Making the Changes: A Method for Music Educators and Burgeoning Jazz Improvisors

Jeff Wolfe • Jazz ClubJazz ClubSeptember 2023 • September 10, 2023

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As a collegiate jazz educator at a mid-size regional university, I am often asked to adjudicate local and state-sanctioned secondary school jazz festivals. The one area that is almost universally weak in the bands I hear is their approach to improvisation (if any improvisation is even present). Either students read a “solo” from a piece of music or they attempt to improvise, equipped with little more than enthusiasm and a “devil may care” attitude. As one of my colleagues once said to me after hearing a less than stellar audition, “that student has the attitude, enthusiasm, and work ethic to climb Mt. Everest, but he’s starting out his journey with flip-flops, no jacket, and dental floss.” Most students simply do not possess the tools and knowledge to be successful as young improvisors. I think most will agree improvisation is the defining and distinguishing characteristic of jazz. If this is the case, why is it not being emphasized and taught during the formative years of the young musician?

All too often, this is the area in which young, aspiring jazz musicians find themselves frustrated, overwhelmed, and confused; feelings often mirrored by their teachers. The limits placed on rehearsal time, the lack of a jazz education curriculum for college music education students, the over-emphasis placed on ensemble precision by adjudicating bodies for contests, or a combination of these factors, are all reasons for the lack of quality jazz improvisation instruction at the secondary level. If we are to keep jazz music and its next generation of jazz musicians, innovators, and audience members alive, quality jazz improvisation instruction must take place at an early age in the schools. Armed with some basic information, concepts, and strategies, there is hope and help for all music educators to become successful jazz educators as well. This is my attempt to offer a few strategies and guidance for both students and their teachers to begin “making the changes.”

The examples presented are in no way breaking new ground. They are a combination of techniques, strategies, and materials with a long track record of success, originally crafted and curated by some of the world’s leading jazz pedagogues. What is somewhat new is the way in which they are organized in a systematic, scaffolding approach dependent on the student mastering one exercise before they move on to the next. Also, in order to begin training the ear, it is important the student be able to sing each example before playing it on their instrument, as well as practice each exercise with a time source (metronome, smartphone app, etc.). And as has always been the case, the most important thing is to listen to the jazz masters play this music either on recordings, or better yet, in person at a live performance.

The Blues

Example 1 is based around two important chord tones, the 3rd and the 7th, commonly referred to as “guide tones.” Notice these tones land predominately on strong beats. These tones outline the quality of each chord and aid in smooth voice-leading from chord to chord as each one progresses through the form. These “target tones” provide an anchor for both the player and listener that pulls the ear or “guides” them through the form, in this case, blues in BH. Make sure you can sing each phrase of Example 1 before you begin to play!

*The following blues examples are constructed harmonically from the basic form of the blues most commonly played by jazz musicians, which utilizes the IV chord in bar 2, the iii H – VI chord in bar 8, the ii – V in bars 9-10, and a basic “turnaround” in bars 11-12 (I – VI – ii – V).

Example 2 makes use of chord outlines. Along with scales, playing chord outlines (of all qualities) is fundamental to the development of the improvisor. This helps students get the sound of each chord quality “in their ear,” as well as aiding in developing more technical fluency and flexibility on their respective instrument.

Example 3 begins to construct a “horizontal” approach by adding the corresponding scales to each chord. The scales are either played “up” (root to 7th) over a chord that lasts one bar, or “up and back” (root to 7th and back to the root) over chords that last two bars. Sing each scale before playing the exercise on your instrument. The chord/scale relationships for each chord are as follows:

– BH7 (bars 1, 3-4, 7) – The I Chord = BH mixolydian (5th mode of the Eb major scale).

– EH7 = EH mixolydian (bars 2, 5-6) – The IV Chord (5th mode of the AH major scale).

– BH7 — DH – G7 (bars 7-8) – The I – (iii H) – VI Chord = BH mixolydian (5th mode of the EH major scale. Note this scale ends on a B natural (the 3rd of G7).

– C-7 — F7 (bars 9-10) – The II – V Chords= F mixolydian (5th mode of the BH major scale). This is the II-V progression that is the backbone of jazz harmony. In the blues, we refer to this as the “V-chord.”

– BH7 — G7 — C-7 — F7 (bars 11-12) – The Turnaround, I – VI – II – V = The last two bars of the blues contain a “turnaround” or “turnback” that gives the player and listener an aural cue that the beginning of the form is approaching.

Example 4 takes the guide tones from Example 1, the chord outlines from Example 2, and the horizontal approach of Example 3 and begins to add elements from the jazz language. In this example, a few key components of the jazz language are utilized. Chromaticism is added to create tension, to ensure phrases “work out” by making important chord tones fall on strong beats and begins to represent idiomatic jazz language licks and scalar options.

The one unifying element in Example 4 is the usage of the bebop dominant scale. In speaking about the development of the bebop scale, David Baker states:

“From his earliest recordings Charlie Parker can be observed groping for a method for making the modes of the major scale sound less awkward and for rendering them more conducive to swing and forward motion. Gradually, in a systematic and logical way, he began using certain scales with added chromatic tones. Dizzy (Gillespie), approaching the scales from an entirely different direction, began utilizing the same techniques for transforming them. These scales became the backbone of all jazz from bebop to modal music.” 

The mixolydian mode vs. the bebop dominant scale

Note how the chord tones fall on strong beats in the bebop dominant scale, versus the mixolydian mode. This is achieved by adding the natural 7th to the mixolydian scale (1-7-H7-6-5-4-3-2-1). On the piano, play a C7 chord in quarter notes with your left hand, while playing each eighth note scale with your right. Do you hear the difference?

Please note Example 5 is almost completely devoid of the “blues scale (1 – H3 – 4 – H5 – 5 – H7).” The “blues scale” is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to playing the blues or other tunes in the jazz idiom. It is simply another sound that jazz musicians incorporate into their solos as part of their tonal palette toolkit. Also, note the optional turnaround in Example 4, which illustrates a more authentic way jazz improvisors incorporate a “bluesy” sound into their playing.

The same scaffolding approach as the blues examples can be utilized on any tune with functional harmony. The same progressive approach of focusing on the important “target” or “guide tones” (3rds and 7ths), then chord outlines, followed by scales, and finally the jazz vocabulary can be incorporated into learning and playing over more harmonically complex compositions, without being overwhelming to the student. As with the blues examples, it is imperative students first sing each example accurately before they begin to play. And as always, listening to the definitive recordings from the jazz masters is key to authentically learning this music.

Jeff Wolfe is the director of jazz studies at Marshall University in Huntington, WV where conducts the MU Jazz Ensemble I, teaches various courses across the jazz studies curriculum, as well as coordinating the commercial music program. Wolfe is also an active trumpet performer, adjudicator, clinician, and a member of the Jazz Education Network. 

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