I am a product of the classically rooted music school, and I have enjoyed many rewarding musical experiences thanks in part to this education. My background in classical music theory, history, and performance prepared me to perform and teach at a professional level. I love sitting in the back of a great orchestra or performing chamber music. I equally love directing a college jazz ensemble every week and working with private students on soloing over chord changes. My interest and love for jazz developed alongside my study of orchestral music from the very beginning. Formal instruction in jazz came in fits and starts for many of those years, so I gradually found my own path.
I have played in numerous big bands, funk bands, and rock bands. I developed an ear for style, groove, and some of the vocabulary. Teaching has been the biggest motivator for me to improve my jazz skill set. Many students in our educational system come to this music with trepidation and an anxiety fueled by a seeming lack of direction.
Maybe you are in that boat and would like to enjoy playing jazz or explore improvisation. I hope you continue this journey. Be patient and enjoy the small milestones of progress. I’ll share a few thoughts on how you might build a structured approach to develop confidence in performance.
To start, begin listening now! There are so many resources to hear great music, so open your ears and absorb stylistic elements that you’ll put into use. I have taken a liking to Apple Music but you might prefer Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube. My CD collection stopped growing years ago, but my vinyl records continue to creep across more shelf space. There’s something special about listening to Miles Davis on vinyl. A few trumpet players I recommend checking out are Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, Avishai Cohen, Roy Hargrove, and Christian Scott.
Before even getting into chords, transcribing, or worrying about transposing licks, make sure that all major and minor scales are in your muscle memory. Do the ground work and memorize all 12 major scales. I’ve had so many students who think they can skip this step and simply struggle further. The bebop tonguing pattern will also help you swing these scales. When you’ve learned all 12 keys, play a simple melody by ear in every key. It doesn’t have to be jazz. It could be Happy Birthday, Mary had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle…etc. Play around with the style and you’ll soon find that you can add character to the simplest of melodies through blue notes, bends, growls, or rhythmic alteration.
Keep turning the pages on your scale study to include blues, bebop, and modal scales. Turn your daily Clarke technical studies into blues or whole tone exercises. Enlist a partner to trade phrases with you in a question-answer format, and try to use only the notes of a particular blues scale. I do this with younger students and find they enjoy the challenge of trying to make few notes sound rhythmically interesting. We start with 2 pitches and expand up the scale until our phrases encompass the entire key.
Transcribing solos is a fantastic way to train your ear. Don’t worry about perfection in your notation. You might try using an app like Transcribe+ to help you slow down passages or isolate difficult sections. Rapid licks and scalar figures can be intimidating but unlimited replays along with trial and error will get you to a playable product. My first transcriptions were of Roy Hargrove ballads. Don’t let Clifford Brown be your first attempt! I recommend starting with Miles Davis’ solo on So What. It’s a great tune to develop phrasing, gain fluency with triads, and understand how to swing. It also has extended sections that remain static on one chord. It can be challenging to produce interesting material when the harmonic progression stalls, but the lessons learned will serve anyone looking to play in a funk or soul band on the weekends! Christian Scott even has an app called Stretch Music that includes his entire album with the ability to slow the tempo, isolate different instrumental tracks, and refer to the sheet music.
Classical musicians primarily learn a Roman numeral system of chord labeling. It’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with the leadsheet symbols used in jazz and pop. You’ll quickly appreciate the logic behind its ease of use. You must be able to see a symbol and immediately identify the chord tones implied. These pitches will serve as landing pads in their assigned bars. You’ll want to learn commonly used progressions such as II-V-I. Play the roots of each chord in all 12 keys. Play the complete chords through the progression in all keys. Play licks along the same progression in all keys. You get the idea!
Fake books are a great resource to learn standards so pick one up and keep it on your music stand. I’ve also made use of transcription books full of solos by Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and Louis Armstrong. These books cut out the work of transcribing for you, and you can quickly learn the licks of the masters. Don’t fall into the trap of simply memorizing these solos for the sake of it. Find passages you enjoy and practice transposing them to all keys. Alter phrases and take them in new directions.
Musicians must build their marketability in a competitive field. Even orchestral players are challenged in today’s programming that increasingly features pops concerts. This requires a different style of playing than Pines of Rome! Music educators are going to enjoy higher retention rates in their programs if they can establish or maintain a regular jazz ensemble. Beginning your study of jazz might just open the door to your most rewarding musical experience yet!