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

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"

Thanks for the articles with sound clips. Very cool.

Hey Rick,

As usual, I enjoy your articles and especially the sound clips and pithy comments! Good work.

I wanted to let you and any others know that I have added a "TRUMPET STUFF" to my website at www.danjacobsmusic.com specifically for jazz trumpet players.

I'm including quotes and articles, links and tips on playing trumpet. So far I have articles & quotes by Bobby Shew, Roger Ingram, Marvin Stamm, Carl Saunders, Amando Ghitalla, Bob James, and myself. I'm adding new content every day and hopefully will be getting material from jazz trumpet greats, Greg Gisbert and Ron Stout, both friends of mine.

Just go to my site at: www.danjacobsmusic.com and click on "press" scroll down and look for "trumpet stuff" and open that file.

Hope you and others will find it interesting.

Dan Jacobs, trumpet


Comment by Stephen


This website is a wonderful thing! I am learning so much from it.

Thank you so much for your generosity.

I will return again and again.


Comment by Andrew

This is the first time I've seen this site, but it seems really useful, although I cannot condone you leaving a Maynard Ferguson Album like that.


Comment by Michel

Hello Rick,


You are right in the money.To be able to hear anything before you can play,that's what it's all about.

Your site is extremely valuable and I like the way you teach !!

Michel from Montréal


Good to see you're still holding in there and doing well. Just wanted to let you know, several live solos are on the site that might make for interesting listening. Of course, my regular website always has lots of samples.

The regular site is: www.danjacobsmusic.com

The myspace site is: www.myspace.com/danjacobsjazz

I'm happy to see you continuing this forum and your playing.

All the best,


That´s fantastic, thank you. Your articles are really halpful and clarifying.

Best Wishes

Juan Carlos from Madrid (Spain)

Comment by Rebecca

I am *loving* your website. So many interesting articles and tidbits! I'm not even a jazz trumpet player......I'm actually a curious classical clarinetist hahaha

anyways, just thought, since this website has successfully distracted me from practicing for two days in a row, that I should say thank you for all your lovely work!


Comment by Will

Incredible site and amazing analysis!

Comment by Nick Sterling

i"d just like to say thank you for making this website, i'm a jazz trumpet myself and i've been trying hard to improve my improv to prove myself to the other members in my band and my teacher and i think this website was just what i needed, and any new ideas that you would like to share would be a real boost to me, thank you for your help


Comment by James Brown

Like many on here I have looked high and low for the best advice and methods to learn jazz and Impro.

Coming from Swansea in the UK and being a comeback Trumpet player I really want to develop my Chicago and Gospel Blues ability. There is nothing around in South Wales so I did a few on-line courses with New York Jazz Academy which was excellent but did 'nt really explain the grass roots basics of the jazz and blues scales etc.

Since I tried applying your brilliant ear training concepts, I can honestly say my new Yamaha Xeno horn is coming to life at last.

Thank you for your hard work and making available this valuable information.

James, Swansea UK

Comment by Eric

Hello from the Philippines.

Great article and site.

Thanks for sharing, Rick.



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