Jazzing Your Bag Of Tricks

September 25, 2015

Faculty Author:

Imagine the following circumstances. 


  • You are called for a gig and when you show up some of your music has chord changes on it.  Were you able to pull it off, or did you abstain? 

  • You are on a recording session and the producer asks you to make something up on the spot, how would that go? 

  • You are playing a piece of contemporary music that has a trumpet solo with no marking other than “40’s Big Band Solo”.  How would that go down?

  • You are doing a pops concert and the music has a written solo that says improvisation preferred.  What do you do?

  • You have a brand new solo work for your instrument that requires improvisation and comes with a written out solo suggestion.  What is your play?


In the land of brass performance, students generally acquire excellent facility on their instruments, as well as excellent musicianship skills for classical music.  Where these programs lack is in teaching their students practical harmonic and aural skills and the ability to improvise in an informed manner both with and without chord changes and standard harmonic progressions. 


What I mean by practical harmonic/aural skills is the ability to hear and differentiate between harmonic functionality both vertically (type harmony) and horizontally (type of progression).  This skill is useful in every musical situation that we find ourselves in, and increases our musicianship by an order of magnitude or more.  General classical theory and musicianship trains us in the construction, theory, and function of chords in harmony.  However, in the heat of performance, performers tend to rely on their musical intuition rather than their knowledge of theory.  Practical harmonic and aural skill are therefore the conditioning of musical intuition rather than musicianship.


To be an informed improviser means being able to sound stylistically appropriate in any given musical or harmonic setting.  This includes both improvising in the style of something or someone, as well as creatively improvising with your own personal approach and voice.  In order for this to be possible, we must go through the basics of traditional jazz improvisation learning so that we have a functional ability with those skills.  These skills include reading chord changes, familiarity with basic forms and progressions, and knowing what traditional jazz sounds like.


When asked to improvise, the various sub-groups of brass performance specialists will gravitate towards different devices based on their traditional training.  The classical brass player will need to adjust their production and articulation styles, as well as work on developing vocabulary (both harmonically and rhythmically).  The contemporary brass player will need to give up the habits of random/contrast playing long enough to develop vocabulary and stylistic knowledge.  Both types of players will need to develop an understanding and familiarity with what improvisation traditionally sounds like before they can venture off into their own creative spaces. 


The difference between informed and uninformed improvisation is that the latter tends towards the sounds of “scratch and sniff” or “petting zoo” while the former retains them as two options among many.


As accomplished musicians who which to become better improvisers, I will recommend four primary areas that we should deal with.  It is a fact that most of what I recommend fall into the basic curricula of jazz performance programs.  This is because we must learn the basics of traditional jazz improvisation in order to truly improvise in an informed manner.


  1. Learn simple forms, progressions, and melodies.

  2. Learn some basic jazz vocabulary to use on those forms and progressions.

  3. Apply the theory knowledge you already have to chord changes.

  4. Listen to jazz and emulate what you hear.


The two basic forms that we should focus on are the 12 bar blues (major and minor) as well as the 32 bar rhythm-changes form.  The majority of jazz standards ascribe to these forms.  (Either AAB or AABA).  Use a play-along track to get the sound of the chord movement.  Play the bass notes and identify their relationship to each other.  Recognize the quality of the chords, and what they seem to imply when they change.  Work on hearing what the next chord will be by visualizing the melody.  Emulate the bass walking lines to get the feel for the rhythm and harmonic motion in your ear.  Note that the bridge on rhythm changes (the B section) is unique among the other sections and employs a specific harmonic movement.  Hear how different improvisers deal with this section.  Note that the final two bars in each A sections are only slightly different.  These are all music observations that will help to reinforce the musical intuition that you are conditioning.  In rhythm changes, you are dealing with the venerable ii-V7-I progression as well as the I-vi-ii-V and ii-VI-ii-V (both functionally the same).  This brings us to our next area of focus.


In learning vocabulary, I strongly recommend Jamey Aebersold’s ii-V7-I book.  Using the ii-V7-I in all keys play along, choose a basic “lick” and play it in all 12 keys.  I recommend Jerry Coker’s “patterns for jazz” book as a source for these patterns.  Make sure you do not learn too many!  The goal is to become intimate with this particular progression so that your musical intuition is conditioned to know what is interesting about it, and how it functions in music.  Find patterns that involve the 7, 3, and flat-9 for maximum benefit.  One example is below.




