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Getting started with jazz

4 years ago


Mark Armstrong reflects on the value of teaching jazz and offers some practical ways to begin.

At last year’s ABRSM teachers’ conference I co-presented an introductory jazz session with Alexander L’Estrange. Feedback from teachers showed much enthusiasm for jazz but also trepidation about getting started. Here, I hope to go some way towards encouraging the former and dispelling the latter.

Teaching jazzBeing involved in jazz education has taught me at least as much about the music as it has my pupils. I would encourage everyone to be open minded and honest about the fact that education is a journey of discovery for both pupil and teacher. The ability to say ‘I don’t know the answer, let’s find out together’ is the mark of a confident, not an ignorant teacher!

As the world of commercial and professional music evolves it seems clear that the skills needed for jazz performance, in particular a strong understanding of rhythm and a sense of freedom and flexibility beyond the notation, are those that will mark future players out from the crowd.

There are many routes to a life-long enjoyment of jazz available for players, singers and listeners of all kinds, but some early understanding of the style can only enrich the experience for everyone.

The first step

So, let’s get practical. A crucial first step for you and your students is to develop a strong internal sense of swing and rhythm. However, do remember that we are all climbing that particular mountain and few have reached the summit of perfect time.

There are some words you need to know. We refer to ‘groove’ and ‘feel’ in jazz and these terms are mainly interchangeable. Both describe a sense of energy and comfort in the pulse, but are also used when distinguishing the various rhythmic styles within jazz, such as swing, rock and latin.

Swing has a long-short quaver feel in each beat, while rock and latin have straight (even) quavers, though with more forward motion than in much classical music.

Figure 1 shows an exercise which can help to internalise these grooves. This is based on one I learnt from the Jazz at Lincoln Centre education programme.

Figure 1

For both sections of the exercise you can practise with a metronome, or preferably with a recording at about the given tempo.

  • Start with the foot, thinking 1, 2, 3, 4 on the beat, for a few bars.
  • Then add the hands, doing whatever feels most comfortable: a clap, a tap against the leg or a click.
  • Add the vocalised subdivision one beat at a time until all four are in place.

This makes you think like a drummer and synchronises an internalised sense of pulse.

In swing, the accent on the last quaver of each group is just as important as the subdivision. Putting a stress on these off-beats gives as much authenticity to a line of quavers as accurate placement.

This is also true in some straight quaver grooves but here the accent is also to encourage an equal weight on the off-beats as opposed to the strong-weak phrasing often used in classical music.

A note about vocalising

Vocalisation encourages an understanding of the feel before you try to apply it to an instrument. And there has always been a link between vocal and instrumental technique in jazz – just listen to Louis Armstrong on Hotter Than That and compare his scat vocals to his trumpet playing!

There are a number of ways to vocalise in jazz including ‘doo(t)’ on the beat, and ‘ba’ off the beat. But, however you pronounce them, the idea is to appreciate that there are eight places to put notes in a 4/4 bar: four beats plus the four quaver subdivisions or ‘off-beats’.

For swing, although the ‘dul’ triplet placement is used in some advanced rhythms, for now think of it as a spacer to ensure correct placement of the ‘AH’ off-beat. The degree of accent and long-short unevenness in swing can change according to tempo and individual style, but triplets is a good starting-point.

Moving on

The next step could be to apply this to a simple 12-bar blues melody. Figure 2 provides an example.

Figure 2

The melody deliberately uses different starting-points for each of the three phrases: beat one; the ‘and-of’ one; and beat two. When not playing on the first beat, think (or say) ‘Huh!’ to mark and bounce off the silent first beat – don’t be shy! Each phrase also includes a ‘push’ into bars 3, 7 and 11. All of this shows some of the syncopated variety in jazz rhythm.

Beginning to improvise

To begin improvising on this tune, simply use the notes of the melody. There is no need to address the harmony for now – the melody notes will all more or less work over all the chords in the sequence. For added ‘spice’ try transposing the melody up a minor third to create another set of improvising notes (and a harmony part).

At this stage it is more important to develop a secure confidence in note placement than to address harmonic complexity. There are some great examples of famous jazz solos that use a limited number of pitches. Listen to Miles Davis’s solo on Blues by Five from the album Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. This is a masterclass in how the principles of simple note-choice and really effective rhythmic placement can be used to create a fantastic ‘in the pocket’ solo.

Using the pentatonic scale

Figure 3 provides another exercise, this time using a straight (even) quaver feel. The notes in the top line are a minor pentatonic scale. To begin with you can teach these aurally to your student, out of time. Then you could introduce the printed rhythm.

Figure 3

After this, try an echo game with a metronome or tapping your foot as you play. Play a short and simple echo that fits over eight beats, for your pupil to repeat in time. To start with, limit these to the first two notes and use a simple rhythm but with a little syncopation. Try varying starting places, as described above for Figure 2.

Gradually add more notes until you are using all five separate pitches plus the upper tonic quite freely. However, always finish your phrase with a long note or some rest to allow processing time before the echo playback!

Once your pupil feels confident about this you can reverse the process and ask them to play echoes for you to repeat. After this, you could play the accompaniment and ask your pupil to improvise a series of two-bar phrases using the pentatonic scale they now know. This is a great way to encourage fluency in improvisation. It also develops a sense of harmonic rhythm and phrase length, which forms an important part of structuring improvised melodies.

Eventually you can use the principle of the ‘avoid note’ – the fact that B flat sounds better over bars 1 and 3 than over 2 and 4. This begins to introduce harmonic awareness, but without too much complex detail and in a way that stresses aural understanding.

I hope this short article has put some fundamental jazz concepts in a form that can be of practical use in your teaching. Embracing these simple ideas and sticking with them until they are fully internalised and comfortably achieved can be tremendously beneficial, not just for jazz playing but for all kinds of music.

Mark Armstrong is a jazz and commercial trumpet player and composer/arranger. He is Artistic Director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Professor at the Royal College of Music and an ABRSM examiner.

ABRSM Jazz exams for a range of instruments are available at selected centres. You can buy ABRSM jazz books and CDs from retailers worldwide and from

This article was originally featured in the March 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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