What is the jazz vocabulary and how you can learn it?

I recently listened to a podcast from Brent Vaartstra of LearnJazzStandards.com. Brent does a nice job with his podcasts, and his latest should give us all some food for thought.

From his podcast, he shared the results of a survey he sent out that was responded to by over 1,000 jazz musicians.

What caught my attention were the answers to the question: What is the most challenging part of your jazz improvisation? The answer most people gave (42%) was: Learning the jazz vocabulary and getting it to come out of my solos.

So I asked myself, what exactly is the jazz vocabulary that so many are searching for and struggling to play? What is the definition for ‘jazz vocabulary’, and how well is it understood by the players who responded to the survey? What is it that they think they are lacking?

I was ready to churn out 1,000 words on the topic, but I stopped myself, picked up the phone, and called my jazz rabbi, Richie Beirach.

Richie, of course, had some keen observations on the topic that I had never thought of, but I don’t want to quote him directly, since if you have any disagreement with my definition, blame me!

I think most players view the jazz vocabulary as the notes they play – how they hear melody and the automatic learned phrases that seem to fall from our instrument finding their way into many of our solos. I think that’s a part of it, but to speak the language well requires mastery of other components besides the quest for ‘right’ notes.

Consider the jazz vocabulary as five interconnected elements:

  1. Melody (the notes and phrases I mentioned)
  2. Harmony
  3. Rhythm
  4. Form
  5. Color/Texture

The ‘modern’ jazz vocabulary started somewhere in the late 40s to 50’s and perhaps with the iconic album, Jazz at Massey Hall. It was a live jazz album featuring a performance by “The Quintet” given on 15 May 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. The quintet were the jazz superstars of the day: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.


Some may argue that jazz started with Louis Armstrong, but I think that the vocabulary most of us are using started with bebop. Armstrong was instrumental in expanding the improvisational capabilities of the instrument, but most players today are playing the phrases created from the players on that album from Massey Hall.

Back to the five elements of the vocabulary, you probably understand the role of melody and the lines that flow through your improvisation. That’s the most obvious. That’s the element of ‘melody.’

The second element, ‘harmony’, has evolved from the perfect chords of Bud Powell to the more advanced chromaticism of Herbie Hancock and the dense flowing chords of Bill Evans. For more on this, check out the book, The Lineage of Modern Jazz Piano by Richie and me.

Next, rhythm is a major part of the jazz language. This music has its own rhythm, with complex syncopation and melodies flowing freely across bar lines. Without a fluency of that syncopation and a facility to dance with the time, you are missing a key component of the jazz vocabulary.

The authentic flow of jazz requires a personality carved from rhythm and the player’s sense of time. For more on that, read the past couple of month’s worth of my blog posts. I’ve been obsessed with time and rhythm!

Next is form. We are improvising over a variety of song forms, and to play jazz well demands that one has an instinct for the form. The most common is A-A-B-A song form, but players also need to have an instinct for the blues in its many flavors. Can you feel the movement from the I chord to the IV chord in your bones? Can you feel eight bars or 16 bars without counting?

Last and not least is what I’ll call color or texture. This is a more subtle element but it permeates the playing of the masters. I would go so far as to contend that the more proficient the player, the more personal and distinct becomes the overarching color of their playing. A definable color or texture to one’s playing is a major part of one’s vocabulary. Maybe we call it style.

Compare the color or texture of Chet Baker with Freddie Hubbard. Chet was serious and contemplative – someone sitting you down and sharing his deepest secret feelings in a dark corner of a smoke-filled room. Freddie was an uncontrolled fire taking you on a wild ride without seatbelts or guardrails.

One other example of color is Bill Evans who is seriously contemplative, telling you his personal story while you sit in a comfortable overstuffed chair with the fireplace throwing a warm glow throughout the room. This is a person who feels life more than most.

Contrast that with Oscar Peterson laughing and telling jokes in a colorful circus atmosphere, all the while amazing you with his humor and limitless energy.


Immerse yourself in the music.

Think of how you learned your native language. You were born with an instinct to learn the language which gave you a relentless drive to talk. At first, your attempts were gibberish consisting of your best imitation of the sounds around you.

You heard non-stop speaking from everyone in your world. You couldn’t help but pick up the language – the sentence structure, the conveying of ideas, the rhythm of words and phrases, and the culturally accepted phraseology.

Think of how immersed you are in your native tongue. You hear language spoken around you constantly. You think using language and you dream in language. It flows from our entertainment, the people with whom we spend our day, and the blogs, books, and web pages we read daily.

Now, compare your lifetime immersion into language to your relationship with the jazz vocabulary.

How much listening to a variety of jazz do you do? How much jazz consumes your daily thinking and imagining? Are the people around you constantly singing jazz phrases? Is jazz the music behind all your entertainment? Do you dream in jazz?

Young attractive woman siting on the studio floor over white

No, and that is a primary difference between language and music. Think about how much of your life you dedicate to deeply listening to jazz and thinking about it.

I have to occasionally remind myself that much of my teaching of improvisation assumes a certain fluency with the jazz vocabulary. My method of teaching how to better hear the music inside is a critical element of playing jazz well. But if you don’t have the jazz rhythm, sense of melody, harmony, and form subconsciously embedded inside of you, the music coming out of your instrument will lack authenticity to both the style of jazz and to your inner being.

Those great players mentioned earlier who had very identifiable textures developed those musical personalities only once the other elements of the jazz vocabulary were as much a part of them as their lungs and heart. They were far beyond looking for notes and thinking about rhythm or harmony. For those icons of this music, exploring themselves and the world was the only task at hand. That’s when your music becomes a pure reflection of your personality.


