You are on page 1of 13


The purpose of this lesson is to provide an introduction to jazz improvisation. Included are notable
musicians and albums, tips for jazz styles and jazz in general, as well as an introduction to chords, chord
changes, and improvising.

By Tanner Cassidy

Welcome! If you’re reading this, you’re interested in learning how to improv, and may have some
jazz experience already. You may be asking, what is improv, and how can I do it?
Well, for starters, improv is essentially composing melodies on the spot. Improv is the apex of
jazz, and is essential for anyone interested in the craft.

this lesson, several aspects of jazz and improv will be addressed.
and are included, as well as .
A section on
 is also included, which includes general tips for improv and jazz in general, and range from
being instrument specific to all encompassing. The meat of the lesson is included with the 
section, followed by . The lesson concludes with a sample tune, which is Jimmy Forrest’s
. Throughout the lesson pro tips will be listed, offering little tidbits of information relevant to
the section discussed as well as improv in general.
The most important thing to know is that jazz and improv should be fun! While it can be daunting
at times, jazz is one of the most rewarding means of expression out there. Jazz, and especially improv,
should be thought of as being two parts: technique and emotion. If you have all technique, you’re solos
are bland. If you have all emotion, your solos are unnerving. Both are required for great music, and this
lesson is designed to give you the tools to achieve both and start making great music.
So have fun! Unlock a part of your musical ability you won’t regret, and soon can’t live without.

About the Author: Tanner Cassidy currently attends North Central College, where he is in the Music,
Education, and Jazz Departments. He is working towards his BA in Music and Education, and plans on a
minor in Jazz Studies. He plays the alto saxophone, clarinet, and piano.

Jazz for Starters 2

Here’s a group of famous artists, by instrument, in no particular order. These are people everyone in jazz
should know, but are also people to listen to and imitate. Included are the standard instruments, as well
as vocalists and notable bandleaders. The artists here inhabit all genres of jazz, with some being early
pioneers and others still alive and working today.

Alto Sax
Tenor Sax
Bari Sax
Soprano Sax

Miles Davis, Arturo Sandoval, Louis Armstrong,
Chet Baker, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard
Ferguson, Wynton Marsalis, Harry James, Herb Alpert, Jenny Dorham
Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderly,
Eric Dolphy, Johnny Hodges
John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz,
Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young
Denis DiBlasio, Harry Carney, Jack Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff
Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, Branford Marsalis
Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw
Benny Morton, J. J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Al Grey, Slide Hampton, Carl Fontana,
Wycliffe Gordon, Bill Watrous, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller
Gene Krupa, Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Jo Jones,
Sonny Payne
Pat Metheny, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Freddie Green
Charles Mingus, Walter Page, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Dave Holland,
Paul Chambers, Ray Brown
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson,
Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk
Paul Barbarin, Lionel Hampton, Gary Burton, Terry Gibbs
Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra,
Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich,
Maynard Ferguson, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman,
Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey

Pro-Tip: Find a player you like and do some research. Many jazz biographies exist, as well as tons of info
on the internet. Look into their history, as well as how they refined and discovered their sound. Look at
what horn they played on, what mouthpiece, etc, and find a way to experiment like they did. This allows
you to explore your sound while still strengthening your knowledge of the greats.
Pro-Tip: Take a solo that you really like, that you have an accessible recording of, and “transcribe” the
solo. What this means is that you take their improvised solo exactly as it was played and figure it out on
your instrument. Try to match their tone and play along with the recording. This strengthens your
technique as well as getting an idea as to how your favorite soloist makes music. Try to avoid writing
down the transcription. The impact will be stronger on your abilities if you can memorize and play back
solos without relying on music.

Jazz for Starters 3

Here’s a place to start for your jazz listening pleasure. These, like the artists, span a wide variety of styles
and genres. These are some of the best of the best, and recordings can be found on music and sheet
music is readily available. A notable big band album is Basie’s The Atomic Basie, and the pinnacle of jazz
is Davis’s Kind of Blue. If you don’t know where to start, listen to these for sure.
Buddy Rich – Big Swing Face (1967)
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Count Basie – April in Paris (1955)
Count Basie – The Atomic Basie (1958)
Count Basie – Basie Big Band (1975)
Count Basie and Duke Ellington –First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961)
Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)
Dizzy Gillespie – Dizzy Gillespie at Newport (1957)
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (1956)
Herbie Hancock – Takin’ Off (1962)
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)
John Coltrane – Blue Train (1957)
Maynard Ferguson – Chameleon (1974)
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959, IF YOU LISTEN TO ONE ALBUM, LISTEN TO THIS ONE)
Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
Thelonius Monk – Monk’s Dream (1963)
Pro-Tip: YouTube is a glorious thing. Make good use of it. Albums and live performances alike are in
abundance on YouTube, as well as even documentaries and interviews from the greats. Another good
resource is Pandora and Spotify. Pandora especially is great for hearing new music in the genre you like
that you haven’t heard before.

