Beginning Jazz Improvisation

"Memorizing chords, scales and melodies gives courage to our imagination" -Jamey Abersold, Jazz Educator

As a middle school music educator, I believe the middle school/junior high school years provide an excellent opportunity to begin to introduce kids to jazz performance and improvisation. Most middle school and junior high level jazz ensemble music arrangements involve only a few chord changes making it an excellent time forstudents to practice the art of improvisation. Here are a few jazz improvisational exercises that are not usually taught and sometimes forgotten:

Scales, Chords & Melodies

Jazz improvisation involves two activities listening to jazz and acquiring a vocabulary of scales, chords, and melodies. A practical way to include improvisation in your program is to connect it to the repertoire. Try to select one tune for your jazz band to perform that will allow them to apply the art of improvisation. Generally, a diatonic or blues scale tune is appropriate for beginning level improvisers. Improvisation on these types of tunes requires the use of only one major scale, dorian mode or pentatonic/blues scale. 

For example, the jazz ensemble is learning to perform Blue Train (by John Coltrane), Arranged by Paul Murtha, its blues changes (in the Key of F Concert) and moderate tempo makes this a great tune for beginning improvisers. As part of the warm-up, I would suggest teaching the students to perform and memorize the Concert F blues scale. The blues scale is constructed as follows: Root, Flat 3rd, 4th, Sharp 4th, 5th and Flat 7th (as written for Alto Saxophone included here). This scale will be used to help students to improvise (create melodies) over the changes in the solo section of the tune listed above).  

  Concert F Blues Scale written for Eb Instruments (e.g. Alto/Baritone Saxophone) Feel free to transpose the scale into the keys you need. 

Concert F Blues Scale written for Eb Instruments (e.g. Alto/Baritone Saxophone) Feel free to transpose the scale into the keys you need. 

When the students have memorized the blues scale, I would recommend teaching them to eliminate the Sharp 4th, which in the example included here is the G#. The notes that remain are : D, F, G, A, C, which is a Minor Pentatonic Scale. The notes of the D Minor Pentatonic Scale is another option for students to improvise (create melodies) over the Concert F Blues Changes in the solo section for the example listed above.

After the students have memorized the scales, I ask for volunteers to experiment with creating their own melodies using the Blues and/or pentatonic scales. I instruct the students to begin their melodies with the Root (first note of the scale) or Third (3rd note of the scale) because many good melodies (e.g. Hot Cross Buns, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) begin either on the root or the third. I would have the jazz band rhythm section perform or create a source recording of the rhythm section performing the changes (using the Program Band in the Box or purchase Jamey Abersold's Book/CD Vol. 21 Getting It All Together and use track 30 F Blues recording) or the students to practice improvising. 

 Resources: 

 

2-Measure Blues Riffs

Once the students have mastered the blues and minor pentatonic scales (as discussed above, which usually takes a few weeks to a few months), I teach the students to perform as a group ten 2-measure blues riffs, which the entire ensemble learns to perform together as a part of a warm-up. 

  Two measure Concert F Blues Riff/Ideas written for Eb Instruments (e.g. Alto/Baritone Saxophone). Feel free to transpose the riffs here and use them with your students. 

Two measure Concert F Blues Riff/Ideas written for Eb Instruments (e.g. Alto/Baritone Saxophone). Feel free to transpose the riffs here and use them with your students. 

When the students have memorized the riffs, I ask them to create their own 12 bar solo as follows:

"Students we are going to go around the ensemble and everyone is going to create a jazz solo using the riffs we learned together. However, you will follow the following parameters..."

  1. You can play either a  2 measure riff or a 2 measure rest, but you may not play the riffs in the same order they have been written. (Give the students  a few rehearsals to practice and get comfortable with re-ordering the riffs to create their own solos). 
  2. Then, challenge the students to add a pick-up note to one or more of the riffs. (Again, give the students a few rehearsals to practice and get comfortable with this concept).
  3. Challenge the students again to change some of the riffs by adding holds or repeating a portion of a riff. (Give the students a few rehearsals to practice and get comfortable with this concept).
  4. Finally, analyze the riffs with the students and help them to understand the importance of placing the flat 5 or sharp 4 on the strong beats (beats 1, 2, 3, 4), this helps them to create good sounding riffs. Our ear does not like the sound good of the flat 5 or sharp 4 of the blues scale when they are performed on the up beats. 
  5. Have the students create and perform for each other their own 2 bar riff,s placing the flat 5 or sharp 4 on the strong beats (1, 2, 3, 4). 

Rhythm Section

Teach the rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) to play  the following:

1. The Bass player learns to play a walking bass line as provided in the example here.

  Concert F Walking Bass Line. Feel free to transpose this bass line to another key and use it with your students.  

Concert F Walking Bass Line. Feel free to transpose this bass line to another key and use it with your students.  

2. Teach the pianist to play the following Blues Progression using some very simple chord voicings as depicted in the example here. A great reference tool is Jamey Abersold's Free Handbook P.47, which has some basic Blues Piano Voicings already written out.

  Beginner Concert F Piano Voicings. Feel free to transpose these chords to another key and use it with your students.  

Beginner Concert F Piano Voicings. Feel free to transpose these chords to another key and use it with your students.  

3. Teach the drummer to play a simple Jazz Awing (as written here) as follows:

  • Have the student begin by playing just the ride cymbal for the first few rehearsals
  • When the student is comfortable, then have them add the quarter notes on the bass drum along with the ride cymbal
  • When the student is comfortable with playing the ride and bass drum figures, have them play the high-hat figures on 2 and 4