Where to Start Learning Jazz Improvisation

One of the questions we’ve been getting a lot lately is where to start learning jazz improvisation. There’s so much information out there, that knowing where to start is a complete nightmare. If I could start again today, I’d ignore nearly all the information out there in terms of method books and do my best to learn this music the same way that the greats learned…

They didn’t have books filled with transcriptions of their favorite players. They didn’t have real-books or fake-books packed with sheet music of tunes. And they certainly didn’t have play-along records that they could pop in and jam with.

They learned from the recordings of their heroes, coupled with playing with others.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s up to you whether you use any of these materials and even play-alongs can be used effectively, however, why fix it if it’s not broken?

In other words, people were learning how to play jazz long before any of this material existed and they certainly sounded just fine 😉 Sure, the convenience of playing with a play-along record when you have no one to jam with can be fun and beneficial, but in my experience, as well as observing countless other musicians’ experiences, nearly all these resources distract you from the pathway that will get you where you want to go.

Where to start

Here’s a checklist to get you started learning jazz improvisation. If you simply go through the checklist, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a fluent jazz musician.

There are two groups of topics that you want to start focusing on today. The first group is stuff you can do away from your instrument and the second group is stuff you’ll do with your instrument.

Things to do without your instrument


The number one thing you can do to get started learning and constantly improve at jazz is to listen. Sounds simple right? But how much have you really listened? With the advent of phones that carry gigabytes of music, there’s no excuse not to be listening all the time. Invest in a music player that you carry with you all the time and carry a small set of ear-buds. Whenever you can, listen.

Fill your head with the stuff you like the most. When you wake up in the morning, on your way to work, at work if you’re able to, while you work out, when you’re cooking dinner, when you’re cleaning up your house or doing laundry. Listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more!

Understand the culture of jazz

There are many myths about how jazz came to be, and even more mysterious than the music are the players themselves. With so much intellectualizing of jazz, we often forget how deep this music really is. Pick up some autobiographies of some great jazz musicians and you’ll begin to understand what life was like for these people.

Check out:

Miles Davis’s Autobiography

Art Pepper’s Autobiography

Count Basie’s Autobiography

Jimmy Heath’s Autobiography

Many more autobiographies exist, as well as many biographies of the greats. Pick one and read it to absorb the culture that these people lived in. Believe me, you’ll enjoy it. Reading about jazz musicians is always fun and entertaining.

Understand chords, chord progressions, and chord-tones from a theoretical and aural basis

“That’s why it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”-Bill Evans

I could have said “Learn music theory” or “Jazz theory” but this would over-emphasize the point, not to mention that it would make it seem like a bigger task than it really is.

You hear so much about how complicated jazz theory is that when people start to learn jazz, they think they have to learn a ton of theory.

In actuality, there’s only a minimum amount of music theory required to understand jazz lines and progressions and the bulk of it has to do simply with chords. What do you need to know about chords?

You need to understand how chords are built. This is actually quite easy. A simple Wikipedia search around a chord will present you with more than enough information than you need to know about each chord quality.

The chord qualities you’ll want to study are: major, minor, dominant, half-diminished, and diminished. A firm understanding of how to build these chords will allow you to branch out to modifications of these chords, including dominants with altered 5s and 9s.

While you’re learning how chords are built, make sure to think of each chord tone as a number in relation to the chord. This is very important. 1-3-5-7-9-11-13. You want to be able to quickly (immediately and intuitively) know what any chord tone of any chord is, so for example, if I said, what’s the third of an Ab major chord? You quickly respond…”C.”

A great way to start ingraining the structures of chords into your mind is visualizing them in your spare time. Again, this is all stuff you can start doing today even without your instrument!

Study these posts to start to acquire the needed chordal knowledge:

Visualization for Jazz Improvisation

How to Put Chord Tones At Your Fingertips

10 Visualization Exercises

Visualization for Jazz Improvisation Ebook

Now when you go from one chord to the next as you do in a tune, it makes a chord progression; one chord progresses to the next. Once you gain a firm grasp on chords and chord tones, the next step is to understand how and why one chord progresses to the next. This is also quite straightforward when it comes to most jazz standards. As you begin to study your first several tunes, you’ll notice the same chord progressions used over and over…things like ii V I.

Equally if not more important to understanding chords, is to learn to actually hear chords and chord tones. We’ve written at length about how to hear chords:

Fundamental Ear Training Exercises

Hearing Seventh Chords

Hearing Chord Tones

Learning Your Four Triads

You should always understand why each chord is there. It should never be a mystery. Many people who learn tunes from sheet music are still in the dark. They wonder why a particular chord is there in a tune, and why they’re having such a difficult time playing over it. Most of the time, it’s because they picked up the wrong chord from the sheet music. As I’ll discuss later, learning tunes from recordings will ultimately save you years of frustration.

Where do scales fit in?

