How I Discovered Jazz Improvisation

Including: my secrets for mastering improvisation

These notes may or may not be of any help to others trying to learn jazz improvisation.

Up until December 2005 I had a firm belief that I could not do any kind of musical improvisation – unless, of course, I was allowed a few days, or preferably weeks, to plan, compose, learn and thoroughly set that “improvisation” in concrete...

But at the same time, having taken up the sax again to play incidental music in Shakespeare shows, I wanted to develop my playing, and jazz standards such as “These Foolish Things”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” (which I quickly learnt off an Ella Fitzgerald tape) were the obvious way to go.

I started by trying to compose a solo to each song, i.e. making up a tune in my head and writing it down before trying to play it. This was rubbish – the result only sounded like more of the tune, only not nearly so good. It sounded nothing like a proper solo.

Meanwhile, having started going to the Chester Arms jam session to listen, I badly wanted to be able to join in.

Around about the beginning of December I confronted the problem head on. This is the strategy I came up with:

Playing Jupitella

“There is no easy formula to learn jazz improvisation. It comes gradually as a result of making progress on several fronts simultaneously:

So, to put it as simply as possible, you start from one end with the song melody, and try varying it; you start from the other end with the scale of notes of the key of that song, and try playing whatever comes into your head using that scale. As you improve, these two practices should converge towards the genuine thing.”

I had a major problem with printed music. I knew that a jazz solo achieved a great deal of its interest by switching from one scale to another, as the harmonies underlying the song changed from one chord to another.

In fact, in jazz each chord is shorthand for a full scale of notes on which a melody may be constructed. Thus although the classical C major chord only contains the notes C, E and G, a soloist can play any of the notes of the C major scale against it. Further, in jazz the chords are understood to extend further than the simple triads of classical music, very commonly to the seventh of the scale, and even the ninth, the eleventh and the thirteenth – thus in jazz the C major chord is actually C, E, G, B, D, F, A; the C7 chord the same but with B flat instead of B natural; the dorian minor C chord the same as C7 but with E flat instead of E natural; and so on in the other keys.

That’s fine in theory. But look at a printed song, and you’ll see a different chord against every bar. Worse – at some points you’ll see a different chord to each beat of the bar. No way can one memorise that lot, let alone play meaningfully to it.

It took me a lot of thought to resolve the problem. Firstly, printed music often simply has too many chords indicated. Here’s a particularly blatant example in a printout of “Pennies From Heaven” (in C). One bar of music corresponds to the words “Don’t run under a tree”: the first two words have the chord Em7 indicated above them, the next four syllables (a quaver each – that’s half a beat each) go: C9, B9, Bb9, A7. It is obvious that these chord symbols don’t represent the harmony in any meaningful sense, but have simply been contrived to include the melody note of the moment. That sort of information is superfluous, and should be ignored.

The next bar has no harmony indicated, and the bar after that is in Dm. What’s going on should be obvious: you have three bars, with a different harmony to each bar: Em7, A7, Dm. That is what the printed music should have indicated.

Furthermore, those three chords make good sense, as they go down the cycle of fifths – E is the fifth of the scale of A; A is the fifth of the scale of D; and this kind of chord progression is very common in jazz. In terms of the scales in which one improvises: as you move through this chord progression, you switch each time to a scale with one less sharp or one more flat in its key signature – that’s if you stick to the same kind of scale, thus: E7 to A7 to D7. If you move from Em7 to A7 to D then you don’t actually change the notes you play at all – in each case the scale has two sharps (F sharp and C sharp) – you just change your sense of where the tonic is.

And that is a clue to the next point: the soloist doesn’t actually have to reproduce all the chord changes in a song, and maybe hardly any of them. As you play – especially as you gain experience – you have in any case the original song melody at the back of your mind. So long as you start off in the right key, and improvise something which makes musical sense, you’ll probably sound pretty good for a while even when totally ignoring the chord changes. But of course this eventually comes unstuck because on many of these songs the middle 8 (generally bars 17 to 24 of a 32-bar tune) is clearly in a different key.

