A couple of months ago, I took a lesson with jazz saxophonist and educator, Mace Hibbard. Knowing that I wanted to experience the same type of lesson that he'd give to his students at Georgia State University, Mace Hibbard began the lesson by asking me to play a bass line on my trumpet. We settled on a concert Bb blues for the chord progression and set a metronome to sound on beats 2 and 4. It would have been nice if I actually had some experience playing bass lines, but I figured I could fake my way through this by outlining the chords and hoping for the best. That's when I panicked. Who am I kidding, I can't fake my way through this!
Before I continue, here's some background info on Mace Hibbard. In addition to being one of the best saxophonists in Atlanta, Mace Hibbard is one of my favorite musicians to hang out with and a really good sport. And by good sport, I don't mean that he's good at sports. Because I've heard that he isn't. Rather, he's a good sport by taking my jokes and mildly-abusive sarcasm in stride (see, I just zinged him about sports!). Mace Hibbard is also one of my wife's favorite Atlanta jazz musicians, which might worry me if Mace wasn't happily married and socially inept (got him again!). Perhaps now you can see why when Mace asked me to play a bass line, it kind of felt like he was exacting his revenge for all of the fun I've had at his expense.
Back to the lesson... My nerves got the best of me and when I lifted my trumpet to play, my mind instantly went blank. Frankly, I think my brain checked out so I couldn't blame it for what was about to happen. After stumbling through two pathetic measures, Mace told me to stop playing. I needed to start from the beginning and take this one step at a time...
STEP 1: PLAY THE ROOT NOTES
The lesson continued with Mace asking me to play quarter notes over jazz blues changes, playing just the root notes. Learning the sound of the root notes in the context of the overall progression will provide a foundation for each of the following exercises. You might consider it a starting point for learning any new chord progression.
iwasdoingallright - audio clip Play root notes for each chord.
There are a variety of jazz blues progressions, but here's the one we used:
I7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 | IV7 | IV7 | I7 | VI7 | II-7 | V7 | I7 | V7
Here's the progression in the key of C, which is the trumpet's key for the audio clips.
C7 | F7 | C7 | C7 | F7 | F7 | C7 | A7 | D-7 | G7 | C7 | G7
You'll hear this progression in each of the audio clips that follow. It's also worth noting that the audio clips were recorded recently. While I was able to play some of the easier exercises (Step 1) during my lesson, Steps 3 and 4 are the result of practicing these bass line exercises several minutes each day for a few weeks. I mention this so you'll understand that this isn't something you're likely to master in a single day. Like anything worth learning, it takes practice.
STEP 2: OUTLINE EACH CHORD
After a few botched attempts at the quarter note root exercise, I finally managed to play it well enough to move on to outlining chords. We started by adding the 3rd of each chord and then the 7th. In the clip below, you'll hear me outline the full chord as I play the root at the start of each chord change, followed by the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Of these additional notes, the 3rd and 7th are the most important since they define whether the chord is major, minor, dominant, etc.
iwasdoingallright - audio clip Outline the changes.
Outlining the chords like this is especially valuable for us one-note-at-a-time instrumentalists. Since we can't play chords on our instruments, this is an ideal way for us to hear the sound of each chord change so we can internalize and learn what the entire progression sounds like. The key here is that we're learning the sound of each chord and not simply learning the written chord symbols. If you learn the symbols without learning the sound, then your solos will never truly blend in musically with the changes.
STEP 3: PLAY A BASS LINE
Once we can outline all the chords, we can move onto something that actually sounds like a bass line. At this stage we'll add a few swing rhythms and some connecting notes outside of the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th. Even though this is a bass line exercise, I'd suggest that you needn't worry too much about actually sounding like a bass player. Instead, focus on establishing a jazz feel as you smoothly move from one chord to another. This will help you to hear the common and leading tones in each chord and it will prime you for the next exercise... playing solos!
iwasdoingallright - audio clip Here's my rough take on a bass line.
STEP 4: PLAY AN IMPROVISED JAZZ SOLO
Having reached the point where we can confidently play bass lines, we're now ready for jazz improvisation. Thanks to the previous exercises you should have internalized the chord changes to the point where you can hear them in your head while you play a solo. You can play inside or outside the changes and you'll always know where you are within the chord progressions. You can also play elements of the bass line exercise in your solos to help trigger new ideas.
iwasdoingallright - audio clip Here's the solo. Not great, but a huge improvement over my lesson.
Even though I'm no longer playing the bass line in this clip, you can (hopefully) still hear the chord progression in my solo. Thanks to the bass line exercises, the changes have become a part of the music.
I encourage you to add these bass line exercises to your practice routine, especially when learning new tunes. I'd also suggest that you try to sing these exercises in addition to playing them on your instrument. Singing will really ensure that you've internalized the sounds. And don't forget to use a metronome since these are all played without accompaniment. Who knows, with enough practice, someday you might sound as good as the saxophonist in this video: