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What is jazz improvisation?

Let’s first define what I mean by jazz improvisation. Jazz improvisation is a spontaneous conversation, but instead of words, we use notes. Look at two possible ways to go about playing jazz. First, there’s the planned approach – it’s like having a blueprint. You’ve got scales, arpeggios, and all those familiar licks memorized, ready to transport you through the chord changes. It’s comfortable, like following a well-worn path.

In my opinion, this is not jazz improvisation. It’s an imitation of how jazz improvisation sounds. I’ve criticized people’s use of licks and memorized solos and lines that sound like a caricature of jazz.

The opposite of the caricature style of musical memorization is what we’ll call improvisation. It’s all about the moment. You’re going into the unknown to let your technical skill and creativity tell a meaningful story. It’s jazz in what I think is its most authentic form – emotionally meaningful, unpredictable, and original.

I’m labeling as a caricature music that is merely the sound of the jazz style. In true improvisation, you take the risk of the unknown as you make up musical lines. Improvisation as I’ve just defined it is what we will spend the rest of this article exploring.

The Evolution of Jazz Style

Back in the ’60s, jazz musicians dove deeper into improvisation after the hand-off from Louis Armstrong. Bird was a maestro of this art, often using practiced patterns but weaving them effortlessly throughout the song form to create the most beautiful and complex jazz lines anyone had ever heard which was the next step in showing the world how to improvise jazz.

In the 70s and 80s, Icons like Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman took the idea of improvisation to new heights. They weren’t just playing music; they were living it out loud, right there on stage. Ask Steve Swallow about his first gigs with Bley; he’ll tell you about the thrill and learning experience of having no idea what he was about to play throughout an entire gig. Bley remains a testament to the spirit of how to improvise jazz from the unknown. Then came Keith Jarrett playing similarly.

Be aware of getting caught up in the mechanics of your instrument, letting your fingers lead the way.  Be also aware of the temptation of “higher, faster, louder.” Those traps will forever prevent you from being the expressive musical individual that jazz offers you the chance to be. If your personal voice, like Maynard Ferguson, IS higher faster louder, make the most of it. But be careful playing that way solely for cheap excitement. That may not be you at your best.

So if you really listen and let your ear take the reins, you’ll discover that improvising jazz comes from a deeper place. It’s not just about quick fingers or strong lungs; it’s about unleashing the full potential of your musical mind.

"This particular feeling which is amorphous and difficult to describe becomes a musical idea which travels to my ear at the speed of light and then just as quickly to my hand which allows me to instantly articulate that feeling in sound.
Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
Jazz Piano great - on ear/instrument connection

Learning to improvise: From Ear Training to Soloing

Training Your Ear: The First Step

The journey into jazz improvisation starts with your ears. Not your eyes. Your ear is your primary guide as you navigate the complex harmonies and rhythms. Without fancy schools or online tutorials, the greats learned by playing and listening, being absorbed by the sound of the music. If you’re not lucky enough to have a band to play with every day, and even if you are, here are some things for you to consider as you work to improve your skills and confidence improvising. 

Four Tips to Improve Your Listening Skills

  1. Study the Greats: Get up close with the legends. Don’t just listen passively – sing along with the solos of Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Chet Baker and others. Really hear what they are playing. Lear some harmonic theory, but not as a crutch, but as a map to learn the architecture of the music and why the greats played what they did over those chords.
  2. Sing Then Play: Singing is your closest connection to your musical mind. Your instrument should be an extension of that mind. Start simple: sing a note, then play it. Challenge yourself to match pitches with your instrument as you connect your musical mind to your instrument.
  3. Melodies on Demand: Start with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and play it in various keys. Do the same with Happy Birthday. Get to the point where the song in your mind flows through your instrument without you having to think and manufacture it.
  4. Train your ear/instrument connection by practicing over simple backing tracks such as Groovz Playground. Sit in at jam sessions whenever possible. Get together with a guitar or piano player if you play some other instrument.

Mastering Your Instrument

In order to know how to improvise jazz with fluency, you must master your instrument. The more friction you have in finding and playing notes on your instrument, the more removed you’ll be from truly expressing yourself.

Even though I am discouraging you from running scales, patterns, and memorized solos as the stuff of your solos, I strongly encourage you to practice these things in order to get better on your instrument. To accomplish that, develop the practice habit. The time you practice can be any length you can afford, but whatever it is, make it a regular habit.

