The JAZZFaq Your First step to learning jazz improv

How much reading is necessary to play Jazz?

Jazz is usually not read note for note off of sheet music, however, learning to read a bit can make learning a bit easier and definitely help you out in studio situations, for example, by being able to read melodies out of fake books or having people jot down stuff you need to play. Later on, it is useful for playing arrangements, and if you ever play solos and people start making requests if you already know how to play chords on the spot, all you have to do is make it through the melody, and you can play tunes you've never done before on the spot. All in all, I suggest learning how to read on a rudimentary level... meaning being able to read simple melodies in all keys. As an example of the type of level you might want to try to get your site reading to, get your hands on the copy of a good Jazz fake book and check out the melodies to simple Jazz standards like "A Foggy Day", "How High The Moon" and "There Will Never Be Another You". Slowly build towards more complicated stuff.

What's the best way to learn tunes ?

Be sure to learn the tunes themselves, not only particular arrangements off of particular albums. This means you have to know the melody and the how to play the right chords and both in time. A good fake book should help you do the trick. Though Aebersold Play-a-long books also have nice chords only lead sheets, note that no lead sheet is perfect.

On a typical bandstand you need to be able to play through the head of a tune once or twice, then depending on your instrument you either have to be able to comp, and take a solo. Practice all elements of this:

Playing through the melody.

Accompanying without stopping through multiple choruses.


How come some musicians say that fake books are bad, and is it really bad to bring music on to a bandstand ?

It is true that fake books are notorious for their less than accurate changes, and in fact, the right changes in one situation might even be the wrong ones in another. A lead sheet is meant to be nothing more than a blueprint, it should never be confused for a score.

As for learning tunes, lead sheet dependence has its downside and its far easier to do improv and play in an expressive manner once you've committed a tune to memory. Unfortunately, not all playing situations allow for that. In addition, some musicians are so pressured to learn hundreds of tunes that they can only play through them mechanistically. The lucky musicians are the ones who go on tour and play the same 3 sets night after night... in such a situation, it is not so hard to commit tunes to memory... but if you're playing a lot of sessions and with a million groups and don't have a photographic memory its another story. Overall, even if you use lead sheets, do not merely learn tunes from the sheets: listen along with CDs and records so you can understand how the tunes are really supposed to sound to bring them to life. In addition, my advice is that even if you have your entire repertoire memorized, bring copies of sheets (with your changes) to the bandstands, that way musicians can't cop out and turn down your tune because they don't know it. Also, master roman numeral analysis!

What is comping ?

That's Jazz lingo for accompanying. If you play a keyboard instrument or guitar especially you have to master it. Good comping usually involves simple yet appropriate chord voicings which more often than not should be rootless (so as not to get in the bass player's way.) In addition to knowing the right notes, you also need to learn a bit about timing and rhythm and certain tricks and devices to compliment the arrangement and help push the soloist. Because of this, comping is the first thing I teach my students is that an accompanist who gets in the way of the people he or she plays with will never be welcome on any bandstand even if he or she can solo his or her butt off in circles around other players. If you can provide a nice comp for the musicians you play with you'll find yourself in high demand (if they are true pros and want to sound good.)

What's a good way to improve my comping ?

Listen to, tap your feet and play along with a lot of classic Jazz Sessions, and listen with an analytical mind. Learn comps and take them just as seriously as you would learning tunes or solos. Also learn to count through the form of the tune so you know which bar you're in at all times and how far away different sections of the tune are. Record yourself playing along and try to see how your comping patterns match up with those of the pros. Also, don't just copy their grooves, but try to dig down into the concept. Furthermore, not that in Jazz, no man is an island... so when you hear one musician doing one thing (like taking a certain beat or note), odds are he's locking in with something somebody else is doing. An unbreakable chain of give and take is essential in any professional rhythm section... you should be taking ideas from one member, and others from you. The golden rule: never play in a disruptive or stylistically inappropriate manner. For that reason you have to familiarize yourself with the style of music you're playing, not simply learning the tunes note for note off of lead sheets, scores or arrangements.

Why do you place so much emphasis on studying the 12 bar blues... Why not more difficult stuff or REAL Jazz Tunes?

Well, if you think the heads to and blowing solos over tunes like "Blues For Alice", "Au Privave", "Straight No Chaser" and Sonny Rollins "Blue 7" are that simplistic either you're missing a major point, or you know something the Jazz masters don't. The fact is that there are very few legendary Jazz Recordings or sessions that don't have atleast one Blues or Blues derived tune. fact, if you think the blues is merely a down home three called Rock and Roll shuffle, think again, and be sure to listen to Parker, Stitt and McLean for starters.

