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Four Approaches to Jazz Improvisation Instruction

This article will investigate underlying processes of improvisation using pianist Bill Evans as a model. I will also compare and contrast four master teaching styles that follow Evans’s methodology. These artists, though diverse in their teaching approaches, show a commonality of focused thought and structure at the core of their craft. It is at this juncture that artist interaction with students is most significant.

Like any complex subject, jazz is difficult to teach. One of the great challenges of jazz, and one that makes jazz education unique, is that the success of a jazz musician lies in the ability to improvise. How does one teach the ability to be spontaneously creative “in time”? In academia, the ability to improvise is taught in the context of a broad liberal arts education. Through broad-based education, students are given an overview of materials rather than a strong musical foundation. Without an adequate musical foundation, students can only approximate the improvisational process. This creates confusion rather than developing a vehicle for creative expression.

Jazz improvisation is limited in its approach when expressed merely within the context of a style or genre. Such views can hinder the understanding and appreciation of improvisation as a vehicle for exploring other types of music. Rather than focusing on stylized characterizations of music using cultural, social, or political models, Bill Evans recommends thinking of improvisation as a process rather than a style. Evans believes that the essence of jazz is the creative process. Comparing jazz to classical music, Evans explained that composers such as Chopin, Bach, and Mozart improvised spontaneously. In order to “permanize” their works, they used shorthand such as figured bass, and eventually notation of complete scores. Such permanization eventually led performers to interpret music rather than to improvise on it. Jazz improvisation, like the work of these classical composers, should be view as a spontaneous conversation based on developments in the moment rather than as a prepared speech.

Within the academy, curriculum restraints do not leave time to assimilate the developmental principles of music before the student is allowed to move forward. Unaware that they have been approximating the process of improvisation, students and teachers can become satisfied with their musical ability, unaware that their lack of mastery has caused them to become mired within the developmental process. Evans stated the belief that those who approach improvisation through approximation, rather than building from its most basic elements, cannot successfully achieve the essence or freedom found within improvisation. Attacking each musical problem systematically will offer much more satisfaction for the improviser, while vague approximation can create greater confusion and frustration.

The 1999 Banff Summer Jazz Workshop offered an artist-based model for jazz education focused on developing improvisational skills.

Representing a broad spectrum of jazz styles, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Dave Holland, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and pianist Kenny Werner are internationally acknowledged artists and composers. Joe Lovano has distinguished himself as a modern jazz icon who developed his distinctive improvisational approach while working with Paul Motian, Mel Lewis, Elvin Jones, and John Scofield. Dave Holland is recognized for developing a contemporary approach to the jazz bass while working with Miles Davis, Jack DeJohnette, and John Abercrombie. Dave Douglas is one of today’s most versatile trumpeters and composers who has worked with Horace Silver, John Zorn, and Joey Baron. Pianist Kenny Werner has performed with, among others, Charles Mingus, Toots Thielemans, Archie Shepp, and Kenny Wheeler. His book, Effortless Mastery, offers a unique approach to understanding technical and psychological aspects of music.

The artists lectured on specific techniques for developing improvisational approaches to formal, rhythmic, intervallic, and psychological aspects of music, including ear training, composition/improvisational techniques, advanced concepts in rhythm, advanced harmonic practices, and developing cadences within form. Classes in music theory covered jazz harmony, melody, time, and rhythm. Psychological aspects of performance, such as self-actualization, relaxation, spiritual and emotional awareness, and self-reflection, were addressed. As with Evans’s approach, all these artists are specific about pinpointing musical problems. Although their approaches differ, they affirm the same objectives: address and define the foundations of music with a clear and focused purpose.

Formal Approach to Improvisation

When asked if he could teach people to improvise, Joe Lovano responded,“No, I can’t teach people to improvise, but I can teach them how to teach themselves.” Central to Lovano’s “hands on” approach to teaching is the importance of conveying knowledge through his own examples. They included improvised solos, with and without rhythm sections, and he shared his thoughts with students about developing musical ideas. He amalgamates patterns grounded in traditional tonal harmonic approaches with more contemporary melodic and rhythmic ideas, overlaying more experimental and non-traditional ideas on a “skeleton” of traditional material. He echoes Bill Evans’s concepts. Evans stated that improvisation and the ability to spontaneously create is given strength when freedom is weighed against structure. The ability to play against an existing form by exploring and taking risks within its boundaries gives shape to improvisation while grounding it within specific points of reference. Those references are form, harmony, and melody.

