all means, listen to music older than bebop. I got into jazz through playing blues piano so before I got to bebop I was listening to Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson and Professor Longhair.
OK, so you know your scales and you’ve done a fair amount of listening, now what? Get together with people who also want to learn jazz and play. It doesn’t matter that you can’t play any jazz yet. You can improvise… the jazz bit develops, the more you play. As well as that, do this:
The Technical Bit:
- Learn a simple tune like Fly Me to the Moon. Listen to Frank sing it or Nat Cole. Copy their phrasing
- Learn the chords, even if you aren’t a chord player: Am7, Dm7, G7, Cmaj7 etc
- Sing through the root movements of the progression.
- Learn the arpeggios of the chords up to the 9th.
Now find a solo that you love (something that isn’t too virtuosic) and learn to sing it either out loud (recommended) or in your head. Spend a long time on it. Make sure you can hear all the articulations and phrasing.
Now you are ready to start thinking about jazz improvisation. One of the key sounds of jazz is that the lines describe the harmonic movement of the song. A simple way of getting to grips with this is to play scale fragments that fall to the 3rd of the chord. Play in quavers from one chord to the next, landing on the 3rd of the next chord as the chord changes. In fact, if you’ve already done this, the melody of Fly Me to the Moon does exactly that. It starts on the 3rd of the first chord (Am7) and moves to the 3rd of the next chord (Dm7). So use that part of the melody but invent a way of getting from the note C to the note F in quavers. Why not add in a chromatic leading note to the F. You should start to notice that this sounds more ‘jazzy’ than playing A aeolian on Am7 (because Fly Me to the Moon is in the Key of C) and D dorian which is what 99% of the ‘jazz books’ out there will tell you..
Try this on all of the chords in Fly Me to the Moon and… let me take you to the stars (cheesy grin). Listen to the jazz greats improvise over this tune, check out people from different periods in jazz but make sure you can emulate the earlier styles first.
I’m not poo-pooing scales and modes because they are useful later on in your development, but they are not a good starting point. To summarise; the quickest way of sounding authentic is to copy the players that you are initially attracted to and stop at nothing until you can sound a bit like them. Play with people as early as possible and get involved in the local jazz scene as soon as possible. We have a wonderful, nurturing community who are very willing to help you in your development and experience with jazz. Jazz shouldn’t be a difficult process, it should be fuelled by passion and love. Couple that with daily work on your instrument and a heck of a lot of listening and playing and you will be well on your way. If you have any questions or want some advice, I’m very happy to part with any knowledge that I might have: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jazz Pianist, Director of Brighton Jazz School and Lecturer in Music at the University of Chichester.