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Just For Beginners - Jazz Improvisation for Beginners: Part Two
David Wilken

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Now you've either practiced your Bb major scale or you already know the scale well enough that you're ready to start improvising. Let's go.

Remember in last lesson where it mentioned choices while you improvise? Every decision you make when you improvise music comes down to three basic areas: "What note should I play? When should I play that note? and How should I play that note?"

Let's make on decision at a time. Let's begin by looking at the notes that are available to you in the Bb scale (below). The first thing to notice is the chord symbol. See above the staff where it says Bb maj7? That symbol tells us what notes to the rhythm section will be playing. In this case, it tells us that chord includes the notes Bb, D, F, and A.

Let's take a look at this Bb scale. Each note of the scale is numbered.

A major seventh chord (like Bb maj7) includes the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of the Bb major scale. Notice that those notes of the scale are darkened in. Try playing this chord arpeggio here. If you have a piano or keyboard instrument, try playing that chord on the piano and listen to how it sounds.

Now let's jump in and start improvising. Download this MIDI file and play back a bit of it to listen for a couple things. First of all, notice the eighth notes. Do you notice how they are not even, like in rock, latin, and classical music? That's called 'swing' and it is a very important part of jazz. When you improvise you should try to play that same feel, which is almost (but not exactly) like playing this rhythm.

Listen for what each part of the rhythm section is doing. The bass is playing mostly quarter notes and playing a lot of chord tones (Bb, D, F, and A in this case). The pianist is playing the chords rhythmically and the drummer is playing a swing pattern. You will want to fit in with what you hear, rhythmically (good time feel), melodically (nice melodies), and harmonically (good note choices).

To start with, let's just use the first three notes of the Bb scale: Bb, C, and D. Start the sound file again and improvise for a while just using those three notes, in any register. While you are playing listen carefully to the sound of those notes over the Bb major chord - each one has its own "feel" against the chord. You should not feel like you have to play every measure, feel free to rest and think about what you want to play next. And as always, make sure you are breathing properly and playing with a good sound.

Was that exercise too easy for you? Now try these exercises using the same sound files.

Improvise using only the following notes:

  1. Bb, C, D, and F (1, 2, 3, and 5)
  2. Bb, C, D, F, and A (1, 2, 3, 5, and 7)
  3. Bb, D, F, and A (1, 2, 3, and 5; the Bb major 7 chord)
  4. Bb, C, D, F, and G (1, 2, 3, 5, and 6; the Bb major pentatonic scale)
  5. Use the entire Bb major scale
  6. Make up your own combinations
  7. Play whatever your ear, mind, and heart tell you (as you would perform)

If you need some melodic ideas to inspire your improvisation, take another look at the Bb major scale patterns PDF file for some licks to get you started.

Before you finish practicing today, make sure you practice #7. The various combinations of notes are meant to give you control over some of the possible choices available. When you perform, you might play a few ideas that make use of the above combinations, but you would probably not want to perform an entire solo like that. Since you can't expect to be able to do anything in performance that you haven't practiced, always spend some time practicing improvising as if you were performing. Try to tell a story with your improvisation - potray an emotion to the people who are listening. You might also have a picture in your mind that you are trying to communicate.

Once you get familiar with these exercises on the Bb major scale and major 7 chord, transpose those combinations to fit these sound files:

The next lesson will cover the chord progression called 'the blues' and some of the possible choices you have playing over this chord progression.

Part One - Part Two - Part Three

David Wilken is a music educator and music teacher living in Asheville, NC..