An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

July 25, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Learning to improvise - jazz theory



As I mentioned in the introduction to this "Learning to Improvise" series, jazz theory is typically the most heavily emphasized part of any jazz education method. In your average jazz improvisation book, for instance, you might find a couple of chapters on rhythm, phrasing, or other topics, but you'll ALWAYS find several chapters devoted to jazz theory. Similarly, classrooms typically spend more time on jazz theory than on any other aspect of jazz improvisation.

Because jazz theory is the primary focus of mainstream jazz education, most students end up believing it's the most important skill to master. Consequently, they'll spend the bulk of their time studying, memorizing, and practicing theory-related material. It's great that they're studying jazz theory, however such a narrow focus can lead students (and educators) to forget about other topics like rhythm, phrasing, and ear training. Ironically, it's these overlooked topics that will likely have the greatest impact on your playing. For instance, without solid rhythm and phrasing, nothing you play will sound good, regardless of how theoretically "correct" it might be.

With all of the emphasis placed on jazz theory, you'd think it's a must-have skill where total mastery is needed to succeed as a jazz improviser. But, this just isn't true. There are several legendary players who never learned how to read music (examples: Erroll Garner, Wes Montgomery), and there are several who were pro-level players before they learned how to read music (example: Dave Brubeck), and many others who knew little or no theory (example: Percy Heath), and even more who knew less theory than the average jazz studies major. If these great players didn't rely upon theory, then how did they know what to play? They used their ears! And that leads us to a true must-have skill: the ability to play by ear. Without the ability to play by ear, you'll never be able to accurately play the ideas in your head and you'll never be able to fully express yourself on your instrument.

If theory ISN'T essential, but being able to play by ear IS essential (see my ear training guide for more info), then why do so many jazz educators and aspiring musicians devote most of their time to theory? And more importantly, why isn't the ability to play by ear emphasized as a must-have skill for jazz musicians. Well, I've got a "theory" about this.


Most people fixate on theory because it's relatively straightforward to learn and teach. This stems from its similarity to the subject of mathematics. Like math, theory forces us to learn a bunch of rules and formulas. The notation even looks mathematical, with its use of numbers, roman numerals, various symbols, and plus and minus signs. So, on this level, it's familiar territory and somewhat palatable to those of us who did well in math class. You read it, memorize it, and move on to the next chapter.

I'm not saying jazz theory is easy to master. I'm just saying that for most people, it's easier and faster to learn than ear training skills. In a few months you could learn everything you need to know about theory (at least the basics), yet it might take several years/decades to similarly develop your ears.

Adding to its unpopularity is the fact that ear training is unpredictable. While you'll certainly improve with practice, that rate of progress will differ greatly from one person to the next. You'll have good days and bad days. And, you'll probably experience a lot of frustration along the way. Hey, that sounds a lot like playing the trumpet!

And this brings us to the second part of my theory:


Most people neglect ear training because it's such a gradual and often frustrating process to develop these skills. I think there's also a belief that you're simply born with great ears and if you aren't, there's nothing you can do about it. This is nonsense. Through ear training, you can definitely strengthen your ears and your ability to play by ear. You may not reach a level where you can play everything perfectly and effortlessly by ear, but you can at least reach a level where you can play some of your ideas by ear. Trust me, some is a lot better than none.

The two parts of my theory combine to explain the dominant state of jazz education today: Educators and students focus the bulk of their time and energy on jazz theory, not because it's absolutely essential to jazz improvisation, but rather because it's easier to teach and learn than other must-have skills like the ability to play by ear.

Right about now, you either agree with me or you think I've got it wrong. If you're in the latter category, you might even think I've come to these conclusions because I was too lazy to learn jazz theory myself. Or maybe you think I wasn't good at it, so now I just want to bad-mouth it.


When I entered college, I had no ear training skills and very little knowledge of music theory. My lack of ear training skills coupled with the fact that I don't naturally have a good ear led me to severely struggle in my freshman ear training classes. On the other hand, I did extremely well in my music theory classes (classical theory) during that same year. To me, theory was just memorization and math -- two things that have always come easily to me.

During my sophomore year of college I had to take my first jazz theory class. This class had a reputation for being very challenging and most of the jazz students dreaded its arrival. I breezed right through it. Once again, just memorization and math. I was so good in that class, that after I dropped out of music school (I transferred to the business school) the teacher used to bring up my name from time to time to pressure the students into learning the material. He said stuff like: "If Rick, the insurance salesman, knows all of this stuff you guys better know it too. You wouldn't want to be upstaged by an insurance salesman at a jam session would you?" I'm paraphrasing based upon what another student told me, but you get the idea. And no, I couldn't tell you why he thought I was going to become an insurance salesman. If I were choosing my imaginary job, I'd choose something a little more exciting, like professional arm wrestler!

As you can see, I was very good at theory and I did manage to learn and retain quite a bit. But, while I continued to build upon my knowledge of theory, that knowledge wasn't really helping me to become a better jazz musician. Rather, I was simply using theory to minimize the potential of playing a "wrong" note. Meandering through my solos, I'd randomly choose one "good" note after another. I couldn't play the ideas in my head, and I didn't even know exactly what my solo would sound like until I played it. I wasn't even close to being a true musician.

Of course, I now know that the problem wasn't theory. The problem was my inability to play by ear. The bigger problem that plagued me, and which continues to plague many aspiring musicians, is the fact that few people are really drilling this message home -- the message of ear training. You absolutely MUST be able to play by ear if you want to be a good jazz improviser. If you can't play well by ear, you'll have to rely upon a bunch of pre-learned licks and you'll never truly be able to play the ideas in your head. It might sound like jazz, but it isn't true to the improvisational spirit of jazz music.


