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Jazz Improvisation

Updated on May 9, 2016

Most Professional Jazz musicians have really good Aural Skills; they have gained this through many hours of practice. Professional Jazz musicians on the early side of their career would on average practice for around 8 hours a day. Charlie Parker used to rehearse for up to 16hrs per day. Jazz musicians would always focus on listening skills and they would never keep playing stuff they already know, they would play songs that are higher than there level and they would constantly challenge there self’s.

Some of the ways Jazz Musicians may improvise is by simply arpeggiating the chord symbols, for example take a CMin7 (C,Eb,G,Bb) you could play 1 note at a time in eighth notes by playing the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th, then you could come back down with a Fdom7 (F,A,C,Eb) then you could arpeggiate up a BbMaj7 ( Bb,D,F,A) come back down using EbDom7 (Eb,G,Bb,Db) back up A half-Diminished7 (A,C,Eb,A) down Ddom7 (D,F#,A,C) then you could finish on a nice Gmin7 (G,Bb,D,F). You could also make the arpeggiations more interesting by mixing the patterns up for e.g you could play 3517 pattern, but these ways are still quite boring, as it is very predictable what you are going to do next as it is still a pattern. If Jazz players want to make it more interesting they vary the Rhythm. You can create strong melodic shapes, simply by using chordal tones 1,3,5 and 7.

Scales are also very important in Jazz improvisation I am going to try and explain everything you need to know about Jazz Scales. Every Chord has chordal tones, in jazz most chords are 7th chords, which means they have 4 chordal tones they have the root the 3rd the 5th and the 7th. All the scale needs, to sound consonant with the chord is to agree with those 4 chordal tones. Once you have those 4 chordal tones you can start getting creative with the extended harmony notes, such as the 9th the 11th and the 13th. So applied to the minor 7th chords it’s the same, the scale has to agree with the 1b3b57 but you can get creative, as you like with the 9th, 11th and the 13th for example you could play C,Db,Eb,F#,G,Ab,Bb over the minor 7th chord, yes it sounds kind of weird but it does sound consonant. With Dominant chords all the scale has to agree with is the root, major 3rd, Perfect 5th and a b7th you can then start getting creative with the in between notes, you could play C,D#,E,F#,G,Ab,Bb pretty creepy but it does work.

Circle Of Fifths

There are 2 types of cycle of fifths there is a perfect one, which is were you go down a perfect 5th every time, and there is a diatonic cycle of 5th with means Major or Minor. For a Diatonic Cycle of 5th you go down a 5th each time but you keep it with in the scale you are in for example if you are in C minor you go down 5ths with in the scale (C minor scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb) so going down a diatonic cycle of 5th in Cm it would be Cm-Fm-Bb-Eb-Ab-Ddim-G7-Cm. Autunm Leaves by Joseph Kosma is a good example of a song using the diatonic cycle.

The advantage of using the cycle of fifth is that a diatonic cycle of 5ths is 7 chords, it goes through each note of the scale , there are 7 notes in a scale. It’s a great way of filling up some time, usually in music we write 8 bar phrases so what it means you can do is have 1 chord sustained for each bar that would give you a 7 bar chord progression then you could double the 1 chord or you could start with the 1 chord and end with the 1 chord I – iv – VII – III – VI – ii – V – i . Jazz musicians will come up with a melodic phrase, which will go over 2 of the chords and then they transpose the melodic phrase over each chord progression. So a ii – V – I which is the most common chord progression in jazz is actually just the final 3 chords of the cycle of the fifth. Another chord progression you will see allot in jazz is vi – ii – V – I which is the last 4 chords in the cycle of 5th so a 6521 in c major would be Am7 – Dm7 – G7 – CM7. Using cycle of fifths in jazz you would start adding extensions, instead of just playing triads you would put in a 7th or a 9th etc. To make it allot more interesting you start adding notes outside of C minor for example you could do F dominant 7 b9 ( F, Eb, Gb, A, D ), Eb Dominant 7 b9 ( Eb, Db, Fb, G, C ) you can alter your extended notes to get out of the scale. Allot of Jazz musicians write songs by using tri tone substitution, so instead of a F dominant 7 you use B dominant 7 normally you would then have a Eb dominant 7 but if you tri tone substitute it you get A dominant 7 if you keep doing this you will get a chromatic moving base line going down Cm7 – B7 – BbM7 – A7 – AbM7 – G7 – F#m7 – F7 another pattern you could use is a series of ii – V, Dm7 – G7 – C#m7 – F#7 – Cm7 – F7 – BbM7 a ii – V – I in C would be Dm7 – G7 then you could do a ii – v – I half a step down from C, C#m7 – F#7 if you keep doing this pattern you will get Dm7 – G7 – C#m7 – F#7 – Cm7 – F7 – Bm7 – E7 – Bbm7 – Eb7 – Am7 – E7 – Abm7 – Db7 – Gm7 – C7 – F#m7 – B7 – Fm7 – Bb7 – (EbM7).