In conclusion, there are only about 15 million Jazz, modern Jazz, bebop, blues, hardbop, soul Jazz, swinging, cooking & funky heads based on this standard form. Listen to most "straight" Jazz radio stations, or even your favorite BLUE NOTE and classic Jazz sessions and expect to hear them by the bucket and not even realize they're "only" blues. - - both major and minor blues contain the exact same types of chord changes and progressions as you'll find in any other type of tune hence they can be used as universal forms under which you can get out and build your repoitoire of riffs, runs and licks, and also improve your comping technique. On most bandstands it might be forgivable not to know the changes to a certain standard, but if a blues is called and you can't hang, you'll probably be persona non grata after that if they're REAL players. - - Incidentally, any veteran entertainer can tell you that while some tunes may work, and others won't, a 12 bar blues is always the one vehicle you can count on to connect with even the most difficult of crowds.

What are some good technical exercises ?

There's a big difference in learning basic technique related to your instrument, vs. learning advanced technique. You have a responsibility to learn the rudiments first, and these vary from instrument to instrument and have almost nothing to do with showing off... instead they are about getting good and solid time, tempo and articulation. After that, the ultimate technical exercise is playing out and playing for real and working on what gives you trouble. If anything there's no need to go out buying classical oriented material, when you might just as well spend that time working on some real Jazz heads (check out the Charlie Parker Omnibook for example.) You can also practise running chords, and spend the same time trying to figure out licks you've heard played by the Jazz masters, working out their notes and fingerings then trying to run them over different situations. If you find something difficult, you can turn it into an etude by transcribing or learning the basic pattern, then practicing many variations of it in different keys modes and rhythms.

Should I learn all tunes in all keys ?

Yes and no. First learn to play tunes the right way in the right key. Once you've reached that level, then it wouldn't be such a bad idea working on transposing them... but if you're still struggling through learning to play tunes in the key they're written, tackle that problem first (!) You should, however, learn to play all chords and chord progressions and their basic runs in all keys from the get go and as I said before master Roman Numeral Analysis.


About a million and a half Jazz tunes based on the changes to GEORGE GERSHWIN's I GOT RHYTHM, including MEET THE FLINTSTONES, LESTER LEAPS IN and OLEO. If you're playing at a bop session, you've got to know quite a few, especially in the key of Bb. (If you accompany vocalists, sorry to say, you may need to play "goofy keys" as well.

How come RHYTHM CHANGES are so difficult ? Is there any way to make them easier to play ?

Rhythm Changes aren't so difficult ! ! ! A lot of people find so called "Rhythm Changes" scary. Rhythm changes is a type of I VI II V form with a bridge. Often they are played behind very fast and tricky changes (the most popular Jam session rhythm changes are stuff like Oleo and The Eternal Triangle...) but actually there are some "Real Book" ones with very simple and easy melodies almost anyone can play. If you can play these, you can hang with the changes to the more difficult one's too... some of these simpler rhythm changes include Lester Leaps In, I Got Rhythm and Meet The Flintstones. -- The hardest thing I have with rhythm changes is not getting tired and skipping from the bridge to the A section or thinking the final A is the first A and jumping to the bridge to early after a long tiring night with really long and windy soloists. (Here's a tip for soloing: You can often play the blues scale over the A second, and whole tone scales based on the dominants on the bridge!)

How come you don't talk more about modes in your book and your web site ?

Modal playing is just one approach to Jazz. There are many others, and any method that can help you say what you want to say is ALL GOOD. My own approach is tonally oriented and based on linear harmony. The fact is, you can derive modes from chords just as easily as chords from modes. Rather than asking, "What mode can I use over these chords," my method involves pinpointing, targeting, running and altering basic tones and going beyond thinking of them as merely scales. The most important learning to hear them and in the long term and developing your own hand position system. Modal playing should neither be overemphasized or disregarded, rather it should be incorporated. For more info on Linear Improv and Goal Note style soloing check out: Bert Lignon: Connecting Chords w/ Linear Harmony and Jimmy Amadie: Jazz Improv -- How to Play It/How to Teach It or get with me for a lesson. When deciding whether or not to play modes, consider its APPROPRIATENESS to the style. Charlie Parker was not a MODAL player, so when books try to teach you how to play bebop and start introducing modal theory, they're pretty much leading you astray.