If you're serious about learning jazz improvisation, then I strongly suggest that you learn at least some jazz theory. In the case of jazz improvisation, theory primarily serves to explain which notes sound good over which chords. Without this knowledge, you'd have to figure everything out by ear, and your skills/talents would have to be good enough to do that in real-time. My ears aren't that good, and even with constant ear training I probably won't ever reach the level of those legendary players who could play everything entirely by ear. So, for people like myself, theory bridges the gap between what we can and cannot hear. Rather than wonder which chords are being played, we can look at a chart and have everything spelled out for us.

There are several other benefits to knowing jazz theory, including:


When writing tunes, you can use theory to combine chord progressions and harmonies in sequences that you know sound good together. Likewise, you can use your knowledge of theory to reharmonize existing progressions into new and/or more harmonically interesting progressions.


If you have to play unfamiliar tunes in front of an audience or for a recording session, you'll definitely want as much information ahead of time as you can get. Being able to read chord changes will take a lot of the burden off of your ears (and nerves).


That's right, theory can help you with your ear training studies! Rather than rely totally on your ears, theory can help you find those next notes. For instance, if you identify a perfect 4th (1st 2 notes of "Here Comes the Bride") and you know the starting note is an F, then you can use theory to determine that the next note is a Bb. Ideally, you want to be able to do all of this with your ears, but as mentioned earlier, theory can bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear.


Playing scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions will help train your ear to identify the sound of jazz melodies and harmonies.


The old phrase "knowledge is power" comes to mind. The more you know about something, the easier it is to understand and use. While this is true with jazz, it's important to remember that jazz is an artform. All the knowledge in the world will not make you an artist. It's how you apply that knowledge that counts!


Advanced theory concepts such as chord substitutions and alterations can help players unlock new sounds and directions in their playing. For some people, these ideas are easier to come by when visualized and/or thought of from a mathematical/structured approach.

Of course, all of the above can be accomplished solely by ear, but to do this you'd need exceptional aural skills. Believe me, you'd know if you're one of those people. If you make mistakes playing by ear, or if you accidentally play "wrong" notes, then you aren't one of them... sorry!


Most jazz musicians know at least some jazz theory. The following list is a decent starting point for your jazz theory studies:


All keys: Major, Dominant Seventh, Dorian Minor, Blues. As you advance, learn Diminished (H/W and W/H) and Whole Tone scales

Develop enough fluency so you can start on any note and play through to that note (and beyond) for any key and quality. Also, be able to play scales in a variety of intervals (skipping 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc). The goal is to develop enough dexterity so you can play well over any key at fast tempos. You'll probably never actually play a whole scale from top to bottom in a solo, but you will likely find many instances where you play 3-5 note portions of scales or interval skipping scales as you join one idea to the next.

ARPEGGIOS (1, 3, 5, 7)

All keys: Major, Dominant, Dorian Minor, Half Diminished, Diminished

As you listen to and transcribe solos, you'll likely notice that most players incorporate arpeggios in their solos. Arpeggios outline chords, grounding your solo to the changes. As with the scale exercises, practice playing arpeggios in a variety of sequences (7-5-3-1, 1-5-3-7, 7-3-5-1, etc).


Now that you know the scales and arpeggios, you can learn which ones to play as you encounter various chord changes, and you can practice playing over common jazz chord progressions. This is where people generally get hung up in theory. It's also the reason whey there are dozens of books on jazz theory that go on for hundreds of pages. No need to get carried away at first (or ever!). You can read the vast majority of charts simply by being able to play over the following chord types: Maj7, Min7, Dom7, Half-Diminished


It's really up to you how far you want to go with theory. Whatever you do decide to focus on, be sure you spend AT LEAST as much time working on ear training skills as you do working on theory. And be sure you aren't moving too quickly from one skill to another. For instance, it would be silly to start learning chord substitutions if you still haven't learned the blues.


July 6, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 3 Comments

Learning to improvise - vocal improv



During my early playing years, I never gave any thought to vocal improvisation (also known as scat singing). I was totally focused on becoming a good trumpet player, and I figured everything I practiced should be played on the trumpet.

Today, however, I view vocal improvisation as an essential part of my practice routine. Actually, I don't even consider it part of my routine, as it's something that just happens throughout the day. If I hear a song and I'm feeling the groove, I can't help but sing along. Where I might have once sung words (assuming the song has words), I now sing harmonies and/or improvised rhythms and melodies. I do this with all styles of music, not just jazz. Improvisation is improvisation...

There are several benefits to vocal improvisation, however a personal favorite is the fact that it doesn't wear out my chops. I can work on any aspect of improvisation, from rhythm to motif development, and I never have to worry about using too much pressure!


You've most likely been singing songs your entire life, and you've probably done so rather effortlessly. This natural ease we have using our voices should be taken advantage of when learning to improvise. I'd go so far as to say that you shouldn't even bother trying to improvise on your horn until you've achieved a basic level of competency with vocal improvisation. I mean, if you can't sing a simple blues solo, what makes you think you can play one on a relatively unfamiliar instrument?


There are a lot of tunes that I think I know, especially when I'm singing the words. A song like "Autumn In New York" is a good example. If I sing/fake the words I can easily fool myself into thinking I'm getting all of the pitches correct. But, if I sing the melody without saying the words, I instantly notice that some of the pitches aren't quite right. I'm close to the right notes, but not close enough to truly know the tune. Until I am able to sing the melody accurately, I won't know the tune well enough to play it perfectly by ear. Similarly, if I can't scat sing a decent solo, then I don't have the familiarity necessary to improvise well on my instrument.


As you work on vocal improvisation, you should ask yourself whether or not you can play the ideas that you're singing. If the ideas are within your technical limits as a player, but you can't play them on your horn, what's the explanation? I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with theory. Vocal improvisation is yet another way we can identify the limitations we have in our ability to play by ear.


