A sequence of levels of development in learning jazz improvisation

By Saul Richardson*.

Students typically progress through different levels as they learn jazz improvisation. Naturally, different people might progress at different rates, and some parts of a few steps can come in a slightly different order. Also, some start earlier and other start later, so younger and older students might sometimes be at the same level as each other. As students progress through our program at JWA, they work through a curriculum designed to take these levels into account and to help move every student up into the next level.

  1. There’s a logical sequence to it
  2. These are levels, not naturally-occurring stages. Without teaching, learning, and practice they won’t happen
  3. Learning how to play jazz involves learning techniques, skills, concepts, applying theory, and procedures. It also includes developing individual characteristics such as a ‘musical ear’ and strong audiation (the ability to imagine musical sounds), an independent work ethic, knowledge of jazz musicians, tunes, and history, and so on.
  4. Learning to play written-out music (e.g. in a stage band/big band) is not the same as learning to play jazz. It is just one small part of jazz.
  5. Interaction in real-time is an essential aspect of jazz, and rehearsing in an improvising group provides the opportunity to learn and practice that.
  6. These are characteristics of jazz students as they progress. ‘Levels’ will overlap, and of course there may be individual differences. This sequence illustrates that there is a progression and points to the kinds of things that jazz improvisation lessons and JWA combo rehearsals work towards.
Level Characteristics
Level 0 No prior experience of structured, idiomatic (i.e. in a recognisable jazz style) jazz improvisation. Beginner at jazz improvisation
Level 1
  • Can improvise in simplified key-centres (such as major, minor, and blues).
  • Rudimentary use of rhythm: sounds a bit ‘jazzy’, but not much resemblance yet to what professionals do. May favour long notes and slow rhythms or often repeats the same phrase over and over. Does not sound fluent.
  • Tone is uncontrolled or not jazz-like. Technically advanced beginners may often play with a ‘classical’ or ‘exam’ tone that is generally not favoured in jazz. Likely to demonstrate poor intonation when improvising.
  • Likely to need teacher help or loses place while reading or improvising. Poor awareness of time and undeveloped rhythmic sense.
  • May have trouble playing even quite simple phrases or rhythms by ear or from imagination.
  • Limited ability to interact responsively in real-time with other musicians
Level 2
  • Can improvise in multiple key-centres in the one tune, but is still generalizing (using a single scale)
  • Uses rhythm in a more recognisably jazz-like way, but not fluent and only approximates idiomatic use.
  • May develop a more recognisably jazz-like tone, but this is uncommon as that takes time. Still probably goes out of tune when improvising: hasn’t developed sufficient control or awareness yet
  • Probably still needs help keeping track of time while improvising, though improving; Rudimentary interaction skills
  • Aural perception noticeably better: can accurately imitate simple, short phrases and rhythms by ear. Audiation (ability to imagine sounds) is developing.
  • Has trouble remembering more than a handful of scales or tunes. Has memorised common major and minor scales.
Level 3
  • Can improvise in mixed and multiple key-centres AND incorporate some additional idiomatic decorations, embellishments, or stylistic elements. Is beginning to develop a simple vocabulary of ‘licks’ and patterns, both personal and common. Deploying these while soloing makes for a more jazz-like style. Has basic modal improvisation available too.
  • Rhythm is becoming more idiomatic with the ability to improvise longer quaver-based lines and more sophisticated syncopations. Incorporates idiomatic swing and other articulations.
  • Awareness of time and form is improving. May still need help, but is often independent.
  • Aural perception and audiation are both improving. Increasing awareness leads to more effective interaction skills and musical empathy.Listens to jazz, and this is a vital support to lessons, combo, and other learning. Students who don’t listen or like jazz will tend to drop out or be left behind from here. Also, by now the focus of students is on the music and improving their own playing, so participation in jazz is no longer just social or purely ‘for fun’. Peer groups will tend to form around shared interest in jazz.
Level 4
  • As for Level 3, but is able to play in simple to moderately-complex vertical structures too. This means can change triads or simple chords as the chords of a tune pass by in real-time. Can play something different for each chord instead of always generalizing. An important transitional phase.
  • Knows how to play a number of common and important scales and arpeggios in several keys
Level 5
  • Can play ‘through’ simple chord changes and combine this with key-centre playing in more-or-less idiomatic ways. Increased awareness of time and pitch make it easier to incorporate some more sophisticated decorations and vocabulary. Can deliberately employ techniques like dissonance (playing ‘outside’) to create tension and release. More complex modal vocalbulary.
  • Aural awareness is improved, leading to more in-tune improvising and more jazz-like tone. Failure or refusal to develop these may be associated with dropping out of jazz around this time. Rarely needs help with form or keeping track of time.
  • Use of rhythm is noticeably more fluent and mostly idiomatic or approximating it. Has rhythmic awareness and control to consciously manipulate rhythm for effect in real-time
  • Knows major and minor scales in all keys as well as other important jazz scales such as blues scales & modes and common arpeggios
Level 6
  • Can play fluently through complex chord changes and idiomatically blend vertical chord-based and horizontal melodic or scale-based approaches. Reasonably extensive vocabulary of personal and public-domain lines, licks, and so on. Can quote passages or whole solos from famous recordings and incorporate this fluently into improvisations
  • Well-developed aural and rhythmic awareness. Plays with excellent intonation during solos, and can deliberately manipulate intonation for musical effect. Can play with a strong feeling of time, almost never loses place or goes out of time.
  • Can consciously vary aspects of playing and techniques for musical effect, in real time and in idiomatic ways
  • Knows from memory all major & minor scales and variants, blues scales, modes, some exotic scales such as diminished, whole-tone & altered, major, minor, and dominant arpeggios with extensions and alterations, and has memorised a repertoire of standard jazz tunes
  • These students are typically excelling at school music, are recognised for their advanced jazz playing, and may be starting to perform professionally.
Level 7
  • As for Stage 6, but everything is more advanced, more natural, more fluent, and more controlled. These students are probably starting to clearly demonstrate either a personal style or preference for particular styles.
  • If still at school, they are the best at their school and among the top handful of jazz players their age. These students can realistically audition for the highest-level undergraduate tertiary jazz courses and could comfortably cope with the first year.
  • Usually possess prodigiously good aural perception and audiation, and frequently are outstanding sight-readers.
  • Knows from memory all but the most exotic or niche scales and arpeggios; has memorised a large repertoire of tunes in multiple styles.

*Saul Richardson is principal and co-founder Jazz Workshop Australia, and teaches jazz combo, big band, improvisation, guitar, and bass. He is a postgraduate member of the LCT Centre for Knowledge-Building at the University of Sydney. His research into jazz education is soon to be available in his PhD thesis ‘Teaching jazz: A study of beliefs and pedagogy using Legitimation Code Theory’.

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