jazz essentials


hear and play (click/touch for more info)

As jazz improvisers we need first and foremost to develop our ability to hear music and transfer it directly to the instrument - and the faster and more accurately we can do this, the better we will play. Some people do this early, and naturally; most of us need to work at it. Singing is by far the best way into this. Bass-player Peter Ind (an early mentor and playing partner at his wonderful Hoxton club Bass Clef) often talks of playing with Charlie Parker, of his studies in New York with Lennie Tristano, and of the emphasis all the musicians of the forties and fifties put on being able to sing their melodies. "It's amazing", Peter used to tell me, "how after just a bit of work with the voice, the elusive notes seem to find their way into your fingers..."


"Time" is one of the essential jazz qualities. "Great time", we may say of a player we admire. What exactly do we mean by jazz "time", and how can we improve our own? I suppose in very general terms, we could say that for jazz musicians good "time" is a combination of rhythmic accuracy with the ability to swing hard ie to generate a strong sense of momentum through the music. I love the story of Art Farmer on a UK gig (not one I was on, though I did accompany him often on his visits here) making big waving motions forward with his spare arm during the first set with a UK trio. "Lovely playing, Art" said the drummer in the interval, "but can you tell us what the arm movements mean - is there anything you'd like us to do?" "Play better" he replied.

He could equally have said "Swing harder!"

So with a view to improvement, let's get into the detail of what this could mean. There are a number of elements to consider:

  • Secure external pulse - this is best addressed with metronome work.
  • Secure internal pulse - more important (dare I say) than the external variety - the ability to hold and experience three layers of rhythm in the body. We develop this skill initially by combining two simple rhythms using the left side of our body, the right side of our body, and the voice. For example, tap (left) and sing a four pulse while tapping (right) a dotted quarter note (that's a dotted crotchet in old money). Then repeat in all possible combinations of left, right and voice. Strong internal pulse is hugely important for us - without it everytime we play a melody we risk losing our connection with the underlying pulse and form!
  • The understanding and feel of the combined pulses of six and four. Blues, Jazz, Latin and indeed all musics deriving from the African diaspora have their roots in the 6/8 bell pattern originating among the peoples of West Africa, and in the polyrhythmic pulses that can simultaneously be derived. Jazz may appear to be in 4/4, if you believe what you read, but in reality is felt and played as a combination of the pulses of six and four. This combination provides both the powerful rotational swing of jazz and its unique 'push-pull' character. It is fundamental.
  • language

    . "Language" is the catch-all phrase hurled around by jazz educators as we try to put our finger on what a student may be missing. "Yeah, plays great", we say, "just needs more language". When pressed as to what this actually means, we may say " well, you know, bebop licks and stuff..". Then a student turns up who can play every bebop lick east of the sun, but still doesn't sound like a jazzer! So what's going on there? Imagine a keen student of French who despite a huge vocabulary and an extensive knowledge of grammar, still can't make themself understood in the boulangerie. Because what they're saying just oesn't sound like French. The point is that language is not just vocabulary and grammar, and jazz language is not just licks and theory. Being fluent and idiomatic in a language, spoken or played, requires the absorption at a deep and subconscious level of myriad nuances of inflection, dynamics, articulation, sound and rhythm. Yes, every jazz musician has a substantial store of internalised melodies and rhythms - these form the raw material with which we mostly improvise - but it is how we acquire this material that is all-important. Reading melodies and learning transcriptions from the page is of very little use. But learning and transcribing by ear, putting in time (the longer this takes,the better!) with the great players of jazz history, we will also be absorbing the many idiomatic subtleties we need to turn our vocabulary and grammar into "language".


    "Musical" is another catch-all phrase we use to describe playing that we lke. What does this mean? Again, there could be several elements involved. Being able to shape melodic phrases and combine them meaningfully,and playing in tune are two that come instantly to mind. What about feeling? For me the connection between sound and feeling is the most important of all the elements of musicality. What I hear in the players I like, and what I look for in all music is the feeling of someone reaching into their sound to find or create resonance with their innermost feelings. This is the searching quality of jazz improvisation, the desire and need to make sound vibrate with emotional meaning. Without this quality, to my ear, and to my heart, there is no music, there is no jazz. You must first connect with your sound, before you can hope to connect through your sound with others.