Before I began working on ear training, my solos were almost as much of a surprise to me as they were to my audience. I meandered through my solos, picking notes because I knew they theoretically fit into a particular chord signature. The notes might have been "correct" for the chord, but I never knew exactly how each note was going to sound until I played it. I found this lack of control to be terribly frustrating. How could I effectively express my ideas if I couldn't accurately play the notes on my horn? And, how could I develop new and better ideas if I couldn't play my existing ideas?

Ear training is the obvious solution to this issue, but it's a (very) gradual process. The good news is that if you struggle to play by ear, you can use vocal improvisation to work on the musical aspects of your playing (motif development, rhythm, inside/outside playing, etc) while you work on ear training exercises to help you play those ideas on your horn. The added control you have with your voice can advance your progress much faster than if you try to play everything on your instrument, and as your ability to play by ear improves, you'll be that much farther ahead.


Vocal improvisation is a great test to make sure you actually have good spontaneous ideas. On your horn, there's sometimes a tendency to fall back on pre-learned patterns and/or notes that you're simply plucking from your knowledge of theory. While singing, you'll probably be less likely to play those same patterns, and, unless you have perfect pitch, you won't be thinking about note names or chord theory to determine which notes to sing. It's just you and the music!


Following are a few exercises that should get you started with vocal improvisation.


If you haven't done much singing, it might be best to start out by singing jazz tunes. Sing the melodies of any tune that you know. This exercise will get you used to singing precise notes and intervals. It's also great way to learn tunes. If you learn a tune well enough that you can sing it effortlessly, you'll likely remember it a lot longer then you would if you simply memorize the note names/fingering.


When working on ear training, sing back the intervals and melodies before you attempt to play them on your horn. Singing first will ensure that you've accurately heard each note before attempting to play the notes on your horn. As with singing tunes, forcing yourself to be accurate in your pitches while singing will improve your musical accuracy when you try to play the ideas in your head.


Try vocal improvisation with the exercises presented in the rhythm and motif guides. Pay close attention to articulation and phrasing. You should approach singing with the same intensity and focus that you'd use if you were playing your primary instrument. If you're sloppy while singing, you'll probably be sloppy on your horn too.

June 24, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 19 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2005

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2005. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016 - 2022

DECEMBER 16, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #104, Bass Piece

This clip is from the Kenny Werner - Free Play play-a-long. I purchased it recently thanks to a suggestion from Dan Jacobs. It's basically a collection of tracks with unconventional rhythms, instrumentation, and harmonies. I really like this collection so far, as it's already pushed me to try some new directions in my playing.

I had only played with this "Bass Piece" track once prior to recording this clip. That first session was about three or four weeks ago, so enough time had passed for me to forget everything except for the fact that it speeds up. There aren't any chord changes, nor is there really any structure to the bass track. My goal with this clip was to make it sound as though the bass and I were actually interacting...

SEPTEMBER 28, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #12, Take The 'A' Train by Billy Strayhorn

This is the last clip I recorded tonight. My chops were worn out and I probably should have put my horn down, but I just had to play one more tune. While soloing, I had this image in my head of a boisterous (and somewhat inebriated) saxophone player belting out a loud sloppy solo. I think that image comes across in my clip...

Since it's the end of the 3rd quarter, I figure I should add in a couple other clips from tonight's recording session, even though they're short.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Clip #1 - Aebersold #99, Super Jet by Tadd Dameron

As you might guess, clip #1 is the beginning of my solo. I continued soloing after the clip ends, but I got tongue-tied and my solo sort of fell apart. After resting for a chorus or two, I started up again and recorded the following:

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Clip #2

SEPTEMBER 13, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Freeform improvisation

Here's a short clip of freeform improvisation. I just picked up my horn, noodled around a bit, and then recorded this clip.

Playing without an accompaniment helps ensure that your note choice, use of motifs, sense of motion, and rhythm are good enough to stand on their own. If/when they aren't, there's nowhere to hide...

AUGUST 25, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #34, Green Dolphin Street by Kaper & Washington

My chops were pretty much shot during this clip. I had to use one of my old tricks to get the notes out: pressure (didn't I just write about that?) I know, I know... I'm setting a lousy example. At least, it's clear in this clip that pressure isn't a cure-all. I totally missed the high note in a fast little run near the beginning.

I like the long descending run towards the end of the solo. Basic notes and rhythms, nothing fancy, but I think it worked out pretty well. Another element that I liked was the fact that I start and end the solo with simple-song fragments. I think this is the first time I've done that.

AUGUST 10, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #100, Margie

This track is from the "St. Louis Blues" Dixieland play-a-long. This was my first time playing with this track. I'd guess this clip was recorded after 4 or 5 warm-up choruses.

While recording, I had to break for a phone call. I continued playing after the call, but I forgot to start the recorder. I hate it when I do that! So, this clip is the best of the lot. There are a few cracked notes, but I think it's still worth sharing.

JUNE 24, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108, A Shade Of Jade by Joe Henderson

I was listening to the version on Joe Henderson's "Mode For Joe" this afternoon and couldn't help but pick up my horn. Since we're nearing the end of the second quarter, I also figured I should try to get in another recording. I recorded with this track back in 2004, however I definitely prefer today's clip.

JUNE 2, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #56, "In Walked Bud" by Thelonious Monk

I hesitated putting this track on due to several obvious mistakes, but really I had to put something new online because I'm embarassed by how bad I sound in the 2 tracks below (especially "I Let A Song..."). I didn't think they sounded so bad at first, but after some repeated listening... yikes!

In this recording, I nearly missed the first note (D) entirely but pressed on anyway. And of course, I totally missed the high C that I was shooting for near the end. I did manage to play a high C a few minutes earlier, but wouldn't you know it, I wasn't recording at the time.

