12 March 2013


Today I am printing below an article that has been sent to me by the English jazz pianist Chris Reilley. Chris has contributed articles to this blog in the past - on Chords, on Jazz Devices, on Playing Boogie-Woogie. Today he tackles the subject of improvising.


Firstly let me point out that I am not an expert on this subject and with regard to any remarks I make, this should be borne in mind. For what it is worth I have been a jazz musician for about 60 years playing Mouth Organ, Clarinet, Trombone and Piano/Keyboard. I currently play Piano/Keyboard with several different Bands playing in the New Orleans Revival, Classic Jazz, Rhythm and Blues and Boogie Woogie styles.

An important factor to consider for this Art is that Jazz is one of the few music styles in which musicians are expected to Improvise (Extemporise) on a melody, that is compose a new melody based on the existing tune on the hoof. For anyone who has not attempted to master this should be aware that this is not an easy thing to master, but hopefully the following suggestions might be of assistance.

There are several Guides which have been published on the Internet which might also be considered in relation to this subject as helpful for the student on this subject. A very great deal of information is available for those who want to make a greater study of the subject, however from purely a practicable standpoint, I have written this Guide in the hope that musicians who wish to learn this Art will not be overawed with too much information. It would be beneficial if the student musician had some basic rudimentary knowledge of Musical Notation, especially if they wish to follow some of the additional material provided as Musical Score.

I think there are several areas which could be addressed to clarify this Guide and I will deal with them as follows:-
  1. Understand the use of Chord Patterns as an Aid.
  2. Using Scales and Arpeggios and Leading Notes.
  3. Learning the correct melody for tunes.
  4. Listen to the recordings.
  5. Copy “licks” or sequences.
  6. Establish the best Tempo, Key and Arrangement for tunes, including Latin Rhythms.
  7. Practice keeping a steady Tempo (in Time) on your own with a Metronome and a Band.
  8. Use Tonal Changes and Phrasing .
  9. Use tricks.
1. Chord Patterns
Whilst it is important to understand the use of Chords in being able to improvise it should be stressed that this is not the main requisite for being able to Improvise on any melody. It is important however that any Improvisation follows the Chord Pattern of the tune. The most important factor to consider is the how the instrumentalist follows the tune without necessarily playing all the same notes as the composition. To do this is much more difficult as it requires composing a new melody to fit the tune structure on the fly.
For the suggested chords given in sheet music, please refer to paragraph 3. below. The above chord Chart represents most of the chords used in Traditional Jazz music, but not all. The understanding of Chords is a whole different subject which is not being enlarged on here. Suffice it to say that not even the Chord symbols used are common throughout musical notation and some of the more complicated chords require the use of 7 notes. As a Pianist I decided not to attempt to play these as I use my left hand only in playing chords (limited to 5 notes and a stretch of about an octave) and use the right hand for melody. Anyway in most cases the lead instruments will play the extraneous notes to extend the chord, so for them it might be more important to play extended chords.

2. Scales, Arpeggios, and Leading Notes
Again as an Aid to the musician, it would be helpful to master the Scales, Arpeggios and Leading Notes for the Keys which are usually used in playing Traditional Jazz. In the development of this Genera, Bands usually play tunes in one of the “Flattened Keys” i.e.- Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, F and Gb. However the musician will probably come across the use of C and G as well as passing Chords in which the relevant passing notes maybe used. Added to these are notes used in the different chord structures e.g.- Minor, Major, Augmented, Major 6th, Dominant 7th, Diminished, and Dominant 9th. to name just a few. To add further there are some unusual “magic” chords used in tunes that appear to bear no resemblance to the key e.g.- in the Key of Bb major there might appear a leading chord of Db! Diminished Chords can also be used in the same way. Also see the chords for Alexander's Ragtime Band below where the chords F#o, Dm7, Bo, D7 and G7 all of which would need to be considered for learning outside of the normal flattened keys.

3. Learning the Correct Melody
Here there is possible the most difficult part. Unfortunately the original recordings of tunes made by the Composers were produced on equipment that was not accurate for speed, and in some cases the the recording was speeded up to get it all on the Recording Disc or Cylinder. This meant that the resulting Key was sometimes as much as a whole tone out. There is, however a check (of sorts) that the Sheet Music normally gives the suggested Tempo and Key. The shortfall of the Scored Music is that it is only a Guide to the Melody and is usually intended to be played in Strict time without any slight change in tempo or accent. This just does not happen in Traditional Jazz, where the musicians use their own interpretations of the Melody. Besides which to write accurate score for some of the tunes played in jazz bands would require a page full of vary short notes and rests – almost unreadable. Most musicians would probably not play the same phrase twice in the same way anyway.
A reference to the collection of available sheet music for Traditional Jazz tunes can be a help to establish the melody line, playing key and suggested chords can be a help for those starting to learn the tunes. Lead Sheets for many tunes can be purchased as volumes are an alternative asset at less cost than the full sheet music.

An example of this is:-This shows both the Verse and Chorus for this old tune from 1911 composed by Irving Berlin. 
As most of the tunes in these collections are shown in Concert Key format, it is necessary for the Bb Instruments to Transpose.