    While many people accept that what I have just described, or something very much like it, is the defining characteristic of high quality music, few have given any thought as to how to teach it. I think people generally think this level of musicianship is either something held innately by the golden people, or something that magically emerges (or not) in the course of time. True, some lucky people seem to know instinctively, and from a very early age, how to draw sound out of an instrument and allow it to vibrate in their meaning-world, but there are things we can all do, things we need to do, to develop the instinct later. As the ear can be trained, so can the feeling.

    Wind players spend happy hours in long notes, and there are important technical reasons for so doing. But the principal gains of this sort of practice may actually be in encouraging emotional connection in the sound. And it is a fact that we perceive the jazz blowers as the most individual and expressive of all instrumentalists. There is a lovely passage, in the Steve Lacy book Conversations, where he describes the opening out of an infinite landscape of sound and feeling as he practices a single semitone interval for many hours.

    Everyone should play long notes, and if their instrument doesn't allow much or any sustain, then they should play slow notes. The aim is to create a meditating, waiting practice. You are not rehearsing a task, but waiting for feeling. If I was religious, I would describe it as prayer.


    Why respect? Two reasons. First, the complexity of the music, and the difficulty of the improvising adventure, demand respect. Jazz requires instrumental proficiency, a good ear, a thorough understanding of how the 12 tones of our musical system work together in melodies and chords, the ability to hold polyrhythm in the body, a good sense of composition, and to top it all, the ability to manipulate all these in real time improvisation. In conversation with others. And in front of an audience. Jazz is hard - and it's meant to be! Professional players know this, accept this, and as a result their self-belief, necessary at all levels of performance, is generally tempered with humility. I have met many aspiring jazz players, by contrast, who in failing to acknowledge the inherent difficulty of jazz, overestimate their own ability to master it to their own schedule, and then fall into a slough of despair and low self-esteem. I can never decide, at these moments, between a pep-talk to bolster self-worth, or an excoriating lecture on the perils of arrogance and lack of respect for the music...which would you go for?

    Respect also must be learned for the origins of the music, which lie essentially in the history and culture, in all facets - social, economic, political, aesthetic and spiritual - of black americans. True, jazz has spread round the world and been adapted to fit different cultures, and has acquired new traditions, new parameters of being. And it has become fashionable, and also (given the predominantly white make-up of the groves of jazz academe) convenient, to define jazz in broad, global terms of improvisation and self-expression. But I don't agree with this. When I first heard jazz, as a young boy, I didn't hear just improvisation - I heard, and felt, a sound of raw and complex emotion. There was so much in that sound - rage, forgiving, joy, grief, misery, acceptance, questions, answers, hot pools of visceral feeling and cool structures of explanation - and I was immediately and irretrievably drawn into the pursuit of making it work for me, being resonant in my life. But I never thought the sound was mine. Not for a single moment. I found out it came from the life of black americans, and because I wanted to know more about the sound, I then wanted to find out more about black americans, and so made it my business, from an early age, as well as trying to find the sound on the piano, to read around my subject. The Invisible Man, Blues People, Really The Blues, Another Country - these were all great influences for me. Literary influences, intellectual influences, yes, but also musical influences. I was drawn to a sound, and the books helped me understand it better. Most white musicians skirt round this subject. They may fear that if they go too deeply into social and cultural history and come to acknowledge the black american origins of jazz they will lose their entitlement to play it. I think the opposite is true. I believe that if you want to be able to use the sound of jazz to its fullest extent, and explore all of its vibration in your own life, you must first of all accept the truth about its origins. This is an absolute condition, and isn't it obviously so? By hiding from the origins of that sound you are denying yourself access to its emotional range. No wonder your blues sounds so cheesy and bland...

