Mythbusting the Top 5 Myths About Jazz Improvisation

Learning how to improvise is not nearly as clear as people think. And what makes it worse is that there are quite a few myths about it. Today, in no particular order, we’re going to dispel five myths about jazz improvisation for you right now!

Myth #1

When it comes to improvising, you either got it or you don’t

This is complete bullsh*t, yet I’ve heard countless people claim this fallacy. The ability to improvise is a skill, just like anything else you want to excel at. It takes focus, passion, and understanding of how to improve.

Don’t buy into the idea that being great at improvising is a skill only permissible by a lucky and privileged few. The people that sound great put in years of focused practice every day, striving to improve. Sure, some people have more natural talent to begin with than others, but as one progresses, talent subsides and pure perspiration takes over. There’s no substitute for perseverance.

Myth #2

You need to know 1000 tunes

Check out a dozen recordings by the same performer and you’ll soon realize they have their favorite jazz standards that they’ve recorded time and time again. Miles Davis recorded many of the same standards over and over throughout his career, including: In Your Own Sweet Way, Tune Up, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Four.

It’s better to be able to sound exquisite on 10 standards than to simply know and get through 100 tunes. What’s the point of “knowing” a bunch of tunes if you can’t sound how you want to sound on them? Aim to Know 10 tunes to the point where you would feel comfortable recording them and releasing them on your new album.

One fear many people have on a gig is someone will call a tune they don’t know. Rather than carry a real book around (you threw away your real book, right?), jot down the tunes you know really well on a sheet of paper and have the group select from those. I’ve seen many professional players do this. They simply carry around a little sheet of paper with 20-30 tunes written on it and the rest of the group can then confidently select a tune they know.

Myth #3

You need to transcribe 100 solos

Over tacos and margaritas, I once asked an extremely famous tenor saxophonist how many solos he had transcribed. His reply: “Not that many. Around 30.”  At the time I thought that wasn’t a lot, however, I now realize that transcribing 30 carefully selected solos in the thorough manner we commonly describe on this site (milking every detail in the solo: language, technique, sound, harmonic concepts etc…and learning them in all key & applying them to tunes)  would elevate your ear, your jazz language, and your general musicianship to incredible heights.

Transcribe one solo in this manner over the next 3 months and you’ll learn more from it than you have from all the books and lessons you’ve ever had. Not to say you can’t learn immense amounts of knowledge from books and teachers, but inherently, that knowledge will be provided to you through others’ interpretations.

By doing your own homework, so to speak, you’ll create your own interpretation, contributing to your own style and voice. Let me share a little story with you from when I had just moved to Colorado to attend college.

This encounter occurred 10 years ago, just after Joshua Redman played a show at the Gothic Theater in Denver. He stood on the stage answering any questions people had. Of course, some asked what kind of mouthpiece he used, and others wanted to know where he was from. I asked him what advice he would give  to young people like myself who wished to improve. He said, “All your answers are on the records.” He was right.

Myth #4

Great improvisers create everything in the moment

Listen to Coltrane’s group play Blue Train in the video below. Then listen to the alternate take below that. Notice how much of each soloist’s vocabulary carries over between the two versions? Sometimes whole choruses are practically identical! A very obvious example in these two versions is Lee Morgan’s second chorus in the first version, compared to his first chorus in the alternate take. Notice anything? He uses the same idea.

If they were truly creating everything in the moment, then wouldn’t you think a lot less would carry over between the two versions? The truth is, they have a solid understanding of what they’re going to draw from before they play.

Sure, they don’t know the precise way things will come out or in what order, but they do have lots of ideas and concepts they’ve worked out over the chord changes that they can use as springboards for creativity at any moment.

Improvisation is not creating something from nothing. As John Scofield says…

“Improvisation is sped up composition and putting together things you already know in an artistic way.”-John Scofield

Myth #5

You have to practice 14 hours a day

Everybody’s heard the myths of Bird practicing 14 hours a day, but who knows what’s really true. Don’t base your practice time amounts upon some lore about a man you truly don’t know much about.

It’s not how much time you put in, but what you do during that time. There were periods when I religiously spent 4 to 6 hours practicing everyday, but did not improve much because I focused my efforts on the wrong things. I learned tunes out of real books. I played aimlessly with play-along records. I made every mistake, including these 6 disastrous mistakes you’re probably still making.

These mistakes took me further in the wrong direction than if I had done nothing. It’s similar to golf. If you learn correct techniques right off the bat, then you can become decent in a few years and fairly respectable in another few after that. However, if you acquire any bad habits, you’ll be held back eternally because of them, or you’ll spend years attempting to correct them.

Start off right. Learn from the records. Use and develop your ear.

In terms of time, it’s better to play every single day for an hour, than one or two times a week for many hours. Set a daily minimum. It could be 30 minutes, or it could be 4 hours. Maybe it gradually increases as you feel more connected to your instrument and the music. Meet your daily minimum it everyday. When you’re feeling productive and excited, practice more than your daily minimum. When you’re struggling to even get your horn out, meet your daily minimum and then go do something athletic to get your mind re-focused.

Jazz Myths and Lore

Jazz is surrounded by myth and lore. Jazz legends are not Gods. Coltrane, Bird, Monk…they’re just people. And improvisation is not magic, it’s a skill. A skill acquired through dedication, passion, and perseverance. Enjoy the ride!