MAY 24, 2005

This is my first attempt to play along with the following tracks. I didn't look at the changes, nor did I spend more than a single chorus noodling around before making these recordings. I approached "I Let A Song..." with the intention of creating a new melody for the tune, while my "Catalonian" solo is comprised mostly of short rhythmic phrases.

While they're not great solos, I think they're pretty decent (for me) considering my unfamiliarity with both tunes.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #12, "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" by Duke Ellington

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #82, "Catalonian Nights" by Dexter Gordon

As you work on your ear training, you should also try to figure out tunes entirely by ear. If you have access to the written changes, take a look at them afterwards to see how you did. It would also be a good idea to record yourself so you can better identify problem spots.

APRIL 25, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #38, "This I Dig Of You" by Hank Mobley

This solo is played over the first two choruses of the tune, where you'd typically play the head.

I didn't get a chance to practice this past weekend so my chops were pretty fresh today. I took advantage of this fact and played a bit more in the upper register than usual. Before I started recording, I actually managed to play a pretty decent E above high C!

MARCH 19, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #86, "Tokyo Blues" by Horace Silver

Instead of using a bunch of notes, I experiment with short melodies and phrases, using syncopated rhythms to create interest in the solo. The rhythmic aspect is best heard in the beginning of the second chorus. Nothing special, but at least it isn't as note-heavy as some of my recent clips...

MARCH 3, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #86, "Mary Lou" by Horace Silver

I bought this play-a-long at the same time that I bought #17 & #18 (see below). I haven't had a chance to try it out, though, until recently. It's definitely one of the better Aebersold's, due to the energetic rhythm section. I recommend it highly.

There isn't much to say about my solo. Mostly, I just wanted to get something online since I missed February altogether.

JANUARY 7, 2005

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #17, "Nutville" by Horace Silver

I really like the recording of this tune on Horace Silver's "The Cape Verdean Blues" especially Woody Shaw's playing. I like the tune so much, that I recently bought this play-a-long specifically so I'd have this track. I played a few choruses to get my bearings and then recorded this clip. There are some weak spots, but I think I did a fairly good job of keeping up with the challenging tempo.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #18, "Nica's Dream" by Horace Silver

Now that I've finally got my flugelhorn valves working (read the note in my equipment information page. Updated 3/3/05: Um...), I thought it was time to use it in another recording. Things were going pretty well until I goofed and basically totally derailed my solo. The goof occurs right after the fade out at the end. Clever editing, eh?

May 15, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 12 Comments

Learning to improvise - listening



Listening to jazz is the single most important thing you need to do if you want to learn how to play jazz. Everything you need to know is contained within the music itself. Of course, many of us need some help understanding what we hear (did somebody say ear training?), so we can play it on our instruments. For that, we can turn to ear training, transcribing, theory, and other forms of education. But, it all starts with the music.

I've stated this elsewhere, but it definitely bears repeating in this document: aspiring jazz musicians need to listen to as much jazz as possible. Listening to jazz will help the student (or anyone, for that matter) internalize the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of jazz. Eventually, your familiarity should reach the point where you can effortlessly sing along with a tune, mimicking the way the performer plays each note (match the articulation, dynamics, accents, etc). If you aren't at least this familiar with the sound of jazz, you'll have a heck of a time trying to play it!


1. Jazz recordings to listen to

2. Ears and the ability to listen closely

3. That's it! You don't need any formal training or prior experience to listen and learn from jazz music.


There are dozens (if not hundreds) of lists of recommended jazz albums on the Web. Here's one good list (with audio clips!), and here's another. And here's a recommended jazz list that I made. These lists will help introduce you to important jazz recordings and artists. I'd also encourage you to do a little background research on each recording, to learn more about the album and its performers. You can get decent information on most albums at allmusic.com.


I didn't actually own any jazz until I was 15. For Christmas, my mother bought me two tapes: "Maynard Ferguson Greatest Hits" and "Miles Davis Greatest Hits." THANK GOODNESS SHE BOUGHT THAT MILES TAPE! While Maynard gathered dust, the Miles tape started to warp from too many repeated listenings. I just couldn't get enough, especially of the opening track, "Seven Steps To Heaven." When I turned 16, I'd borrow the car and hang out at the library. There, I was introduced to all sorts of players thanks to a couple dozen jazz records and a handful of videos. So, you might want to start out at your local library as well.

If you can afford ~$10 month, I'd recommend a subscription to one of the legal online music sites. Their jazz collections are so large that you probably won't even get through half of the recordings. I've tried all of the major online music services and would definitely pick Rhapsody as my favorite. Rhapsody has an amazing jazz collection that includes pretty much everything from Blue Note, Columbia, Impulse, Verve, RCA, Prestige, and several other jazz labels.

I'd also recommend Pandora as an excellent source for jazz recordings. Pandora is a free Internet radio service where you can select from a wide array of artist "stations". Once you pick a station, Pandora automatically streams similar music. For example, if you request the Miles Davis radio station, you'll get Miles Davis recordings along with recordings from his contemporaries. This provides you with effortless variety in your playlist and it can expose you to new musicians that you might not have heard before. Unfortunately, since it is a streaming radio station, you can't request particular songs nor can you go back and re-listen to a track or sections of a track. But, hey, it's free!

Other sources of free or inexpensive music include Spotify and YouTube. Of course, you can also go to your local record/CD store and buy music the old fashioned way :-)


While you'll probably do most of your listening via recordings, you should definitely listen to live jazz in your area. As an audience member you have the ability to participate in the performance through your applause, smiles, and cheers. I've been to plenty of concerts where the audience's reaction to a solo pushes the soloist and group forward. This creates a connection with the performers that you just don't get with recordings. Also, at a live show you get to see the interaction between musicians first-hand, in the form of head nods, smiles, glances, etc. This is an important part of your jazz education because it reinforces the fact that jazz musicians are constantly communicating with one another as they create music as a cohesive group.


