The Stages of Jazz Language

We talk about jazz language a lot: what it is, what it isn’t, how to get it, and what to do with it. We constantly strive to better communicate these aspects of learning language because of the vital role that language plays in successful improvisation. It’s essentially all the raw melodic material you draw from when you improvise and it doesn’t get there by accident.

It gets there through dedicated practice over an extended period of time, a distinct process. By understanding this process of how we accumulate language and how it evolves, you’ll transform the way you think about the entire life-cycle of language, making easier to acquire language and develop the language you have.

 The discovery stage

The first stage is discovery. Language starts out as an idea. A possibility. A little flicker of something that captures our attention. We get intrigued and wonder what we just heard. This curiosity leads us to peel the gem off of the recording, in hopes of understanding the composition of the melodic fragment.

Bit by bit we learn the line, imitating every little nuance that we hear. Not every nuance we think we hear, but every little detail that is actually there. Once we grasp the full length of the line and have it operating in our ears and fingers, a mental picture of the line begins to form in our mind.

The shape, the rhythm, the precise articulation…all this starts to embed itself in our subconscious. We absorb so much more than just the notes; we absorb the real magic of the line. The stuff that cannot be written down: the exact rhythms accurate to the microsecond, the subtle articulations, and the slight fluctuations in tonal color.

This discovery stage is quite exciting because we’re learning what’s going on behind-the-scenes and taking a look into the inner workings of something that moves us. But the discovery stage is just the beginning.

Understanding something does not mean you can implement it to your heart’s content, or that you have achieved even the slight bit of mastery with it. Other stages learning of language may not be as exciting as this one, but they are just as important.

The repetition stage

During this stage we take the piece of language we discovered and repeat it endlessly. We repeat it so much that even if we consciously tried, we could not play it wrong. This is not always a fun task. Playing the same phrase over and over gets boring real quickly. Stick with it and aim for perfection.

If you’re repeating the wrong thing over and over, you’re moving fast in the wrong direction. You might as well not practice at all. Practice mindfully and accurately, especially when you’re focusing your time on anything repetitive.

And, have a clear idea of why you’re repeating something over and over. Are you working on hitting the right notes every time? Are you aiming to not strain physically? Are you trying to increase the tempo? It may be a number of things, but make sure you understand what you’re trying to achieve through repetition and play close attention to whether you’re moving in the right direction.

It should be rather easy to tell. If it’s getting easier, quicker, and more fluid, you can bet that things are moving the right way.

The elaboration stage

Repeating a piece of language in one key will soon grow tired and you’ll want to move on to the other eleven. In the elaboration stage you’re moving a line through all the keys and figuring out where the trouble spots occur.

Certain lines feel good in some keys but not in others, or in some ranges and not others. Figure out which keys and ranges need the extra work, isolate these, and iron out the kinks.

With some work, the piece of language will operate smoothly in all keys and areas of your instrument. This stage of learning language has multiple benefits to your playing. You’re working on the language obviously, but at the same time, you’re improving your technique, and you’re connecting this technique to your ear.

This stage will help move you toward the ultimate goal of playing what you hear, and hearing the things you want to play.

The application stage

At first, it’s tough to get new language to come out in your improvisation naturally. A simple way to get your fingers and your ear to learn to use this new found language is by applying it to a specific measure in a particular tune.

For example, if I just transcribed a ii V  I, perhaps I’d improvise over All The Things You Are, and decide before-hand that when I get to the bridge, I will insert the ii V I. Is this improvising? No. But it is a way to get this new piece if language to start to become part of your working vocabulary.

The more you do this with a piece of language, the more it will start to become natural for you to use this new language. Then, you’ll find yourself actually improvising with the line, or something similar to the line. The goal is not strict reproduction of practiced material. The goal is to use these lines to help connect your ear and fingers.

By applying lines in this manner, you train your ear to hear these lines more frequently and you teach your fingers where to access these sounds. Gradually, your ear will start to get creative and begin to explore what else it can do with the new information you’re providing it…which leads us to the exploratory stage.

The exploratory stage

In this stage, your own creativity goes to work, changing the line in any way imaginable and combining it with other lines to produce something built upon the strong foundations of the language you learned, but something that is uniquely yours as well.

This exploration can be a conscious thing, making up practice exercises which deliberately alter language in prescribed ways, or it could be more of an improvisatory exercise where you have an idea of how you’d like to change the line, but allow the moment to determine what happens more than any predefined notion.

This stage is very important. It’s taking everything you’ve learned and making it your own.

Is the process linear?

This outline of the stages of language needs a little bit more explanation because it’s quite an oversimplification to say that language follows this neat and orderly path. No, the process is not necessarily linear. Of course, it all does begin with the discovery stage, but the way it proceeds from there is really up to you, your goals, your methods, and the way your musical-mind works.

For example, upon discovering and learning a new piece of language, you could instantly start applying it to tunes instead of learning it in all keys. I’ll often do this and I’ll make sure to pick a tune that has multiple places where I can use the new language in different keys. But, another day, I’ll take that same line through all keys.

Or perhaps, you just got a new line, and instantly you find new ways of developing it that suit your fancy, so you jump right into the exploratory phase. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can jump around as much as you like, wherever your ear, mind, and creativity take you.

You’ll, most likely, constantly return to the repetition stage, even if you’ve already practiced a line in this stage previously. You can never know a piece of language well enough. The better you know it, the easier it is to take it through all keys in the elaboration stage, and the freer you’ll be in exploring new avenues of the line in the exploratory stage.

The life-cycle of a piece of language is on-going and only gets more exciting if you simply use your imagination and enjoy the process.