Jazz Improvisation For Beginners

Many instrumental teachers whose own background is in classical music find
themselves drawn into jazz in response to requests from pupils. The syllabus for most graded music exams now include ‘jazzy’ pieces and a visit to the average music shop will turn up numerous easy anthologies with ‘jazz’ in the title.

If I weren’t a teacher, I would never have touched jazz with a barge-pole – I
didn’t care for it at all! “Boring and cliché-ridden!” was my response to the ‘wallpaper’ jazz to which I had been exposed. As I offered ‘creative music tuition’, way back when this was unusual, I checked out materials that purported to teach jazz improvisation to beginners. My heart would sink as I opened yet another book stuffed with repetitive scale and and arpeggio exercises that engaged the intellect and the fingers but left the heart and imagination cold. It was only when I had the opportunity to ‘dip my toes’ in real improvisation with kindly jazz musicians that I understood how exciting and absorbing it could (should?) be. It’s obvious, really – just as one wouldn’t teach grammar to a child before encouraging them to speak, it makes better sense to engage the beginner improviser in a dialogue before worrying about chord sequences, etc..

In the UK, improvisation is now an established part of the curriculum and, in order to service the demand arising from this, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools  of Music, the biggest of the UK graded music examinations boards, introduced grade exams in Jazz Piano and, a couple of years later, exams for Flute, Clarinet, Sax, Trumpet and Trombone. For many, there’s something a bit distasteful about a jazz exam and the ABRSM acknowledges that many students using their resources will not be at all interested in doing an exam – each anthology is wisely described as being for “Grade/Level” 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. There are fifteen pieces at each level and each piece includes an improvised section. There are 5 “Blues”, 5 “Standards” and 5 “Contemporary” pieces in each anthology. All have been arranged by leading jazz educators. For each book, there is a CD of performances and, in the case of melody instruments, ‘minus-one’ backing tracks played by a small ensemble. It’s great to have a choice of fifteen pieces, all carefully graded at the same standard. Better still, there’s not a cliché in sight!  This repertoire is varied and fresh. A teachers’ manual, “Jazz Piano From Scratch”, is designed to help the classically-trained teacher get to grips with the jazz syllabus.

“Jazz Piano From Scratch” suggests several ways of approaching the solo sections but, because of the  way in which pitches are suggested in the right hand of solo bars, the focus is mainly on melody. Although chord symbols appear throughout, exam candidates at grades 1-3 are not expected to analyse chords. A melodic approach had already been adopted for graded jazz exams of the Guildhall School of Music, which board has since amalgamated with that of Trinity College London to form the Trinity Guildhall examination board. Jeffery Wilson’s “Progressive Guide To Melodic Jazz Improvisation” is still available and this book, with its accompanying CD, is an excellent resource, although it has only three pieces at each grade/level. Each of the improvisations is based on one of the scales set for the grade.

Over the years,  I have accumulated many beginner jazz improvisation resources but these are the ones I and my pupils enjoy most and we strongly recommend them to other beginners.

One thought on “Jazz Improvisation For Beginners

  1. Thanks for the resource suggestion. I’ll check it out.

    I have had success with Mike Steinel’s “Essential Elements for Jazz” (Hal Leonard) and Dean Sorenson’s “Standard of Excellence Jazz” (Kjos). 90% of the material deals with playing in the jazz style, and there is thankfully very little about improvisation. I think students first need to get a feel for what jazz sounds like and how to play swing before they can even think about improvising.

    The problem I keep running into comes after students have played with the blues scale and other one- or two-scale excercises. Most of the jazz standards shift tonal centers often, and learning to navigate the changes is a challenge. I’m still on the hunt for some good transitional material.

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