Do you know any good ear training programs ?

Yes, your hands, your mind and your ears. As a general rule, if you can play it, you can hear it. You'll notice this as your playing develops. You'll begin to associate the sounds you hear on other records, CDs and bandstands with stuff that you've played before. Sometimes, I can almost feel certain chords and even before I am able to say "Oh that's a sharp nine with an altered fifth," I feel my hands just going into that hand position even if I'm nowhere near my instrument. This is what practical and functional ear training is all about, and why I spend so much time both with my students (and in my own personal studies) focusing in on learning how to pinpoint the tones belonging to each chord and how to use and alter them. So, if you want to begin a serious ear training program today, start to focus in not on just HOW to memorize chords, licks, riffs, runs and melodies but what tones you are using and why... what they sound like, the ways you can alter them, what they feel like and take mental note of what they are and what situations you can use them in - - also be sure to use them within the context of tunes (and learn as many tunes as you can) that way when you hear something interesting you like you might be able to mentally reference it to "that other tune" you know with the same type of chord, lick or scale.

How come you advise your students against studying several instruments at once ?

Actually, it depends upon the situation. If you've already gotten down your basic Jazz Improv skills, and can perform and improv on your primary instrument and have already gotten down the basic technique and rudiments related to it, nothing is wrong with stretching out; however, if you're still lacking basic skills on your primary instrument (especially related to timing and tone) and are still a bit shaky at handling and playing through tunes, taking on additional instrument will just distract you. Rather than becoming serious endeavors, the artifacts in your instrument collection become toys that you merely fiddle around with. The end result : when one instrument presents some kind of technical challenge, rather than working on it, its too tempting to just put it down and fiddle on the next instrument. There are points, however, when taking on additional instruments can actually be advisable, or seem only logical, for example, if you're a horn player, learning to play piano so you can work out harmonies is not a bad idea.

How can I learn to play really fast ?

By first learning to play stuff solidly and in time and at medium tempos. Once the movements and feel grows on you, picking up the tempo will come naturally. When I studied with Big John Patton he used to scream at me if I'd try to play something faster than I actually could. His specific words as I recall would be, "Now, why are you going to go and do a thing like that ?"  and call me a knucklehead. - - He was right... take a tune, and play it at the tempo you can, and after you play it and play it and play it and really get the changes under your fingers. Never let yourself be satisfied with sloppy rushed playing just because a tune is difficult and you want to "challenge it" at that tempo. You don't get points on a bandstand for sounding bad because you tried extra hard material... you get points for sounding good, whether you're grooving on a simple Children's song like "Three Blind Mice" or "Twinkle Twinkle" gone Jazz or playing some tricky Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt head !

sidenote: -- There is one technical pattern book that I make an exception to the rule to my students in terms of studying. Hanon's Virtuoso Pianist can be very useful at loosening up your fingers and lately I find myself coming back to it, but these patterns in themselves should not replace genuine feel, concept and improvisation.

What about memorizing tunes?

Admittedly, I am very weak at this. Luckily I'm very good at handling sheets. However, memory (*and I don't even know my own cell phone number by heart and have know idea where my keys are at this very moment) is something I always on. In recent years, the secret I've learned is to throw away the lead sheet, listen to the tune, and practice learning it from scratch by figuring it out by ear. Also, check out David Baker's HOW TO LEARN TUNES. Most Jazz standards follow set forms and patterns, so once you get used to their form and the basic cadences, its not that bad. Be careful though about being too formulaic in the way you memorize tunes. Some musicians refuse to use lead sheets ever, but at the same time refuse to deviate from what they've memorized either. This can create serious problems. This is why at my sessions if a musician calls a tune that I suspect might be a bit difficult for them or even myself I will say, "Are you sure you know the tune?" and I will not take "Yes, maybe..." for an answer... Either you know the chords and melody or you don't. If you don't, use a sheet, and if you can't, call something you know! In theory there are about 100 or so basic standards that every "standards" (including modern/bop) Jazz musician should know.


I wrote the original version of the JAZZFaq almost a decade and a half ago. I am always growing and changing as a musicians, and some of my thoughts change over time. In addition, Jazz is about breaking the rules. Please feel free to chime in if you have any opinions. For a public dialogue, follow me on FACEBOOK or TWITTER, for private dialogue, please teach me. Also, please visit the LEARNING section of my website if you're interested in getting with me for a lesson. While my in-person rates are market competitive, my online learning system is very cheap.

Created By
Eddie Landsberg

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