                  This kind of practice is nearly identical to the kind of practice we do with solo repertoire or scales.  You start slow enough to master the task, and then increase speed through repetition. The ideal way to learn them is to play them by ear and out of time.  Slowly so that you kinesthetically learn the patterns.  Sing them so that you intrinsically know how they sound outside of the note names.  This step can be time consuming, but once these patterns are internalized physically and aurally, it will be much easier to play them with the recordings.  As you get more comfortable with this chord progression, both aurally and technically, you will begin to see it and hear it in all kinds of music.  You will also see that many melodies exploit the ii-V7-I (or whatever functions in its place) in a similar way to these patterns.  This is all part of the process of conditioning the musical intuition.  It is also worth noting that the chords of a ii-V7-I all use the same key.  So knowing how to get the ii chord and scale from a V7 chord can be a neat trick.


We are already starting to apply our theory knowledge to reading chord changes here, but now I will delve into it further.   A simple way to approach jazz chords is by always remembering that what you see is what you get.  The letters in the chord refer to the bass note.  This is always the lowest note of the chord and is how we name our chords.  Typically, the case of the letter does not matter, but sometimes lower case will mean minor and upper case will mean major.  However, it is best to assume nothing based on the case at first. 


The collection of symbols and abbreviations after the letter determine the quality and function of the chord.  Generally a lower case m, a dash (-) or min. will indicate a minor triad.  The complete lack of anything implies a major triad.  Moreover, having only a single number 7, 9, or 13 implies a dominant seventh chord.  Having a 6 after the letter tells you that the 6th scale degree is in the chord in addition to the triad.  Seeing a circle (o) indicated a fully diminished seventh chord.  Seeing a circle with a line through it (ᶿ) will indicate a half-diminished triad.  Sometimes this is written as C-7b5, an equivalent notation for half-diminished.  A plus (+) indicates an augmented triad, also sometimes written as aug.  If there is a slash with another note below, the note below is the bass note while the note above indicates the chord that is to be played in conjunction.  Any letter can also have a 7 attached to it.  This specifies that it is a 7th chord.  The quality of the 7th is determined by the symbol.  A major symbol is a major 7, a minor symbol means a minor 7.  No symbol is a dominant 7 (minor with major 3rd).


Additional symbols can include the b (flat) and # (sharp) symbols along with numbers.  The numbers indicate the inclusion of an additional scale degree that is above the rest of the chord.  Just subtract 7 from any number greater than 7 to figure out what part of the chord exists.  The b and # indicate alterations to the diatonic version of the indicated note.  Further indications can specify the mode (such as F Lydian) or more complex situations such as altered dominant chords (such as F Alt). 


The important thing to remember is that all of the extra symbols only specify alterations to the five core types of chords with basic scales.


  1. Major  – 1-3-5

  2. Minor – 1-b3-5

  3. Dominant Seventh – 1-3-5-b7

  4. Half-Diminished – 1-b3-b5

  5. Augmented – 1-3-#5


The final step is that of emulation, and this is where time becomes an issue.  This also tends to be the place that makes or breaks your validity as an improviser.  In order to learn the basics of improvisation, we must listed to jazz and we must emulate those who have established the traditions of the music.  If you have time, transcribe solos and try to replicate every facet of the performance.  Get inside the different styles and explore artists that are more modern. 


Remember that playing in a jazz style involves more than just the notes.  There is a strong rhythmic aspect to improvising and being able to rhythmically exist within the established groove or time is just as important as playing appropriate notes.  This can be a really easy way to get a step ahead of everyone else trying to figure out this jazz thing!


Soon, you will develop your own voice and, if you wish, you can leave behind the period-performance-practice of traditional jazz but take your informed ear and musical intuition with you!



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Dr. Derek Ganong attended UCLA (BA in Ethnomusicology and Cognitive Science), NYU (MM in Jazz Performance), and recently earned his DMA from the University of Miami (Jazz and Classical performance).  His dissertation “Laurie Frink’s Method of Trumpet Instruction” is a documentation, analysis, and presentation of Laurie Frink’s trumpet method. 

It can be found HERE

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