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Beginners guide to jazz improvisation

Hi guys, Darren here.

I am going to start to attempt to create some blog posts over the next few weeks that delve into different aspects of developing jazz improvisation skills for beginner and early intermediate students.

You won't find any rehashing of other posts, books or sites.

Everything I create will be from firsthand experience that has actually worked for me. I won't be trying to fill up posts with blah, blah, blah!

Feel free to subscribe to the blog and also share the posts.

As the title suggests, this post is a beginners guide to jazz improvisation!

So, whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced student, I believe there are 4 main areas to focus on when trying to get better at jazz improvisation.

Pretty much anything else will come under these heading I think!

Here they are -

  1. Listening

  2. Vocabulary

  3. Harmony & chord tones

  4. Practice in a goal focused manner


1. Listen, listen and listen!

It's very important to listen to the great players. It is through listening that we learn how to improvise and also play in a much more authentic manner!

I know many guys that can improvise but they don't play authentic jazz vocabulary. They haven't listened to and internalised the vocabulary of the greats and as a result, don't sound as authentic as they could if they REALLY focused on spending time listening.

As the great Clark Terry used to say -

Imitate - Assimilate - Innovate

What does this actually mean?

I have seen many teachers, especially on YouTube state that you need to learn a whole bunch of licks from players and then transpose them into all the keys! Whilst this is great advice for the more advanced student. What about the beginner or intermediate student?

I prefer to work out small sections or chunks of vocabulary by my favourite players and practice it in achievable steps! This way I am still getting great vocabulary but without having to play the tricky solos of someone like Clifford Brown!

Here is a little example!

This is a part of a Clifford Brown solo, very fast tricky transcription on his solo on the standard 'After you've gone'.

Here is the video I found it on -

Clifford's solo in this tune is incredible and you need to be a virtuoso to play it, especially at the tempo that Clifford is, not to mention his great time and articulation!

But here is something I have learnt to do and internalise into my own playing!

By, first working out how to play a chromatic enclosure such as the image above on many different notes, all of a sudden I can sound very authentic, without having to be able to actually play the Clifford solo on 'After you've gone'!

All I have done is taken a tiny part of his vocabulary and practiced it in such a way as to get it into my own playing!

Here is an example of how I might practice chromatic enclosures on a tune such as 'When the saints go marching in'.

Have a go at trying to play it! This extract is actually from a free jazz improv training I created to show people how I break down improvising into manageable chunks and practiced in a goal focused manner where I can actually gauge 'AM I GETTING BETTER'??

This is just one very small example of how I practice vocabulary and you can take ANY chunk of vocabulary and practice it in this goal focused manner to improve your vocabulary and knowledge. It is also very good for developing the much needed ear/finger coordination.

So, just by listening to out favourite players in this way, we can choose what and how to practice to make us sound super authentic without having to be able to play nearly impossible jazz transcriptions for us mere mortals!

Of course this is just a small aspect of vocabulary that can be practiced but by practicing in this manner gives you an ability to use it over any tune you are currently working on.

Of course, listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Blue Mitchell, CLifford Brown & Freddie Hubbard (to name a few) will also teach us timing, feel, articulation, vibrato, sound, vocabulary, style and so much more...


2. So as already mentioned above, vocabulary is hugely important. Practicing authentic vocabulary from the masters will make us sound super authentic! It is also worth remembering that if you are interested in a more traditional approach, you aren't going to be wanting to play Freddie Hubbard vocabulary all over the place and vice versa, if you want to sound like a hard bop player but have only listened to Bobby Hackett, you simply aren't going to sound authentic! So finding a player you love to listen to and want to sound like is hugely important! Don't worry about sounding TOO MUCH like them. You won't! If you do, congratulations to you! I wish I could sound like Clifford Brown!!!!

3. For me this is HUGELY important. Of you don't know your chord changes, you won't sound like you are playing the changes. For me the vocabulary happens between the chord changes or target notes.

One of the main reasons people like my jazz etudes is because they sound melodic, make them sound instantly like they know what they are doing and also like they are playing the changes!

Here is part of a solo I created on the standard 'Sweet Georgia brown'. Check out what is happening on beats 1 and 3 in pretty much every bar.

Find a backing track to Sweet Georgia brown and have a play through! You will find it sounds very melodic and like I am playing (or you) the changes. That's because you are. Every beat 1 and 3 is a chord tone and everything in between is some type of jazz vocabulary! Notice all the chromatic enclosures for a start!


3. So, knowing those chord changes, is super, super important!

Here is a way I sometimes practice the changes to really get them into my ears and fingers.

This is taken from a Patreon scheme of lessons I gave on the standard 'Take the A train'.

I would normally start off with quarter notes before moving onto the 8th notes but this is just to give you an idea really. Actually, you can sound really great only playing chord notes with space and syncopation too! Just look at the early player like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver!


4. Now, where most people (I believe) fall down is not knowing how to practice properly. They want to sound good, but practicing something we don't yet know usually involves sounding bad for a bit! Something a lot of people soon get tiresome of.

It's only the players that have the tenacity, drive and dedication to get through the bad bit reap the rewards of sounding authentic!

My advice is to stop looking for the next shiny thing like, 'play jazz using only one scale' and start buckling down to what you know, deep down you really need to do.

Plying jazz is all about getting to know your instrument REALLY well. Nothing comes free in the mail or post! Everything must be worked towards.

As a bonus, here is an idea of how you can organise your jazz practice.

Warm up playing through the chord tones of a standard you want to learn.

Start off playing 1/4 notes on only the triad. Then add the 6th and 7th where needed.

Try and create your own linear lines, again, using just 1/4 notes.

Once you get familiar and comfortable with this, try it using 1/8 swing notes.

Next, target just beats 1 and 3 playing chord notes. Maybe try the 3rd on beat one and the 6th or 7th on beat 3.

Next, try to incorporate some jazz vocabulary. As shown above, you could try some Clifford inspired chromatic enclosures! Or 2 note enclosures. I have a bunch of ideas for more vocabulary in my free training video. Just check out the Sweet Georgia brown etude and the vocabulary I have used in that.

Approach notes - enclosures, chromatic enclosures, Fat's Navarro lick, Tom Harrell lick, chord notes, space, syncopation...

I will cover some of these types of vocabulary in future posts...

I hope you have found this blog post helpful. Remember to join the newsletter so as to not miss any posts. I always send out an email shout about them.

So, I hope you enjoyed this beginners guide to jazz improvisation folks, I will see you in the next blog post soon. Comment below on what subject you might like me to cover.

Regards, Darren.

Links for people that might want to work closer with Darren -

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Sep 22, 2023

Thank you for all your hard work to help us learn the vocabulary. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Sep 22, 2023
Replying to

Your'e welcome. Hoping you find it helpful.

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