How to Play Jazz….

…..and Improvise

Ah, the ‘J’ word and the ‘I’ word. Enough to get some musicians salivating with delight and expectation or to turn some into a quivering heap running for the quiet sanctity of Chopin !

Yes the words Jazz and Improvisation can certainly be intimidating. Over the years I have worked with some seasoned, professional, absolutely top-notch musicians who refused to allow the word ‘Improvise’ into their vocabulary let alone try in on their instrument ! So what is the big deal about improvising ? Why is it that in some quarters it is regarded with the same esteem as the elixir of life. Well let me answer a few simple improvising queries :

Q. Is it hard to learn how to improvise

A. No

Q. Is it hard to learn how to improvise well ?

A. YES !!!

Q. Can anyone learn ?

A. Yes, absolutely.

So firstly, what is improvising ? Making it up as you go along ? Well, yes and no. Improvising is just a type of composition or ‘writing’ except you don’t write it….you play it. Whereas the Beatles or the Rolling Stones may have sat  around a room bouncing ideas off each other, writing things down, scrapping some ideas that don’t work, until they formulate some chord and melodic structures that will become a song, improvisers do it all in an instant…in their head….and play it instantly…..never to be played the same again ! So in that respect, yes they are making it up as they go along. But here is the rub…. As with most things in life knowledge is power ! The top improvisers from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis all had an almost mystical knowledge of scales, structure, form and most importantly sound! So how did they achieve this? Well unfortunately it’s down to our old friend….PRACTICE ! (Charlie Parker practiced 11 to 15 hours a day for three to four years!).

Now, understand that I am focusing on Jazz here (before guitarist start throwing Eric Clapton at me). Yes I played guitar for ten years before I picked up a sax and I could play some awesome rock and blues before I even knew what a scale was. As soon as I tried transferring those skills onto a sax to play some cool jazz then it very quickly became apparent that my knowledge base was sadly lacking. The good news is that you do not need to learn every single scale and variation under the sun before you can start on the path to becoming the next Dexter Gordon or John Coltrane. Oh and yes, I am referencing these names on purpose. If you are already aware of them and are listening to them then well done…you are on your way to improvisation. If not then I suggest you start your journey by actually listening to some jazz….it’s all there in the music…


So where to start ? Well there is indeed a plethora of books (and now you tube channels) promising you the ‘elixir of jazz’ and I’m certainly not going to start highlighting or critiquing them all. My path to jazz improvisation and that of countless others began with the person who is regarded by most as the master of jazz tuition : Jamey Aebersold.

First published in the 60s ‘How to play Jazz & Improvise’ is still one of THE best books to introduce the novice improviser to the world of jazz (note that this series is not designed to teach you how to play your instrument, some degree of facility is assumed). The book at first glance seems pretty intimidating. Don’t let this put you off. As soon as you dive in it really is self-explanatory. Just some of the points covered are :

  • Bebop scale
  • Blues scale
  • Chromaticism
  • Seventh chords
  • Circle of fourths
  • Ear training
  • Eighth-note (quavers) exercises and swing
  • Melodic development
  • Playing the blues

Don’t worry if some of this seems like gobbledygook…it is all beautifully explained.

But of course Jazz is about music and this is where this book is at. Right from the start you are given some simple ideas and scales (or notes) with some simple chord sequences so you can jump right in with the play-a-long aspect which is, after all, what music is all about! The backing tracks include :

  • 8 bar phrases (over 3 chords)
  • 4 bar phrases (over 3 chords)
  • Random minors over 8 bar phrases
  • 4 measure cadences
  • Cycle of dominant 7ths
  • Minor to dominant

Again, if the above seems intimidating don’t worry. None of the above meant anything to me until I got this book !

The book covers concert pitch, Eb, Bb and bass clef so is for all instruments. This is also the first book in what is now a huge series. So, once you get to grips with this book it is easy to plot a course that will help take your improvising skill to whichever level you want to get to. Be aware though that the course does not follow Vol 1, Vol 2 Vol 3 etc. I have listed below the volumes that I find to be most useful to get you on your way.


“I have never met a person who couldn’t improvise! I have met many who think they can’t”

Jamey Aebersold



 Volume 1 : How to play jazz and improvise

A guide to jazz improvisation.

 Jamey Aebersold : How to play jazz and improvise






Volume 42 : Blues in all keys

A guide to playing the blues in every Major Key. Containing 12 original tracks.

Jamey Aebersold : Blues in all keys






Volume 54 : Maiden Voyage

Fourteen easy to play Jazz tunes

 Jamey Aebersold : Maiden Voyage




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