Pro-Tip: Upon looking into different jazz styles and musicians, you are bound to find things you love. You
are also bound to find things you don’t love as much. However, whether you’re a big band aficionado or
a lifelong lover of combos, a well-rounded musician is well-versed in many styles of music. If you really
like slow songs played by big bands, try listening to a fast combo piece. The crossover of information is
incredible, and you’ll be a better musician for it.
Jazz for Starters 4

Included on this page are common jazz terms and symbols, which are essential to building ability
in performance and improv ability. Knowledge of chords and terms are essential, as not knowing the
correct style of music or quality of chord makes you sound out of place, and hurts the sound quality of
your performance and solo.

A Section
B Section
Double Time
Fake/Real Book
Half Time
Jazz Standard

The first section of a tune, typically 8 bars, typically the main theme
A common form of music
Raising or lowering a tone by a half-step
Raised by a half-step
Follows the A Section; same as the bridge
Beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time, which are typically strongly accented
A slow tune
A style of jazz from the 40s pioneered by Parker and Gillespie, where small groups
and fast, complex improv was preferred over earlier swing big bands
A common 12 bar form and style of jazz
A passage where the soloist plays without accompaniment
A typically contrasting middle section; see bridge
Any musical score; term commonly used on jazz tunes
Three or more notes played together, based around a root
Referring to the twelve-tone scale built on half-step intervals
A complete run through of a tune from top to bottom
The end to a tune, used after the final chorus
A style of jazz from the 50s pioneered by Davis, where bebop styles were taken
but slowed down and played more soulfully
Lowered by a half-step
A tempo twice as fast
A collection of standard jazz tunes
A tempo half as fast
A chord played with a note other than the root in the bass
A well-known and often played jazz tune
Pertaining to styles from Latin American or Afro-Cuban countries, and is
dominated by straight 8th notes as well as its own stylistic nuances
A series of chords which relate to the key with roman numerals
The character of the chord judged by the 3rd, 5th, and 7th (such as major, minor,
dominant, diminished, half-diminished, etc)
A piece of borrowed music from another well-known tune (See trumpet solo in
Basie’s April in Paris)
A relatively simple and catchy repeated phrase
The note on which a chord is based
Jazz for Starters 5

Shout Chorus
Straight Eighths

A rapid ascending or descending passage, usually on a scale
A composed chorus played typically before the end of the piece; in big band tunes
the horns play in rhythmic unison and the rhythm section usually drops out or is
Improvisation over a chorus by oneself
Equal, non-swung 8th notes (common in Latin)
A rhythmic component of jazz, where the first note in a pair of 8 th notes is
typically longer, and the second is shorter and accented
Displacement of the beat, where instead of accenting the downbeats the
offbeats are accented
A simple section like a riff, where it can be repeated as often as necessary
How a chord is played on the piano, determined by the particular arrangement
of the notes of the chord
A typical, quarter note based bassline
As in ‘time’ (3X means ‘3 times,’ or ‘3rd time’)

Pro-Tip: Knowing jazz terms is important, but make sure you don’t get some of the terms confused with
their classical counterparts. A term in jazz may mean something different in classical or other genres.
However, some terms are the same. It’s up to you to know and catch the little nuances of jazz and classical

Chord Type
Minor Seventh
Dominant Seventh
Major Seventh
Full Diminished Seventh
Half Diminished Seventh
Added Notes

Symbol (Can be any chord)
Xm, X-, Xmi, Xmin
X°, Xdim
X , Xaug, X(#5)
Xm7, X-7, Xmi7, Xmin7
Xmaj7, XΔ7, Xma7, XM7
X°7, Xdim7
Xm7(b5), XØ7, X-7(b5)
X9, X11, X13, Xb9, X6/9, etc.

