Monday, February 04, 2013

Final Thoughts

I have covered pretty much what I wanted to for this site. If you are a first time visitor I suggest you scroll down to the About This Site post and read on down the posts below. Then come back and read my more recent posts immediately below this post. Or, you can just pick the posts you are interested in. At any rate I hope you find this information useful.

There are more chord types than the chords I have discussed but you can read about those in the Jerry Coker book Improvising Jazz that I mentioned in my introduction to the twelve tone system post which you can find if you scroll down the page. The chords and scales I have covered likely will be the most predominant that you will run across.

For the novice you have your work cut out for you, and you will find that practicing scales and chords or arpeggios will take up the lion’s share of your time. One of the best things you can do is record your practice sessions and listen to them. Recording your practice sessions will save you time as incorrect playing will be more obvious to you and it will train you to listen to yourself. You don’t need an expensive recorder; just a cheap one will do the trick. It may be painful at first but slog through it and you will reap the benefits. Recording yourself is one of the quickest ways to improve. It’s also important to find a good teacher. Music departments in local colleges and universities often keep a list of qualified local private teachers, call them and ask for a copy of the list, or if you have friends that play perhaps they can turn you on to a good teacher. Learning was fun for me and I hope it will be for you as well.

If you have questions feel free to email me at


Another device used in Jazz improvising is so-called “floating.” The idea is to play some notes that are not in time, almost as if you lost track of the beat, after which you play notes that are in time as you normally do but you need to really emphasize the time when you do. This is just another way of adding some interest to your solo.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Substituting Dominant Seven Chords for Diminished Chords

Instead of playing a diminished scale over a diminished chord you can take any chord tone of a diminished chord, lower it a half step and play a dominant seven with a lowered nine instead. So for an Eb diminished chord you may substitute it with a D7b9, F7b9, Ab7b9, or a B7b9. The advantage of this is you will be implying a tonal center and sound more melodic since diminished scales have no tonal center. Keep in mind that when doing this your choice of the substitute should be influenced by the chords preceding and following the diminished chord. For example if you see a Eb diminished chord followed by say an E minor chord then a logical substitute would be the B7b9 since B7 is the fifth of the following E minor chord.

Use of Chromatics

Jazz musicians typically use chromatics in the following manner: Between the root and the second, between the fifth and the sixth, and between the root and the seventh.


As I have said you can play any note over a given chord as long as you do it right. To sum up the use of notes outside the key Jazz musicians employ surrounds (see lesson six), chord substitutes (see previous post just below) and the above discussed use of chromatics.

Chord Substitutes

To add further interest to a solo, musicians will often employ chord substitutes. The most common place to use them is when you have a perfect dominant seven chord leading to its tonic Major chord such as C7 followed by its tonic F Major. How much you use substitutes is a matter of personal taste.


Chord substitutes commonly used are based on the flat five, the augmented (+5), the flat nine, and the minor seven of the perfect dominant seven chord you are substituting. So for a C7 chord that would give us the chord substitutes F#, Ab, Db, and Bb minor respectively. The F#, Ab, and Db would be major triads while the Bb minor would be a minor triad, obviously. Notice that these substitutes share many of the same notes. To begin with just use the triads and approach the substitute with a chord tone that is a half step or whole step from the chord leading to the substitute to a chord tone of the substitute. Once you get used to using them you can mix the substitutes together or you can even just imply a substitute by using one or two notes of the substitute.


This new format for the Google blog does not work very well for me. I can no longer add links or upload scans the way I used to, and for that I apologize, so from now on this will all be in text form. I am also unable to order my posts in the way I have in the past, that’s progress I guess. So if you are a first time visitor if you go to the About This Site post you will see all the other posts will be in order with the earliest posts first. All my subsequent posts will now be in reverse order. Again I apologize for this.

Friday, January 26, 2007

About This Site

I am dedicating this site to the memory of Don Raffell, a great musician and teacher. This site will cover the art of jazz improvisation. I intend to discuss some of the concepts of improvising jazz that you will probably not find in schools or books. I will be posting down to earth and practical methods that will improve your understanding of jazz and improvisation as taught by Don Raffell who was one of the top private teachers in Los Angeles. Don Raffell not only taught but was a first call studio musician in Los Angeles and played in many of the most famous big bands during the height of the swing and be-bop era. Don passed away recently and though I am sure many of his students are probably teaching his approach I thought I would use this site to preserve Don’s methodology to teaching jazz. My hope is that players who are perhaps struggling with the methods I have seen taught in college and books will find this site useful and if you practice these methods and understand the concepts behind them I believe it can shave years off of the time it takes you to achieve your goal learning how to play jazz. You will need at least a basic grasp of music theory to make use of this information but as most aspiring jazz musicians already have that under their belt this should not be a problem and I will answer any questions you may have concerning jazz theory or anything that I will be posting.