Louis Armstrong


I really do believe that Louis was and still is the greatest musician at improvising, its amazing how he can reach the 18th harmonic on a trumpet which was in the key of c, and the way he could make his trumpet sound like he’s sliding across notes, and the way he makes tremolos with his lips (I think its called lip trills) and the sudden outbreaks of double tempo and then the way he times his silences, every time I listen to one of his tracks I just cant turn it off it is that good. When I watch Louis it amazes me what a trumpet can really do. A lot of his songs are very jolly and make you feel happy but there are still songs which he creates in a minor or demonic form were you can still feel a lot of Louis emotions. But its not just his trumpet playing that amazes me, his voice is super awesome too Louis had a very gritty voice but he had such a wide range on his vocals. Here’s a bit of history of Louis Armstrong and were all his emotions have come from and the way he improvises,

4th of August 1901 Louis Armstrong was born, almost at the same time as jazz was crated, Armstrong was to be the most important jazz performer of all history. His family was poor as a boy he would go around the streets singing with his friends to try and make money so he could afford to live. On new years day 1913 while celebrating in the streets he picked up a gun and shot it by accident, he then got arrested and sent to away to a correctional centre for a year and a half. While he was there his love of music ended up leading him to the prison band were he would play cornet. When he was released he managed to get work performing at night with small groups around small clubs however the money he was making wasn’t enough for him to live off, times were hard as world war 1 had just started. He would get up at 6am every morning and work in the day to what ever was avaible whether it was a paperboy, milkman or coalman. With railways getting more popular riverboats popularity fell many companies decided to change their boats in to pleasure boats on which drinks were served and there was allot of gambling there was also lots of jazz bands that would play, most of them were black. One of the bands that would play was called the Fate Marable band in which Louis would play the cornet, he stayed with them until 1922. After world war 1 Louis moved to Chicago while he was in Chicago he got asked by King Oliver to join his band as a 2nd trumpet player, Louis used to be good friends with King Oliver and he also used to have trumpet lessons off him when he lived in new Orleans. There was a musical connection between King Oliver and Louis they were both hot and swingy the public would keep on clapping until the number was repeated. Jazz had now started invading New York, the creators from new Orleans stayed faithful to there style of playing in Chicago and some of theme became successful in New York, though the big orchestras dominated, they played by following a score and sometimes a soloist was allowed to improvise. One of the classic big bands was the Fletcher Henderson’s, Louis joined up to play the cornett.

In New York Louis met up with some great musicians such as the Clarence Williams blues five and the red union babies, these groups would get together and improvise to accompany the black singer who was then at the top. The blues produced by the native rural singers, long before jazz appeared was now fully integrated in to it with all its strength, at the same time female blues singers were becoming more popular they would sing in small groups and they would pour out all there artistic expression, Louis accompanied many of these singers on the trumpet. In this unforgettable st louis blues he accompanies the great Bessie smith herself the best blues singer of all time. It is an exceptional faultless recording in which aswell as being able to hear Bessie smith listen out for every note that Louis creates while he improvises with his mastery, as he expresses himself in the language of the blues.

In 1925 Louis returned back to Chicago, and scored a big hit when he got together with the most important musicians of the moment called the hot five and the hot seven later they were going to be the great name of jazz this group sometimes with substitute players managed to do 72 recordings they were the most important recordings ever made in the history of jazz. The group stayed loyal to the style of jazz coming from New Orleans. On the song west end blues Louis managed to do a masterpiece chorus which no other musician has been able to imitate or equal . When the song heebie jeebies come out he for got the lyrics to the chourus so he simply vocalised the melody with out saying a word, he had just invented scat which later was used in many of his songs and was copyed by a great number of singers.

Louis often said he was no singer, he simply let the music flow through him and his voice like he was another instrument.

After the world war 2 new styles appeared such as bebop, Louis could not go along with these so he carried on playing jazz in his own way,

I believe that real jazz is live, its created while its performed and every interpitation is a unique piece that’s how Louis did it.

Meshell, Boyfreind

Another great improviser is the artist Meshell, the song I am going to focus on by Meshell is the song boyfriend the live version, this song has allot of improvisation in it. At the start of the song Meshell improvises using slap bass on the bass guitar at the start shes improvising a melody then as soon as the music starts she slaps on the dominant chord. This song has many mixed genres in it, you can here Jazz and funk at the start then when the lyrics comes in it turns in to a sort of hip hop. In the mid section of the song there’s a long improvised metal/ rock solo, while he is improvising his solo Meshell is directing the band on what to do next. She really is a great artist it amazes me to watch her controlling the band and telling the guitarist weather to carry on or stop, I also the way the guitarist improvises his solo is very impressive he starts by doing a vibrato on the c note g string then he moves up to d note then he does a 1 tone bend on the g sharp on the b string, and while he is bending he is adjusting his amp then he bends a series of notes then he goes in to some mad arpeggios from 12th fret to 15th fret while bending hard on the last notes its phenomenal after he does all that Meshell tells him to carry on so he goes in to some really fast licks and ends up playing a taunting nursery rhyme and even starts making a laughing sound with the guitar. Then the other guitar play starts muting the strings and strumming on the c on the a string while using the wah pedal it sort of reminds of crying like what the boyfriend would of felt in the lyrics of the song, then Meshell comes back in with a walking slap bass line while slapping on the dominant chord again. At the end of the song the lyrics and the instruments stop dead then the drums come in like crazy and all the instruments walk up the fret board with dominant and minor chords then ends with all the instruments soloing then a eary bending sound at the end. I think this song is improvisational genius.


Ways to improvise on instruments

There are lots of ways to improvise it all depends on the key and the style of songs here are some scales that people use to improvise,

S= sharp


1 2 3 s4 5 6 7


1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1 2 3 4 5 6 b7


1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7


1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7


1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7


1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7


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