To Learn to Play Jazz, Start at Ground Zero

Many years ago a sixteen year old private student asked me how to play jazz. I told him to start by learning the II minor scales. He wasn’t convinced, and for the next two years, he practiced half heartedly. After graduating, I lost touch with him until he came to visit me in my studio about six years later. He then apologized to me for not trusting my suggestions. He told me that the first day in college he was kicking himself because all the other freshmen were wailing on the very thing I was hounding him to learn. Today he is a really good player in spite of himself.

Back when he was a teenager, he didn’t want to go back to ground zero to play jazz. He had spent the last 4 years learning the basics and progressing, and he didn’t want to go back to learning more basics, this time of jazz. Just because you’ve learned an instrument doesn’t mean you can play all styles of music. You have to be okay to start at ground zero. Here’s what I told this student when he wanted to learn to play jazz.

First, learn to play at least the practical range of your instrument. I will keep it simple and refer to just the saxophone. Range: low “C” to high “Eb”, 2 octaves plus a step and a half. Easy to execute with plenty of room to play jazz patterns.

Second, you must learn the language. I know every teacher tells you to commit major scales to memory. Remember the “Do, Re, Mi’s” you sang in kindergarten? This is the real ground zero. Ever since, you have been singing songs based on that scale, but the key was not an issue, just the feel of the “major” scale and what it sounds like. On any melodic instrument each key IS a new issue. Here’s a tip to learning all 12 major scales. Actually all you have to do is learn 12 half scales also called tetrachords. For example, play “G”, “A”, “B”, “C”. That’s a half scale, and a major tetrachord. Here’s the cool part, it’s the bottom half of the “G” scale, and the top half of the”C” scale. Just learn these half scales individually in order and you will start to see a pattern. The fourth not or “Fa” will become the new first not “Do” of the next tetrachord.

Now take the “G” major scale and play it starting on “A”, going up to “A” or “B” then come back down. The trick is to feel this new scale as an entity all it’s own, not a permeation of the original major scale. There are CD’s of minor chord accompaniments out there that will make practicing all 12 keys more interesting and fun to play and interact with. After the first scale, each consecutive scale will be easier than the previously learned one. Why? Because you will start to feel the essence of the “II minor” on it’s own merit. Do this every day with the back-up music and hopefully you will start to formulate ideas of your own based on the dorian (II minor) scale. That is when the fun will start.

Anyway, while all this is going on you must LISTEN! Listen to “light jazz”, “smooth jazz”, “mainstream jazz” and “hardcore jazz”. Remember there is good jazz and lousy jazz just like good rock and bad rock, rap, reggae or any other style of music.

When I was still in high school I experienced my first jazz concert. All the solos were just a blur to me. Years later, I woke on day and realized that I was hearing patterns and ideas in those solos.

Once you can hear those ideas, you can apply what we were just talking about.