Playing Jazz music


Overview | Jazz harmonies| Next

How to play jazz?

Most jazz orchestras, (but definitely not all of them) start by playing the melody, hereafter the instruments take a solo, one by one. The rhythm section (that is base, drums and the piano or guitar) will continue to play through the melody while the solo instruments take a solo. (The rhythm instruments will often take a solo as well. It is up to the individual solo player to decide weather

  • He wants to take a solo
  • How many choruses he wants to improvise over

A chorus is one time through the melody. Typically 32 bars, (in blues 12 bars. But of course any bar number is possible)

While the guy having the solo improvises, the other solo instruments may make a reff that is a very simple melody which is repeated, often the melody is moving with the harmonies. It is important to stop making riffs pretty soon, in order to not making the music boring.

Often the riff is played in several voices harmony.


Four-four and two-two

Except for the New Orleans style, where collective improvisation is used, and when riffs are played as mentioned above, the solo player is alone when making his solo. You should not interfere! (This advise is directed to folk people who are used to play continuously, never making a pause.)

How to make an improvisation

The general rule is:

  1. It should sound good

In order to fulfill above ground rule, it is a good idea to:

  • Know all the notes possible to make in your instrument, so you can play swiftly.
  • Know the chord progression in the melody
  • Be able to phrase rhythmically.

How to make a solo

Soloing is individual. Below advises are not universal. In some styles and for some personal attitudes below attitudes may not fit in at all

Vary your intensity. It is a good idea to start gently. Normally you will take over somebody else's solo, and the audience will be in the middle of giving him (or her) an applause, when you are starting your solo. Divide your melody into questions and answering strophes.Most audiences gets tired of just listening to tones, use the pauses in your music, pausing also help you navigate through the song. It is of utmost importance that you know were you are, so you can end your solo at the end of the chorus.

Play with the beat. Lead and lag it. Make phrases that have uneven relationship to the beat, but you should always know were you are in the song, and you should show that you know by suddenly hitting straight into the right beat. That applies to chords and scales too. You are allowed to move out of the scale, by playing altered scales, but from times to time you should hit the right scale, and the root note of the current chord, just to show your audience that though you are "far out", you know where you are.

Vary your style! It is impressive to be able to play fast sequences. But if you cannot, then don't. And don't play fast sequences all the way through. Make slow movements in between.

Make your statement brief. Very few jazz listener can keep the concentration through 7 choruses. Take one or two choruses. That will also allow your fellow musicians to get their share of making a solo. When you are about to end your first chorus, you have to decide to end or to continue. If you feel that things are not what they should be, end it... It is very unlikely that you get better in the next. (A lot of soloists think that if they did not quite make it in the first, we have another try in the second, and if that did not make it, lets take a third....You did not show up on stage for practicing! You are there for making the whole orchestra sound better, if you cannot improve the overall picture, let someone else try to do it for you!


Keep contact with the audience, and with your fellow musicians while playing. Don't be shy.

You are allowed to freak out, but get back into yourself before you end. Build your solo so it can be ended with a climax, or end it with a couple of controlled notes (understatement ending). Remember that it the last note that make people give you an applause. It is nice when you succeed and the audience breaks into ovations.


Jazz etiquette

  • Always ask before you sit in a band.
  • If you get a yes. Make sure that the rest of the band agrees in the decision of the guy you asked
  • After having sit in for one tune, make sure that it is still OK that you sit in, or simply say thank you and sit down (and let the guys in the band ask you for playing more)
  • Don't play in other peoples solo! If you make a rif, be careful not to overuse it.


Learning how to improvise

In the good old days you bought Jamey Abersold's music minus one records. Today you buy the program

Band in a Box

With this program you can put in the chord progression of any tune, and let it run forever.

Practice jazz scales. It is boring but efficient. By playing scales together with Band in a box (the scales on this homage) you get accustomed to the

Buy a lot of records with music. Play together with it. Use a slowdown program if necessary. Concentrate on learning style and phrasing of your favorite artists.

An untraditional advice is to play along with the radio. In this way you learn how to quickly be able to play a tune or improvise to it.