Today, scales are overemphasized as they present a pool of notes that “work” over a particular chord. Let’s look at an example:

The chord D minor arrpegiated to the 13th will include all of it’s chord tones: D-F-A-C-E-G-B

If you rearrange these notes in stepwise ascending order you get: D-E-F-G-A-B-C

A whole paradigm around thinking this way has been created. It focuses on a particular “mode” of a scale which works over a particular chord.

These scale association techniques do help you understand what notes are contained in a chord as a whole and that is why they are not “bad” to know.

However, what happens, is people use modes as the basis of their soloing concept and end up flailing endlessly within that mode and think that that’s improvising. It’s not. Jazz is a language. Chords and scales are not the language of jazz; that’s like saying the alphabet is the language of English. It’s not. The language of English has words, phrases, and inflections that make it a very specific thing.

To read more about scales, checkout why they are not the secret shortcut to jazz.

Know the chords, know the chord-tones, know the scales, but at the end of the day, the language you learn from recordings, the concepts you emulate from recordings, and the concepts and language you create yourself, are the things that formulate the basis of your musical concept.

Understand ii Vs and how important they truly are

ii V progressions make up the bulk of any chord progression you’ll ever encounter within the jazz standard repertoire. They are extremely important to study. Read two five progressions made easy to get started with them.

Things to do with your instrument

Pick one tune to study

Now that you’ve got the non-playing aspects of improvisation marinating in your mind, it’s time to apply what you’re thinking about to the music.

In all your listening that you’re now doing, you’re bound to come across a jazz standard that resonates with you. Find a recording of any standard that you love where the instrument playing the melody is the same as your instrument. Here’s some suggestions of what tune you might pick:

  • Autumn Leaves
  • On Green Dolphin Street
  • A blues (any tune with a blues form)
  • A rhythm changes tune (Any tune with the chord progression from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”)

To clarify, if I play trumpet, perhaps I’d choose “Freddie Freeloader” from Kind of Blue. It’s not too fast, it’s a blues, and it’s some of the best music on the face of the planet to ever exist. Understand how to make your selection?

First learn the melody note-for-note by ear.

If you don’t have Transcribing software, I highly recommend you get it. It makes navigating any track much simpler and saves you hours of time by being more efficient.

It’s quite simple in theory. You put the tune into your transcribing software, you loop the first phrase of the melody and copy it note-for-note until you can play it perfectly. Then onto the second phrase. Then connect the first two phrases. Next, add the third and so on and so forth until you’ve learned the melody completely by ear from the recording.

Once you’ve got the melody down, it’s time to turn to the harmony. I can hear you whining already. “But that’s too hard!” It’s really not, and the sooner you get into learning melodies, harmonies, and rhythms straight of the recording, the faster you’ll get to playing how you want, not to mention having a ton of fun because while everybody else is flailing over what scale choice to make, you’ll be hearing and playing the language of jazz.

Use this site and your teachers to guide you through learning your first tune from a recording. It’s all hear. Pun intended.

Learn your first piece of jazz language

As you’re learning your first tune from the recording, start to pay attention to what the soloists are doing. In your hours of listening, just as you found a tune you love, you’re bound to hear a line on that particular recording that makes your jaw drop.

You guessed it. Your next step is to rip that jazz language right off the recording. Again, match it note-for-note, writing nothing down as you go. It may be quite difficult at first, but if you stick with it, you will get it.

Absorb the feeling of jazz

This is one of the most important things to do, yet very difficult to describe to another person. Play along with that same tune that you’ve been working on and really try to emulate the feeling, the vibe of what you hear.

Pretend that you actually are the soloist. So, as in the earlier example, I’d try to feel as if I were Miles Davis. How would he stand? How would he hold the horn? It may sound dumb, but the idea is to get into his head as much as possible. Only then will you truly absorb the feeling of what’s going on and this is where the magic lies.

Your goals as you start

As you start to learn jazz improvisation, you should have a clear vision of what your goals are. It may not sound glamorous but your goals as you start out (assuming you want become proficient) should be to develop solid fundamentals through building the right practice habits:

  • Listen to jazz everyday. Enjoying it and feeling a true passion for the music.
  • Learn and study tunes straight recordings rather than reading them from sheet music.
  • Transcribe and learn language from recordings
  • Understand how chords are built and why each chord “exists” in a tune, and how and why each chord progresses to to the next in  a progression. Make sure to use your ear and learn to hear and recognize these chords aurally.
  • long term goal: transcribing your first solo, with the aim of emulating language and concepts from the soloist and integrating them into your own playing

It may sound like a lot of work to start out this way, but I promise you, not only will you excel at lightning speed if you begin this way, but you’ll build the strong practice habits that will keep you improving and having fun playing your entire life. Use this article as a jumping off point to get started; of course not everything is covered here, but don’t let that be your excuse. Search for answers on this site, from your teachers, from your friends, and most importantly on recordings.

You have the knowledge to get started in jazz improvisation, so make it so!