Within your habitual practice routine, try this 15 minute warm-up of your ear:

  • For one minute, play a not on your instrument, then sing that note.
  • For another one minute, start by singing a random note and then finding that note on your instrument by ear. Start with notes close to the notes you played and sang above.
  • Last, sing a children’s song or a familiar holiday tunes then play it on your instrument. After that, play it in another key. (Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, Three Blind Mice, etc.)

Five minutes each day can go a long way to improving your improvisation. And upon success, extend that habit into ten, 15, or 30 minutes. That just might eventually make you a jazz master!

Connecting with Your Instrument

The connection with your instrument is everything in how to improvise jazz. By finding it easier and easier to play simple songs in multiple keys without mentally transposing and calculating the notes, you’ll start to improvise authentic music. It’s not just about learning tunes; it’s about forging a bond with your instrument, making it an extension of your thoughts and emotions.

Jazz Vocabulary: Speaking the Language of Improvisation

More Than Just Notes

Jazz is a language, and like any language, it has its unique vocabulary. But we’re not just talking about notes. We’re talking about how to improvise jazz using melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and that personal flair we call ‘style.’

Consider these five elements as comprising the jazz vocabulary.

  • Melody: It’s the storyline of your solo, the threads that tie your improvisational statement together.
  • Harmony: Chords are the colors of the foundational  palette.
  • Rhythm: This is your groove, the heartbeat that keeps your playing alive and kicking.
  • Form: The canvas of your solo, the structure that contains your musical ideas.
  • Texture: That’s your unique musical voice. It’s what sets you apart from everyone else.

By wrapping your head around these elements and practicing them until they’re second nature, you’ll learn to speak the improvisatorial language of jazz. Keep in mind that all the jazz giants – from Bird to Trane to Miles – started by emulating their heroes before finding their own voice. Listen deeply, practice with passion, and let your voice find its way through your instrument.

Understanding music is similar to the process of mastering a language, where having a rich vocabulary is key to effectively communicating. This analogy extends beyond notes and rhythms into the realm of expressive depth and nuanced storytelling. Musicians must cultivate an insatiable curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning. Knowing how to improvise jazz involves not just acquiring the technical scales and patterns but embedding them into one’s artistic identity, so as to enable spontaneous and profound musical conversations. Through this continuous exploration, the musician evolves, using the power of music to convey complex emotions and narratives, much like a skilled speaker turns words into compelling stories and narratives.

Improvisation: The Honest Reflection of SelfWhich ones are the Wrong Notes?

What if we tossed the concept of ‘wrong’ notes out the window? Imagine the freedom. I used to jam with a friend who wanted to learn jazz, and I’d try to play ‘wrong’ notes on purpose to show him that when you deliberately try to play ‘wrong notes’, they cease to be wrong.

This is a very different sound from playing outside the harmony due to not hearing the chords or being lost in the form. In fact, I think you can probably only deliberately play wrong notes once you have command over the ‘right’ ones. What do you think? Watch this short video lesson in the course Pocket Jazz that talks about a fundamental aspect of how to improvise jazz centering around “right” and “wrong” notes. This is what I needed to hear when I was starting out…

The Recording Mirror

How do you really know if your notes sound “right” or “wrong”? Most of us overestimate how we sound in the moment of performance. That is why recording yourself is so important, and then listening back. Hitting ‘record’, however, can be daunting – you’re hearing your musical reflection without the color of hope or fantasy for how you sound. But by embracing your recordings – imperfections and all – is the only way to hear what you need to improve. Record yourself so you can hear those moments of brilliance and those needing work. It’s a honest lens on your journey to better musicianship.

Playing back your recordings can offer surprising revelations. You might cringe, sure, but you also might stumble upon a phrase or a tone you didn’t realize you had in you. It’s about getting to the nitty-gritty of your sound – and coming to terms with it, good and bad. Convincing yourself not to record and listen back because you don’t like hearing yourself is a sign that you must record and listen back!

Tune Your Brain: The Mental Melody

Cognitive Dissonance and Harmony

Our mind can create a lot of noise that drowns out the music. We worry about hitting the perfect note, about the judgment of listeners, about our own self-worth as musicians, about hitting the bridge well. But here’s the thing: self talk can be affirming or a distraction, and it’s completely up to you. Don’t let it cloud your playing.

