December 21st, 2015

8 Things No One Tells You About Learning Jazz Improvisation

By Forrest

8 Things No One Tells You About Jazz Improv

People will tell you all sorts of things about learning jazz improvisation…

But no one tells you many of the things that could actually help you the most.

As we practice jazz improvisation, we develop a concept of how we think we should go about learning things. This concept primarily comes from what our teachers, friends, and books tell us. The problem is they often either don’t know or think to tell us specific things that could help us tremendously.

It’s not their fault. We need to take 100% ownership of our education and our improvement. Part of  “Being greedy for the music” is being greedy for the knowledge, all the tips and info that can push us to the next level, little gems or ideas that click in our mind and help us to do something we never thought about doing before.

And that’s what we’ll discuss today. 8 things no one is going to tell you about learning jazz improvisation…

It’s never too early to put your approach on things

When you’re developing as a jazz musician, people will tell you that you have to imitate your heroes a lot. And, this is true.

Whether you listen to them for countless hours or transcribe their every note to memory, at some point you must immerse yourself in the music to learn the nuances that are available to you no other way.

But, just because you’re copying all the time doesn’t mean that you can’t begin developing, applying, and embracing your own unique style.

Here’s the thing…people think it’s so important to learn from what came before them—and rightly so—that they forget that learning from their heroes is more about conceptualizing what’s possible than strict copying.

And when we conceptualize something for ourselves, we can’t help but see, hear, and feel things through our own unique perspective. So, this is the perfect opportunity to interpret and build upon what we’re learning in our own way, taking things in a direction that we think is cool.

Yet, most of the time, a little voice in our head tells us, “No no no, I don’t have the right to put my unique style on this yet. I have to copy a lot more before I can do that.”

Horse $#!^

What separates the greats of this music from everyone else?

Besides incredible self motivation and perseverance…

Strong perspective and the courage to let that strong perspective shine through.

Count Basie Quote

Lee Morgan was playing like his bad-ass self in his teens. Same with Clifford Brown. They didn’t wait to say, “hmmmm I think it be cool if I took this line from Fats Navarro and played it like this instead.”

They had no qualms about taking what they transcribed and changing it, developing, and applying their own unique perspective to it.

I’m sure you’ve heard the famous Clark Terry quote, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

And the way that this is commonly interpreted is in terms of your stages of development as a musician. In your first stage of development as a musician you imitate, then once you do that for a while you move into the assimilation stage, and then perhaps a few years later you move into the innovation stage.

This interpretation would look like this:

Clark Terry Quote 1

But, what if instead of thinking about this quote in terms of your stages of development, you thought about it in terms of one line that you transcribed. Now, suddenly you’re innovating all the time.

Clark Terry Quote 2

Stop waiting to innovate. Make Clark Terry’s process a daily process and innovate every day.

Improvisation is not jazz

mprovisation is not jazz improvisation

Improvisation seems to be synonymous with jazz, but they’re not the same thing. Improvisation is used in more genres than just jazz. Indian, blues, and even rock music have their fair share of improvisation.

The mere act of musical improvisation is not jazz.

And this is a very important fact. Why is it so important?

Because once you realize this, you realize that the whole idea of improvising solely based upon knowledge of a chord or scale is not jazz.

“improvisation” is how many approach jazz. You have a chord, you have a scale, you mix up the notes how you want and voila, that’s improvising! Yes, that may be improvisation. But not JAZZ improvisation.

Just because you’re improvising doesn’t mean you’re playing jazz or that you have any concept of what jazz is.

Jazz is a language. The harmony is obviously made up of chords, and knowledge of the chords and associated scales helps facilitate an understanding of “what works where,” however, to improvise and truly speak the jazz language, one must study language for each common harmonic setting and understand how strong melodic statements are made in the jazz idiom.

Play exercises as if you’re going to perform them

Okay it’s time for me to practice this “exercise.” I’m going into exercise-mode for the following twenty minutes and then I can get back to making real music.

