Tunes for beginning improvisers

By Saul Richardson, Principal & co-founder at Jazz Workshop Australia.


Here is a selection of jazz tunes that are good for beginning improvisers using a Key Center approach. Using a key center approach, the soloist selects one scale or pattern that works well against all the chords in a tune, or in a section of a tune if it is more complex. A common (an often ill-advised) example of this is using a blues scale throughout every bar of a blues. Another example is using the tonic major scale over a I – VI – II – V chord progression.Blue Bossa

I have found it very helpful for novice improvisers to break everything down into just two categories of tune:

1. Tunes (or sections) in a minor key

Something is in a minor key if the tonic chord is minor, especially if it has a V7 – i chord progression. Tunes with a single, minor. chord also have a minor key center. For minor key centers I have found the “Bebop Minor Scale” to be extremely effective. A bit later on the regular (minor) blues scale can also be helpful in minor keys.

2. Tunes (or sections) not in a minor key.

These are tunes (or sections) in a major key and tunes in a blues key, or using blues-based harmony where many of the chords, often including chord I are dominant 7’s. Modal tunes (or sections) with just one major or dominant chord are also in the “not minor” category. I have found the most effective scale for beginners in this type of tune to be the Major Blues Scale (1 2 b3 3 5 6 8). It is the relative major of the well-known blues scale.

In teaching a key-center (or horizontal) approach to jazz improvisation for beginners we don’t waste time getting bogged down in theory or fine details that just aren’t important yet. The student’s full attention can be focused on far more important things like: sound, style, rhythm, time, and creativity. We want them to sound like they are playing in the right key, but mainly to attend to the really important elements of music that will help them sound like jazz players playing real music.

Once these things are secure, then we move on to more complex theory later on. For beginner improvisers: key centers, not chord changes.

Here are some tunes playable with 1 key center:

  • Blues (blues/major)
  • Doxy (blues/major)
  • Doggin’ Around (blues/major)
  • The Preacher (blues/major)
  • Song for my Father (minor)
  • Groove Merchant (blues/major)
  • Watermelon Man (blues/major)
  • Chameleon (minor or dorian)
  • Mr PC (minor)
  • Hit the Road Jack (minor)
  • Mercy, mercy mercy (blues/major or Mixolydian)
  • Tequila (blues/major or Mixolydian)
  • Stolen Moments (minor)
  • St Thomas (blues/major)
  • Moanin’ (minor)
  • Sidewinder (blues/major)
  • Work Song (minor)
  • Jumpin at the Woodside (blues/major)
  • Autumn Leaves (minor)
  •  “A” section of Rhythm Changes (blues/major)
  • In Walked Bud (minor)
  • Sway, solos on “A” section (minor)
  • Caravan, solos on “A” section
  • Freedom Jazz Dance
  • Straight Life
  • Jody Grind
  • Cold Duck time
  • Jo Jo Calypso
  • When the Saints
  • Bill Bailey
  • St James Infirmary
  • I Love Lucy
  • Etc.

You can also play a more complex tune and have solos only over one section. For example, play A Night in Tunisia, but have solos only on the “A” section. You can also play a very complex tune and have solos on a simple vamp related to the tune, but leaving out all the changes. You could play Giant Steps and have solos over an F# pedal note, maybe B/F# C#mi7/F#.

You can also do this kind of thing if you have a group of very mixed ability. The experienced students solo over the changes, but the beginners solo on a simplified vamp. This is a great way to save combo becoming too easy, repetitive or boring for the stronger players.
Be creative and flexible. Create your own arrangement of the chart to fit the needs of everyone in the group you have. Make sure everyone is being challenged and benefiting from your teaching.

Here are some tunes playable with 2 key centers:

  • Blue Bossa
  • Bernie’s Tune
  • Take the A Train
  • Impressions
  • Tequila
  • Georgia on My Mind
  • Polka dots and Moonbeams
  • There is no greater Love
  • Sway (whole form)
  • Honeysuckle Rose
  • Big Bertha
  • Jive Samba
  • Contemplation
  • Road Song

Here are some tunes playable with 3 or 4 key centers:

  • Honeysuckle Rose
  • Perdido
  • Rhythm changes
  • Recordame
  • Caravan (whole form)
  • Little Sunflower
  • A Night in Tunisia
  • So Danco Samba
  • Doggin’Around
  • Topsy
  • Angel Eyes

Remember, your students don’t have to play exactly the same way the tune was on the CD, or the way you would play it. Be flexible!


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