Love this music and listen to this music. Transcribe the solos that resonate with you and figure them out. Consider them to be text books  Play them and record yourself playing them. Listen back and be brutally honest about what you hear in your rhythms, melodic flow, and congruency within the underlying harmony and form.

Play the great jazz solos and sing along with them. Find ways to immerse yourself in the music. I remember back in my 20s, fading into sleep each night with my favorite records and CDs playing at my bedside.

I also remember riding around with Lewis Nash in college and being amazed that this drummer could whistle note perfectly along with any classic solo playing on the radio.

Discover what works for you to learn the vocabulary of jazz. Make them part of your identlty and you will find yourself playing with a fluency, ease, and authenticity you never thought possible.

11 thoughts on “What is the jazz vocabulary and how you can learn it?”

  1. In recent years, I’ve started playing more on valve instruments, to get away from playing the “automatic” phrases that got burned in from playing trombone for so many years.

  2. The single most important activity for learning jazz vocabulary is listening. There were times in my life when I did not have a functioning instrument or the time and space to practice even if I did. Nevertheless, listening to the seminal recordings of Parker, Miles, Coltrane and so many others had a cumulative effect in how I musically responded to tunes that I was hearing. I might not be able to play a solo or accompaniment, but I could sing one and tap out the rhythms. Listening is an active effort not a passive, casual one.

  3. I really appreciate your insight. Listening is so important – and I need to get away from talk radio and back into my jazz CD’s.

    Mike – let me know if you ever get up to Bend, OR. I schedule a monthly jazz gig at Bend Golf Club and would love to schedule you. Our gigs go on the 1st Wednesday of the month from 6-8 pm.

  4. Great recap on an important topic – learning the language by immersion. Massey Hall in Toronto was a “mecca” for jazz bands with guest performers. This Canadian version of Carnegie Hall opened in 1894 and the list of international artists is impressive. My personal recollection was a concert by Gordon Lightfoot in the 1970’s. Great acoustics. My retroactive dream is a fictional recreation of guitarist Ed Bickert’s playing – I don’t think that he ever perfromed there. As a humble quiet (timid?) individual , he preferred smaller club venues like Bourbon Street. Bickert is now recognized as an exceptionally creative player using “Drop” chords. Must listen to Ed comping behind Rosemary Clooney. You can hear his elegant comping very clearly – not flashy, not interefering with lots of flow and feeling – the elements you mentioned, Mike .

  5. Avatar
    Danilo Hernandez

    I totally agree with the article and connection of all five elements. However, I have one question, When did we stop listening? And what occurred that we decided not to listen?

    1. It’s not that we stopped listening. It’s that many young players stopped listening DEEPLY AND INTENSELY WITH TOTAL CONCENTRATED FOCUS ON THE IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF THE JAZZ VOCABULARY. Why?? Well, just try to watch and listen to a normal youtube link without an ad block!! CONSTANT INFURIATING ATTENTION DESTROYING ADS ADS ADS!! It is said that as more and more wonderful information becomes available to young minds, the average attention span has dropped massively. I guess that’s part of progress like what happened to all those blacksmiths saddle and horseshoe makers when the Model T replaced the horse. I hear very talented proficient young jazz players all the time and some of those kids have been doing the deep listening that Mike Lake writes about in his GREAT BLOG, but I worry that the majority have either not learned or have forgotten how to sit in a comfortable chair with lights down, TV off, computer off, phone off, girlfriend in another room, etc. and really with UNDIVIDED LASER-LIKE ATTENTION LISTEN TO THE MUSIC THEY NEED TO LEARN AND ADD TO THEIR MUSICAL DNA.

  6. Avatar
    Robert C Australia

    Jazz did not start with Louis Armstromg … Jazz is Louis Armstrong.
    To me he is the supreme lover of his art. His music is generous and full of aliveness. Although I had not met him, every appearance and performance seems to exude with his personal joie de vivre, present whether he was playing or just talking.
    There are many other jazz players I love but for me Louis is at the far right of the distribution ….

    1. Robert, I agree with your basic premise that Louis Armstrong is a great wonderful spirit and epitomizes some of the greatest jazz ever played, but here are some other ideas that might interest you. Pops DID play the first jazz improvised solo so he IS the beginning of what we call jazz music. My own opinion is that there are three absolute iconic essential jazz musicians that to me embody the entire essential history of the music: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, CHARLIE PARKER, AND JOHN COLTRANE. We can always discuss those other artists who we personally love and feel closest to but again in my view and in many of my close friends view like Dave Liebman, Randy Brecjer, John Scofield, etc. POPS, BIRD, AND TRANE encapsulate the history of jazz with its main innovations. Of course there are many great players other than these three who have contributed a great deal, but from a purely musical and historical viewpoint they are the three great sources of the foundations and great spirit of our music.

  7. Nice reminder for all improvisers, Michael! In agreement with your words, I always stress these two highly important sayings with my students that I learned from my high-school band teacher:

    1. Music is 90% Listening!
    2. If you can SING IT, you can PLAY IT!

    SO TRUE!

    I keep a list of sayings, axioms, and great quotes like these that I pass along to all my students.


  8. Avatar
    Terry T. Brown

    If you can’t sing it.

    You can’t play it.

    “Don’t practice until you get it right”.

    “Practice until you can’t get it wrong”.
    And –
    “Practice until you can’t play it wrong”.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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