If you want to derive value from your exercises then practice them as if you’re going to perform them.

Play them musically.

Play them with the beautiful sound you want to play with at your next concert.

Play them with effortless technique. Fluid, smooth, execution.

Play them until you achieve mastery.

Time spent going-through-the-motions is time wasted. Understand why you’re playing a particular exercise. Know the value and affect it will have on your playing before you practice it.

When you play an exercise the right way, you’d be willing to put it on your next record!

There’s no specific musicians you must transcribe

I remember many years ago reading an interview in a famous jazz magazine with a jazz educator. He spoke of a system of study for jazz—sidenote: I specifically remember Mulgrew Miller saying in class one day that he was very proud of the fact that at our school we didn’t have a “method,” a kind of one-size-fits-all approach—and in this system the educator said you begin by studying Bird, then Trane, and then Brecker.

Now of course, everyone who studys Trane or any other player for that matter, will interpret what they discover differently, and that’s one of the great beauties of doing your own homework. But, this suggested course of study is tremendously limiting.

The history of jazz is laden with names you’ve never heard of.

Players who only study who they’re told to, whether it’s Bird and Trane or others, miss out on so much beautiful music and greatly restrict possible influences or just players they’d love to listen to.

Jazz Players No One Knows

Mark Turner exemplifies what can happen when you study players that others don’t. He was possibly one of the first people to seriously study Warne Marsh.

There’s a reason Mark Turner sounds so unique and it’s not just because he’s a unique guy, which he most certainly is.

He studied people that no one would have told him to study. He became heavily influenced by players that many others were not influenced by, so it makes perfect sense that he sounds different.

Master one tune instead of “learning” 100 or even 10

master one jazz tune

The internet is filled with articles entitled things like “100 tunes to know” and “30 tunes you gotta know for a jam session,” and other long lists of tunes telling you that it’s absolutely required to know a ton of tunes to play jazz.

Now, those lists can be very handy, we even have some articles like that because it’s good to know what body of tunes to work on.

You get into trouble though when you’re just trying to “learn” tunes to learn them.

To be overly semantic, but to illustrate my point…”Learning” tunes is a waste of time. “Mastering” tunes is not. If you re-frame your idea of “learning” tunes to “mastering” them, then by all means, “learn” tunes.

Most people call learning a tune memorizing the melody and chord changes. That’s basically it and that’s only of value if you can already play well over the harmonic components of that tune. If you’re not already fluent in the harmonic progressions of that tune, then learning the melody and chord changes is just the beginning, not a a completed goal.

That’s where mastery comes in…

If you ignore the articles that say you need to know a bunch of tunes, relax and take a breath…and master one tune—learn the melody and harmony from the recording, play the harmony on the piano, practice language over the specific progressions of the tune, loop the hard parts and more—you’ll improve ten times more than if you stick with the “I have to learn 100 tunes” mindset.

And what is mastery? You know you’ve mastered a tune when…

  • You hear the melody in your mind and play it perfectly
  • You hear the chord changes in your mind
  • You can play simplified piano voicings of the chords.
  • You don’t have to think about the chord changes
  • You feel free when you improvise over the tune
  • You have various ways to approach the changes
  • You can make clear melodic statements over the changes
  • No part of the tune is tricky for you

And you’ve really mastered a tune when you can do all of these things with the tune in all 12 keys.

It’s a process and it takes time. Don’t get overwhelmed.

Start with one tune and one key.

Don’t believe the hype

Jazz musicians are Gods.

At least, that’s how people talk about them. It’s hilarious.

And it’s one thing talking about the dead ones like that, after all, we haven’t met them and they’ve been built up over the years to become super heroes of sorts, but the living players…Really?

The jazz world is filled with hype. Not just in the magazines or the media, but the schools and the general culture as well, rumors being spread like wild fire through word of mouth.

