Dizzy Gillespie’s Prerequisites for Successful Jazz Musicians

Over the years, in learning this music and working on improvisation, I’ve encountered a lot of educational information: how to learn, how to practice, which scales to use, how to learn bebop in a week, etc. Looking back, the hardest part can be deciding which method is best or which information to trust. Sometimes the best bet for getting the “real” information is to go directly to the source, the words of the masters.

Whether you come across these words in books, interviews, masterclasses, or even in person, be sure take these words seriously. If someone is playing at the highest level, then you can be sure that they know a thing or two about how to learn this music. Even a comment or remark in passing can carry great weight and might just be the insight you need to get your playing to the next level.

One book I’ve been checking out recently is To Be, or Not…To Bop by Dizzy Gillespie.


Along with biographical details and recollections from other notable musicians, are some passages with valuable musical insight. One such item, is a list of essential qualifications for jazz musicians, a musical “to-do list” for all improvisers. Any words of wisdom from the masters of this music is worth taking a look at and this list is no exception.

Six skills for the jazz musician

Here is Gillespie’s list of six prerequisites for the successful jazz musician, taken from his book with Al Fraser:

I. Mastery of Instrument

“Important because when you think of something to play, you must say it quickly because you don’t have time to figure how, chords changing so quickly.”

II. Style

“Which I think is the most difficult to master in as much as there are not too many truly distinctive styles in all of jazz.”

III. Taste

“Is a process of elimination. Some phrases that you play may be technically correct but do not portray that particular mood that you are trying for.”

IV. Communication

“After all, you make your profession jazz because first, you love it and secondly, as a means of livelihood. So if there is no direct communication with the audience for which you are playing…………there goes your living.”

V. Chord Progressions

“As there are rules that govern you biologically and physically, there are rules that govern your taste musically. Therefore, it is of prime interest and to one’s advantage to learn the keyboard of the piano, as it is the basic instrument for Western music which jazz is an integral part of.”

VI. Rhythm

“Which includes all of the other attributes because you may have all of these other things but don’t have the rhythmic sense to put them together, then it would negate all of your other accomplishments.”

That’s it?

This list may seem short, but it truly does contain all of the qualities of a successful jazz musician. All of the items appear to be pretty straight forward and simple, but when you read between the lines, these “prerequisites” contain a whole lot more than what you see at first glance.

Each one of the above categories carries enough weight that you could spend years on just one concept. When you combine all of these factors, you have a lifetime of work ahead of you. If these are the “prerequisites” to succeed in jazz, I think the number of true jazz musicians out there just got a whole lot smaller.

Taking a deeper look at the list

I. The idea of mastering your instrument seems simple, right? But what does the concept of mastering your instrument actually encompass? For some, it simply means being able to play fast and high. What these musicians are forgetting about are sound, articulation, dynamics, etc. – the subtle nuances of true musicianship. These aspects of musicianship are just as important as range and finger technique. The ultimate goal, is to be able to hear an idea in your head and in turn be able to execute it flawlessly on your instrument.

II. Style. Finding your own voice on your instrument that is innovative, yet tied to tradition. As Dizzy states, this is the most difficult to master in that there are few musicians who have truly achieved a distinct and personal style. Cultivating your own voice in this music has it’s own prerequisites. First you need to have a model and the drive and dedication to transcribe your favorite players. From there you’ll have a basis upon which you can begin to add your own contribution.

III. Developing taste or a discerning musical approach is a process that takes experience and maturity. Every time that we go to solo over a tune, we don’t have to play every lick that we know, use every line we have worked out, or even feel that we must impress everyone with our  double-time lines or “outside” playing. All musical situations are different and your “taste” lies in remaining true to the music being created in the moment.

IV. Communicating with the listener is a concept connected to all of the other “prerequisites.” The reason we’re playing is to communicate with not only the audience, but other musicians on the stage as well. If you don’t have control of your instrument or have trouble navigating chord progressions, the communication is going to break down.

V. Knowing chord progressions, mentally as well as aurally, is vital for any improviser. One of the greatest tools we have for developing this skill is the piano. Learning some piano basics and working on some ear training fundamentals will put you on the path to getting these skills together. Once you have this knowledge in your ears as well as your mind, this music will make a lot more sense.

VI. Many times for non-drummers, it can be easy to forget about time and rhythm. We are so concerned with chords, harmonic concepts, and melodic ideas that the concept of rhythm is usually an after thought. Gillespie states it best, if you don’t have a “rhythmic sense” to your playing, it”ll “negate all of your other accomplishments.”

You can’t have one without the other

All of the items on Diz’s list are fundamentally connected and dependent upon the others for success. You can’t play over chords unless you’ve worked on the technique of your instrument. You won’t be able to think about style or musicality if you don’t understand chord progressions. You can’t truly understand rhythm until you’ve transcribed and learned the style of the masters. And finally, if you are missing just one of these factors, you won’t be able to effectively communicate with the listener.

Keep this list close by as you spend those long hours in the practice room. Taking a quick glace at these words of wisdom will keep you on the right track and set things in perspective. One thing you can be sure of is that Dizzy had every one of these “prerequisites” mastered.

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