Jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis once described jazz as ‘20th Century American folk music’. All over the world and throughout history, people have created art in general, and music in particular, to express their feelings about being alive. Music is a central part of culture, passing on stories, thoughts and feelings from one generation to another. And this creation process has involved both composition and improvisation. Even great Western Classical composers like Bach and Mozart were improvisers before their work was enshrined in script, never thereafter to be altered! Jazz emerged around New Orleans in the US around 1900, a blend of African drumming rhythms brought by slaves, European classical composition brought by pianists, Blues field/work songs and Gospel church music. And jazz, like all art forms, is constantly evolving and has been reinterpreted in many different forms around the world, from South Africa and Latin America to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Learning to play jazz is just one powerful way of learning to play music more broadly, and to discover and express your own musical instincts and aptitudes.

Saxophonista, Granary Square, Kings Cross
Image Copyright John Sturrock

In jazz the musician is a co-producer of artistic expression, not just a re-interpreter of someone else’s composition. Jazz musicians embrace the freedom to build on other people’s pieces of music, especially small group material. People learn to play music in all sorts of ways but one approach in jazz is just to join in playing over records. There’s a debate among music educators about the relative role of musical knowledge and technique on the one hand and that of artistic experimentation on the other. I’m coming from the second group, I think that just joining in with a band playing over a piece of music can give you the sense of possibility and excitement that then motivates you to research and develop instrumental technique, which then makes it possible to play more adventurously and expressively, and so on, a virtuous circle. What I don’t buy is the idea that you have to have a certain level of skill or technique before you can make a valid contribution to a piece of music. Look at the early blues players like Robert Johnson who played bottleneck slide guitar over an open E chord tuning.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

So, ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis and friends, recorded in 1959, is the best-selling jazz album and most of it, apart from the beautiful ‘Blue in Green’, consists of just a few chords which don’t change too frequently. In fact the scores for these songs and many other jazz standards are available in the 6th edition ‘Real Book’, both in hard copy and PDF electronic format. So they’re an ideal ‘modal’ vehicle on which to seek and find the root note, follow its changes and then experiment by playing notes either side. So as the underlying chords change, which is pretty obvious to the ear, there will be a new chord root note. And against each chord, you can experiment with ‘intervals’ or note gaps that sound musical. This is one way of learning scales for basic chords like majors (or ‘major 7ths’ – more common in jazz than ‘straight’ majors), minors (‘Dorian’ minors – very common in jazz) and 7ths (exceedingly common in jazz!). And you can look up how these chords get formed from some YouTube clip, technical website or method book, or you can follow your ear and piece them together yourself, or you can sort out a hybrid combination of approaches that works for you. Or you can use other simple-ish tunes and progressively spread your wings and gain confidence playing against other material which is relatively slow, uncomplicated and meditative. Give it a try!

So moving on…I hope these ideas give you some confidence in your ears and innate sense of musicality to have a go at playing against an increasingly wide variety of tunes. There’s lots of material out there to help you learn to play jazz but great players are not always great teachers and not all courses or tutor books make learning easy or straightforward. Charles Beale’s ‘Jazz Piano From Scratch’ with accompanying CD is a very accessible learning pathway produced by the UK’s Associated Board. It also introduces the ABRSM jazz programme of 5 collections of 15 jazz tunes to match Grades 1-5 in all main instruments, with scores and CDs featuring lead instruments both phased in and out, so you can play those tunes with the support of a backing band. Plus this programme illustrates how you can develop improvisations using the strong ‘guide tones’ of 3rds and 7ths, ‘voice leading’ from chord to chord. There’s a similar set of charts with accompanying CDs featuring support bands and in/out lead instruments produced by US educator Jim Snidero under the title ‘Jazz Conception’ at easy/intermediate and advanced levels. Plus the website www.learnjazzstandards.com is very helpful. Some good books with accompanying CDs on improvisation are Hal Crook’s ‘Ready, Aim, Improvise’ and Jerry Coker’s books on ‘Improvisation’ along with his ‘Hearin the changes’, but these are pretty heavy and not for the faint-hearted. And I’m sure there’s lots of good stuff out there which I don’t know about.

Stan Getz – Image credit Lee Tanner

The final word belongs, I think, to the great jazz sax player Stan Getz who once said:

‘The qualities of a great jazz musician are courage, individuality, irreverence and taste!’ So the invitation to all of us is to experiment bravely, bringing all our individuality, without being fazed by the challenge and recognising that we all have a degree of musical taste and instinct.

Go well!

Gerry Rogers (gerryrogers01@gmail.com)