Flow Over Friction

An affirming attitude and confident self-talk create the foundation for Flow. That is the state where your instrument feels like an extension of your body where all you experience is expressing yourself confidently with ease. Achieving it involves bypassing the fear and negative self-talk – the doubts, the comparisons, the what-if’s. Instead, your playing is led by the rhythm of the room, the interplay with other musicians, and the pure joy of playing. In other words, your musical story has personal meaning.

Achieving flow in your improvisation is akin to entering a trance where everything but the melody fades away. You’re not thinking about the next chord or fretting over the last solo; you’re in the moment, fully absorbed. It’s a sweet spot every musician chases, where self-consciousness evaporates and pure instinct takes over. That’s where true improvisation thrives because you are now in command of how to improvise jazz.

If you’ve ever entered a state of improvisotory flow, chances are you were riding the wave of your inner pulse, the beat of your musical heart. Not dictated by scales or technical prowess, but by a deeper connection to the rhythm and story of the song. It’s about letting go of the notion that there’s a ‘right’ way to play and embracing the story you naturally want to tell.

Watch this humorous one-minute portrayal of the dialogue that creeps into our head and how it can effect our improvisation.

Your Brain: The Conductor of Your Musical Orchestra

As that little video demonstrates, the real instrument you play is your mind. Sure, you’ve got a sax or a piano, but they’re just tools like a hammer or a shovel. What makes music is your mental creativity, your imagination. That’s where jazz lives – not in your fingers, but in your mind.

I’m not referring to the mind that concocts a patchwork of scales, patterns, and impressive mechanics, but instead the mind that is aware of the music and is deeply listening so as to tell its story in the clearest, most honest means.

Embrace the Authentic Music Within

And this mind of clarity and honesty has the defining stamp of your personality. It’s your signature. Every jazz great has a personal style that we can recognize from just a few notes. This isn’t by accident. It’s the result of understanding that while scales and patterns are tools, they’re not the essence of music. They’re like the colors on a painter’s palette—the real magic happens when you start mixing them in a way that’s uniquely yours.

Good improvisation is about the music in your mind coming to life through your instrument. It’s about trusting that the melodies and rhythms you imagine can find their way out into the world. And when you allow that to happen—when you truly connect with the reservoir of creativity within you—that’s when you become not just a musician, but a storyteller. A jazz musician.

Your musical voice is an extension of being human which means that everybody is different and has their own way of navigating life.
Liebman head
Dave Liebman
Jazz Saxophone great - on finding one's musical voice

When you strip away the fear of making mistakes and focus on the music you hear inside, you tap into something real. It’s about reaching for notes that feel right, not just the ones that are theoretically correct. Bird’s genius wasn’t in the patterns he played, but in the fresh, spontaneous way he strung them together—turning familiar passages into new stories.

One thing I tell older players who are still learning to be comfortable with playing jazz is to realize how few people even play a musical instrument well, let alone can extemporaneously compose. There is probably a lot less judgement of their playing than they fear, and in the end, who cares? That is a mindset that must be developed before one can improvise authentically with skill and confidence.

Give fear the finger

Standing up and improvising in your unique musical voice is easier said than done. It takes courage to be yourself as you engage in something as difficult, and at the same time, deeply personal, as improvising jazz. It’s walking a tightrope without a net. It’s being willing to surrender your muscle memory to the unknown.

The Path to Jazz Mastery

In conclusion, the journey to becoming a jazz master is both internal and external. It’s about discipline and spontaneity, about structure and freedom. It’s about knowing the rules well enough to break them artfully. By nurturing the connection between your musical mind and your instrument, you open up a world of expression that goes far beyond the notes. This is the heart of jazz—where each player tells a unique story, where each performance is an act of creation, and where the true measure of mastery is how deeply you connect with the music and, ultimately, with your audience.

Experience the fun and speed of
improving your jazz improvisation!

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1 thought on “How to improvise jazz better”

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    James Sowinski

    quote I heard, not sure who to attribute to: There are no wrong notes, only tension and release.

    Also heard a story that Miles Davis would often upon hearing someone play a note that didn’t seem to fit, would play it himself in a way that did fit.

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Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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How to improvise jazz better

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