A key centre approach to teaching beginner jazz improvisation.

I have found a key centre approach to teaching beginner jazz improvisation to be very effective. If you are looking for a good way to teach or learn at the beginner level that gets proven results and can help students to progress more quickly, then working with key centres rather than chord changes works. It is the teaching approach that I use at Jazz Workshop Australia with students who are new to jazz and improvising. Key centres for beginners, not chord changes.

A key centre approach, like the one outline here, brings a lot of benefits, such as helping your students to focus on basic, essential, fundamental skills while playing creatively and expressing themselves, building their confidence, and improvising in a way that sounds like they’re playing jazz right from the very beginning.

To accompany this post, here’s a video that explores this topic in detail and highlights some of the teaching and learning methods. I also have two other videos on my Teaching Jazz YouTube channel that go in a bit more detail into major and blues keys, and minor keys.

What is a key centre approach?

A key-centre approach to improvising means playing in a single scale or tonality over whole sections of a tune or chord progression, finding a common key that runs horizontally through groups of chords. It is a fundamentally different approach to playing vertically, through chord changes, which is where a musician plays something different for each chord to outline the sound of the harmony as it moves. Often, in a key centre approach, a musician will choose one scale that fits all the chords in a tune (if it is all in one key) or each section of a tune (if it changes keys). Perhaps the most common example of this is using a single blues scale over the chords of a 12-bar blues.

minor blues scale throughout a 12 bar blues

In a 12 bar blues progression, there might be three, four, five, or more different chords. But if you use a single blues scale over the entire progression that’s playing in the key centre. You figure out what key the blues is in and use that blues scale. That particular scale is not always a great choice, for it can easily sound dreadful, but it does exemplify what key centre improvising is. You could also use modes, such as dorian or mixolydian in a key centre approach, but that too is problematic and limited in its application. This raises the question of what, then, is the best way to using or teaching a key centre approach to beginner jazz improvisation?

My key-centre approach to teaching beginner jazz improvisation

The process I have found most effective is:

  • for major and blues keys, the major blues scale; and,
  • for minor keys, the minor bebop scale.

From a practical standpoint, these scales have the benefit of broad utility, idiomatic sound,  ease of use, and they can be easily built upon incrementally over time to develop more complexity or sophistication in a student’s improvising. In common with a key centre approach more broadly, they also allow students space to focus on important fundamentals of time and rhythm, sound, and style while playing musically from the start in a way that sounds like jazz.

In contrast, moving too quickly into chord changes, guide tones, and other more complex jazz theory almost always seems to result in tedious, wooden, unmusical improvising that sounds more exercise than creative expression. In my experience that kind of unsatisfying ordeal can lead many students to quit jazz. Do not mistake me, however, for I am not against jazz theory: theory is essential for developing any kind of independence, initiative, or freedom as a player. The ability to generalise away from specific examples to other contexts is vital in any useful teaching and learning. However, to paraphrase Professor Karl Maton, my PhD supervisor, you only need enough theory as each situation requires.

Beginners in a key centre approach need to know the major blues and minor bebop scales and ways of deploying and developing them. It is also worth remembering that although ‘jazz theory’ usually refers to harmony and melody, understandings of general principles and techniques of time and rhythm, sound, style, phrasing and structure, ensemble interactions, and procedures are also ‘theory’. Key centre improvising frees up beginners’ attention to attend to these important aspects of playing jazz.

The major blues scale

The major blues scale is spelled 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6, 8. It is a major pentatonic scale with a minor 3rd (or probably, more accurately, a sharpened 2nd) added to it. It is the relative major of the better-known minor blues scale, usually simply called ‘the blues scale’.

The Major Blues Scale
The Major Blues Scale

The minor bebop scale

The minor bebop scale is spelled 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, ?7, 8. It is a natural minor (aeolian) scale with a raised 7th added to it to make 9 notes in the octave. It is the relative minor of the major bebop scale.

The Minor Bebop scale
The Minor Bebop Scale

Examples of my key centre approach

If a tune, or a section of a tune, is in a major or a blues key, then use the major blues scale. For example, B flat blues? Use B? major blues scale. Key of F major? Use F major blues scale. Key of C minor? Use C minor bebop scale.

Tunes can be in single, or multiple and mixed key centres. If a whole tune is in the same key, without changing, then it is in a single key centre and a single major blues or minor bebop scale will do, as appropriate. Examples of tunes in a single key centre include 12-bar blues, ‘On Broadway’, ‘Sugar’, ‘Summertime’, ‘La Fiesta’, and ‘St Thomas’.

Tunes with multiple key centres can have two or more keys of the same tonality (major/blues or minor), such as Moten Swing (A flat major & C major), Impressions (D minor & E flat minor). They can also have mixed key centres, combining both major/blues and minor sections, such as ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (D minor & B flat major), ‘Blue Bossa’ (C minor & D flat major), and ‘A Night In Tunisia’ (D minor, G minor, & F major).

For other useful key centre tunes, read this article: good jazz tunes for beginner improvisers.

Bernie's Tune key centre explanation
Mixed key centres in Bernie's Tune

But ‘that’s not how you play jazz’

Firstly, this is not the endpoint, but a musical starting point for beginners. Secondly, it is important to remember that the exercises and teaching/learning steps along the way to playing jazz are not the same as the final, finished product. Teaching and learning are not the same as performance, each has its own logics and objectives. Because of this, it is not valid to criticise parts of pedagogy, such as exercises using key centres to help new improvisers enjoy a positive early experience, as ‘not how you play jazz’. However, thirdly, it is how many people play jazz and many before them have played jazz.


Examples of key centre improvising

Plenty of great jazz players have played either entire solos in a key centre approach or use it as a significant part of solos in combination with other techniques.

For instance, here’s Louis Jordan doing it:

And here’s Cannonball Adderley doing it:

And here is Melba Liston using key centre playing:

And here is even John Coltrane doing it:

Conclusion: benefits of the key centre approach to teaching & learning

The key centre approach I have described here has proven effective and useful for a great many of my students. It is an important part of the teaching and knowledge-building approach that I use at Jazz Workshop Australia. I find it offers new jazz players a way into the music that is not stymied by too much theory too soon. It allows students to create improvisations that sound like jazz, if the scales are taught in conjunction with explicit advice on idiomatic sound, style, rhythm and time, phrasing, basic ensemble skills, and procedures. Yet, despite its creative potential, this key centre approach to teaching beginner improvisation is simple enough that it frees students’ attention to focus on other fundamental aspects of playing while sounding musical yet not being hindered by prematurely struggling to focus on following chord changes bar-by-bar.

For a clearer idea of the approach, with sound examples, I suggest watching the video that goes with this post as well as others that follow in the same series. And remember, this is the beginning of a jazz journey, not the end.

Here’s another link to the video: Key centre approach to teaching improvisation to new jazz students – A great way to turbocharge progress for jazz beginners.

To learn more about teaching or learning jazz, read this article next: Progress from Scales to Chord Changes.

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