How to develop jazz vocabulary.

Updated: Jun 10

What will you learn in this post


  1. How to listen to jazz music in a meaningful way to take your playing forward

  2. How to learn a tune by ear

  3. Learn how to target chord notes

  4. Develop the ability to create flowing lines

  5. How to develop jazz vocabulary


When you first start to improvise jazz music on your instrument it can be pretty daunting.


  • What do i play?

  • What do I practice?

  • How do I practice?


The great players make it sound so easy! But, once you've tried a couple of choruses on a well known standard you soon realise there is a lot more to this music than meets the ear!


In this post, I will attempt to lay out what I think is important and what you, as a new or intermediate improvisor should focus on to develop your listening and vocabulary.


All of the suggestions I make are from 30 years of trying to play this amazing music. Playing and learning with some of the best in the UK. I am also a fully qualified teacher, holding a master of arts in music performance!

So, let's get started!

  1. What I believe is the number 1 and important


'Listen to the music'


I don't just mean listen whilst washing up, walking the dog or whilst driving the car. I mean REALLY LISTEN! Sit down in a space where you will not be disturbed and really listen to your favourite players.

What should you be listening for?


Well, of course, you are primarily listening because you love the music, that is great but to take or use listening as a tool for improvement, you must listen in a more deliberate way (I think).

Listen to how they phrase the melody. Try to always be thinking, 'what can I learn from this experience?' Do they stick to the melody or do they use a lot of embellishments? Listen to the melody over and over again. How do they articulate the notes? The next thing I would concentrate on is trying to sing the tune exactly how they play it! Note for note with all the embellishments too! Even if you haven't got a clue what's going on, just do it. It is this type of listening that will eventually make you a much better improvisor! Once you can sing along with the tune exactly as the recording sounds, try and play it on your instrument.


DO NOT


try and use any type of lead sheet. Only use your ears. The more you practice this, the better your ears will become at doing this. Some great tunes to start with that are not too fast or too hard to play (for intermediate players) are recordings by Chet Baker. Even if you are not a trumpet player, you will learn great phrasing, feel, time, articulation...

I know you haven't started improvising yet but I have heard many jazz students improvise and on hearing them, it is very obvious that they haven't really listened in a meaningful way. The more tunes you can listen to as suggested above, the more your ear will improve, the more exposed you are to how it really should sound. Your hearing a great player with amazing time, sound, articulation and phrasing (I have repeated those words on purpose).

Even if you have the most amazing jazz vocabulary, have learnt all the cool licks of your favourite player and know a few jazz standards. No one will want to listen if you can't play in time, can't articulate properly (sound really authentic), don't play with a good sound and you breathe (or phrase if you are a string or keys player) in weird places.


This listening activity should be an enjoyable one and can really take your playing forward very quickly. As already stated, as yet you are not improvising, but when you do, if you follow the suggestions, you'll sound great!


So let's agree that listening is very important! That's number 1!


Number 2 is

  1. You must know some jazz vocabulary. Have something to play when soloing!


How to develop jazz vocabulary?


There are a few way to develop this. You could copy endless amounts of licks and play them in all 12 keys. This is how I started, whilst useful to a point, I personally found that all I ended up doing was regurgitating these licks, didn't have much to play when there wasn't a chord that I hadn't practiced a lick over and never really felt like I was improvising. I had just copied a bunch of stuff and was sick of playing it over and over again! I wanted to sound and improvise like my idols, Chet Baker, Bobby Shew, Art Farmer... Beautiful melodic players that don't really sound like they are remembering licks. Everything sounded so fresh, new and amazing in every solo. I wanted to know and learn how to do this!


I am going to tell you how I practice and since doing so, have taken my playing much farther forward that I ever thought possible!


The amazing Clark Terry says


'Imitate - Assimilate - Innovate'


So you could learn the licks in all the keys and then try to create your own but you need to understand the vocabulary of what is in the licks to do this. This is where the innovate part comes in (I think).


Check out the following extract of a Chet Baker solo. It is from his solo on the recording 'Chet in Milan' on the standard 'Look for the silver lining'. Chet in Milan transcription book by Darren Lloyd.


Bb pitch

How to develop jazz vocabulary
How to develop jazz vocabulary

Eb pitch

How to develop jazz vocabulary
How to develop jazz vocabulary

Concert pitch

How to develop jazz vocabulary
How to develop jazz vocabulary

Bass clef

How to develop jazz vocabulary
How to develop jazz vocabulary

Here we can see that the chord sequence is the key of concert C major (D major for Bb pitched instruments and A major for Eb). In the second line the key centre moves to G major (F for concert and bass clef and D for Eb pitch).


For the sake of this blog post I will only talk about the Bb version but as you can see I have also added the Eb pitch, bass clef and concert pitch version too.

So we could learn the whole 8 bars of this solo, from memory and internalise it into our playing. Even better if we transcribe it ourselves (more on that later in the post). For some beginner or intermediate jazz students, this can be a little overwhelming and disheartening, especially when you can only use the phrase when the exact chord sequence appears.


The way I teach jazz vocabulary in my Patreon lessons is to learn the vocabulary, not the lick or phrase.

What is Chet actually doing when soloing. Let's analyse it and then come up with a solution on how best to practice to sound like the great man himself. This of course will work with any great player.