4. Listen to the Recordings.
In my view this is the most important requirement in leaning to Improvise. Most musicians have a favourite Jazz Musician who they would like to emulate and some (including me) have several. There are many in this field of Jazz to choose from. It is important that the student musician(s) listen to those jazz masters which they like in this Genre of music. It is not suggested that any attempt should be made to play exactly the same notes and style as the master, but to learn how they phrase and time the improvisation played by the professional. The notes the master plays should always fit the existing tune in terms of chords and timing but it might be difficult to appreciate some of the more subtle phrases without the student trying them on their own instrument.

5. Copy “licks” or Sequences.
From listening to the recordings the musician should hear (from time to time) a “lick” or Jazz Phrase used by a master in more than one as part of their Improvisation. An example of of this can be heard on the recording by the George Lewis Band made in 1962 shown on YouTube:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WjvJwtPLyg. The tune is Over The Waves which starts in Waltz Time and goes into 4/4. In his solo you can hear several phrases which he uses from time to time in other recordings of other tunes in which he improvises on the Melody.

6. Tempo, Key and Arrangements
These three factors need to be considered separately.
There is a common tendency for musicians who are just starting to play Jazz is to start tunes at too fast a tempo or speed up during the tune. In the early days (after 1900) in New Orleans most of the music was performed by Marching Bands so the common saying at that time was “do not play faster than you can walk”. Then there were the Dance Bands that played early Dance Music which was always played at a slow to moderate tempo. It was not until the age of Jazz came along in the 1920's that the Dances and Tunes hotted up, but there still had be an allowance for the performing of some numbers that could not be played by any but the most versatile of musicians working together as a Band and if they included a Vocalist the tempo had to be moderated to allow the words to be sung clearly. Another consideration was the heat, especially in the Summer.
The Composer suggests the key, but this might have to be changed to allow for stringed or other sorts of instruments or Vocalist (particularly with a limited range). Well known recordings have established Keys as well.
From the illustration shown below there are many tunes that follow specific arrangements. All these should be mastered keeping in mind how many times each part is to be played, the order and in which key. As can be seen from this example of Tiger Rag, composed in 1917, this has several parts with suggested “Breaks”, starting in the key of F Major, going to Bb Major and finally to Ab Major. The Improvisation would normally not be used until the Ab Strain during the Solos.
7. Practice keeping a steady Tempo
The need for Practice is also paramount. I found it helpful to Practice whilst playing along with some recordings. Only those that were not too far out of Key. The alternative was to practice with other members of a Band (assuming the Student is in one). Practice on your own. This form of practice is the most demanding as the player has to remember the tune whilst they play the improvisation keeping good time. Consequently the player must be able to count accurately as well as all the rest. The musician might find it helpful to record their efforts as well, so that they can be checked later. It can be made easier if the Musician has a chording instrument to play along with as at least a Duet.

8. Tonal Changes and Phrasing
Each Instrument has it's own limitations and advantages. The student should be aware and use as many of these as they can.
For Tonal Changes wind instruments there is the use of note bending, slurring, triple toughing etc. added to the use of mutes of all types. Knowing the range limitation of their instrument and particularly when the attempted notes takes the instrument out of tune.
When playing in a Band it is also a good idea to ensure all instruments are in tune with any non tunable instrument such as a Piano. Beware that being out of tune could effect the ability to Improvise well as the musician will not sound the same as when previously practising in the correct key.
Example of Tonal changes are:-

The following recording on YouTube

Just listen to Nick LaRocca (cornet) and Larry Shields (clarinet) share the break in Livery Stable Blues (1917) to hear how LaRocca imitates a horse.

The Clarinet introduction for Rhapsody In Blue: Gershwin

The Benny Goodman solo on St. Louis Blues 1936 listen for the bent notes (usually called “blue notes”) :-

The Phrasing the musician uses for their Improvisation is just as important as the notes they play and gaps they leave in their Improvisation.
To see some mastery of phrasing and timing view the YouTube recording made by the Count Basie Orchestra featuring the Count Basie piano & bass duet 1960 which features the great man, his basest:- Eddie Jones, the lead Trombonist:- Billy Mitchell and the whole band playing a Blues called “I Needs to Be Bee'd With” all muted.

Another “Jazz man's” Singer, the great Billie Holiday sings “All of me” on the next YouTube example to illustrate the way to sing/play behind the beat but keep in time.

9. Use Tricks
Tricks is the general term in this case for the use of sounds not normally heard on Jazz Music recordings.
The use of “Tricks” is not confined to this style of Jazz, but there was a number used by some of the early well known New Orleans Bands to great effect:-
Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers - Sidewalk Blues (1926)
Steamboat Stomp - Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers 1926
Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers:- "Billy Goat Stomp"

To illustrate most of the points made in this document watch the YouTube recording of Wynton Marsalis plays Buddy Bolden Blues for an illustration of how to perform without accompaniment.

The information was mainly related to "the melody instruments". There are a different approaches required by each of the instrulmentalists within a Traditional Jazz Band. For example the Clarinet normally weaves a musical line around the main lead instrument, where the Trombonist will usually play a bass lead again complementing the Lead instrument. 
These are very rough and ready statements as each Band member will usually establish his/her own musical style and there may be times when an established Harmony or Riff will be played by several Band members at pre-established times during tunes. 
The most obvious times when individual Improvisation is heard  is in Solos. It is at that point that the use of the previous suggestions given can be followed. 
Added to that, the rhythm instrumentalists have a different approach. For example the Drummer must rely on trying to represent his/her ideas in Rhythm and a different sound from each part of their Kit.

Chris Reilley, April 2016.