Learning Jazz Improvization

What is the best way to learn to improvize Jazz?

There is no one way!

But – over the years I have myself tried many different routes and I think I have found one which works, and it has the merit of being based on the methods used by the greatest players of the past. How do I know this? Read a couple of anecdotes about how two jazz musicians learnt.....

When I first started to learn to play jazz, at the age of 15, I went to a group class run at the Midlands Arts Centre (now MAC) in Birmingham. This class later became the very first version of the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra.

One day when all the regular attenders at this class were doing their regular fumbling around trying to make a coherent solo, a young saxophone player came along (he only came once) and played a beautiful solo. We were all astounded – someone asked him how he did it and he said he played along with Charlie Parker records. But for some reason I didn't take this on board. I guess I must have thought that he meant he played Charlie Parker solos from books along with the recording, or maybe he just noodled along when the record was on.

Usually in this class the predominant method of teaching was what I now call the “related scale method of jazz improvization”. This is the method that is taught in most summer schools and in most of the hundreds of books about jazz improvization.

This theory is wrong! Learning it won't do you any harm, but it won't make you into an authentic jazz player.

The way to learn to improvize jazz is this -

  1. Learn your instrument to a reasonable level of proficiency by any method which works for you. Usually this means studying with a teacher. By a reasonable level of proficiency I mean around Grade 5 – 6 according to the ABRSM exam syllabuses. I don't mean that you have to take these exams, nor do you have to know those specific pieces, but I mean that you need to have enough proficiency that you know that you could genuinely pass those exams after about 6 months of work at the pieces and scales.
  2. Find a jazz solo on your instrument on a recording that you like, and that is not too fast or fiendish.
  3. Learn this solo off by heart by listening to the recording and working out what the soloist is playing, and get the solo to a sufficient standard that you can play it along with the soloist so that if someone in the room is listening to you they can't hear the soloist on the recording. Don't write the solo down, and don't use a published score version of the solo to help you. This procedure should be your prime educational tool for your whole career as a jazz musician – whether you are an aspiring professional or an aspiring amateur. By doing this regularly you will sound authentic, and your solos will be inspired. You won't sound like you are noodling without direction when you solo, and you will have the quality of swing in your playing.

Ok – you're probably thinking – this is an outrageous claim, what about all the jazz scales and patterns and harmonic theory I'm supposed to learn. And what about all those hundreds of books and playalongs I've invested in. Aren't I supposed to use those?

And in any case – how can I possibly learn a Charlie Parker solo just by listening – I don't even know what the first note is that he plays.

Ok – here is a detailed procedure that will get you started.

  1. Things you need

    1. A relatively easy solo on your instrument. For instance, on tenor sax it could be the tune and solo from Twisted by Wardell Gray or the tune and tenor sax solo from Splanky by the Count Basie Orchestra on The Atomic Mr Basie. On alto sax it could be Stompy Jones by Johnny Hodges (from the Ellington/Hodges album Side By Side). On flute I suggest learning a trumpet solo and playing it an octave above what it sounds. Miles Davis and Blue Mitchell often play solos with not too many rapid notes in. On clarinet maybe a Benny Goodman solo at a moderate tempo. Whatever you do, unless you are already a virtuoso on your instrument, don't start with a Charlie Parker solo – they present extra problems which I will discuss later. Actually I try to encourage my students to start on Easy Jazz Conception by Jim Snidero (Studio/Advance). This series is one of the best playalong series published – the solos are authentic jazz style but they are not too difficult, the tunes are all based on either standards or the blues, and the rhythm section are Jim Snidero's regular team and they play together beautifully just as if they are playing on a top-flight jazz album, and the front-line players are all top players of their instruments, and although these solos are not really improvized, they are so well written that they sound as if they could have been.
    2. A method of slowing down the recording without changing the pitch. In the old days the best you could do was to slow a tape down to half speed in which case everything came out an octave lower. But with digital technology it's a lot simpler. I use a program called Transcribe available from www.seventhstring.com. This program was designed for jazz musicians, it's easy to use and is reasonably priced. If you already have a DAW like Cubase or Logic then you can use that. There are other programs available which will do the same job.
    3. An mp3 player is handy. I usually practise in my teaching studio where I don't have a computer. I prepare multiple slowed down versions of the track I'm working on and transfer them to my iPod which I plug into the hi-fi in my studio.
  2. OK - now you're ready, this is what to do.