The picture above is Charlie Parker who has remained my favorite player and main inspiration to this day.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Twelve Tone System; Introduction

Music is a language and like language it is logical. Musical notes are like words and like words they need to be imbued with logic in order to convey meaning. A single word really has little or no meaning by itself rather it is where and how the word appears in a sentence that gives that word meaning. If I walked up to another person and said the word “tree” and then walked away I would not have conveyed any meaning to that person who would conclude I was probably crazy. But if I said “That tree over there is starting to lose its leaves” or something of that nature I would have conveyed meaning as the words that come before and after the word “tree” have imbued it with logic that is understandable. Likewise if I said “Orange ocean begs down bags church keypad if up sooner pig cloud telescope” I would have conveyed no meaning or logic because it is also the order in which words are used that gives them intelligence and this same concept holds true for musical notes since music is a language.

Today many so-called jazz educators give their students a list of scale choices that accompany a given chord usually beginning with the most consonant choice followed by less consonant scale choices. What I intend to show you is how you can make use of all twelve tones with any given chord, this is called the twelve tone system. To do this I will be discussing how the musician lends logic and intelligence to his improvising by understanding the importance of where a given note is placed in a melodic line, in other words, like words, notes are dumb and it is the job of the musician to lend intelligence to them.

If you have little or no knowledge of functional harmony I would suggest you buy this book, Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker and read the chapter on functional harmony before continuing with the method that I will be laying out for you. It is a short chapter but it is well written and will certainly cover just about everything you need to understand concerning harmony and how it works.

I would also recommend this book, Jazz Improvisation for Saxophone by Lennie Niehaus which has a series of written solos based on the chord progressions of standards that are very well written and are extremely useful for working on your swing feel which I will be discussing later. If you are not a sax player do not worry about the title as the solos can really be played on any instrument.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Lesson 1: Articulation and Vibrato

Jazz is played legato, smooth and with no gaps between the notes. If you are playing from written music the notes are always assumed to be legato unless marked otherwise. When playing long strings of eighth notes during an improvisation they are almost always legato and may be played with the articulations “Ta Da” with “Ta” on the downbeat and “Da” on the upbeat. Quarter notes may be played long or short depending on the situation but when you play them short you use the articulation “Dot” so that the note takes up the whole beat. A series of quarter notes may be played “Dot, Dot, Dot etc. so though you are articulating the beginning and ending of each quarter note THERE IS NO SPACE BETWEEN NOTES. For the beginner this is harder than it sounds and requires practice. Quarter notes are also sometimes played long short, long short. Below is a sample of articulations. You may click on the picture of the sheet music to get a full size image.

Most beginners leave space between notes which sounds horrible and also has the unwanted effect of making the downbeat eighth notes too short ruining the swing feel which I will be discussing in the next lesson. You should strive to play evenly without sudden increases or decreases in volume when improvising.

Where and how much you use vibrato is a matter of personal taste. Jazz musicians use what is called “Jug vibrato” where a long tone begins with no vibrato and when added later in the note it is started as a slow vibrato that gradually becomes a faster vibrato by the end of the note. This again takes some practice, some players can do it naturally, others have a more difficult time learning how to control their vibrato. A good way to practice is just pick a scale in the middle of your instrument and play each note so that it begins with a slow vibrato and slowly quickens and then slows again.

If you are a beginner the best thing you can do for yourself is buy a cheap cassette recorder with a built in condenser mike. TAPE EVERYTHING YOU PRACTICE and listen to it. I know this can amount to nothing less than torture for some but it will save you hours and hours of practice and more importantly you will learn how to listen to yourself objectively. Many people who just listen to jazz are attracted to the romance as in dark smoke filled bars with candle-lit tables blah, blah but if you are really serious about playing it is time to set such nonsense aside and approach your music with a no-nonsense attitude and to develop a habit of self honesty when you listen to a recording of your practice efforts. No one lives for ever and time is short so be as ruthless with yourself as possible if you want to advance quickly.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lesson 2: Swing feel

Playing with a good swing feel is probably the most difficult aspect of playing jazz for the beginner. It requires a good deal of coordination on the part of the player. If you look below at figure 1 the first set of eighth notes shows how eighth notes are written in the jazz medium as if they divide the beat into equal parts. Since writing the actual note values of swing feel is too time consuming and awkward it is left to the musician to interpret eighth notes with a swing feel. Swing has been described as a triplet with the first two notes tied and as a grouping of 4 sixteenth notes with the first three notes tied which you can see to the right of the eighth notes. Actually it is neither the triplet nor the sixteenth grouping rather it falls somewhere between these two interpretations.

