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So You Want To Play Jazz? Part I

Tips and advice for learning a complex musical form
A few years back, I decided that the next step in my musical journey was to become proficient in the jazz style. I realized this because some of my favorite players were either jazz players (or were using jazz elements in their soloing), and I had no understanding about the harmony used, their note choices, or the genre as a whole. In this article, I'll try to lay out some of the the steps that I went through in order to gain a better understanding of playing in the jazz style. Part I will deal with the initial basics, and getting a grip on rhythm playing.

Note: There are many guitarists who either play in the jazz/rock style (like Al Dimeola or Larry Carlton), or who use jazz elements in other genres (like Robben Ford in his blues playing). All of these players have studied and can play pure jazz. If you're simply interested in adding some jazz elements to your existing style, it's true that you can learn a couple of licks and chords, and know where to apply them. However, this will only get you so far. The known players described above have spent considerable time immersed in the jazz genre, and thus have a wealth of material and experience from which to draw when applying jazz elements to different styles. My advice is to follow suit.

The Pre-Requisites
There are a few initial steps which you may have to take before proceeding with the advice given in this article:
  1. You should be familiar with the "sound" of jazz

    You can't learn to play in a genre if you don't know what it sounds like. Ideally, it'd be great to know a bit of the history, some of the musicians involved, and some of the influential records. You can get CD recommendations from the Resources Directory. A common first jazz disc is Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. For jazz guitar, Wes Montgomery's "Full House" is a good introduction to how the guitar functions in a jazz setting.

  2. You should know how to read music (i.e. standard notation)

    When you're practicing or playing with other musicians, you'll often be playing from lead sheets, which contain a melody in standard notation, with chord symbols. In jazz, where so much of the elements of a performance are improvised, the lead sheet is the blueprint for the musical discussion that will ensue. It's hard to participate in a discussion in which you can't read what the topic is.

  3. You should have a rudimentary understanding of music theory

    Much of becoming familiar with playing jazz is understanding the harmony of a tune. From the harmony, you'll be able to figure out what types of chords and scales best fit the tune. However, analyzing harmony requires knowing some of the basics of music theory. Thus, it's helpful to understand how chords are constructed and how the Roman Numeral system works.

  4. Most importantly, you should understand that learning jazz will take some time

    Rome wasn't built in a day. Jazz has a much more theoretical basis than most other common music forms. You will have many questions, and some things won't make sense for a while. That's only natural. In time, everything will make perfect sense.
OK, so let's get down to business:

Learning The Reportoire
Jazz has a common reportoire that its musicians use as a musical basis. This set of songs are often called "jazz standards", and they are tunes that all jazz players know (similar to "Wild Thing" when you're jamming rock). Many jazz standards resulted from players re-harmonizing Brooadway and popular tunes in the 40's and 50's, and some common ones are "Autumn Leaves" and "All The Things You Are". See Jeremy Cotton's 12 Essential Tunes lesson for a list of some of the most common jazz standards. Early on, I bought a lot of CDs based simply upon the fact that they contained certain tunes in which I was interested. You could bet that if a recording contained 3-4 known jazz standards on it (like Miles Davis' "My Funny Valentine" or "Four and More"), I'd pick it up.

Besides listening to recordings of these tunes, you should pick up a fake book for C-based instruments which has lead sheets for some of these tunes. There is an illegal version called "The Real Book" which is the standard book for jazz musicians. It's illegal because its authors did not receive permission from the composers to publish lead sheets of their tunes, and since it's illegal, it's a bit hard to find. Some smaller music shops may carry it, but they keep it in the back and not on display. My guess is that larger places like Guitar Center and Mars do not carry it. Sher Music makes a series of legal fake books that have many of the tunes outlined in the Real Book. I have Vol. 1 and I highly recommend it.

Having the recordings and the sheet music to these tunes is the 1-2 punch you'll need to really absorb the genre. Listen to the music as much as possible, and when you find a tune you really like, pull out the lead sheet for it, and use it to understand what's going on musically.

Getting Familiar With Chords
Forget about soloing for now. Yes, I know this is the sexiest part, but your soloing will be infinitely better if you first understand rhythm playing. Your first goal is to be able to play the chord changes of any jazz tune put in front of you. No one is going to want to play with you if you can't do this. Even if you don't know how to solo, you can still jam with other musicians if you can "comp" the changes. This is a good thing because it will allow you to play with musicians who are more advanced than you, which is one of the best ways to get better.

You can learn some of the basic chords used in jazz in two different ways. One way may be preferable than another, or some combination of both approaches might be best:
  1. You can go through a list of chord qualities and learn a couple different ways to play them in all keys. A good list might be: maj7, min7, 7, 7sus4, maj6, min6, m7b5, dim7, 9, 7b9

  2. You can learn a bunch of tunes, and learn different chords as they appear in the tunes on which you are working.
In the latter case, you can pick a tune like "Autumn Leaves" and try playing the chords. Ideally, you'd like to know at least 2 different ways to play any of the chords listed in the tune. I found it most helpful to know a voicing where the root note was on the 6th string, and another where the root note was on the 5th string. You can use the WholeNote Chord Finder to help you find some suitable voicings. Once you have a set of voicings to play for this tune, try playing along with a recording of this so you can hear how it sounds in context (for "Autumn Leaves", I recommend Bill Evans' version on Portrait In Jazz). If you're looking for different voicings of common jazz chords, take a look at Basic Chord Forms and Voice Leading.

When you play along with the record, you'll notice that rhythmic timing is important. There are common rhythm patterns that jazz musicians use when "comping" a tune (i.e. when and how often they strike a chord in a measure). If you listen to enough jazz, some of these patterns will creep into your playing. As you play along with recordings, try to imitate the rhythm used by the guitar or piano. If you're really ambitious, you can write out where the attacks happen, and then practice and absorb those patterns.

As you progress and learn more tunes, you'll find that many jazz standards contain similar progressions, and the process of figuring how to "comp" on these tunes will become easier and easier. Eventually (and this is the truly amazing part), you'll get to the point where you can look at a lead sheet for a tune you've never played and never even heard, and you'll be able to play it flawlessly.

Analyzing The Harmony
The last thing I'll mention in this installment is that while you're in the process of learning these tunes, you should be paying some attention to the underlying harmony of these songs. Using Roman Numeral notation, see if you can analyze the harmony of the current tune. For example, if you look at "Autumn Leaves", the first 3 chords are Am - D7 - Gmaj7. One possible analysis is IIm7 - V7 - Imaj7 (often called, simply, a II-V-I). Being able to reduce a tune down to this form provides the following benefits:
  1. It's an easier way to remember the chord changes
  2. It makes it easier for you to play the same tune in other keys
  3. It helps you figure out how to create more interesting chord voicings
  4. It will dictate what scale and arpeggio choices you can use for soloing
Point #4 is not an insignificant one. When someone asks "what scale should I play over an A minor 7 chord?", the response is "it depends", and the thing it depends on is the Roman Numeral analysis.

Well, hopefully, this has given you some basic direction in your quest to learn jazz. In the next installment, I'll talk a bit about how one starts to solo in this genre, based upon some of the things we've talked about above.

Christopher Sung was once a struggling jazz guitarist in Boston, but now runs a website called WholeNote with his good buddy, Sean.