Notes Used
1 b3 5
1 b3 b5
1 3 #5
1 b3 5 b7
1 3 5 b7
1 b3 b5 bb7
1 b3 b5 b7
The notated note is added to the chord

Pro-Tip: Jazz is thought of in terms of ‘scale degrees.’ What this means is in the key of C, E is the 3rd, as
in the C scale (CDEFGABC) E is the 3rd note in the scale. Therefore, a common major chord is 1 3 5,
which in C is C E G.
Pro-Tip: While they may be subtle differences, a change in a chord makes a big difference on how it
sounds. Thus, ignoring a b3 in a minor chord completely changes the sound of it, and thus is a “wrong”
note. Getting to know the different chord types allows for more complex and interesting solos, while
ignoring them makes your solo sound out of place.

Jazz for Starters 6

Now the fun stuff. This section will help you play chords and know which notes fit nicely into
changes. All examples will be in C, but will be in bass and treble clef.

What is shown above is the C scale ascending. If you add the 3rd and 5th (in the scale) above each
note, you get this pattern. The roman numerals are the scale degrees (see pro tip above), where a capital
numeral means it’s a major chord, and a lowercase numeral means it’s a minor chord. In other words, C
is the first scale degree, so the 1 chord in the C scale is major. This also means that the 3 chord, E, is minor
(a normal E chord is E G# B, whereas here the chord is E G B).
Whoa, whoa, whoa, that got complicated fast. Let’s try an exercise. Below is the F scale. The
scale degrees are included as well as the root tones, but the chord notes, names, and qualities aren’t
included. The scale is major, and no accidentals should be needed. Use the C scale above as reference if
you need help.

So how was that? Hopefully not too difficult. Understanding how chords fit into the scale of the
piece is essential, and the proficient jazz musician can easily use all keys to their advantage.

Pro-Tip: ‘I IV V’ is a very common chord progression, as well as ‘ii V I.’ Being able to use these two
changes, because understanding how the notes work together will drastically improve your solos.

Jazz for Starters 7

Now we’re going to look at chords and progressions. Looking at the symbol chart earlier,
remember that a 7th chord has a 1 3 5 b7. This is the most common and most important chord in jazz.
We’re going to look at a simple ‘I IV V’ progression, and the chords will be broken apart. We’ll be working
in Bb. The chords are shown as blocks, followed by an arpeggiation (this just means to break up the

If you know what notes make up a chord, all you have to do is play those notes when the chord
comes up and it’ll fit into the sound. While chord accuracy doesn’t insure a good solo, every good solo
has chord accuracy. You can play any note in the chord, and elaborate to notes in the scale of the chord
(but if that’s too hard, don’t worry about it yet). It’s important to learn chords from memory as much as
possible, as you won’t be reading off of a chord sheet for solos in performance.
So, a question you may have is, how does this sound? Does it even work? Included below is a
sample solo, using just notes in the chords of a simple progression. If you can, play or listen to the solo to
see how it sounds. The chords are put on the bottom, and the solo is on the top line.

Jazz for Starters 8

So, how does this solo sound to you? It’s nice, and it works, but it could use more. Maybe add
some complex rhythms, or throw in some other notes from the scale. Still, this solo works, and is a good
first step on the road to jazz greatness.

Pro-Tip: While transcribing has been mentioned early, you can do the same thing for yourself. Record
yourself playing (it’s 2014, you can!) and transcribe your own solo on paper. Look at the chords and
how you used them, and then improve and modify your own solo. This serves the dual purpose of
getting some more transcribing practice while also self-evaluating and self-assessing your ability. This
will make you a stronger musician.

Now, take the chords above and try soloing yourself! Use a metronome or a background track,
if you have access to one. Also, here’s come practice writing out and arpeggiating chords. Add in your
own clef and write in a range that would be comfortable for you to play later. Have fun!

Jazz for Starters 9

Before we conclude with a song to play and practice with, here’s some general assorted jazz tips,
in no particular order. Enjoy!