    Acknowledging the origins of jazz is important to me for two reasons. Firstly it is a matter of respect for black americans and of intellectual honesty. Secondly, being honest about the origins of the sound vastly increases its transformative potential in my own life and playing, even while accepting that I can never own it.

    I like what Nicholas Payton writes. He can be severe, and extreme, but his arguments are always well-made, and ring true, if you have the courage to listen. He talks about chinese food to explain why he demands recognition for jazz as black american music. Anyone can eat chinese food, he says. Anyone can cook chinese food. In fact anyone, anywhere, can become an expert in eating and cooking chinese food. But no-one should say it's not chinese food...


    Jazz is improvisation around a melody. We can all agree on that, I hope. We may argue about the rhythmic requirements - I will say that jazz only exists if the polyrhythmic african origins (swing or latin) are present, while others will wish to include the monopulse feels derived from various european musics - classical, pop, rock and folk etc. But let's agree, at least, that melody underpins it all. Jazz started, some 120 years ago, as an embellishment in swing feel, or 'rag', of popular melodies of the time, and that's pretty much how it has carried on, (for as long as popular melodies continued to have anything worth embellishing,at least!). Through time and experience jazz musicians, ever inquisitive, have gone on to explore other aspects of improvisation - the chords underneath the melody, the rhythmic fabric of swing and latin feel, and the interaction among the players - but melody is still the main and defining element of all jazz form and improvisation.

    It took me a while to realise this. Starting out playing piano, and before that guitar, I automatically tuned in to chords. Being also quite nerdy, I was also very happy finding my way round the intellectual maze of jazz harmony. I got quite a long way with this approach. In fact I had been playing professionally for quite a few years before I found out how bad my music hearing really was. I could work out what I should be playing, and could execute it fairly well, but I wasn't hearing any of it! This severely limited my abilities in many essential areas. I couldn't play melodies very well, for example. Nor could I hear my own improvised phrases well enough to be able to develop them through a solo. And because I couldn't properly hear what was going on around me in the band I couldn't properly join in the group conversation. In other words, cloth ears! But as I began to play more solo, duo and trio piano gigs I started to learn melodies. Once I had the melodies well enough in my heart, ears and fingers, I started to learn how to feel them, and shape them into connection nodes for other people. Then things started to improve.

    Learn your tunes. That's the best advice I can give. In jazz improvisation, what you know is of little importance. What matters is what you can do. And how much you can do depends entirely on how much you can hear. All jazz musicians spend their lives internalising jazz melodies because this is what opens our hearing. This is how we learn to feel and shape melody, how to converse within the group, how to connect with the audience, and how all the chord tones move through the changes. This is where we learn how tunes hang together, and how to develop solos with shape. And, crucially, this is also where we get the bank of tune fragments that jazz improvisers share - this is where we get our "language".

    I say learn your tunes. Make them easy ones to start with, and most importantly, ones you really like. Explore them, find out why you like them, and make them your own. I assure you life will improve.


    "Changes" is another word for chord pattern ie the harmony that accompanies the melody and improvisation through the form. Jazz players have always been interested in changes - and in the theory behind them. But in the last hundred years the study of jazz harmony, and its use in composition and improvisation, have developed so much that you could spend several lifetimes in the intellectual maze thereby created. Sometimes students pop in to get the harmony knowledge they need, and tragically never come out...

    So it's extremely important to identify and focus on the basic knowlege that will help you make sense of the aural understanding you are building of jazz forms. You need to know all the basic chord types on all notes, and how these chords relate to different modes and scales. You need to understand about key centres, dominant-tonic cadences (major and minor), secondary dominants within key centres, and modulations into different keys. You need to know about voice-leading; you need to understand how to use altered notes to create different sounds and states. And you need to know about different types of harmony, as applied to different types of repertoire eg blues modal, embellished chord-tone, american song-book standard, contemporary modal, or hybrids - combinations of some or all of the above. This is important because the advice in most of the reference theory books (eg Levine, Aebersold, Russell, Berklee) really applies only to one of these playing styles - contemporary modal - and isn't remotely helpful in playing blues, swing, new orleans or bebop! Playing one scale for every chord is a convenient logic, but doesn't work for most jazz.