A very good way to practice your swing would be to use the written solos in the Lennie Niehaus book I mentioned in the introduction. Pick a solo in the book and use it practice your swing feel. I would recommend just working on a few bars at a time playing very slowly. Your best bet again is to record a phrase then stop and listen to it to see if it sounds correct. Keep repeating this process until you get the hang of it. As per figure 1 the downbeat is long and the upbeat is short, most beginners play the downbeat too short which has a rather corny and uncomfortable feel to it. Listen to good jazz musicians to hear how they interpret their swing feel.

Listening or rather learning how to listen and practicing slowly is the key to success and though it will not happen over night stick with it and you will eventually master it. So work on it a measure or two at a time and then go on to the next measures until you can play through the whole solo with a good swing feel. Play the phrase, record it, listen and correct anything that does not sound like good swing interpretation. I would first try it by tonguing every note and then later you can add the slurs as marked on the written solos, it is good to be able to do both. At this point it would be a good idea to play any quarter notes with the “Dot” articulation I mentioned in lesson 1 as this is part of your swing feel and of course is more difficult to do than just playing the quarter notes long. Once you feel comfortable with that you can mix up the quarter note articulation as long or with the Dot articulation. And remember play smooth and connected, if you leave space between your notes your downbeats will always be too short, use legato tonguing.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Lesson 3: Chord Transitions

Chord tones are the most important notes in improvisation. Chord tones define the tonal center of your melodic lines. The best and most straightforward manner to play with logic is to place your chord tones on the downbeat and non chord tones on the upbeat. This leads us to the problem of changing keys or making the transition from one chord to the next chord as you play over a chord progression of a tune. What you are aiming for is to make the transition as smooth as possible. In order to do this make the transition using a chord tone from one chord to a chord tone of the next chord with a half step or a whole step. In this lesson I will give you an exercise that will help you to develop this skill. It goes without saying that you need to know your chords by heart. The types of chords you will need to memorize are:

Major chords (Triads, Major 6, Major7)

minor chords (Triads, minor 6, minor 7)

minor +7 chords

dominant 7 chords

dominant 7+5 chords

dominant 7b5 chords

half diminished chords

diminished chords

I will be discussing scales later but for now you should be able to play these chords over the entire range of your instrument without struggling for the notes.

To get you started with using chord tones if you look below at figure 2 you will see an example of an exercise. Notice the repeating rhythmic figure of 6 eighth notes ending with a quarter note. The idea here is to become familiar with chord tones as well as crossing from one chord to the next with either a half or a whole step using chord tones.

Begin by writing a solo over a chord progression, you may want to use the same tune you chose to work on your swing feel in Lesson 2, using the same rhythmic pattern shown in figure 2. On Major and minor chords use only the first, third, and fifth chord tones but on dominant 7 chords you can also use the lowered seventh as that is an important chord tone for dominant 7 chords, Hint; the seventh wants to resolve down. Write it in a manner that you think will sound musical and then play it to see if it sounds as you expected which will help you develop your ear. Change any part that you do not like. Now since you are using only chord tones it is not going to sound like a masterpiece but this is just an exercise to get you accustomed to chord tones and changing keys. After you have done that practice improvising over the chord progression in the same manner, you may wish to break the tune up into smaller pieces but eventually you need to get to the point where you can do this over the entire tune. The next step is do the same thing but this time using only eighth notes. This is a lot like lifting weights but if you have the patience for it the benefits will be great.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lesson 4: Keeping it Interesting

The worst thing you can do is to bore your audience. One of the things wrong with America today is it is rife with mediocrity. Frankly, if you never want to rise above mediocrity then you need to ask yourself why you are bothering to play at all. As you will see playing jazz is not rocket science and neither is being able to rise above the mediocre. Good musicianship always takes top priority and even people who know nothing about music can tell when you are not playing well. I am going to discuss a few concepts on how not to drone which is deadly for the listener.

