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15 August 2015


If you're wondering how on earth to go about learning to improvise, may I suggest you watch a wonderful tutorial on YouTube? It is given by the American trumpet-player Charlie Porter. It is full of wisdom, inspirational and also entertaining.

Charlie is a thousand times better at improvising on the trumpet than I am. And he is a natural gifted teacher. He's the man to follow (in this and other YouTube tutorials that he has generously given to the world).

To see the video

And another super little video that gives you some idea about how the trumpet, trombone and clarinet go about collectively improvising is this one:

As for me, I took up trying to play traditional jazz too late in life. I had no Charlie Porter to advise me and my learning processes were more pedestrian.

A wise old friend and jazz musician - Bill Stevens, who alas died several years ago - got me started by telling me there were two ways to improvise when playing jazz. He said you can improvise either on the melody or on the chords. Bill said that if you improvise on the melody, you will sometimes sound terrible but you will also achieve some exciting things. If you improvise on the chords, he said, you will always sound 'right' but will not be so exciting.

Since then, I have come to the view that there is a third way and that it is used (wittingly or unwittingly) by most jazz musicians: it is a mixture of the two above.

My advice will be less useful to you than Charlie Porter's but it may just give you a further means of support if you are really struggling.

Let us take for an example the first four bars of All of Me. And let us have it in the key of C. Written in 1932 by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks, this song has long been a jazz standard. Here's how the melody and chords for those first four bars appear:
So the chords are two bars of C major and two of E7th:
To improvise on those four bars, you could simply play notes from the chords over the sixteen beats. Indeed, this is perhaps a good exercise for complete beginners. You might come up with something like this:
But when you feel confident, move on to something with a bit more sparkle. You must still work round and through notes from the chords but don't be afraid to throw in notes adjacent to them; and build in some syncopation, to keep things swinging. For example:

Now you are on your way!

Bill Stevens' 'chord' method of improvising over a complete tune involves doing this kind of thing with all the bars. The great majority of 'standards' (such as All of Me) comprise 32 bars, which you come to feel as four eights. There is usually some repetition of chord patterns within the tune, so this helps.

When learning a new tune, you may feel more confident if you memorise the notes of the melody and the chord sequence. You may be clever enough to work these out by yourself. But I find it easier to learn from 'busker's books' (sometimes called 'fake books') - obtainable in music shops or from the Internet, where there are many resources.