The cheapest way to fix your sound is with a new mouthpiece. Coltrane had a bowling bag sized
kit of mouthpieces, and he used all of them to get his legendary sound. One and done doesn’t
always work.
Charlie Parker supposedly practiced 15 hours a day. If you can do just one hour, you’ll still be
great. Give 5 hours a week to jazz. It’ll show in no time.
Learn as much as you can and do all of your exercises from memory. Also, any written solos and
transcriptions you do, also learn from memory. NEVER READ MUSIC DURING A SOLO
PERFORMANCE. It’s unprofessional and makes it harder to express emotion.
Always clap for solos in rehearsal, and only offer constructive criticism. No solo is bad, and no
note is wrong, only not quite what was intended. Be a support system to your fellow musicians,
and they’ll do the same.
Don’t play the same tired songs over and over again. You like Chameleon? Good. Move on to
something else. You can’t be a great musician knowing only one song.
Avoid scooping at all costs during a solo. Looking at you, sax players. In fact, when you’re
LISTEN TO JAZZ!!!!!!!!!!! This cannot be stressed enough. You can’t know how to improve your
sound without hearing sounds at all. Listen to a few new pieces a day. Listen to two songs by
artists you know, and one by someone you don’t. Form a repertoire and be well listened, and it’ll
show in your music.
Have a jam session once in a while. Plan a weekend and get some friends together to just jam
over some tunes. Practicing is important, and should be fun, but live performance is the best by
far for learning and just enjoying jazz.
Find places to listen to jazz. You’d be surprised how prevalent jazz performances are. Many places
are at restaurants with no cover charge, or are merely free concerts. Live jazz is much more
intimate, and the emotion is easier to see and hear.
Trust your rhythm section, and to the rhythm section, trust yourselves. ALWAYS HAVE
COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR RHYTHM SECTION. They drive and are the backbone of the band.
You can be the greatest soloist in the world, but if you aren’t with your rhythm section, you’re
When practicing jazz, have your metronome lay on beats 2 and 4. In jazz, the back beats, 2 and
4, are the accented notes, so when your metronome is set to that you get the feel without
necessarily having a rhythm section or backing track.
Know how much to swing. Very rarely will jazz be dotted eighth-sixteenth, but is usually more of
a triplet feel with articulation on the up-beats. Articulating the up-beats is what makes jazz sound

Jazz for Starters 10

So here it is! Time to play a chorus and solo over changes. This is a simple blues progression by
Jimmy Forrest that only has three chords, so it should be pretty easy to get behind. Included is the chorus
in four variations, Eb, Bb, C, and Bass Clef parts. Articulations are added (this is uncommon for a lead
sheet) to get the blues feel going. Take note of the I IV V pattern in the chords (this is really common!).
So here it is! Have fun!

Jazz for Starters 11

Pro-Tip: Play through the chorus twice (try to have a background recording to play over), followed by
playing a chorus or two of just the arpeggiated chords (play 1 3 5 b7 as an eighth note line), and then
actually soloing. This get the notes of the changes in your head, and gives you plenty of time to think
about your playing and your soloing.
Jazz for Starters 12

So there you have it! There’s some of the building blocks needed to be the next jazz great. You
now know the great artists and albums, the terms and symbols commonly seen, how to approach and
solo over chords, and your first standard of many to come. Here’s some closing things to consider. Below
are a list of some items an aspiring jazz musician should possess, as well as some recordings and standards
to look to next, now that you’re familiar with Night Train.
Now go on! Go out there and make amazing music, and master the art of improvisation!

Notable Recordings:
Buddy Rich – Straight No Chaser

Dave Brubeck – Take Five

Charlie Parker – Ornithology

Duke Ellington – Happy Go Lucky Local
(Night Train under a different name)

Charlie Parker – Yardbird Suite
Chet Baker – Autumn Leaves
Count Basie – Jumpin at the Woodside

Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
Maynard Ferguson – Coconut Champagne

Recommended Standards:
Afternoon in Paris – John Lewis

A Night in Tunisia – Dizzy Gillespie

Black Orpheus – Luiz Bonfa

Stompin’ at the Savoy – Benny Goodman

Blue Bossa – Kenny Dorham

Straight No Chaser – Thelonious Monk

Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk

Take the “A” Train – Duke Ellington

Freddie Freeloader – Miles Davis

There Will Never Be Another You – Harry Warren

In a Mellow Tone – Duke Ellington

When Sunny Gets Blue – Marvin Fischer

Misty – Errol Garner

Essential Gear:
iReal Pro – Amazing app on Android and iOS. It plays background tracks for chords you enter. You can
also download sheets off the internet (including the entire Real Book) and you can change the sounds
and styles it makes. Costs $12.99.
The Real Book – Available at music stores and on the internet for any instrument. Start with volume one,
but there are several volumes to choose from at a later time. Every standard recommended above is
in volume one of the real book. Costs $35.
Jazz for Starters 13