During the period of time that I stopped playing the trumpet, I spent a couple of years playing drums in a rock band. It wasn't anything fancy; just some friends getting together for fun. When we started, I didn't have any experience playing the drums, so I spent a couple of weeks teaching myself how to play.

I learned to play the drums entirely by mimicking what I heard in rock recordings. Since most rock beats involve at least three different sounds (bass, snare, hi-hat/ride-cymbal), I focused on each part, learning one rhythm at a time. Before long, I was hearing things that I hadn't even noticed before. For example, I began to hear how the drummer moved from the high-hat to the snare in order to play a quick sixteenth-note pickup on the snare, or how the bass drum's rhythm changed between a song's verse and chorus.

I don't play the drums much anymore, but I continue to use the approach of focused listening to better understand what it is that makes a particular recording/solo sound so good. I then take those elements and try to incorporate them in my own playing. Likewise, I use this approach to isolate my weaknesses when reviewing my recordings.


Rather than simply tell you to listen closely, I selected some tracks and have identified some specific things that you can listen for. This list is simply a starting point to get you in the practice of listening more closely to jazz, so you can learn more from the music.


I've already written about the use of motifs to build a cohesive jazz solo. As you'll notice in the clips below, motifs and/or short phrases are also passed between two different soloists to create a smooth transition from one solo to another. While this doesn't happen in every recording, it is a fairly common practice.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Cannonball Adderley ends his solo with a phrase that Miles then turns into a motif for the beginning of his solo. Artist: Miles Davis, Album: "Milestones", Track: "Milestones"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Before the end of his solo, Lee Morgan plays a couple of 3-note phrases which Booker Ervin mimics at the beginning of his solo. Artist: Andrew Hill, Album: "Grass Roots", Track: "Soul Special"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Ornette Coleman passes a phrase to Don Cherry. Artist: Ornette Coleman, Album: "Change of the Century", Track: "Ramblin'"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Joe Henderson ends with a phrase that Woody Shaw uses to begin his solo. Artist: Larry Young, Album: "Unity", Track: "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise"


You can play a note, or you can make that note sing. The ability (or inability) to inject feeling into your playing is likely going to have the largest impact on your overall sound and your ability to convey your message to an audience.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Louis Armstrong uses heavy vibrato to make his horn sound as if it's crying. Artist: Louis Armstrong, Album: "Satchmo Plays King Oliver", Track: "St. James Infirmary"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Nina Simone is my favorite vocalist and the power and intensity of her voice in this recording is amazing (even for her!). You believe every word she's saying. The sax solo that leads into Nina's singing is also fantastic and full of emotion. This clip is also a good example of the shared phrase concept. The sax ends with a quickly articulated rhythm that Nina crisply echoes. Artist: Nina Simone, Album: "Nina Simone Anthology", Track: "I Put A Spell On You"


The more you listen to jazz, the sooner you'll realize that the soloist isn't the only one creating spontaneous music. In actuality, the entire rhythm section and the soloist are actively listening to each other, reacting to each other and spontaneously creating music as a group. This interaction can be extremely exciting, elevating the playing of each musician to a level that he/she might not have achieved alone.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Near the end of one of Lee Morgan's choruses, Philly Joe Jones starts playing a double-time feel on the snare and cymbal. This only lasts a few beats before Morgan joins in (at the start of the next chorus). The double-time feel continues through two fantastic choruses, ending with a snare roll (iwasdoingallright - audio clip) and some great down-tempo bluesy licks by Morgan. All of this happens spontaneously as the group listens to one another. Artist: John Coltrane, Album: "Blue Train", Track: "Blue Train"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Miles was already playing a great solo when Tony Williams starts playing a syncopated rhythm at the top of his ride cymbol (which brightens the sound). Miles follows suit with one of the hippest syncopated phrases I've ever heard. Artist: Miles Davis, Album: "Miles Smiles", Track: "Footprints"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - This clip is a great example of "less is more." Miles plays sparce phrases with lots of rest in between. About half way through, you can hear Bill Evans fill one of the rests with a rhythm similar to what Miles just played. Evans fills another gap near the end of this clip, at the point where the chord changes. It's a neat effect, because Miles isn't playing yet and it's almost like Evans is the one soloing. Artist: Miles Davis, Album: "So What", Track: "So What"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Listen to the rhythms played by Horace Silver on the piano. For most of the clip, he's playing the same rhythm over and over again. This rhythm changes to playing on nearly every beat as we enter the bridge, thus creating a sense of greater motion behind Blue Mitchel's speedy playing. Artist: Horace Silver, Album: "Song For My Father", Track: "The Natives Are Restless Tonight"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - In this clip, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are playing such a dense foundation, that Wayne Shorter's solo sounds powerful and somewhat mysterious, even though he's essentially just playing one long-held note. Like the "So What" clip above, it shows us that you don't need to play a lot of notes when the band is working as a cohesive unit. Artist: Wayne Shorter, Album: "JuJu", Track: "JuJu"

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Lee Morgan is building his solo, playing one fiery phrase after another. Finally, he takes a quick pause before the bridge. Billy Higgins inserts a perfectly chosen fill on a low drum and Morgan comes in with perhaps the best-placed high "F" ever played on the trumpet! Artist: Lee Morgan, Album: "Search For The New Land", Track: "Mr. Kenyatta"

May 8, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 10 Comments

Learning to improvise - transcription


I was going to include the following in my "Listening to Jazz" feature, but decided it would probably be best to make a separate document. The two topics are closely related, however, as they both pertain to listening to music closely in order to understand what's being played.


Transcription is the act of writing down the notes and rhythms to a piece of music, or in this case, to a jazz solo. When transcribing you have to figure everything out on your own, using your ear to tell you which notes are being played. The final notation should be rhythmically and melodically accurate enough that someone could read the transcription and sound (somewhat) like the original solo.