In bar 1 Chet is simply playing the chord notes but using some connecting notes also. Notice that in this fragment of the solo Chet is playing a chord note on every first and third beat. This is something I also teach! I believe it's very important to sound like we are playing the changes!

Bar 1 - 3rd to the 5th to the major 7th small enclosure type phrase onto the tonic on beat three. Small flourish to the 7th on beat 4 then approaches the tonic on beat one of bar 2.



Bar 2 – Tonic, going down the bebop scale and approaching the 5th on beat three, moving in a linear type fashion to reach the


Bar 3 – the 3rd, 5th and tonic on beat three.


Bar one of line 2 – Approaching the 3rd of D7 (hits it a bar early) coming down the bebop scale to the 7th of bar 2


Bar 2 – Motif type figure spelling out the chord changes. 7th on beat 1 to the 5th on beat three! Approach the 5th of

Bar 3

- 5th 3rd

Bar 4 - 7th (major) 5th


I can see from this solo extract that by practicing separate elements of vocabulary and really getting them into my fingers and ears, I will eventually (after many, many repetitions) stand a great chance of hearing the vocabulary and sound great soloing.

The two elements I will focus on today will be

1. Chord tones. I would practice playing the chord tones over and over in varying ways. Check out these examples.

2. Targeting chord tones using approach notes.


No matter what jazz vocabulary we practice, it is extremely important to also develop the ability to hear when to play or use it also!


Make sure you sign up for the blog as I will be creating lots of lessons to help you with your progress.


Of course, there is lots more to Chet's solos than just chord tones and approach notes but I don't want to give you too much to do and leave you feeling totally overwhelmed!


In this example I am simply targeting the 3rd of each chord! If you wanted, you could practice this exercise over and over targeting any of the chord notes of the tune you are working on! Tonic, 3rd, 5th, 7th or even the 9th. This is a fantastic way to really get to know the chord changes of jazz standards.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

This exercise targets the tonic of beat 1 and the 3rd on beat three!

How to develop jazz vocabulary

This exercise targets the tonic, 3rd and 5th of each chord.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

The final chord note exercise targets all the notes of the chord. Tonic, 3rd, 5th & 7th.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

By practicing the chord notes in this way you really get to know the chord changes and develop the feeling of what notes are coming up next, especially when changing key centre. Only go at the pace you feel comfortable with. Try practicing these exercises, firstly looking at the chord changes and then as you get more familiar with them, look away (this may take some time).


The next thing I would look at is approaching chord tones!


Approaching a chord tone or target note is a great way to develop that flowing line feeling. Once you can really hear the target notes on beats 1 and 3 and can connect them with 3 approach notes, you have a long flowing line!


You can start off by approach chord tones by using one 8th note either from above or below, as shown in this exercise. Then use two and then three. In this exercise I am targeting the tonic of each chord, you can of course practice this on any of the chord notes.


The following exercises are AMAZING for developing a great knowledge of the chord tones and also the ability to hear them as you approach them! In these exercises I am approaching the tonic of each chord. You can of course practice these types of exercises using any chord tone (I often use the 3rd as to my ears it is a beautiful and melodic note). For the example I am using a few bars, you could use an 8 bar segment of a tune or indeed, the whole thing.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary

I am not going to or try to take any credit for creating or inventing these exercises. These types of exercises can be found in Hal Galper's book 'Forward motion'. This book has helped me so much over the past six or seven years that I have been using it and really enabled me to feel like I am improvising and not remembering! I highly recommend it.


Here is a link to a hard copy on the sheet music plus website (click the image).



When we start to target chord notes on both beats 1 and 3, we start to really open up the possibilities of a flowing melodic line, through the chord changes!


Check out these exercises (you would have needed to practice the previous exercises approach ALL on the chord tones on beat 1, I think).



How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary


How to develop jazz vocabulary

How to develop jazz vocabulary


How to develop jazz vocabulary


How to develop jazz vocabulary

Once you have really internalised the above exercises and practice approaching different chord notes, you'll find that your listening skills, technique, and ability to run through the changes has dramatically increased. The more you practice these exercises, the better your listening will become and the ability to play long flowing lines will improve.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

By introducing some space into your solo you can make your less repetitive.

How to develop jazz vocabulary

Here is a link to a video of an original tune I created over the changes to 'There will never be another you' I like to think that this tune and solo sounds very melodic and in it I am using many of the techniques I have outlined in this post. I hope you enjoy it.

It is called 'You for me'.




I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and gotten something from it.


I am going to give away a copy of my pdf Clifford Brown etude book to anyone that comments below in the comments section about a subject they would like a blog created about (jazz related please).


Please subscribe to the blog and the jazz etudes news letter, I will be creating lots more helpful blogs aimed at helping intermediate jazz students develop their improvisation skills with a focus on the melodic side!


Check out the YouTube video above and follow the links in the description for all the free resources that come with the lesson.


If you like the way that I teach, here are some useful links for you to check out.


Jazz etudes news letter


Jazz lessons on Patreon (tier 2)


Jazz etudes on Patreon


10 progressive jazz etudes (amazing offer)


65 jazz etudes (amazing offer)


Warm regards and thank you for reading the blog.


Darren, Jazz Etudes.

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