How do people learn jazz?
People learn jazz by developing skills and learning procedures that help them to improvise and to purposefully manipulate elements of music in real-time. These things need to be done both solo and while playing with other musicians.
What are jazz tunes?
Learning jazz more correctly means ‘learning to play jazz’. This is because jazz is a way of playing music, despite the common everyday understanding of jazz as a style of music. What jazz sounds like when it is played can be so diverse that attempts to define it in terms of the way it sounds or as a body of tunes is unrealistic. So, if people don’t learn jazz by learning ‘jazz tunes’, then what do they do?
What skills are needed to learn jazz?
To learn jazz, you need to:
- Find people and resources to help you to learn. Almost everyone who plays jazz had help from teachers, mentors, other musicians, and so on. It is hard to articulate how useful, and how much more efficient for learning, it is to have good teachers and a helpful community to assist you. Ignore the myth that jazz players are mostly self-taught because they just aren’t. Many pretend they were or forget the help they had or dismiss it as unimportant: ‘it was all me and my talent – so buy my recording’. Help really is helpful.
- Develop skills around manipulating various aspects or elements of music in real time.
- Learn how to take a composed melody and vary it to different degrees, as you play it, according to your personal taste or the conventions of whatever jazz style or context you are playing in.
- Become familiar and fluent in ways of both abstracting away from an established musical theme or melody and refocusing from abstract music back to grounded, familiar sounds. You need to be able to do this in real time, freely, to any extent, and in cooperation with other musicians.
- Build at least a baseline skill on your instrument so you have technique sufficient to play what you want to, as a creative improviser, or as required to become fluent in whatever style of jazz you wish to play. For new players, it is recommended that you build excellent technique so that you could, if needed, play everything in any style. As you become more experienced you can decide what areas you want to play in. Or you will ‘fall into’ a scene of other players. Either way, you will be equipped to play what you wish to or what is required of you. You need to actually be able to play your instrument. In most conventional jazz styles, the technical level required is very high.
- Learn what different ways of playing jazz sound like by listening to recordings of jazz and experiencing live jazz performances.
- Raise your aural skills to a high level. You need to be able to play by ear and to recognise things like chords, scales, and melodies. It is very helpful, though not essential, to also become strong at sight reading.
- Memorise standard jazz repertoire, forms, and chord progressions that are widely-played in conventional jazz styles. With tunes, this means learn the melody and the chords. Not every style uses the same tunes and some styles use no standard tunes. However, as someone learning jazz, keep your options open by learning tunes. If you want to be able to play with most other jazz players or get gigs that ‘pay the rent’ while you are still developing you fresh new approach, then make sure you do this.
- Become familiar with the various scales, arpeggios, guide tones, chord progressions, grooves, basslines, etc, that are widely used in conventional jazz styles. Just as importantly, become fluent in playing these things too.
This post has mentioned a few fairly abstract concepts. That’s because this post is a bit ‘meta’, an overview of how people learn jazz. There are other posts already on this blog that go into more detail, and more to follow. Here are a few articles here on the JWA Jazz Education blog that might help (there are plenty more – explore the blog as well as the Teaching Jazz YouTube channel):
3 ways to get better at playing jazz, Why you need more than just big band, A key centre approach to teaching beginner jazz improvisation, and my tips for jazz beginners, starting with Tips for jazz beginners (part 1).
Thanks for reading and best wishes for your jazz-learning or jazz-teaching journey.