Many beginning jazz musicians have misconceptions about what professional jazz musicians actually do when they improvise. In fact, many believe that they are simply playing melodies off the top of their head or that they just have a gift for creating beautiful solos on the fly. This is most certainly not true as I’ve learned over the years.
I used to struggle with this concept a lot. I would listen to Wes Montgomery, for example, and just be amazed at how he effortlessly improvised over songs (actually, I’m still amazed). Many of his solos are so well put together that you wonder how he could improvise in such a cohesive and seemingly preconceived way. I noticed that many players start out with the desire to learn jazz and think that if they learn the right scales, then somehow they will eventually sound like professional jazz musicians. I realized that nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, you could learn every scale there is to know and still never be able to sound like a jazz musician. Just listen to classical musicians who don’t play jazz (of course, some do). Most if not all of them know the proper scales, chords, and theory. But if you just handed them a tune and told them “go ahead and improvise on this song”, many of them might play the “technically correct” notes but most likely their solo would sound terrible from a jazz perspective. It would probably sound like they were just running up and down scales. The rhythm would be totally off from a jazz perspective and it would probably sound like some technical exercise.
Well, if you are struggling with this concept too. Fear not, I have a solution! There IS a “missing link” or “secret” to playing and sounding like a jazz musician. My goal in this article is to talk about that “Secret” in order to help you avoid potentially years of frustration about learning to play jazz.
Over time, I realized that the best jazz musicians don’t actually just come up with this stuff out of nowhere. Often they’ve preconceived and actually pre-composed much of the melodies that they improvise. In other words, they’ve created and developed, by playing with and listening to other jazz musicians, a strong “jazz language” of melodic material that they use to improvise effectively.
So, the missing link or secret is this “jazz language” and it explains why beginning jazz musicians or even very accomplished classical musicians who don’t play jazz don’t sound like jazz musicians. They haven’t internalized this language. While learning scales, chords, and theory is critical for budding jazz musicians, the real key is learning the “language” or the WAY that jazz musicians play what they play.
In particular and most importantly it’s the rhythmic aspect that’s so important–the African influence that has had such a profound and positive impact on all types of music throughout the world. Just like Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing!”. If you don’t know what he meant by that, he’s saying that if you’re are trying to play jazz but you’re not playing it with the proper rhythmic feel, it will sound horrible from a jazz perspective and there’s no amount of scales or modes that will ever make it sound right.
Learning all of this is part of the process of learning the jazz language. Anyone can learn it but it takes hard work and dedication. I’ve spoken with with older jazz musicians and I’ve learned that you never really get finished with your jazz education. It just keeps growing and you can always learn more. But keep in mind, if you really have a passion for what you’re doing, the hard work doesn’t really matter, does it?
So, What Exactly is the Jazz Language?
The jazz language is analogous to spoken languages. Spoken languages contain an alphabet which can be used to construct words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc.. in order to convey meaning to a listener. Jazz works the same way. You must learn the alphabet, vocabulary words, phrases and sentences so that you can “speak” the jazz language fluently and so that you can communicate with fellow band members and the audience.
Scales = The Jazz Alphabet
In jazz, the alphabet would be the scales that improvisers use to create melodies. For example, the chromatic scale, major scales, minor scales, whole tone, blues scales, etc… This is the raw material. Just knowing the alphabet in any language including the jazz language won’t take you very far, however. And you have to be very careful with scales because if your focus is scales, your improvisations will always sound “scalar”. An improvisation that is too scalar sounds like the musician is making up his or her own language.
This is what you want to avoid. To use an English language analogy, it’s as if you are taking the English alphabet and randomly scrambling up the letters while hoping that some of the combinations of letters that you come up with will be understood by and sound good to a listener. Possible, but highly unlikely. Obviously, a highly inefficient way of learning a language. Many players have wasted years doing this kind of thing—never quite understanding why what they play doesn’t sound “hip” .
Here’s an example of a improvisation over a CMaj7/Cm7/Fm7 chord progression that’s WAY too scalar way and DOES NOT “SWING” .
DON’T PLAY LIKE THIS!
Ok, so it’s not exactly the worse possible thing I could have played but nevertheless it’s NOT jazzy and DOES NOT swing. Notice how I’m going up and down the scale at certain points. It kind of sounds like a technical exercise. Now, I know we all have to start somewhere when learning jazz but the sooner you learn what not to play, the better.
But don’t get me wrong. To be a very good improviser, you must know your scales and here’s the reason why: In my opinion, the main purpose of learning a scale is threefold: 1) to learn the tonality of a set of notes to learn how they sound over a given chord or chord progression 2) To give yourself a visual context for learning the fretboard and 3) to reverse engineer or deconstruct the good sounding melodies played by professional jazz musicians to understand what they were playing when they played it.
So, learn your scales but focus on the words, phrases, sentences, etc… because as with any language, the more words, phrases, and sentences you know, the better you’ll be able to communicate to the listener.