    1. First listen to the solo obsessively – I mean like maybe a hundred times. You want the solo to be aurally imprinted in your brain so that – even though you may not know what notes and rhythms are being played – you are so familiar with it that you would notice if – by some impossible chance, one tiny little inflection on the recording got changed.
    2. Learn to sing or play the solo by the following method.

      There is one rule – Never try to memorize the solo. [Why? Because I've realized over my 40 years of teaching that most students – even people with hi-powered jobs where you would think that they have all the confidence in the world in their abilities, that the command to memorize sets up a fear scenario. Most people believe that they are the one person in the universe with a truly bad memory!]. This includes the instruction that - having learnt a few notes, don't go back to the beginning to check that you know those notes before moving on to the next bit. Instead - start the track but keep your finger on the button, and the instant the first note has sounded - stop the track. Find that note either by singing* or playing. You are allowed to check that you have found the correct note by replaying it. (It is much easier to do this using Transcribe than using an iPod or CD. Nevertheless if the solo is not too complex - e.g. Track 1 – Basie Blues in Easy Jazz Conception - then it is not really necessary to use a computer program to assist you.) Having found the first note find the second note. Having found the second note find the third note. Carry on till you get to the end of the solo. At the end of the solo go back to the beginning and repeat the procedure. At the end of the solo go back yet again and repeat the same procedure. Gradually you will be able to play 2, 3 or 4 notes together. With a track like Basie Blues you will probably be able to play the whole thing after maybe 20 or 30 times or more through. “What?!* 20 or 30 times?” Yes – to truly learn the solo you will have to proceed through the track many, many times till you are so familiar with it that you can't possibly forget it. With a solo by a great soloist – you may have to spend many hours over several months with the solo.

      [*NB Some people are very screwed up about singing. People who can sing easily don't usually understand this and are often unsympathetic – but actually it is surprisingly common that people have been told when they are young to either shut up singing or have been told by an authority figure – such as a parent, teacher or older sibling – that they cannot sing – and often this completely paralyses their attempts to sing later in life. Actually I am one of these people – though I continue to try to overcome the problem. But if you feel that you cannot possibly sing then for the time being skip this stage. It isn't necessary to be able to sing to be able to be a good instrumentalist or improvizer – but it does help if you can eventually learn to do it. So if you are ok about it learn the solo first by singing it, if not learn it on your horn.]

      The rewards to be gained by following this method are immense. You're training your ear for pitch and rhythm, and you're learning authentic jazz phrasing. You're also learning an aural map of the tune you're learning so that it will be easier to find your way around it when you come to improvize on it.

    3. Once you've learnt your first solo (which may take several weeks of practise) the next thing to do is to find out if you can play it away from the original recording in time with a metronome. Even better tap on beats two and four with your foot whilst playing (and with the metronome still on). This may expose some holes in your knowledge of the solo, so you will have to go back to the recording.
    4. Once you can do that – then transpose the tune and solo to every key! You may not be able to play it up to speed in every key, but because you have learnt it so intimately in one key, you will find that learning it in all keys will be not as difficult as you had imagined. By the way - it’s not necessary to learn every single solo that you transcribe into every key - for one thing - on an instrument like the saxophone you will sometimes find that you run out of notes! But do it at least once. I learnt Wardell Gray’s solo on Twisted in every key - and it was a revelation - I suddenly found that I could improvize on the blues coherently without thinking about the changes. Still - it is always worth learning the head in every key. Especially so with bebop tunes, because all the great bebop heads are like miniature solos, and you can only benefit from knowing them inside out.
    5. Lastly, take a favourite phrase from the solo, and try placing it on every chord in the tune. Obviously you can change any notes you like to make it fit.

