Jazz Improvisation for Beginners

Newcomers to jazz improvisation sometimes feel at a loss as to just where to begin. Well, there are a number of different approaches to getting started.

Now I would never claim that any one approach is super to all others. And in fact, I think it likely that all have some merit. But what I can and will do, is to show you what approach I would personally take if I were a newbie again, just starting out.

Dizzy Gillespie
Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Listen to the Great Jazz Masters

First off, I recommend that while you’re practicing your improvisation, you also take some time to listen to the solo improvisations of some of history’s great jazz musicians.

Doing so will help you get a “feel” for how jazz should sound, as well as give you some ideas to incorporate into your own playing.

Also, listen to a number of different genres (i.e. styles, types) of jazz.

Genres of Jazz

The term “Jazz” includes many different types/styles of music. Wikipedia.org lists 54 different genres of jazz! (Click for a List of jazz genres).

I plan on doing a future post (or perhaps several posts) about some of the different jazz genres. But an in-depth discussion of the different types of jazz is beyond the scope of this particular post.

For our purposes at this time, I just want to touch briefly on the most well-known jazz styles, to provide you a starting point regarding the major kinds of jazz you may want to focus on in the beginning stages.

  • Dixieland
  • Swing
  • Bebop

Let’s just briefly touch on each of these.

Dixieland

This is one of the earliest forms of jazz. It began in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and grew out of the “ragtime” style. Some notable musicians of this era are Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Sidney Bechet (saxophone, clarinet), and Edward “Kid” Ory (trombone) to name just a few.

Swing

Also known as the “Big Band Era” the swing era was that time between the 1st and 2nd World Wars, when swing music was the most popular musical style in America.

A few of the most notable musicians of this era include William “Count” Basie, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. There are many others.

Bebop

Clifford Brown
Associated Booking Corporation (management) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bebop (or just “bop”) originated in the 1940s. The style is characterized by fast tempi, rapidly changing chord structures, harmonic substitutions, and altered chord tones.

Some notable musicians of the early bebop era include Charlie “Bird” Parker (saxophone), John “Dizzy” Gillespie (trumpet), Max Roach (drums), and Thelonious Monk (piano).

The style known as “hard bop” followed the bebop movement, and is similar to bebop in many ways.

One of my personal favorite musicians of this era, and of all time, is trumpeter Clifford Brown. I strongly recommend you give his jazz solos a listen.

Easy Access – Listening to Jazz

Today we have an advantage that wasn’t available to us even as recently as a couple of decades ago. If you have access to the Internet (and most of us do these days), all you need do is to go to YouTube.com and search for the various styles and musicians I’ve listed above.

And keep in mind that those musicians I’ve listed are only a very few of the many outstanding players out there. You can Google various phrases, for example “list of bebop jazz musicians” to find dozens more.

So you don’t have to spend a fortune on CDs to listen to some of the jazz greats. But you might want to select a few of your favorites and begin a library of CD recording to have on hand for frequent listening.

Getting a “Feel” for Jazz – What Does It Mean to “Swing”?

In your listening, one of the big take-aways you should note is the concept of “swing 8th notes.”

One major difference in jazz as opposed to other musical styles, is what we call “swinging the 8th notes.” What this means it that 8th notes are not played evenly, as in “legit” styles, but rather take on a kind of “triplet feel” which is similar (but not quite identical) to a 6/8 meter rhythm.

Straight Eighth NotesSwing Eighth Notes

This excellent video by jazz pianist Peter Saxe demonstrates what I mean.

Now in the case of bebop, especially when played at a very fast tempo, the 8th notes may be going by so fast that there’s just not time enough to “swing.” But even so, keep the swing “feel” in your mind.

So Grab You Instrument And Let’s Get Started!

Ok, time to begin practicing!

Choose a Melody and a Key

Practicing Jazz Improvisation

A good way to begin learning improvisation is to pick a simple melody. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “jazz” tune, but it DOES need to be simple.

Next pick, what for you and your instrument, is an “easy” key.

Now play the melody in that key, and play it multiple time. And each time you play it, add and/or change something to make it a little bit different.

As you continue, keep getting farther and farther away from the original melody.

So what you’re doing is, in effect, simple improvisation. I explain the process in detail in another post, so rather than delve into the details here, I urge you to go take a look at this post about starting out with jazz improvisation.

So please go do that now, and return here after you’ve read it. I’ll wait.