Lovano also addressed the importance of creating improvised melodies that resolve at cadence points within a song’s form. Often, inexperienced improvisers are unable to create melodic lines that develop and resolve within four or eight bar phrases. The improviser must be aware of the harmonic cadences that occur within these forms and learn to modulate melodies through key changes. One approach offered by Lovano was to create improvised melodies that modulate by adding ii-V sequences before cadence points or key changes. Foreshadowing these resolution points allows the improviser to define the harmonic motion leading to new keys or points of rest. The following example shows ii-V sequences inserted before cadence points within a standard twelve bar blues. I have placed parentheses around the added ii-V sequences.

F7 /Bb7 /F7 /(Cm7 F7)
Bb7 /(Gm7 C7) /F7 /(Am7 D7)
G-7 /C7 /F7 /(G-7 C7)

Example #1. Adding ii-V sequences to F blues

Lovano, like Evans, addressed jazz-influenced musical concepts rather than style.

Rhythmic Approach to Improvisation

Dave Holland’s masterclasses focused on rhythmic and harmonic practices he developed through his playing and his compositions. Holland’s approach to translating metric subdivisions into syllabic equivalents provided a practical device for internalizing compound meters. Common stumbling blocks for many improvisers arise when they are faced with odd meters such as 5/4 or 7/4. Holland has decoded this problem by developing a method for internalizing unfamiliar rhythms by expressing them verbally using syllables. To denote duple meter, he used “ta-ki.” For triple meter he used “ga-ma-la.”

By combining different syllables, variations of odd meters are created. In 5/4, combining ga-ma-la with ta-ki creates a five-pulse syllabic rhythm ga-ma-la-ta-ki. By inverting the syllables, ta-ki-ga-ma-la creates a shift in pulse. In 7/4, ga-ma-la-ta-ki-ta-ki, ta-ki-ga-ma-la-ta-ki, or ta-ki-ta-ki-ga-ma-la produces similar pulse variations. Once these rhythms have been isolated and worked out to the point of mastery, the student has then developed a concept from which to move forward.

Holland’s approach to rhythm shows the ease with which he can reduce complex ideas into simple exercises. He has shown that such complexities are not necessarily difficult, but simply unfamiliar.

Intervallic Approach to Improvisation

Foreign to many improvisers is the fact that styles outside the jazz tradition can furnish rich materials for improvisation. Dave Douglas centered on the integration of compositional techniques of serialism and folk music, demonstrating that diverse kinds of music can furnish the raw materials for jazz. The challenges posed by atypical styles often stretch the student’s ears and offer additional resources for jazz improvisation.

Ear training was one of the subjects touched upon by Douglas in his masterclasses. Noting that jazz players often improvise on scales and patterns whose intervals they can’t hear or reproduce, he had students sight sing non-diatonic intervallic shapes, widening their harmonic palette to include chromatic inflections within a diatonic or free context. This brought the theoretical into the practical realm, extending traditional ear training practices to jazz realization. By singing intervals grouped like those found in example #2, students immediately realized their ability, or inability, to hear chromatic intervals.

Sing an F…Sing down a minor 3rd to D…
Sing up an augmented 4th to G#…
Sing down a minor 6th to C…
Sing up a major 3rd to E…
Sing up a major 2nd to F#…

Example #2. Non-diatonic intervalic approach to ear training

Douglas’ classroom demeanor was laced with humor and understanding, which helped to create the ideal, comfortable environment for students to practice what they learned through his approach.

Psychological Approach to Improvisation

More challenging, perhaps, for music students, Kenny Werner’s masterclasses focused on psychological and spiritual realization. Such concerns would seem to be more the province of new age workshops rather than that of academia. Nevertheless, the positive results of these sessions speak to the importance of spiritual and emotional states of mind as they apply to the creative process. Werner helped students to explore their subconscious states and observe how those states aided or hindered their musical growth. Self-discovery was the aim of his lessons, as he demonstrated how one's “mind set” impedes the process of practicing or performing. In trying to assist the participants in expanding their capabilities, Werner covered a wide range of philosophical and musical topics. At some points, his masterclasses resembled comedy routines. At other times the class focused intensely on how the individual perceived both himself and the other musicians with whom he was interacting. Using Eastern meditation techniques, Werner encouraged participants to observe their own thoughts, directing them to notice how these thoughts tend to obstruct the maximization of each moment of the three-week workshop, or how they affect their lives. He stated, “the mind tends to focus on what's not right in the world, and one's interaction with others is tainted by the notion of self-protection. The same walls that protect the ego restrict the development of the creative space.”

