Welcome, Visitor Number

29 March 2013


This post is aimed at any beginner trying to play traditional jazz and wanting to get established in a band. So I apologise to the many readers who will not find this topic of interest.

But, judging from many emails I have received,  I believe that the effort of writing it will be worthwhile.

O.K. You can play your instrument reasonably well and you have learned a few tunes. You have joined a band - maybe of fellow beginners, maybe an established band. Within the tunes you play, you will be expected occasionally to take 'solo' choruses.

Doing this at first can be a daunting experience. However hard you try, you are likely to play some 'wrong' and ugly-sounding notes. But don't worry. Your fellow musicians will support you. Stick at it and you will gradually improve.

The better prepared you are, the easier it will be. Get to know the correct notes of the tune well. Master keys and scales and be very conscious of the key in which you are playing. If possible, memorise the tune's chord sequence too.

Keep things simple when you first take a solo. It may help to do little more than play the melody, with minimal decoration.

Let's say you are going to improvise a Chorus on The Darktown Strutters Ball in the key of C.

Right, you know the first four bars go like this:
So you could play close to the melody but quite effectively, for example:

You are keeping in mind the chord structure of these bars, so you are using notes largely running through those chords. By the way, the 'passing' A7 chord is there in Bar 2 but when improvising you need not worry too much about that.
With a little experience, you can later start to be more adventurous. You can get away from the melody but still be in harmony with it and keeping on the chords. For example, if you know the first chord of a tune, it's often a good idea to begin your improvisation on the flattened third, going immediately from it to the third. So note how Eb and E are used in Bar 1 below.

In your anxiety, you may want to make sure that you are playing something on every beat of every bar. But good improvised solos often include little breaks - moments of silence. These can be specially effective on the first beat or two of the bar (as in Bar 3 here) and they give you time to 'feel' the chord and make sure you are on it.
That is simple enough but it runs nicely down through the C chord (Bars 1 and 2) and the D7 chord (Bars 3 and 4) and sounds effective.

The Chorus of The Darktown Strutters Ball actually comprises 20 bars, of which I have dealt with only the first four.

So you will have to treat the other 16 bars in the same way. But I hope I have given some ideas on how to get going.

As your confidence increases, try to be more relaxed. Allow for those moments of silence I have mentioned. This is easier said than done; and you must not be relaxed to the point of becoming casual. If you do so, you will make mistakes. But try not to be rushed. Listen to the other members of the band as you play: doing so will help to avoid playing those 'ugly' notes.


The book 'Playing Traditional Jazz' by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon.