Jazz Improvisation: What matters most?

Remco Keijzer

By Saul Richardson, Principal at Jazz Workshop Australia.

What is most important? Sound, rhythm and style are the first things listeners perceive when they hear jazz. These are the things that make jazz what it is. The notes and everything else are just optional. Free players play any notes they like, but are still recognisably jazz.

Sound, rhythm & style are the most important elements in making a jazz solo sound like…jazz. Teachers and students rightly spend a lot of time working with scales, chords and theory. Big band rehearsals often focus on blend and balance and intonation. But all of these things, as important as they undeniably are, are not in the same league as sound, rhythm and style when it comes to creating music that is recognisable as jazz.


Sound is central to the idea of jazz. When we hear Wes Montgomery playing guitar we can recognise it as jazz. When we hear Charlie Christian playing we recognise that as jazz too, even though he sounded somewhat different. Likewise Pat Metheny and John Scofield. But when we hear Carlos Santana play, even though he has some things in common with jazz guitarists, somehow it just doesn’t sound like jazz. Kirk Hammet playing in Metallica definitely doesn’t sound like jazz, nor does Mark Knoffler in Dire Straits.

The same applies to saxophone. There is a spectrum of tones along which a jazz player might lie. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Frankie Trumbauer, Eric Dolphy and Scott Hamilton all seem to fall comfortably within the range of sounds that are recognisable as jazz. Jan Gabarek, perhaps, falls at one extreme of the spectrum. However, Tim Capello, playing his famous sax breaks with Tina Turner, doesn’t sound like jazz. Eugene Rousseau, “classical” saxophonist doesn‘t sound like jazz either. It is difficult to define exactly what a “jazz” sound is, but we can generally recognise when we hear it.

If we want our students to sound like jazz players when they read and when they improvise, then we need to teach them through modelling, advice and feedback how to do that. Models include your own playing, if you play the same instrument as the student, or recordings of good or great professional players.



Rhythm is also critical to creating improvisations that are recognisably jazz. Remember, we are not discussing advanced, experienced players who are making sophisticated artistic decisions about these elements of playing. We are discussing teach novice and less experienced musicians who want to play jazz how to do it. Like a child learning to speak, every improvising musician will gradually develop their own voice as players as they grow and gain experience. We don’t try to force two year olds to avoid copying adults or speaking in clichés, we encourage it. We should give beginning improvisers the same opportunity and support.

There have been many attempts over time to define what jazz is. None have been simple, and an exact definition isn’t really important for this article. Just about every definition puts rhythm at the heart of the matter, invoking such concepts as “swing”, “syncopation”, “hotness”, “liveliness”, and so on. Clearly, rhythm is important.

If rhythm is this important to making jazz sound like jazz, then it follows that educators trying to teach students to play jazz should place a lot of emphasis on it. Sadly, it seems that often this doesn’t happen at all. Jazz education is reduced to a series of scales and arpeggios. Ensemble playing is reduced to blend, balance, intonation, dynamics and playing the right notes. We worry about rhythm only to the extent of asking students to play their parts accurately. This can work for a musician reading from an arrangement, but doesn’t help students to improvise. And improvisation lies at the heart of all jazz.

Whatever the exact definition of jazz we want to use, and it really doesn’t matter, the fact is there is a range of archetypal rhythms that are recognisably jazz. Mozart does not sound rhythmically like jazz. Thelonius Monk does. AC/DC do not. The Chick Corea Electric Band does. Scottish country folk music does not. Scott Hamilton does.

The job of the educator is to teach this archetypal rhythmic vocabulary to students and show them how to use it in their own improvisation and to inform their interpretation of written parts.



Style is the third critical element to making jazz sound like jazz. It is closely related to sound and rhythm, and involves both. As with sound and rhythm, there are a range of stylistic approaches that we can recognise as being jazz. Effective jazz educators teach their students how to use sound, rhythm, melody, articulation, etc. in order to play idiomatically. Again, the aim is to make students jazz playing sound like jazz.

Style also involves understanding context. There are various different styles of jazz, and an effective improvisation will tend to fit the style of the piece. Some of these things are obvious. For instance, if a tune is swinging, then the solos should probably swing too. If the tune is in a Latin style then quavers should usually be played straight. Other elements of style are a tiny bit more subtle, but still important. If a tune has modal style chord changes, or no chord changes, and is maybe in a rock style, then a bebop approach to improvising is not going to work very well at all.

Like rhythmic vocabulary, teachers should use modeling in both their own playing examples and through good recordings to help students build an understanding of style in jazz.


Don’t be afraid to teach

None of this is much use to most students without teaching and guidance from a good instructor. It is a mistake for jazz teachers to think that because improvisation is a creative activity they should not explicitly teach anything. Beginner students are not creating on the same basis as a professional player, and their utterances should not be treated with the same validity. To do so is to do the student a serious disservice. What they want is to learn how to play, how to be in a position where they can legitimately create anything they choose to. The beginner’s improvisations are early drafts of what might happen later if they follow it through to a high level. Teachers need to guide them through the steps along the way to that point.

Students are not offended if a teacher gives them advice or corrects an error. That is what they expect of a teacher, and what they pay a teacher for.


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