Jazz advice for beginners
As of 2024 01 02, this is my advice for someone interested in playing jazz with already a non-zero level of proficiency in an instrument.
Keep in mind I’m not a professional musician and I’ve only been learning about jazz for a few years, so your mileage may vary.
This document will focus on practical advice, so I won’t discuss harmony or improvisation, nor instrument technique; you can and should find resources on these topics elsewhere :)
Warning: this wall of text is very unstructured.
To start, we can think about playing jazz as consisting of three parts:
- melodies/themes (heads)
This is just to organize our efforts as jazz beginners. You can explicitly organize your practice time so all three are covered.
Interact with real people!
It’s easier for many people to learn as a team. Ideally you find someone to play with. Go to music school. Find someone to discuss music with! If everything else fails, shoot me an email, happy to talk music anytime :)
One cool thing is about jazz is that is remarkably friendly to all levels of experience. You can play Autumn Leaves with beginners and it will be fun. But you can also play Autumn Leaves with experienced musicians and go crazy.
I structured the curriculum into “weeks”, but I have no idea if it’s reasonable. Maybe you are a beginner to music and it takes you longer, that’s okay. Maybe you are already a classical musician, and it takes you shorter, that’s okay.
- Learn to comp solidly over Autumn Leaves. It can be a very basic comp –e.g., one chord per bar, or Freddie Green-style– but it has to be solid. Imagine you are going to comp for another musician in front of family and friends.
- Learn 4 bars each day, and make your comp over those 4 bars sound good.
- By the end of the week you should be able to comp on Autumn Leaves with metronome solidly, even if slow.
- Listen to at least one jazz recording daily (applies to other weeks as well).
It’s okay for now if you ignore extensions beyond the seventh.
- Learn the melody of Autumn Leaves by heart.
- Keep practicing comping. Maybe turn the speed up a bit; make it tight.
- By the end of this week you should be able to play the melody and do comping over Autumn Leaves solidly with a metronome, over a recording and over a backing track.
- Apply one basic improvisation principle to Autumn Leaves (e.g., one chord tone every two beats).
- Pick up another standard (in another key, with other chords) and learn to comp.
- By the end of the week you should be able to comp on two standards, know the melody of Autumn Leaves, and know how to do some form of basic improv over Autumn Leaves.
Beginning in week 3 start building these fundamental harmony skills:
- Be able to locate (say, in less than 5 seconds, ideally instantaneously) the notes of any chord of these types: 7, maj7, min7, min7b5, dim7.
- Given any note, locate the dominant (e.g., given C, know which G is the dominant).
- Given any note, locate whose dominant it is (e.g., given C, know that it is the dominant of F).
- Given a lead sheet, be able to do harmonic analysis.
Apply the process you applied on Autumn Leaves the last three weeks on more tunes. Should be way faster now that you have rhythms and shapes on your hands:
- Learn to comp on three other standards.
- Learn the head of two other tunes. Apply the improvisation approach you used to these two tunes.
- By the end of the week you should be able to comp on five standards and know two by heart.
- Practice comping, a lot. With metronome and on recordings. It is extremely important to know how to accompany well.
- Practice comping: practice reading chord charts on the spot (it is very common that someone says “let’s play THIS SONG YOU DON’T KNOW”, and it is expected that you say “ok! :D”).
- Practice comping: different genres (swing, bossa, fusion, latin jazz, bolero, salsa, blues, rock, etc., etc.; maybe focus on one or two for now), different rhythms, different styles of each genre, different grooves, walking bass, arpeggios, different functions (e.g., piano is comping chords, guitar does big-band style hits) and so on.
At this point you can comp on five tunes and play two heads, and you spent a week on your comping game. If you haven’t, call that friend or family member who plays jazz/pop/rock/funk/blues/whatever and get them to jam with you!
A typical jazz jam will be a sequence of tunes, where for each tune:
- Somebody plays the head, while the rest comp.
- Different people take turns improvising over the chord changes.
- The head is played one last time, and the tune ends.
Beyond this week, you can:
- Start focusing on figuring things out by ear. It’s absolutely essential for pop and jazz musicians to get things out by ear efficiently, because it’s extremely useful. This goes very deep, but for starters: figure solos out by ear; instead of reading lead sheets, listen, memorize and analyze the melody and harmony as you listen along a recording (yes, even if you don’t have perfect pitch: just use relative pitch).
- Practice even more comping haha. Having excellent groove and being tight takes years, so don’t ever stop doing it.
- Memorize lots of heads.
- Get used to doing harmonic analysis instinctively (e.g., you look at a chord chart and instinctively see the harmonic relationships, or you listen to a song and hear the harmonic relationships).
- Enter the world of jazz more deeply: improvisation, groove, phrasing, timbre, extensions, cool harmony, arranging, reharmonization, composition.
- Improvisation is another topic that goes very, very deep and is very cool. But we’ll talk about that later if you’re interested.
- Learn to sight read. It’s hard :( but people who know how to do this are super helpful and I always look to have them in jams, because it basically allows you to play ANYTHING on the spot.
This is VERY IMPORTANT:
- Keep in mind what beat you are on (i.e., count).