So, did you read the post? Good!

One of the most important points in the post is the concept of always being aware of the underlying scale of the key you have chosen, how the notes of the melody fit into that scale, and the importance of hearing in your mind which scale degree you’re playing.

Pay Attention to the Chords Underlying the Melody

Now the next step is to begin paying attention to the harmonies (chords) underlying your melody, and to how your melody fits into those chords.

So I created a post for that as well. Now go read about simple chord progressions in jazz. Take as long as you need (because this IS important), and return here when you finish.

Ok, so what did you get from the post? Hopefully, you learned about the simple I, IV, and V chord progressions, and what scales to play over them.

Here is the I, IV, and V7 chords in the key of C Major.

I-IV-V7 Chords

And to reiterate (because this is exceptionally important to understand), you play the following scales over these chords:

I – Major Scale
IV – Lydian Scale
V – Mixolydian Scale

Lydian ScaleMixolydian Scale

Now understand the you’re really playing the same scale (in this case, C Major) the whole time, but just beginning and ending on different scale degrees… the 4th scale degree in the case of the Lydian scale, and the 5th scale degree in the case of the Mixolydian scale.

I think it’s for this reason that some people would argue that the Lydian and Mixolydian are not really “scales” but “modes.” So I don’t really care what anyone chooses to call them. I only care that learning these scales is, or can be, helpful when improvising over the different chord changes in a given key.

Now you might decide that learning these “modal scales” (there… I got both terms in there!) is not worth your time, and that all you need do is to learn the Major scale, and think about only that scale when you’re improvising.

So that’s fine. I urge you to think of the scale(s) in whatever way works best for you. Jazz is, after all, personal… maybe more so than any other genre of music. Personally, I think practicing related Lydian and Mixolydian scales along with the related Major scale is helpful.

Start Adding “Blue Notes” in Your Improvisation

If you’re a beginning student of jazz improvisation (and if you’re reading this, I assume you are), a relatively easy way to advance your skills and “spice up” your jazz solos it to begin adding “blue notes” and snippets of the minor blues scale.

And yes, I created a blog post for that too! Go read about using the blues scale.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

So if you’re been following along, doing the exercises mentioned in the posts referenced above, and taking some time to listen to – and learn from – accomplished jazz musicians (both past and present) then congratulations! You’re already come a long way.

Piano KeyboardListen to and Learn Jazz Chord Progressions and Scales

Before closing, one thing I would urge you to do starting out, is to play – and closely listen to – the chords, scales, and basic chord progression as you follow the training, in order to “get them in your ear.”

(You’ll need a piano or keyboard instrument to play chords.)

Just seeing scales and chord symbols on paper is not nearly enough. You need to learn to “hear” them in your brain. This alone will go a very long way toward advancing your goal of becoming a good jazz soloist.

Hopefully you have access to a piano, guitar, or some kind of keyboard instrument. But if you don’t, I recommend you spend a couple of bucks and get an inexpensive keyboard instrument. Just Google “inexpensive keyboard instrument” and you’ll find a number of choices in the mid-$30 range or under.

For now, just learn the I, IV, and V7 chords in the key you’ve chosen for your beginning improvisation exercises. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about various chord types you’ll want to add to your repertoire as you advance.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Is there something you especially liked? Disliked? Something you think should have been included but was not?

Please post your comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

Author: Jim Eastman

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Comments 6

  • Very interesting information, learned a lot new. I’m not much of a jazz player, so can’t really comment on the technical side, but maybe one day I will learn to play an instrument …

    • Hi Vasllij,

      I hope you do take up an instrument. The trombone would be an excellent choice – but of course, that’s just one man’s opinion LOL. Seriously, I hope you do take up an instrument. Just pick one you can love.

  • I’m just starting to get into Jazz and this has been so helpful in giving me some ideas for my progression, can’t wait to try these out 😀

  • Thank you for this amazing post about Jazz for beginners, I can tell you that Listen to the Great Jazz Masters is the key too, when someone wants to learn new language listening is the key to learn it fast, babies listen to their parents before they talk.

    This is an awesome training and I enjoyed reading it even though I am not good at playing instruments. I loved the pictures and video your provided to make the learning easier and doable for beginners.

    • Thank you Mohammad. I’ve spent some time listening to the Masters, and still do. But of course, it’s no substitute for practice LOL.

      By the way, would you like to share the names of some of your favorite musicians?

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