Standard Objections I Have Heard To This Approach

  1. I'm not aiming to be an imitator of another artist – I'm intending to be an original.
    A: Charlie Parker did exactly this with Lester Young, and Lester Young is known to have learnt solos by Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke. No one has succeeded in duplicating the styles of any of these artists – they are all unique. Actually we are all unique. Strive for competence then originality will follow.

  2. I haven't got a good enough ear to be able to work out the notes.
    A: Everyone has to start somewhere. Note Bud Freeman's method of learning a solo on one note to begin with! If you perservere – you will eventually develop the skill, though it may need a lot of patience to begin with.

  3. What about the scales I should know? What about the jazz scales that they tell me about in jazz classes I've been to? What about the dorian and mixolydian? What about the jazz minor?
    A: There are scales that – over the years, by practising, will give you greater fluency on the instrument. But there is only one scale that I am aware of that is unique to jazz and that is the blues scale. There are scales & arpeggios that everyone needs to know. But you don't need to know them all in order to start learning jazz improvization – take your time over them – think in terms of a 5-year period of learning these scales – not six months. Practise them all with a metronome, slowly, medium, different tonguings, different rhythms, in seconds, thirds and fourths (don't worry too much about wider intervals) and eventually you will know them all. Then if you need to know some exotic scale at some time it will be easy to add it to your repertoire.

    1. All regular major, harmonic & melodic minors. If you know all your major scales then you already know all your modal scales – but you will only need to know the names of these scales so that you don't feel ignorant when they are talked about at jazz class!

    2. All 12 blues scales

    3. All 3 diminished scales

    4. All 2 whole tone scales

    5. All 12 pentatonic scales (every major pentatonic scale includes the relative minor pentatonic). Also the blues scale is the same as the pentatonic with one extra note in the middle.

    6. The chromatic scale.

    7. All triads, seventh, and ninth chords as arpeggios. 11th and 13th chords flow naturally from the seventh chords as you will gradually discover.

    8. It won't hurt you to learn the so-called jazz minor – actually it's just the major scale with the third flattened. Strangely you won't hear it a lot in jazz – it's very common in Bach however! The idea of the jazz minor came about because the altered chord, arranged as a scale, turns out to be the same notes as the relative minor ascending but starting on the 7th note! But for some reason it doesn't sound so great when you improvize on it, even over an altered chord.

    9. At jazz classes it is often claimed that on chord II (say Dm7) you should improvize on the Dorian scale, and on chord V (say G7), you should improvize on the mixolydian. Try it – to me it sounds like bad English folk music. The mixolydian on G7 sounds particularly tedious to me. Ok – now try the blues scale on C. Much better. Now try a phrase based on Fmaj7 over the Dm7 chord, and a phrase based on Ab diminished scale over the G7. Now it starts to sound like jazz. What does this teach us? Jazz musicians don't improvize on the modal scales if they want to sound like jazz musicians, only if they want to sound like folk musicians. To improvize jazz you must play jazz phrases (licks) in a jazz fashion with jazz phrasing. You will get this from learning solos by the masters.
  4. OK what about learning about jazz harmony and so on?
    A: Yes you need to know about harmony – but you can pick that up gradually as you study and become aware of what's going on in the music. The most important thing by far is to listen – and you will listen in much greater detail by learning solos using your ear.