- Keep in mind what part of the form you are in (e.g., “we will go to the B section in two bars”)
- Keep in mind the underlying harmony when playing melodies, both while improvising and playing heads.
At a certain point all these will be second nature. It will be difficult but it is VERY important because those skills are necessary to really play well, both as an accompanist and as a soloist. It will be easier if you get used to it from the beginning.
When things start to go wrong for me, very often it’s because one of those three is not right.
Also: playing music is all about listening. When comping, listen to the soloist, always. What you play depends on what you hear. Don’t get over-focused on your playing. And listen to yourself too, obviously.
In no particular order, these tips are.
When you comp in a small group (e.g., a duo), often you are absolutely essential for maintaining the groove and form. So practice extra hard if you want to play on a small group (it’s worth it, small groups are so fun).
When you listen to music ask yourself “if I were put to play there, what would I play so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself”, haha. E.g., if I get to accompany or play an improvised solo, do I already have the groove and harmony (even if it’s relative)?
Practice to metronome on 2 and 4.
Personally, I believe playing to metronome on 2 and 4 has helped me have a steadier sense of rhythm (i.e., lock tighter to a groove and not tempo-drift too much), perhaps because when I practice in that way I don’t have as many clicks to correct my internal beat to. Also, I believe it has helped me swing and accentuate 2 and 4, which has helped me sound less MIDI-like (yes, I know MIDI is not a sound format).
I suppose a more extreme form of this is to only have one of 2 or 4. A more extreme form is to write a program that randomly gives you a click each beat with some probability. But for now I’m happy with 2 and 4 haha.
Playing original music is super fun!
If you write a tune, ask your music friends to play it with you. And make it easy for them to play along: write an easy-to-read chord chart or lead sheet, or give them parts which are as easy to play and read as they could be.
Whenever you are practicing keep in mind that the goal (or one of the goals) is to play live with other people and for other people. It’s really useful to keep this in mind. For example, when you practice comping keep in mind who are you going to play with, and keep in mind it will have to sound good in real life. Also, if you only get something 50% of the time in the music room or in your bedroom, one out of two times you will fail when performing.
And don’t forget to play with real musicians. Find local jam sessions, or go take classes.
At some point you may realize you don’t sound like jazz. This is a topic deserving of books and courses and videos, not a footnote in a blog post. But maybe the reason is phrasing. Phrasing is king. Play it like you mean it. Swing it hard, perhaps. Get you dynamics and articulations game strong.
Shredding is boring. But it is fun! So be thoughtful about it. Don’t overdo it.
Often my solos sound like word salad, and I think one of the reasons is that I don’t approach improvisation like composition.
Improvisation is perhaps like composing on the fly: an improvised solo should come out like a coherent musical whole, with development of coherent musical ideas. This is very hard (I, for one, are very far from being able to do it) but perhaps necessary for a good solo, so keep it in mind.
Get used to not looking down at your instrument all the time. Communication is one of the most fun parts of jazz because plenty of things can be decided at the very last moment. Some examples:
- Who will solo now?
- Did the soloist decide to take another way through the form?
- Are we doing a two-instrument solo all of a sudden, if so how do we mesh together?
- Did the soloist play a rhythmic motif I can respond to on my comping?
- Is the soloist changing dynamics?
- Are we switching to a double tempo groove?
You should be able to do solos actually solo (i.e., without a band). And your solo should be good: groovey, outlining the harmonies, musically interesting. This is particularly useful in some duo settings, e.g., voice and guitar, and, of course, fundamental in a solo setting.
If you’re on guitar or piano, you basically have a whole orchestra at your disposal, which you might decide to use.
If you are on guitar or piano, and there is another guitar or piano, always communicate to decide who is the “main” comp instrument.
When comping in a very small group, don’t switch grooves excessively often. You definitely can and should change grooves every once in a while to keep things fresh, but don’t do it every bar and don’t do things that don’t make sense (where the meaning of “making sense” is very context-dependent). For example, it may be okay if you are playing a latin tune and you comp with a montuno for 4 bars, then you change to a more sparse chord-hits approach for 4 bars. But don’t do half a bar of montuno, and then half a bar of Charleston.
Related to previous tip.
If you are comping in a very small group, there are things that can potentially sound weird if you are not consistent. For example, if you are playing bass root note every 1, and you stop doing it suddenly, things may sound empty. If you are on guitar and you are doing a comp which involves percussive sounds, stopping those percussive sounds may make things sound empty. Exercise caution.
Accompaniment for solos often sounds great when surprisingly thin. It is often better if most players do not play, and only two or three instruments comp.
Cool things about jazz
There are two things I love about jazz, which you might find interesting and might want keep in mind as you practice from week 5 on:
- Every time you play something, it’s fresh. Today it’s funky Autumn Leaves, tomorrow it’s swingy Just Friends, then it’s a salsa+jazz arrangement of the pop tune of the day. The groove will be different. The solos will be different, because we improvise them. Maybe we decide to change the harmony. Etc.
- You don’t need a specific instrumentation for any song. E.g., Autumn Leaves bass and guitar? Cool. Autumn leaves guitar and vocals? Cool. Autumn leaves symphonic orchestra and vocals? Cool. Autumn leaves drums piano and trombone? Cool.