How Can I Learn To Play Jazz?

I have been involved with jazz music most of my life and have been asked that question often. Many books and systems have been written on this subject and most will improve your ability to improvise, but I have learned through close observation of many players, not everyone can excel in this field. This situation can be attributed to several factors and one I hold to be true is that not everyone can learn to play jazz at an acceptable level.

One of my very best musician friends was an avid jazz enthusiast and spent most of his life listening to and playing with every recording he could find. For hours he would sit next to his record player and try to imitate the music coming out of the speakers. To his last day he was not able to achieve what he wanted most. He had taken classes at a leading university and had collected every method and exercise book he could find, and still he was unable to improvise jazz. This has made me conclude that some people just can’t learn to play jazz. Then why am I writing this post? I wanted to explain to those of you who have the desire and have spent the time trying to be a jazzer, you might realize that you could be built in such a way that you never will learn to play jazz. I’m sure many of you did not expect that, but some people are not equipped to learn to improvise and my first in this series will illustrate to many of you, your patience and dedication to learning how to improvise may be something you are not able to control.

Why are some players gifted at improvisation and others are not.

Ask yourself this question-

1.      Am I better in art or math?

2.      Am I a leader or a follower?

3.      Do I get bored easily doing repetitive chores or do I enjoy repetition?

4.      Does my mind tend to wander or can I keep focused for long periods of time?

5.      Are you more theoretical or practical in everyday matters?

6.      Are you more interested in theory than fact?

7.      Are you good at keeping your checkbook balanced or do you hate the chore?

8.      Do you enjoy starting new ventures or do you enjoy long term projects.

9.      When removing a new product from its box, do you start putting it together at once or do you read the instructions?

10.  When listening to someone tell his/her story, do you want to jump ahead because you are impatient for the person to finish what you already have concluded, or do you wait patiently for the story to end?

11.  When you are driving your car, do you know at all times where you are going or do you have the route already fixed in your brain?

12.  Do you forget important dates or do you plan ahead for every occasion?

By now you realize that I have divided the dreamers from the planners, the artists from the engineers. If you answered strongly positive on the first option of each question (10-12) you have strong tendencies to help become or are an accomplished jazz improviser. If you fall into the middle section (4- 9) with positive on the first option, the prediction of success is very good. But if you answered only 1 to 3 of the first options as your preference, don’t be surprised if you have had or will have a difficult time turning yourself into a true Jazzer.

Due to the answers you have given to the above questions, I would recommend that you approach the study of improvisation from two distinct directions. If you are the creative type, I will suggest how you might approach jazz improvisation and if you are attempting to develop your improvisatory ability from the re-creative side, I have a different approach for you.

Earlier in this post, I described my good friend who was unable to learn to improvise well. He was a very brilliant engineer and draftsman who was extremely factual. A person as opposite to me as anyone could be. I was amazed at the preciseness he lived his life.

An informative blog which was posted earlier explains the difference between the two approaches and I strongly advise you to read this post at this time- Classical Musician and Jazz Musician – What’s The Difference? In it I describe the two sides of the musical brain and this material may answer some of the questions you may have at this time. My following post will give information to those who answered the majority of my 12 questions positive on the first options. The post after that will deal with the other group who favor the middle and I will try to make some suggestions to those of you who rated high on the second option to each question.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.