Short melodies and Motifs = Jazz Words
As I mentioned, the scales are not enough. We must learn some “words”. What are the “words” in jazz? Words would be motifs and short melodies created from scales, arpeggios and scale fragments.
For example, this would be a short melodic “word” built from the C Major Scale (except for the Eb):
Listen to me play this word:
Words can can even be much shorter that this–maybe only 2 or 3 notes, for example. The point is you are focusing on melodies, not scales. Melodies are what improvisers use to build solos.
Phrases and Melodic Statements = Jazz Sentences
But knowing a bunch of words is not enough either, however! I might know many Spanish vocabulary words but that certainly won’t give me the ability to speak the Spanish language fluently. So, in addition to learning some vocabulary words, you should learn some phrases and sentences. That would give you the ability to communicate an entire idea or concept to the listener.
In terms of jazz, a sentence or phrase would be several words that are put together in a cohesive, logical way that’s relevant within the jazz idiom and that makes a clear melodic statement. What does this mean?
Well, what if you just take some Spanish words and randomly put them together? Just as in my example above with the alphabet, it’s unlikely that you will create a logical, understandable phrase or sentence this way. The same thing applies with the jazz language. The phrases that you create must sound “right” within the greater context of the song that you are playing and within the jazz idiom in general. This means can’t just string a bunch of short melodies together and expect them to sound jazzy. The phrase that you create might be theoretically correct in terms of the song’s harmony but still may not work or sound right from a jazz perspective.
Here’s the same jazz “word” that we had above with over a C Major 7th chord:
Here’s another “word” used to play over a II/V progression in Bb:
Listen to me play this word:
An Example of a Melodic Phrase or Sentence
A jazz musician might combine these “words” into the following 4 bar phrase
(The chord progression is similar to the first four bars of the song, “Just Friends”.) :
Take a listen:
Notice that the words weren’t just combined together like “Lego” blocks. In order for the phrase to sound “right” (at least to my ear), I eliminated a note or two, used a slide, a pull off, anticipated the Cm7 chord, and used syncopation, but most importantly I was trying to make it “swing” from a jazz perspective. This goes back to that other critical aspect that I mentioned earlier. Rhythm. Remember, if it doesn’t swing, it’s not going to work.
How do you know whether your phrases are “right” or not? Well, how would you know the best way to say a phrase in Spanish? Ask a native speaker!! Listen to Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, or Wes Montgomery , for example. They were master speakers of the jazz language, and in particular bebop. You learn the correct phrasing and rhythm by listening the masters and imitating them.
Complete Solos = Jazz Paragraphs and Speeches
Once you learn to create good sounding phrases, you start to create your own solos from these phrases and eventually you will get to the point where you know the phrases so well that you can spontaneously manipulate them rhythmically throughout a solo.
This is what the great jazz musicians do. They are able to play phrases that make sense from a jazz perspective and are able to manipulate these phrases into entire solos. This enables them to improvise through many, many choruses of a song and play good sounding material. It seems as though they are making up new sounds and phrases on every chorus. But really, they are taking many of the same phrases and manipulating them at will. With practice, the timing of the phrases can be organized so well that by the end of the solo, the listener is left which the feeling that the soloist has made a clear and definitive statement or “speech”.
It’s kind of like a preacher making a great sermon—a speech using “melodies”, if you will, that is so strong and powerful that you just have to jump up and say “Amen!!!”. In fact, we’ve all felt this at concerts. Remember that time when you last went to a good jazz concert and you got goose bumps during or after a solo? Well, that’s what I mean. There’s no question that the soloist made a positive, emotional impact on you. That’s our goal as jazz guitarists and musicians: to communicate these feelings to the listener.
So, ultimately while you want to gain as much facility with the jazz language as you can, the goal should be to connect with the listener and make a statement within the context of the jazz idiom. I keep harping on this idea that everything should be within the jazz idiom because while a musician may be very technically proficient on his or her instrument, that doesn’t mean that they are “saying something” when it comes to jazz.
How Do You Develop Your Jazz Language?
The best way to learn how to learn the jazz language is to listen to the best jazz musicians on a regular basis. This is the only way you are ever going to know whether what you are playing is correct in terms of the jazz idiom.
As I mentioned before, you should imitate and copy melodies and phrases that your favorite jazz musicians play. You then take these phrases and break them down into words that you can manipulate and put together so that you can create your own phrases from those words. Break the words down further so that you understand the alphabet or scales and/arpeggios that the words came from. Take some of the phrases you created and create your own solos based on the phrases. Write out the phrases and solos. Memorize the ones that you like. Discard what you don’t like.
Learning the jazz language is a trial and error process kind of like what a scientist does. You have to simply have to struggle through it until you find what works for you. It’s something that I’m still working on and something that I will be working one forever because like any language you can always learn new words and phrases and put them together in more creative ways.
I hope this has helped you understand the concept of jazz language and how you can begin to develop one. I plan on offering a lot of material along the lines of this article, so stay tuned.