The wellsprings of creativity are difficult to pinpoint or define. Academic institutions, preoccupied with what is objectively knowable and teachable, rarely address the sources of inspiration in their curricula. It may therefore be of interest to go into further detail with Werner’s attempts to tackle the elusive question of creativity. In discussing ideas from his book, Effortless Mastery, Werner talked about blocks that are common to many performers. While these problems often appear to be technical, a more fundamental inhibitor of improvement resides in the very way in which performers perceive themselves. He attacks the notion that there is a limit to creative ability. In an interview after the workshop, Werner stated that participants were able to see that their deficiencies, or their "level" of playing, was not a result of a predetermined amount of talent, but usually due to either negative belief systems or simply fundamental components in one’s training that were not adequately mastered.

Werner was able to address these issues and brought to light quite vividly how preconceived and deeply held ideas about their talent prevented musicians from achieving their highest potential. It gave the participants hope that they could again progress along the path of musical mastery.

Music is a highly competitive field, and the introduction of these principles of acceptance of self and others helped students get to the core of what was fundamentally important for them musically. Werner explained,

Rather than playing out of a sense of political correctness, or any other type of correctness, participants should approach music from a perspective of what really attracts them, where does their passion really lie? This is what they were encouraged to see. By not competing with other musicians, the participants were able to explore the open windows of the mind and soul where music flourishes.

Werner’s approach is simple. He believes that by attaining a completely comfortable mental state a performer can clearly see where his technical needs lie. In his classes, Werner integrated his approach by observing and commenting on individual participants. The entire class was able to benefit from this intimate interaction, uncovering the individual’s physical, mental, and musical blocks. He offered a systematic approach for musicians to execute their musical ideas effortlessly, without undue mental inhibitions. In short, Werner offered the participants an inroad to what he describes as "playing from the Space." Once their music flowed comfortably and naturally, unhindered by hyperintellectualization or fear of what others might think, Werner could begin to repair many of the weaknesses that hindered their fully realized playing.

An important component of Werner’s teaching is the fostering of self-confidence in one’s musical individuality and the legitimacy of self-exploration. In that regard, he echoes the sentiments of Bill Evans, that the process of improvisation offers the discovery of unlimited creative possibilities for those who fully accept the step by step learning procedure. As one gains more knowledge and learns to edit himself, he will not only discover paths found by others, but eventually discover new directions for himself. This, he argues, results from being confident in the discrete simple steps that lead to mastery.

Through practice, one builds this step-by-step process into a sophisticated compositional/improvisational vocabulary. As Evans described it,

The whole process of learning the facility to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense conscious concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem which will allow you to do a little bit more.


Students need time to balance concentration with relaxation in order to absorb musical information vital to their growth and development. In his book The Courage to Create, Rollo May is keenly aware that creativity is not solely the result of conscious and conscientious effort. Inspiration may occur or seem to be withheld without any regard to the amount of effort or will expended. Forcing the mind into submission using will power alone cannot develop the creative process. Alternating the mind between work and play seems to offer a balance in problem solving. Such focused thought and relaxation seem particularly fruitful when a conscious dedication and commitment to a process in maintained. May insists that there are cycles of tension and relaxation, and that the relationship between these two states, like yin and yang, or any dialectical process, both contribute to the ultimate work. He wrote that the unconscious breakthrough brought on by such tension and relaxation occurs at unpredictable times, but commonly as movements shift from one to the other.

Developing improvisational skills is similar to gaining fluency in speaking a foreign language. As opposed to learning the process from books or recordings alone, interaction with those fluent in a language can instill a deeper level of understanding. In so doing, the music student can directly access underlying musical relationships, imitate inflections, and observe the pacing of the artist. Listening to recordings is a necessary part of every musician’s development, but, through direct artist contact, specific information can be more quickly and accurately addressed.

The dilemma facing students and educators today is that one has to have crossed the intellectual ocean, so to speak, to understand what lies on the other side. Great artists hold many of these answers. Most importantly, they inspire the artist within us all. The four artists represented here have an approach to teaching as personal and unique as their own playing styles. For them, attacking musical problems specifically and methodically has proven successful.

Finally, when freed from the complexity of considering the larger jazz context, students can slowly build their improvisational skill, simple concept by simple concept. Again, all these artists are in complete agreement. Musicians begin simply, filtering out all the influences that are not natural and comfortable, centering on their own musical taste and identity. Evans advised,

It’s better to do something simple which is real. It can still be satisfactory, but it’s something you can build on because you know what you are doing. When you try to approximate something, which is very advanced, and don’t know what you are doing, then you can’t advance.

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Published: 08/27/2006