There are several books and websites that offer pre-transcribed solos (see the end of this page for links), however it's often recommended that students do transcriptions on their own. In both of the music schools I attended, for example, we had to transcribe at least one or two or jazz solos each year. Students are encouraged to transcribe solos because there is the notion that if you do it yourself, you'll learn more about the solo. I agree with this point, as you'll no doubt listen to the solo dozens of times closely following every note and rhythm. Additionally, there's the thought that you'll gain valuable ear training skills from the experience...


While the act of transcription can strengthen your ear, like anything else, you won't get noticeable results unless you do it often (at least a few times a week). If you are looking to transcription for ear training benefits, make sure that you use your ear to concentrate on the pitches rather than simple trial-and-error. I've noticed in my past transcription activities that it's tempting to rely on the rewind button. Instead of slowing things down and/or hitting the rewind button 50 times, I suggest that you take the solo in short sections, learning each section well enough to sing it perfectly. Once you can sing a section, try to transcribe from your singing. This will ensure that you are really internalizing the melodies and rhythms while using your ear to find the notes. Honestly, though, I don't think transcribing is the most efficient way to train your ear because it takes too long to write everything down and figure out the rhythms. When it comes to ear training, I prefer dedicated ear training tools.

The remainder of this document pertains to transcriptions whether or not you actually do the transcriptions yourself.


You can certainly learn about a jazz solo through repeated listening, but it's often easier to understand what's happening when things are written down. I first noticed this benefit during my freshman year of college. Until then, I had never transcribed a solo, nor had I even seen one that was already transcribed. I was also fairly stifled in my concept of what notes should be played over which chords. For example, if I saw a C7 chord, I thought I was only supposed to play C, D, E, F, G, A, and Bb. When I finally did my first transcription, I was absolutely stunned to realize that the soloist might play any note over that same C7 chord, even so-called wrong notes! It was then that I learned that any note can sound good if preceded or followed by the right note. I'd later read a Miles Davis quotation which echoes this sentiment: "When you hit a wrong note it's the next note that makes it good or bad." This revelation about note choice is just one of the many things I've learned while examining transcribed solos.


For many beginners, it's difficult to develop a good jazz sound. This includes everything from the basic swing feel, to phrasing, articulation, and accents. The best way to learn these things is through imitation. Having a transcribed solo allows you to play along with a recording without having to figure out which notes to play. Instead, you can focus on sounding exactly like the soloist. Try to capture every inflection, dynamic, and accent until your playing is nearly indistinguishable from the original. Then record yourself. When you listen to your recording, does it sound like the original? If not, why? Maybe you didn't swing as hard as you could have, or maybe you're accenting the wrong part of the beat. Whatever it was, you now have the capability to isolate the differences and work on them.


An offshoot of imitation is influence. While imitating a solo, you can't help but become influenced by what you hear. One of my favorite jazz improvisation exercises begins with me playing a transcribed solo or two by a single jazz musician, such as Charlie Parker. If I hear a section of the solo that I really like, I'll play it a few times, listening closely to the specific elements that make the solo sound good. Once I've gotten a good feel for the solo, I start to branch off from the written solo and improvise my own solo. Having thoroughly absorbed the sound of the written solo, my improvised solo becomes influenced by the sound of Charlie Parker and I find myself playing ideas that I normally wouldn't play. These new ideas are often better than anything I might have played on my own.


In jazz, the term "lick" refers to a short pre-learned phrase that you can basically plug into your jazz solos. Transcriptions will show you that just about every great player has at least a handful of licks that pop up in several of their solos. This is true, even in the solos of great innovators like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.

The learning of licks is especially useful for beginners who may otherwise struggle to come up with ideas in their solos. I like to compare licks to pickup lines. Pickup lines like "do you come here often?" and "what's your sign?" are filler and (hopefully!) starters for real conversation. In other words, you gotta' start somewhere so it helps to have some stock-material to get the conversation going. Similarly, having a healthy repository of jazz licks that you can play in any key will give you content to insert into your solos to either connect improvised ideas, or to get your solo off the ground.

Transcriptions make it easy to isolate the licks that you like and to learn them note-by-note. Just be sure that you don't fill your entire solo with pickup lines ;-)


There are a lot of transcription books out there, containing transcribed solos from every legendary jazz musician. When picking your first book to purchase, you could simply get a book dedicated to your favorite jazz musician, or you could get a book containing various solos by players of your instrument. In my case, my first transcription book contained solos by a dozen or so jazz trumpeters. The book was Ken Slone's "28 Modern Jazz Trumpet Solos" and it was recommended to me by my college jazz trumpet teacher. I've since purchased several other books containing jazz transcriptions and I've looked at dozens of transcriptions online.

In my opinion, there is no better book of jazz transcriptions than the "Charlie Parker Omnibook." Every student of jazz, regardless of instrument, should have this book. I didn't get a copy myself until 2007 (I got the Bb version), and boy do I wish I had bought it years ago. Page after page, it's the ultimate masterclass of how to play jazz. It's also relatively easy to play. There aren't a lot of complex rhythms, nor are there a bunch of high notes that I can't reach. It's just jazz at its finest.


April 10, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 25 Comments

Learning to improvise - ear training



Formal jazz education was fairly limited until the 1960's. The first Aebersold play-a-long wasn't even released until 1967. By the time jazz education was in full swing (1970's-80's), jazz had already progressed through New Orleans jazz, 1930's swing, be-bop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal, free jazz, and soul/funk-jazz. In short, jazz had essentially run through its entire evolution BEFORE the advent of formal and detailed jazz education.

Before formal jazz education existed, jazz flourished as an aural tradition. While some things were written down (e.g. Downbeat transcriptions in the 1940's), the vast majority of what people learned and played was done by ear. You'd listen to a recording or live performance and you'd try to play what you heard on your instrument, with only your ears to guide you. This method of learning jazz ensured that all jazz musicians developed the ability to play by ear.