    The basic harmonic knowledge I have outlined is easy enough to explain and understand, and is more than enough to enable you to cope with most playing styles and situations.

    But keep concentrating on the aural reality. Remember - it is what you can do that counts, not what you know - and what you can do depends on what you can hear. Rather than amassing a lot of intellectual knowledge about which notes to use and then relying on multicore supercomputing to calculate your instrumental options in the micro seconds available, you should be learning the sound of the chords, exploring different note experiences on your instrument, and training your body to reproduce them - much as you would, as I've said elsewhere, a remembered dance move.

    But listen, learning jazz can't be linear. There is no logical progression of phases of learning that is going to work for all players. I can, with the benefit of hindsight, and a lot of experience playing and teaching, organise jazz knowledge into a logical line, so at least it makes sense to read - but the fact is it's music. We're driven onwards hither and thither, forwards and back, out and about, by our taste and ambition - there will always be times when we are trying to play things we can neither fully hear nor fully understand. Rightly so, and long may this continue - reaching forth is partly how we learn!


    In jazz improvisation, keeping the form is crucial. Everyone needs to know where they are in the form, at all times. It's OK (and inevitable)not being able to cope with some parts of some forms, but you have to know where these parts are! The melody and underpinning chords last a specified number of bars, and this "form" of melody and chords is repeated over and over again, usually in the pattern: melody (head) in, improv (blowing) round and round - melody (head) out. Everyone makes some sort of map of the form and holds it in mind throughout the improvising. In this way the group makes and continuously projects an idea of the form. When a player or player temporarily loses the form (this is completely normal in an improvised music) - the aim is to 'get back in' as quickly as possible. I say 'some sort of map', because we all experience and remember music in different ways. Some players will have the main melody running through their head, some will have a picture of the chords, some may 'see' the form in shapes and colours, some may create a story that they can keep on reciting, and so on.

    Most players rely on melody and chords to provide their form map. Pianists and guitarists tend to be good at remembering chord progressions, and are not so good with melodies, whereas for wind players it's the other way round. The key to making a form map lies in seeing the larger sections into which it divides. A typical jazz melody will have 32 bars, divided into four 8 bar sections. The most common patterns of this are AABA (eg Take The A train) and ABAC (eg There Will Never be Another You). When we're learning the melody, we don't learn 32 bars of continuous melody - instead we learn the melody for each section, and then remember the order to put them in. Similarly, with chords, we don't remember 32 separate bars of harmony, but instead learn the harmony in each section and then put the sections together in our map. And we don't need to learn the 8 separate bars of each section, either. If we have done our basic study of harmony (see the changes section above) we will know that tunes are made up of a small number of common patterns, harmonic modules, that are fitted together in different ways through the repertoire. These chunks of 2 or 4 bars will jump out at us, screaming 'don't break us down, we are what we are, don't try to treat us as individuals!'. And that will be nice.

    Keeping the form may be the most important single jazz ability, but it is not a single skill we can learn separately. Learning how to make and follow a mental map is very important, but our form skills really develop as we improve in other areas of our playing and understanding. As we become stronger with time, melody and changes, in the ways I have suggested above, we will naturally become stronger and more secure in our delivery and perception of form.

    ‣ how should we be learning?

    Much jazz teaching concentrates on the study of harmony, over and above the other essentials. I understand why - it's easier to teach, for one thing. And being able to outline the changes, and being in control of how notes fit with the underlying harmony, are undeniably important and necessary skills to have.

    But we must not neglect the other essentials - learning how to 'hear' directly on the instrument, how to manage the push-pull of jazz pulse, how to let our feelings sing through sound, and how to acquire repertoire that we know by heart.

    It's a balancing act! At Jazz School UK we are constantly working to get this balance right in our teaching, and are committed to giving you the guidance and support you may need to improve your jazz playing..

    Do check out details of our ensembles workshops and online programmes. You can register your interest with forms on the relevant pages - or just email us here- we'd be delighted to hear from you!