If you’re just starting out in jazz improvisation, you may face the same dilemma that many beginning students of jazz have faced… and that is, “Just how can I go about getting started?”
This is a typical question, and one that I don’t think can be settled with any one, definitive answer. There are numerous ways to approach learning jazz improvisation. But for the beginner, I recommend keeping it as simple as possible when starting out.
But before we proceed further, I want to remove what has been a roadblock for a lot of beginning music students whose interest has gravitated toward jazz… that being the belief that “I just don’t think I have the innate talent to do this!”
The truth is that ANYONE can learn to improvise. There’s nothing “magical” about it. It’s not something that only a select few are capable of. It’s not just for those who’ve been given some special “gift” that the rest of us lack.
ALL western (that is, non-Asian) music… whether it’s Beethoven, Miles Davis, Brahms, Charlie Parker, Wagner, Louis Armstrong… rock, pop, country-western, bluegrass, or jazz… is built using the same elements: chords, arpeggios, scales, and rhythms.
Master those elements, and you’re well on your way to being able to improvise, which is in essence, a matter of “composing on-the-spot.”
So in this post I’m going to suggest two things to get you started as a beginner. Let’s begin with what might seem very simplistic, but yet is a very important step that must not be skipped
Listen to the Great Jazz Musicians
If you want to learn to improvise, an important first step is to “study” the work of those who have mastered the art. And you “study” their work by listening to their playing.
And by “listen to” I mean to REALLY listen attentively! I can’t emphasize this too strongly. Don’t just put on a recording, and then focus your attention elsewhere.
Focus your FULL attention on the lines they’re playing. See if you can memorize those lines, and sing them back. That way you’re internalizing what you’ve heard.
And even though you can’t yet pick up your instrument and play those lines, you’ll nevertheless get a feel for their styles, and begin memorizing some of those jazz lines & licks that you may later want to incorporate into your own solo improvisations.
On a side note here: there’s nothing wrong with “stealing” the licks you’ve heard other musicians play. I don’t mean to copy everything they do exactly (that’s not what jazz is about), but rather to take bits and pieces of what you most like, and incorporate those into your own playing.
Let’s face it – none of us are likely to become anything more than a second-rate John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, J. J. Johnson, or whoever. But you can take what you most admire from any (or all) of the jazz greats, and incorporate that into your own playing style, to become a first rate YOU!
I believe that should be the goal of all of us!
Pick a Simple Tune
Next, let’s pick a very simple tune, preferably one that you like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a recognized “jazz tune.” It can be anything, so long as it’s not very complex.
But for now let’s pick one in a major key. We’ll get into minor keys in a subsequent post.
Some examples might be “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” “Happy Birthday” “Red River Valley” “Auld Lang Syne” etc. It can even be one of the hymns you learned in church. “Amazing Grace” for example, is one of my favorite pieces of all time.
I’m sure you can think of numerous others. And when you do, would you please list them in the comment box below this post, for the benefit of our other readers.
But for now, the example we’re going to use is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.”
Pick Your Easiest Key
Next, pick an easy key, the key in which you’re most comfortable. When I first started playing the trombone in 5th grade, the first scale I learned was the Bb Major scale.
So your “easiest key” is likely to be the one based on the first scale your ever learned. This will probably be the following:
Concert “C” instruments – flute, piano, bass, xylophone etc. – C Major or Bb Major
Concert “C” brass instruments reading bass clef – trombone, tuba – Bb Major
Bb instruments – trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet – C Major
Eb instruments – alto sax, bari sax – G Major
But I’ve only presented this list as an example. If your “easiest key” isn’t the one I’ve listed above, then just choose the one that is
Review the Related Major Scale
Whichever key you’ve chosen, make sure you’re very familiar with the related tonic scale. You probably are already, but it never hurts to review it.
You must be able to play this scale (and eventually all scales) from “muscle memory.” That is, without having to involve any conscious thought whatsoever.
This happens when your many hours of practice have brought you to the point that all you have to do is think “play an XYZ scale” and your fingers (or arm, if you’re a trombonist) know exactly what to do without you having to even think about it
Play Your Chosen Tune in Your Chosen Key
So now you’ve chosen an easy tune and your easiest key. Now take out a piece of manuscript paper and write it down in that key.
Below is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” in the key of C Major.
Now play through your tune a few times. Pay close attention to how each note fits into the related major scale. Try to “hear” the scale as you play each note.
For instance, in our example the first four notes are the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th notes of the C Major scale (C, E, F, and G). The entire piece in fact uses only the first 5 notes of the C Major scale.
Elaborate on the Melody Using Different Rhythms
Next, play through your piece again, but this time vary the rhythms. For instance, in our example you might play something like this:
Repeat this several times, playing different rhythms each time. No need to write these down, just play them
Elaborate on the Melody by Adding Some Notes
Next, play the tune through several more times, adding some notes. Be mindful of which notes of the scale you are adding. You can also add some chromatic notes as well.
Use “passing tones” (notes that pass between 2 melody notes) and also include some “neighboring tones” (chromatic and/or diatonic notes adjacent to notes in the melody).
Here’s an example:
You get the idea. Repeat this exercise a number of time, playing something different each time, always trying to “hear” the Major scale and where each note fits into that scale (or relates to notes of the scale, in the case of chromatic tones)
Take it a Few Steps Further
Now let’s take it a step further.
Play through your tune again, but this time, rather than just playing passing tones and neighboring tones, add in some notes that depart from the melody altogether (but still remain within the key).
You can still use chromatic passing and neighboring tones, but make sure the notes played on the beat are within the key.
Here’s an examples
You can also alter the melody by leaving notes out, as in this example
Keep playing through your piece, trying different things. Each time try to depart further and further from the original melody, while still keeping within the key. And always be mindful of which notes of the scale you are using, and how your improvisation fits into the scale.
Take a moment now to listen to this Youtube video of Louie Armstrong playing “Saints.”
You’ll notice that in the first chorus he pretty much sticks to the melody, except in the last couple of bars or so where he adds in some “blue notes.” (I’m not going to talk about blue notes just yet. The topic of blue notes and the blues scale deserves a post of its own).
Now notice in the second chorus how Louie mostly departs from the melody entirely. This is a good example of what we’ve been doing here.
In subsequent posts we’ll talk about chord structure. That is, the harmonies that underlie every tune. Eventually, you’ll rely not only on the scale of the key that you’re in, but on the underlying chords as well, in forming your melodic lines.
Congratulations – You’ve Been Improvising!
The above exercise is just a starting point. You’ll learn many more techniques and become more comfortable with improvisation as you go along.
For now, keep finding different ways to “elaborate” on the tune you’ve chosen. To that end, I recommend that you next visit this post about easy jazz chord progressions.
Then do the same with some different tunes. For now, keep it simple – simple melodies and easy chord progressions, in “easy” keys.
As you become more adept, you’ll want to branch out into some other keys, and eventually get to the point that you can improvise in EVERY key, major and minor.
Please leave your comments below. Let us know how you fared during this first attempt at improvisation.
And if you take only one thing away from this, it should be the knowledge that learning jazz improvisation is something that’s entirely within your grasp. And know that over time, your jazz solos will get better and better!