This is a short primer on jazz improvisation that I came up with while I was teaching elementary band in the Nashua, NH school system. Some of the students needed something new to keep their interest and I figured this would be a good way to do it. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert on improvising. However, I think I have a pretty decent grasp on the principles, and this was a simple way to get those across to my students. The bands that I taught only involved flute, clarinet in Bb, alto saxophone in Eb, trumpet in Bb, and trombone. I believe that everyone should learn the basics of improvising, regardless of style or instrument, but this was written for a specific situation. Some of the concepts are simplified (especially the concept of "modes"). You are free to use this verbatim or as a reference, just be a kind soul, and let me know: andrea at reloadsanear dot com.

Do check out some of my other ideas on improvisation:
how to improvise tonal music in any style: jazz, classical, emo, whatever. i.e., what to do with all those pesky scales you've been learning, without necessarily thinking only about scales.
a jazz improvisation primer based on notes from a jazz history class I took at The Boston Conservatory with Jeff Stout back in 2000.
a free improvisation primer I made up just cuz back in 2003.
• a real basic primer on comping bass lines, geared towards folks who know their chords and scales already.
Also see the open instrumentation pieces I have on my composition page; most of those also contain opportunities to improvise that should be comfortable for those new to improvisation.

The two songs that I used were "Now's the Time" by Charlie Parker and "Watermelon Man" by Herbie Hancock. Other songs with similar chord changes may certainly be substituted.

jazz improvisation

1998 Andrea La Rose

step 1: the one note jam

Using the following note for your instrument, make up rhythms to play over the changes from "Now's the Time."

Any register is okay, but you can only use that note. You must keep yourself interested. If you get bored, so does the listener.

The trick here is to find a balance between same and different. If you do the same thing for all twelve measures, the listener (that includes YOU!) gets bored. If you do something different every measure, the listener gets bored.

The phrases in this song are four measures long, which means that if there are twelve measures, there are a total of three phrases. A nice way to balance same and different is to choose a rhythm pattern for each phrase.

If you look at the song itself, the first two phrases are all based on the same idea and third phrase is completely different. Musicians mark phrases with letters, based on same and different. The first phrase is always "A." In this song, the second phrase is a lot like the first, but there's some variation, so a musician would probably call it "A1" (often shown as A'). Since the third phrase is nothing like A, it would be called "B." The pattern for the whole song would be A A1 B.

This method of marking phrases is called mapping the form. You can use these maps to plan out your solo For example, you could make your solo follow the same form as the song, or you could use something like A B C, or A B A.

At this point, you might be thinking, if improvisation is supposed to be made up on the spot, why would I plan ahead of time what I'm going to do? Great question! Have you ever had a hard time deciding what to eat because there were too many choices? Improvising can be intimidating because it's hard to choose from all the different things you can do with your instrument. Think about it -- here are some of the variables in music:

You can probably think of more. By eliminating some of those variables, improvising can be much less scary. We've already determined what note we're going to use, and you can decide just before you solo what form you're going to use. That still leaves plenty of things to happen spontaneously. Go for it!

Strange as it may seem, setting up limitations for yourself will force you to be more creative. You'll have to do a lot with a little in order for things to stay interesting.

Step 2: totally rockin' on two notes

Everything we've said about the one note jam applies here, except now we're ready to add more choices:


All the notes we have used so far can be considered "safe" notes, meaning these notes will always sound good with the chord changes we are using. Safe notes are great to improvise on because you don't have to worry about "wrong" notes. Technically, there are no wrong notes in jazz; a good player can use anything. But that's the catch: you have to know when to use what notes, so it is possible to play a bum note while improvising. So far, we've had our safety net. Let's throw a little spice into the mix, shall we?

Try improvising on the following notes:

  • flute, trombone: F, E
  • clarinet, trumpet: G, F#
  • saxophone: D, C#

You should have noticed pretty quickly that one of these notes sounds fine and one of them clashes pretty badly. And the longer or more often you play the "sour" note, the worse you felt about it ("why is my teacher purposely picking notes that make me sound like a complete fool!?!").

Why use unsafe notes? Because safe notes are...well, safe. Sometimes we need to take chances. Music is about creating tension and relieving it. There are tons of ways to do this. One way we already discussed was balancing same and different rhythms. Mixing these up can create tension and release.. Using safe and unsafe notes is another way.

Try this: improvise on these notes again, but use the unsafe note only a little bit, making it lead back to the safe note. Better? Keep working with it until the unsafe note adds spice instead of the wrong ingredient.

Some more safe notes:

  • flute, trombone: F, Ab, C, Eb
  • clarinet, trumpet: G, Bb, D, F
  • saxophone: D, F, A, C

And some more unsafe notes:

  • flute, trombone: E, Gb, B
  • clarinet, trumpet: F#, Ab, C#
  • saxophone: C#, Eb, G#

Pick one safe and one unsafe note to improvise on. You may find that some pairs work better than others.


step 3: the blues scale

  • flute, trombone: F, Ab, Bb, Bn, C, Eb, F
  • trumpet, clarinet: G, Bb, C, C#, D, F, G
  • saxophone: D, F, G, G#, A, C, D

The blues scale must be memorized!

Here is a foolproof set of notes that work for "Now's the Time" and, when transposed, zillions of other blues-based songs. However, not all the notes are safe all the time. Take the time to do a one-note jam on each note to see how they sound with the chords. Note which ones seem to create tension and which ones release it. Some might do either, depending on which chords they are played against.

The next step would then be to improvise on two notes of the scale Try all possible combinations!

Then move on to three notes...

Oh, did I mention the scale needs to be MEMORIZED??? Hey, now before you look at me all cross-eyed, think about this: improvisation needs to be spontaneous. It won't be if you're constantly searching for notes. Get the scale memorized and make up different patterns with it. Then they'll all be under your fingers (or arm, for the trombonists out there...) when you need them.


step 4: watermelon man

Finally! We've made it to this classic tune from Herbie Hancock (not to be confused with John Hancock, of course...). The blues scale does work fine with this song, but we're going to try something new.

the mixolydian mode

  • flute, trombone: C D E F G A Bb C
  • clarinet. trumpet: D E F# G A B C D
  • saxophone: A B C# D E F# G A

Again, go through the same procedure that we did with the blues scale, starting one note at a time. And yes, this scale needs to be MEMORIZED, too.

You may notice that this scale sounds a bit like a major scale, but there's something funky about the second to last note. That's because it's sort of like a major scale in disguise. Modes are scales starting on different notes. Each mode has a different sound -- or flavor, if you will. If you start this mode on its fourth note, you'll have your major scale again.

Don't forget any of what we said earlier about form (how many phrases does this song have?), planning your solo, and types of things you can vary. All of it still applies.

Have fun!