Today, if we want to learn jazz (or music in general), we learn mostly from written instruction. We have hundreds of books to teach us scales, chords, chord progressions, patterns, and jazz theory. Everything is structured and organized in straightforward pieces. And, of course, it's all written down.

While it's great that we now have so much information at our fingertips, the shift from aural to written instruction has unfortunately lead many students to have poorly developed aural skills. These students sound good when reading music, but if you take the music away they're lost. I'm quite familiar with this issue because I used to be just like that. I recall many times where I was playing a tune that I had played dozens of times before. I could sing the melody perfectly, yet I either had to consciously memorize the tune or I had to read it from a book in order to get the notes right on my horn. I couldn't even play simple songs like nursery rhymes and Christmas carols by ear. I was totally dependent upon written music. This is a serious problem if you're trying to play a creative jazz solo!

Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I couldn't play by ear. I couldn't play by ear because I never had to. Throughout my entire musical education, everything I had ever learned was written down...


I recently rented "Wynton Marsalis - Blues & Swing" from Netflix. In the video, there is a clip of Wynton talking with a group of high school students. While students play Ellington's "C Jam Blues", Wynton sings a simple 6-note melody and asks the saxophones to play the phrase by ear. He also gives them the starting note. Their first attempt is a mess. Some of the students didn't even get the starting note right. Wynton then sings the melody again and tells the students the notes to play. They try one more time and the results aren't any better. It appears as though Wynton just gives up on them (it's hard to tell due to editing), as it's clear that they are unable to play a simple phrase by ear. Unfortunately we can't chalk this up to a run-of-the-mill high school band program. This took place at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

A similar event occurred during the Heath Brothers master class that I attended during the 2004 Atlanta Jazz Festival. During the brief jam session, Jimmy Heath tried to teach the jam session participants (mostly high school and college students) a relatively simple tune by ear. He played the tune a few times on his horn, but it was clear that most of the dozen or so participants didn't get it. Fortunately, they had about 10-15 minutes to warm up and try to figure out the tune. With help from each other, I'd say enough people learned enough parts of the tune that there weren't gaping holes. There were a few people, however, that clearly weren't playing at all because they couldn't find the notes.


I was driving home from the store a few days ago, while listening to a bluesy jazz tune that I hadn't heard before. Before long, I was humming along to the tune and singing my own improvisational lines. As long as you've got some familiarity with what a blues or jazz solo sounds like, you should also be able to sing an improvised melody, or at least a few phrases, while listening to music. The next time you do this, ask yourself: Do I know what key this is in? Do I know the note names for every note I'm singing? Do I know the chord progression? Do I know the mode of the scale used for each of those chords? Do I know if the chords are altered? If so, which notes are altered? Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.

Even if you're totally unaware of notes, key, chords, etc, you can still sing a decent solo. Depending upon your skill level, your vocal solo might even be better than anything you can play on your horn. If that's the case, it's easier to sing because you can effortlessly sing by ear. You simply think about a melody and you sing it. In fact, it's so easy you probably don't even have to think about it! Think about the last time you sang along to the radio. Did you have to think in order match the pitches you heard? Of course not. Could you pick up your instrument and play along with similar ease? Guess what... all great jazz musicians can.


These observations along with other experiences tell me the following:

  • Playing by ear is an expected skill amongst *real* jazz musicians. Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis wouldn't have asked students to try and play by ear unless they believed the students should have been able to do so. Furthermore, the ability to play by ear is displayed in just about every jazz recording, particularly when you hear a solo beginning with a motif just played by the previous soloist (there are examples of this in my jazz listening guide). If the musicians couldn't play by ear, they'd have no way of instantly reproducing a spontaneous musical phrase.

  • Many young players (those that learned from written notation) have either poorly developed aural skills, or none at all. This, no doubt, stems from the fact that everything they learned was written down. They never had to try and play by ear. The opposite, however, was the case for early jazz musicians, who had to learn most of what they played by ear. The skills that they developed playing by ear helped them to quickly learn from each other and develop jazz as an art form.

  • Most of us can easily sing along to a tune without knowing any of the tune's theory. Yet, when we pick up our horn, we're unable to play the same ideas as we struggle to find the correct notes. It's not that we're unmusical or that we lack sufficient training to play music; we just can't play well enough by ear. To succeed as jazz improvisers we must endeavor to play by ear as easily as we can sing by ear. Only then can we truly play the ideas in our heads.

  • John Murphy, a jazz educator at the University of North Texas, compares having strong aural skills to being fluent in a language. When you're fluent in a language, you can easily communicate with others as you express your thoughts without hesitation. Similarly, when you're able to play music by ear, you can effortlessly play the ideas in your head in real-time. The lack of fluency, whether it's in language or music, requires us to use written materials (translation books, written music) when we communicate our thoughts. And when we don't use written materials, we sound slow and awkward as we stumble through each phrase.

It should be clear by now that strong aural skills, especially the ability to play by ear, are REQUIRED to be a good jazz improviser. It should also be clear that the inability to play by ear prevents us from accurately playing the music we have in our heads... and isn't that what improvisation is all about anyway?


Let's face it, some people are born with great ears (or as Suzuki suggests, they develop the skill while they are children). They have perfect pitch or perfect relative pitch and music just comes naturally to them. If you're fortunate enough to be one of those people, then you have no trouble playing by ear. Heck, why are you even reading this?!

The rest of us will have to rely upon ear training to improve our skills. The good news is that through effort and dedication you can definitely improve your aural skills and your ability to play by ear. To this end, I've created a few ear training tools which I use to improve my own skills:

Online ear trainer - click to try!Ear Trainer

My interactive ear trainer is a program designed to help identify intervals, chords, and melodies by ear. The random melody feature allows you to work on call and response ear training. It even includes a rhythm section feature to help with jazz improvisation.

