Jazz education has steadily become increasingly popular and for good reason: playing jazz is fun! In an attempt to make jazz improvisation accessible to everyone, much of the learning material has been reduced and packaged in a manner to get people playing at a mediocre level more quickly. The problem is that these methods get you to mediocre, but not much further.
Many of these concepts have made their way into the mainstay of jazz education. They’re being taught even through the college level, world-wide.
Remember the trite phrase “Don’t believe everything you read”? In terms of learning jazz, this couldn’t be more true. And it could be said in addition, “Don’t believe everything people tell you.” Why do you think we reference recordings so much and constantly urge our readers to go listen and transcribe for themselves? Don’t even take our word blindly. Do your own homework. But seriously, please continue to read our articles 😉
It’s our goal to guide you in the process of figuring this stuff out for yourself by sharing our experience, not to tell you what’s necessarily right for you, because ultimately in learning this art, you have to be your own teacher.
Without further adieu, jazz education blunders that cost me years of frustration, that I could have stayed away from if I had simply stopped looking for how to play jazz and started listening instead.
Giving scales a higher importance than chords
In terms of jazz standards and bebop tunes, chords are what’s actually happening in a tune, not scales. So why does so much jazz education material think you can learn corresponding scales to each chord, without understanding the chord, and be able to hear the harmony and construct phrases in the jazz idiom? I’m not sure how people came to that conclusion.
In my personal experience, I made this mistake and it hindered me for years. I ascribed to a jazz theory model, built upon thinking in terms of scales instead of chords. Let me give you an example.
If I were to encounter a ii V I in the key of C, (D- | G7 | C major), I would think…well this progression is D Dorian, G mixolydian, and C Ionian. All these notes are in C Ionian, so I can basically think of a C major scale for three bars, starting from different degrees and I’m set. This is a recipe for disaster!
If you’re a horn player, it’s especially bad. Pianists and other chording instruments have to learn the chords to be able to comp, so if they think in this manner, they’ll most likely still understand the make up of the chord and the sound.
If you have a deep knowledge of a chord–understand what you’re hearing, know where the chord tones are on your instrument, hear how the chord tones relate to the chord etc–then a knowledge of a corresponding scale can be beneficial. Understanding chords is primary. Corresponding scales to chords are supplementary. Not the other way around.
To go a step further, many jazz resources stress learning scales, talk a little bit about chords, and barely talk about language. An entire book will be dedicated to teaching how scales relate to chords and there will be one sentence in the introduction stating that, “jazz is a language. Don’t forget to listen to the masters.” This attitude is backwards. While important, both chords and scales are supplementary to jazz language.
Calling the 4th on a major or dominant chord an “avoid note”
Transcribe any master and you’ll see them use the 4th on a major or dominant chord all the time, even on the downbeat, which is often considered a no-no by many jazz learning resources. The greats use it in a very particular way, in conjunction with the 3rd, that is most easily heard. Here’s a basic example of one way:
Yes, if you do not understand how to use this chord tone and you just sit on it endlessly over a major or dominant chord, it will clash with the major 3rd, and you’ll sound like garbage. It’s for that very reason that jazz educators decided it was just easier to call it the red-headed-step-child and pretend it didn’t exist, similar to when the Pythagoreans discovered irrational numbers; this new concept didn’t fit into their paradigm, so they banished it from their thinking. In fact, it’s said the man who discovered irrational numbers was thrown overboard and drowned.
I’d appreciate it if you didn’t throw me overboard for calling the 4th a musical tone that has an important purpose in the jazz language. Instead, I hope you stop thinking of it as an “avoid note” and figure out how the masters used it with elegance so you can too.
Telling you not to copy lines
You’re supposed to play what you hear, right? And you’re supposed to create everything in the moment by drawing from your chord and scale knowledge, right?
Yes, it be great to play what you hear, but how do you begin to hear these ideas you want to play? The things you hear and can play are there because you put them there. Of course when you improvise, you hear new ideas and cosequently play new ideas; that’s the goal.
But you need a basis of ideas to go from. These ideas are bits and pieces of language. You want to acquire useful language in a variety of situations. These bits of language act as a springboard for your creative genius that I believe we all have.
Calling the upper structure chord tones exciting and the lower chord tones boring
The root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th are just as important as the 9th, 11th, and 13th. They’re all important. Even the root. They all can sound incredible.
As an undergrad, I remember one professor which I did not spend anytime with (all my teachers were wonderful!) claim that you want to avoid the root all the time. Watch the video of Coltrane below.
What chord tone does much of the first two choruses revolve around? What would Coltrane say about avoiding the root? (FYI, he’s playing the root a lot if you didn’t catch that).
All chord tones can be used musically.
Telling you who to transcribe and listen to
It’s difficult not to tell people to love the same musicians you do, but it seems that jazz education focuses on specific players and ignores others completely. You must transcribe Charlie Parker and then proceed to Cannonball and then…Look, I love Parker, and Cannonball practically makes me cry there’s so much emotion in his playing, but if you don’t want to sound like them, then you shouldn’t be forced to listen to or transcribe them.
Listen to and transcribe the music you love. The stuff that resonates with your inner being.
Here’s the catch though. Many people want to jump right into a Coltrane solo, or something fast and technically demanding. While I don’t want to tell you what and who to transcribe, figuring out where the players you love came from and first approaching that music will help you approach the later player.
So for instance, Trane was influenced by Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, just to name a few. If you want to work on a Trane solo, maybe a good place to start is with a Dexter solo instead. But hey, it’s just a suggestion; something to think about. Who you listen to and who you transcribe is an extremely personal process. Take people’s suggestions into account, but listen to your true self.
Avoiding these pitfalls
In your own pursuit of learning, you’re destine to run into a few jazz education blunders. I’m not shy about it. As described, I’ve fell into the traps of many of these blunders. If you keep your ears open, you’ll be able steer clear of these fallacies, stay on a constant path of improvement, and always stay connected with the music.