Jazz Tips


Jazz Improvisation: Simplify and Succeed

Compared to almost 40 years ago, when I started "learning" jazz, there is an unbelievably HUGE amount of information currently available on the subject. We are deeply indebted to the A,B,C's of jazz education (Aebersold, Baker, Coker) for being pioneers and innovators in this endeavor! An initial point of entry into this vast sea of information can be very intimidating, to say the least. Here are a few guidelines for the development of a basic arsenal of tools for improvisation.


Learn these basic scale resources first in common keys (G, C, F, Bb, Eb), then in ALL keys:

  • Major Scale: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
  • JAZZ Melodic Minor: (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
  • Blues Scale: (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, 8)
  1. Learn the basic triads (3-note chords) and 7th chords (4-note chords) for the major and JMM.
  2. Learn each of these scales in 3rds (to start with).
  3. Learn to start the scale on ANY note, not just the root.

If you were to practice these items 4 days per week for 20-30 minutes each session, it would only take you a semester (15-16 weeks) to make this material permanent! A great investment for ALL of your musical endeavors!



What do Jazz Adjudicators Look and Listen For?

Here's a short checklist.


  • Is the lead trumpet's ensemble melody prominent and clear? Often the lead player gets "buried" by the rest of the ensemble
  • Can the saxes "balance" with the rest of the ensemble? The most common problem adjudicators encounter is that the brass section can put quite a bit of air through their horns, while the saxes play with a "chamber" sound, and thus get overpowered. Get your sax section to blow!
  • How is the ensemble precision regarding articulation and cutoffs? Most bands perform attacks quite well, but their cutoffs vary widely. The cutoffs of notes and phrases are just as important. Judges go "GaGa' when they hear uniform cutoffs!
  • How is the tuning? Fact: Bands that play with good breath support and can "move the air" play in tune! Bands that play with little support don't. It is as simple as that. How I solved this with my bands is that I developed a series of "10 Jazz Chorales For Large Jazz Ensemble" from which we perform 1 or 2 at the beginning of EVERY rehearsal. I have been doing this for over 20 years - problem solved. (shameless self-promotion: these jazz chorales are available through Really Good Music at: www.reallygoodmusic.com)


  • Is there "clarity" of sound especially in the bass? Fact: Most adjudicators are not rhythm section folks. So, being good musicians, they can hear that something may be "wrong", but don't know what it is. Have ALL of your electric instruments PUT THEIR AMPS UP ON CHAIRS (or amp stands) BEHIND THEM! This gets the sound "up" off the floor and where they can hear it clearly. Second, turn down the midrange and bass controls on the bass amp. Voila! No more "muddy" bass, and guitar players playing too LOUD!
  • Does the rhythm section "lead" the band? The RS is a band within a band and needs to function as such. The biggest problem adjudicators hear is that of the WINDS 'pulling" the unassertive rhythm section along. The rhythm section is the "engine" of the band and has to propel the band. The body of a car does not drive the engine! Have your RS learn a jazz combo tune that it can play by itself. It is the quickest way to develop a reliable and cookin' rhythm section!
  • Does the rhythm section accurately play the nuances of each jazz style? So often judges hear the RS playing the same way on a swing tune, a Latin tune, a jazz waltz, etc. Educate yourself and your students to the appropriate nuances of each style for each instrument.


  • Most adjudicators "judge" a band on an OVERALL impression and then go about fitting the "numbers" to match this evaluation. If you as a director take care of all of the fine points (like those listed above) you will create a very favorable "impression" at your next contest or festival!