Ear trainer - click to try!Song Randomizer

The ear training song randomizer has a library of hundreds of common songs. With the click of a button, you'll get a random song and starting note. Just pick up your instrument and try to play it by ear.

And that's not all... I also created an iPhone ear training app!


You may have heard that playing by ear is bad, or that it's a lazy approach to jazz improvisation. And most likely, you've also heard that you need to learn jazz theory in order to be a good jazz improviser. Both of these statements are wrong... but they might be true for you! It all depends on your aural skills.

If you can hear a chord progression and effortlessly play music that fits over that progression by ear, then you'll succeed with or without formally studying jazz theory. That's because you've internalized the sounds which jazz theory attempts to explain. On the other hand, if your attempts to play by ear are fraught with mistakes as you search to find the right notes, then you don't actually have the necessary skills to play by ear. You're just "winging it," and that is a bad and lazy approach to jazz improvisation! If you are in the "winging it" category, theory can help bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear. Your primary goal, however, should be to improve your aural skills so theory serves as a bonus rather than as a crutch. For more information, be sure to read my article on jazz theory.


As I've written elsewhere on this site, ear training didn't come easily to me. When I first started ear training, I thought it was tedious and terribly frustrating (that was before I built my ear trainers). It was painful to realize that after years of playing an instrument, I still couldn't play a simple nursery rhyme by ear. That realization, however, was one of the most important discoveries that I've made along my musical journey. It inspired me, or should I say it shamed me, into taking ear training seriously. And boy am I glad that I did. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has singularly improved my ability to improvise as much as ear training.

March 5, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 6 Comments

Learning to improvise - motifs



A cohesive solo flows together and has a sense of logic to it. Each part builds upon the last, whether rhythmically or melodically, as it guides you to the end of the solo. The sense of cohesion makes you feel like the solo is a deliberate and well-constructed piece of music.

The opposite of a cohesive solo is one that meanders without any sense of direction or purpose. When listening to such a solo you'll probably wonder if the player is lost (i.e. doesn't know where they are in the song form), or maybe you'll keep wondering when they're going to stop playing. By the way, there is a syndrome amongst beginners (which I've been guilty of) that typically occurs when playing a meandering solo. You're unhappy with your ideas, but you keep playing chorus after chorus with the thought that maybe the next chorus will be "the one". If you've ever done this, or if you've listened to others doing it, you know how things typically turn out...

NOTE: When I described a meandering solo in the previous paragraph, I wasn't talking about free or avant-garde jazz. I realize some people have a hard time making sense of that genre and might think of it as aimless meandering, but when examined closely you will likely discover that even the most bizarre-sounding solos have elements of cohesion.


There are several ways to build a cohesive solo, but I think the easiest method is through the use of motif development. A motif is a musical phrase that is repeated through the course of a solo. To avoid sounding like we're just playing the same phrase over and over again, we gradually alter that phrase rhythmically and/or melodically. This gradual development creates a cohesive solo because each phrase logically moves to the next; creating a sense that everything is connected.

You can use motif development in a variety of ways when creating a solo. For instance, you could use one motif that you develop over the duration of your solo, or you could develop one motif for a while and then start another, or you can start with a motif and then play some random ideas, then come back to your motif. The possibilities are endless, and are ultimately determined by your own style and musical tastes.

Motifs are also a great way to start a solo. I don't know about you, but I don't always know what I want to play when I put the horn to my mouth and start my solo (my best ideas come to me while I'm soloing). When this happens, I find it's best to just play a simple 3-5-note motif and develop that for a while. If I have a better idea during the development of the motif, then I (try to) smoothly transition to the new idea and go with it. If I don't come up with anything better, then I just stick to the motif.


In the clip below, I start out with a 5-note motif that contains the notes of the blues scale in descending order. Initially, I vary the motif's melody by starting on different notes. In the last four bars, I also vary the motif's rhythm by playing a 4-note pattern.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Simple solo with a single motif. Melody and rhythms are varied.


Create a relatively short motif with 3-5 notes from the blues scale. Play a few choruses, modifying only the melody (the pitches). Experiment with various melodies, while keeping the rhythm the same throughout the solo.


Follow the steps in Exercise 1, but this time change just the rhythm, while keeping the melody the same.


You guessed it, practice changing the rhythm and the melody for a single motif (similar to my example).


Once you've gotten good at the exercises above, try a solo with more than one motif. In the clip below, you'll notice that I develop one motif in the first chorus of my solo and then work on a new motif in the second chorus.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Simple solo with two motifs. Melody and rhythms are varied.


Play a motif based on the tune you're playing. For instance, if you're soloing on "Footprints" your motif might consist of a phrase that mimics the first 5-notes of the tune. Listen to the following clip for an example:

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Tune-based motif on Footprints


Now that you've learned how to play and develop motifs in your solos, try to identify motifs in the solos of great players. Listening to, and identifying elements in great solos is the best way to learn how to create your own great solos.


The spontaneous nature of a jazz solo doesn't give us a lot of time to really think about what we're trying to do. On the other hand, written composition allows us to play as we go, refining our ideas in a more relaxed setting. The lessons learned from the act of composition (how to connect phrases, how to create excitement, how to develop a simple idea into a tune, etc.) can then be applied to improvised solos. So, give it a try. Use a simple motif as the basis for a 12-bar composition.


Each exercise above use the Bb concert blues track from Volume 1 - "How To Play Jazz & Improvise" of Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series. I highly recommend this play-a-long, not only for it's audio tracks, but also for the accompanying book. The book has a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. It's also a good resource for learning jazz theory.

If you don't have the Aebersold play-a-long, you might try one of the tracks at jazzpracticeloops.com.

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