I began my formal musical education as a classical clarinettist and pianist at junior school. I added the saxophone to my arsenal at high school because I wanted to join the big band which played at our Friday assemblies and sounded so fresh and exciting. After I matriculated, I went on to university to study classical clarinet and later changed my course to major in jazz studies on saxophone. Knowing what I know now (several years later), I believe that one should tackle these ten things head-on when starting jazz, in order to give yourself a fighting chance at being a respectable jazz musician.
I would like to note, that jazz is a very broad church nowadays and there are many different views on exactly what jazz is and how to go about skinning the proverbial cat. These points are from my personal experience as a horn player and advice for someone who would like to come to grips with the language and tradition of Straight-Ahead Jazz. I believe that any musician who calls themselves a “jazz musician” would have, at some point, paid their respects to the pioneers and greats of jazz history and spent many hours on several of the things, if not all the things, mentioned in the list below. Most of these principles would apply to any instrument, although this is very much from a sax player’s point of view. I have no doubt that different musicians will have different ideas or disagree with some of my points, but this is the way that it worked out for me.
1. Listen to as much jazz as possible. Classic, Straight-Ahead Jazz is the most important when you are starting out. If you were trying to learn any language, let’s take French for example; you could not just learn from a book and expect to speak it authentically in every day life. You would sound really weird to real French speakers! You would need to listen to authentic French speakers to get the sound in your ear and absorb the nuances of the language. Jazz is also a langauge, so the same applies. It is crucial to get the sound and feel of jazz into your ear.
2. Learn you major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales in all 12 keys and know them very well. These scales form the basis of so many things which will help you to improvise comfortably. Various modes, arpeggios, chords and melodies are based on these three basic scales (amongst others). Scales are like your alphabet. One of the first things one learns as a very small child is the alphabet of your language. How do you expect to understand the language of music if you don’t even know its alphabet?
3. Learn your major and minor arpeggios. Besides these being crucial cornerstones of understanding harmony, triads can be used in so many amazing ways, from outlining basic chord changes to more complicated concepts; such as triad pairings, spread triads, playing diminished patterns using major triads and dealing with songs that have fast harmonic rhythms and substitutions for example.
4. Know your quartads. Know all your major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th and half-diminished 7th quartads. After you master these, add augmented and diminished 7th quartads to your bag too. It is vital to know which notes make up a chord, especially the 3rd degree and 7th degree, because they dictate whether a chord is major, minor, dominant, etc. If you see a D7 chord, you need to know instantaneously that the notes that make up that chord are D, F#, A & C. If you want to play the correct notes, you need to know what they are. If you’d like to play the “incorrect” notes, then you’ll also know what they are. If you are at home with your quartads and scales then this won’t be a problem.
5. Learn major/minor pentatonic scales and Blues scales. The reason I group these scales together is because they are very similar. Many of you who read this will know that the Blues scale metamorphosised from the pentatonic scale. Both of these scales are the bread and butter of jazz improvisation, because the Blues is at the core of jazz, as well as Rock, Pop, etc.
5. Learn to differentiate between major 2-5-1 progressions and minor 2-5-1 progressions. These two basic chord progressions form about 75% of most Standards. In the key of C, a major 2-5-1 progression would Dmin7 – G7 – Cmaj7 (diatonic chords, built on the 2nd, 5th and root degree in the key of C).
A minor 2-5-1 progression is usually quite easy to spot, because chord two will normally be half-diminished, the dominant would normally be altered (it would have b9’s or #9’s or b13’s, etc. above the dominant) and it would resolve to a minor chord. For example, Dmin7(b5) – G7(b9) – Cmin7.
Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this statement and major and minor 2-5 progressions do get mixed together, but when you are starting out, I would concentrate on spotting the difference between these two progressions. Standards like “Autumn Leaves” or “Blue Bossa” are a good tunes to check out because they use these progressions really clearly within the same song, so you can learn to differentiate between the two different types.
6. Memorise a few basic Jazz Standards. Learning Standards develops one’s ear, shows you how jazz developed and changed over time and teaches you how harmony functions. If you check out Standards by the greats, such as Armstrong, Ellington, Porter, Miles, the Gershwins (to name a few), you can learn a lot about composition and form. One of the best things about knowing Standards, is that if you go to a jam session anywhere from Buenos Aires to Tokyo and everywhere in between, you will be able to play with other musicians using these familiar vehicles for improvisation. Good tunes to begin learning are songs like Autumn Leaves, Blue Bossa, Take the A Train, Sandu, Little Sunflower and I Got Rhythm to name a few. When you learn these tunes, try to listen carefully to the chord progressions, try to hear how they fit together and move from one to another. If you can hear how the chords are moving, you’ll never need to memorise a Standard as you will be able to hear what’s happening, as it’s happening.
7. Transcribe jazz. “Transcribe” is the fancy word for “working out stuff from the record”. When I was a child I use to work out The Eagles, Green Day and the Rolling Stones chords and solos on guitar directly from the record, long before YouTube and iTunes existed. When I began studying jazz, I was told to transcribe and I was immediately intimidated because it seemed like such a serious word. Later, I realised that I had been “transcribing” for many years and although jazz was way more challenging for me, it improved with time and practice. Transcribing really improves one’s ear, feel, articulation, knowledge of the language of jazz and connectivity with your instrument. It is a crucial aspect to becoming a jazz musician.
8. Work on your jazz articulation. One really big change from Classical or Rock music to jazz, is the way you articulate. There are several different ways to articulate that can be gleaned from transcribing the various jazz greats. Having said that, a good place to start is by practising your scales articulating every other note (Bebop articulation). There are several good videos on YouTube describing these articulations.
9. Learn licks or phrases. There are many classic licks or phrases that you will begin to hear popping up over and over again when listening to jazz. Some argue that copying licks is not being creative, but it definitely helped me to get some jazz literature into my playing and naturally, those licks and phrases start to morph and become your own. They are sort of like “idioms” in any language… A saying or phrase that gets used all the time because everyone knows what it means, but can’t really remember when they first heard it… Like “break a leg” or “bite the bullet”. For me, it’s also fun to quote a lick or two of some of your favourite players. If you love a lick that someone played, then it’s fun to salute one of your heroes.
10. Go to as many jam sessions as possible. Earn those hours! There is no short cut. One of the best ways to become a decent jazz musician is to play with other musicians as often as possible. Test your mettle at a jam session once a week or when you visit a new city. Sometimes you will leave feeling like a million bucks and other times you’ll have your ass handed to you! Either way, it’s a good thing and it will keep you moving forward and improving one step at a time.
Enjoy the journey. It’s not a race… Just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward every day and enjoy what you are doing. I always tell my students, that if you learn one new thing a day, one year from now you will know 365 new things.