I recall sitting in a masterclass once and the teachers were talking about George Garzone’s sound. If you don’t know who he is, he’s awesome and he does have a huge sound.

And at this particular masterclass, the teachers claimed that if you want a sound like this, “You gotta run 5 miles a day. He runs 5 miles every day and if you want a big sound, well you gotta do the same.”

While this masterclass may have promoted athleticism among college students, which is not a bad thing, I’m pretty sure at the time, most of us in the audience being an extremely athletic 18 year old bunch, were in better shape, no disrespect intended, than the player in question. And, there’s so much more to getting a big sound on the saxophone than “running 5 miles a day.”

The hype never matches up with logic either, but few question it. Coltrane had a big sound, Dexter Gordon had a huge sound. So were these guys training for their next 5k in between constant practice, performance, and perilous addiction? They didn’t exactly live the most healthy of lifestyles…

There are plenty of players, I’m willing to bet most, with huge sounds that don’t run 5 miles a day.

People will tell you story after story about the great musicians, their practice habits, their equipment, their lifestyles and pretty much anything else they can talk about.

Who really knows?

What we see from the outside of a person’s life is often a shadow of what’s really there.

Don’t willingly believe the hype without doing your own research and questioning what it is people are saying. And remember that even if you can validate what worked for them, there’s no saying it will work equally well for you.

Make music you want to listen to

Create music you wish existed

We start music and continue it because we love to play it. And as we play more and more, we’ll likely play with other musicians, perform concerts, and perhaps even record.

As you improve, aim to create music that you actually want to listen to. So, don’t just try to become a better musician, but think about giving life to music that you would want to listen to.

If you think about things this way, you’ll feel more connected to what you’re producing and have a greater understanding of what it is you want to create.

A big part of adapting this attitude is recording yourself often. A good teacher of mine suggested that I record myself once a week, or every other week, point being: don’t get too caught up in it, but make sure that you do it often enough that you keep yourself on the right track, moving your playing in the direction you want to go.

It’s nerve racking to record yourself but it helps a lot. There’s no better way to evaluate where you’re at and what specifically you want to improve.

Grab a mic, a good set of headphones, and start recording yourself. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the less special it feels, which is what you want because the more ordinary it becomes to you, the more you’ll do it.

Remove the idea from your mind that recording yourself is a special or sacred activity. Treat it casually and do it often.

Don’t be afraid of deviating from what’s considered “standard” practice

You Are Here

At the beginning of this we talked about why you need to start to put your own approach on things from the get-go. Closely related to that, don’t be worried about trying something a little different or out of the ordinary.

People write into Jazzadvice a lot and we receive many questions that go something like this:

Hey Jazzadvice. I’ve been doing this for a while…and then it dawned on me, what if I try this [fill in technique, approach, scale, chord idea, etc. here]? Well, is that right? Can I do that? What do you think?

It’s difficult for me to answer these types of questions. Primarily because they’re so difficult to understand.

Why are they difficult to understand? Because they’ve been processed by the sender’s perspective so much so, that it’s challenging to decipher what it is they’ve been doing exactly.

But the fact that it is so difficult for me to understand what it is they’ve been doing means that they’ve conceptualized the information in their own unique way, a good thing, and now they’re looking to validate that they’re on the right track.

Don’t wait for permission to try new things. Just because no one does something or thinks about something a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t.

Now it’s time to apply these ideas to your own journey as a jazz musician…

The next time you step into that practice room, ask yourself, are you applying your unique approach to things or are you waiting to innovate until some far out date in the future?

The next time you practice an exercise, ask yourself, am I playing this musically as if I’m going to perform it?

And the next time you make a decision about your equipment, your practice, or your musical direction, ask yourself, am I being influenced by the hype or is this truly the direction I want to go?

Most people aren’t going to tell you the things we’ve talked about today. Take them to heart and explore what’s possible when you think about things a little differently than everyone else.

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