With Clevelandia

My improvisation breakthrough came with the song “’S Wonderful”. This is usually played in E flat, which on alto sax is a nice easy C. I found that I could solo to this by playing in C most of the time, but switching to E for the middle 8. In fact I now consider the middle 8 to be as follows: E (for 5 bars), then A7, D7, G7 (for one bar each), stepping down the cycle of fifths and leading you back to the key of C for the reprise of the main tune. But in practice when you’re playing that middle 8 in E you have a sense of how long it’s going to last, you have the piano behind you maintaining the harmony, and so you tend to naturally find a bit of melody that leads you back to the tonic without needing to consciously reproduce those exact chords.

The first secret of jazz improvisation, therefore, is finding the chords to a particular number that you need to know, and ignoring the ones you don’t need. Presumably, as you gain experience, you can usefully analyse a song in greater detail and take account, consciously, of more chord changes. But to get started you want the song stripped down to its bare essentials, and there are plenty of songs where you just need one key for the first, second and fourth 8-bar sections and another key for the third or “middle” 8.

In a recent interview, Bobby Militello says: “I made all the changes and the audience would freak out because I could play so many notes [...] You don’t realise it at the time, that one note can say it better than all of them in certain circumstances. I learnt later that a substitute change can work over the three you might have used” (Jazz Journal, Aug. 2006, p.6). Which tends to support what I’m saying. (Mind you, on many of the recordings of his playing, he sounds like he’s being paid a dollar for every note he blows, the number of hemidemisemiquavers he crams in.)

The second secret then is organising the songs you’re learning into order of difficulty. Don’t plunge right in with one that needs lots of changes. Start with songs you can improvise to in a single key all the way through – songs like “Autumn Leaves” or “A Foggy Day In London Town”. Or blues numbers: you can play in the blues scale in one key all the way through – in fact the two songs I’ve just mentioned work well with the blues scale (minor third and seventh, and additionally an augmented fourth or diminished fifth note).

You next want songs with two keys: one for the first, second and fourth 8-bar sections, and a different one for the middle 8 – like “’S Wonderful”, as I said above. So for “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” you want the keys of D and F sharp (or F and A, in concert pitch, but I started out playing them on alto sax). For “In A Sentimental Mood” you want D and B flat (or F and D flat, concert). After a bit of practice you can take account of the fact that the middle 8 ends with a “turnaround” chord which leads you back to the tonic, and the turnaround in both these cases is A7 which takes you back to the key of D (or C7 taking you back to F, concert pitch).

Moving on, many songs have a more complicated structure which has to be respected in order to play a good solo. “Pennies From Heaven” and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” (playing in A on alto sax) both have a middle 8 which goes: A7 (2 bars), leading down the cycle of fifths to D (2 bars); this is then repeated a whole tone higher: B7 (2 bars), leading to E7 (2 bars), leading back to the basic key of A. (In addition, “Pennies” has a more complex final 8.)

Once you can play this sort of thing, you can tackle a song like “All Of Me”, in which the harmony changes every two bars throughout the song. In this one you get a lot of help from the melody itself, which contains a lot of the relevant arpeggios. I found I had to practise this over and over again before I could solo on it convincingly, but the effort was well worth it.

So the third secret is in the method of practice – play the same tune over and over again, with all the changes. Play the tune through, then play the chords as arpeggios all the way through, then vary the tune, vary the arpeggios, play it slow, play it fast. Always do it again, and do it differently, again and differently, again and differently.

What you’re aiming at is to internalise the chord changes so that you can play them without referring to your crib sheet. At the same time, by jamming with other musicians, you’re learning to recognise the harmonies in a song as other instruments play them.

So the fourth secret is to join a jam session and play solos on songs you’re not quite sure you can manage successfully. You’ll make a mess of it a number of times – but work with supportive musicians, and it’s a fantastic way to train your ear and so extend your abilities.

NB: In the same interview, Bobby M. also recalls his learning days with John Sedola, who “was very insistent that nobody can teach you how to play jazz. It has to come from within so that you can develop a style and feel that is completely yours.” – Okay, but you’ve still got to master the technical basics, and that’s what this page is about. When you’ve got those pat, then you can start learning to play jazz in earnest.