  5. What about all the hundreds of playalongs?
    A: They can't hurt you. But make learning solos your chief study.

  6. Why shouldn't I start with Charlie Parker?
    A: The biggest problem about learning Parker solos is that many of them were very badly recorded, and in addition he often played some of his greatest solos with badly adjusted reeds and often with a saxophone that needed attention from a repairman! This is one of the paradoxes of jazz – that the greatest artist it has produced had to be recorded in such an inferior way. Sometimes the best way to learn Parker solos is to take them down an octave in Transcribe or similar software. It makes him sound like a baritone sax player – but the notes are sometimes more distinct. But they are never perfect – you often have to guess what he's playing. If you check Jamey Aebersold's transcription of Moose The Mooche with the recording, you will notice that Aebersold writes some notes in the solo that aren't there! I don't dispute that Aebersold has a great ear – but it's just an indication of the difficulty of working out the notes. Wait until you've learnt a few easier solos until you learn Charlie Parker ones. But do learn them – because he is the greatest soloist by miles.

Supplementary Studies I Recommend

  1. Always use a metronome for everything except when playing along with a recording.

  2. Learn Bebop heads in every key

  3. Learn the bass lines of tunes from recordings.

  4. Always learn the tune and its chords by ear.

  5. Learn tunes in every key.

  6. Avoid using fakebooks on gigs except when absolutely necesssary.

  7. Train your ear in a formal way by doing the David L Burge Relative Pitch Ear Training Course. This course is extremely demanding – but I have done it and it's by far the best course of its type that I have come across. It took me about 18 months working several hours a week – I mostly did it in my car when travelling to gigs and teaching jobs. Follow the instructions David gives you – don't let up on it. Students who have bought the first volume often give up when they get to the harmonic 4ths and 5ths exercise. When I got to this exercise I nearly gave up. I thought that because I was already a professional musician and I had a music degree that I would find this course relatively easy. Pride comes before a fall! It took me several weeks to pass this one exercise! But once I had passed it I knew that I knew it. I also got what the whole method was about, you just repeat an exercise until you can get it 100% right in one go, however long it takes – if it takes 6 months to get one exercise right that's how long you needed to do it for. When you've passed you will know that exercise just as well as someone who took one week over it and just as well as someone who took 9 months over it. Just swallow your pride and do the course. You will never regret it. Should you do the Perfect Pitch Training Course by David L Burge? I don't know. I didn't have any success with it – even though I could hear the difference between F# and Eb that he talks about. I don't have any reason to disbelieve that he learnt perfect pitch the way he says he did it – but I've got a feeling that maybe when he was a teenager at school his brain was still developing and so it was more receptive to learning perfect pitch. I didn't manage it. But I did do the Relative Pitch course – and that's why I can recommend it.

  8. Study jazz harmony at the piano or guitar using one of the many excellent methods on the market.

  9. Develop your rhythmic facility to the highest possible level by challenging yourself to learn difficult syncopated rhythms. Learn to tap dance or play drums or latin percussion besides your main instrument. This study should last your whole life – all the professionals I know who play jazz to the highest level keep working at their rhythm. They never think they have learnt enough. This includes drummers.

  10. Sing in a choir.

  11. Improvize along with the great players – even if you have no idea what you are doing or what key the piece is in. Wrong notes are just as educational as right ones.

  12. Play as if you mean it.

  13. Go to jazz classes, but take everything they say with a pinch of salt.

  14. Go to jam sessions. The fear level is terrible at first – but you'll get over it. It can't kill you! To learn jazz you have to play a lot of nonsense to begin with – everyone's done it – including Charlie Parker.

  15. Recommended Books

    • Kenny Werner: Effortless Mastery (Jamey Aebersold Jazz)

    • Jim Snidero: The Jazz Conception Series (Easy, Intermediate & Advanced Books)

    • Mike Tracy: Jazz Piano Voicings for the Non-Pianist (Jamey Aebersold Jazz)

    • Jamey Aebersold: Jazz Handbook free from Jazzbooks. The most important bit of this book is the anecdotes about Charlier Parker on pp39-40.

    Don't get too many jazz theory books, you just need one to tell what the meaning of the chords is and a method of practising them.

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