1. Vary the length of your phrases, 4 bar and 8 bar phrases are fine but you should strive to vary the length of your phrases. Try a 5 bar phrase or a three bar phrase etc. But beware of too many short phrases. Too many consecutive short phrases will sound like nursery rhyming which is not exactly what you are after. Ideally you should be striving for long phrases but you should try to vary the lengths.

2. Vary where you begin your phrases if you always begin your phrase on the downbeat of one you will start to drone. Try starting on the second beat and the next phrase on the upbeat of three for example. On the same token vary where you end your phrases.

3. Don’t end your phrases the same way every time. If you end one phrase on a long tone try ending the next phrase on a short note.

4. Don’t fill up your solo with too many notes. Leave some space between your phrases, without leaving some breathing spaces you will start to drone, deadly, very deadly. Listen to Miles Davis he was a master of leaving space.

5. Please, please do not play more than a one chorus solo in a live session unless you really have something to say. Only experienced players are capable of playing more than one chorus without boring the audience. It is not fair to you, the audience or the other players in the band.

I would like you to keep these concepts in mind as we get into the next lessons. I will be adding some more stuff on how not to bore your audience such as the use of chord substitutes, chromatics and the like but all in due time. The above five concepts should keep you busy and thinking for some time. Don’t be a wind-up player! Think about what you are doing.

One more thing before I get mediocre and forget, YOU DON’T HAVE TO MAKE JAZZ HISTORY EVERYTIME YOU PLAY. Try to play musically and with logic, save your history making solos for the appropriate time, you only have a finite number of those so be judicial.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Before We Proceed

Hopefully you either have knowledge of theory or you have bought the Jerry Coker book and have read the chapter on theory so that you understand the structure of songs as in knowing how to analyze a tune to identify modulations, know the importance and function of II,V, I chord progressions etc. If not you will need this knowledge before we go any further. I could go into this but it has been done so many times by so many people that I don’t want to. If you don’t want to order from you can probably find this book or something similar in a good music store near you, so what are you waiting for? Just do it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lesson 5: Song Analysis

Since the Twelve Tone System is based on the premise that there is no such thing as a wrong note (Only notes that are played wrong) you only need to know certain scales as opposed to the modal approach that is taught by some. The scales you need to memorize are:

Major scales

Melodic Minor scales (ascending only, that is to say in jazz you use the ascending melodic minor no matter what direction your melodic line is going, up or down)

Harmonic minor scales

Diminished scales

Whole tone scales

I practice diminished and whole tone scales for my technique but I rarely use them in improvising as they have no tonal center or key, later I will be discussing these two types of scale again in regards to this lack of tonal center. As for the natural minor scales, since they use the same notes as major scales but starting on a different note, if you practice your major scales over the entire range of your instrument you already know them and the same goes for the Dorian and Mixolydian modes as they are commonly referred to.

I wasn’t going to discuss any theory but on second thought I don’t see any way around it so I am going to talk about some basic theory.

If you look at figure 3 you will see I have written out an Eb Major scale and have placed corresponding numbers beneath each note of the scale. When you are discussing scales it is common to refer to the different notes as numbers which allows you discuss scales without referring to a specific key. For example this allows me to say that if you build a Major 7 chord from a major scale you use the 1, 3, 5, and 7th to create the Major 7 chord. When you stack more notes on top of those the 2 is called the 9, the 4 becomes the 11th and the 6 becomes the 13th. However the 1, 3, 5, and 7th are always the same.

If you look to the right of the Eb Major scale you will see I have written out an Fm7 chord, a Bb7 chord and an Eb Major 7 chord. If you build a chord from the second note of the Eb Major scale you will end up with an Fm7 chord, likewise if you build a chord from the fifth note of the Eb Major scale you will have a Bb7 chord. If you look beneath the Fm7 chord symbol you will see I have written IIm7, under the Bb7 chord V7, and under the EbMaj7 IMaj7, substituting Roman numerals for the chord names. The Roman numerals refer to the fact that the IIm7 is built from the second note of the Major scale, the V7 is built from the fifth note and of course the Major 7 is the built off of the first note. This gives us the IIm7, V7, IMaj7 chord progression which is by far the most common chord progression used in Jazz and popular standards.

The II chord is subdominant, the V chord is dominant and the I chord is the tonic. Basically all western music makes use of the dominant/tonic cycle. The subdominant is rather like a secondary tonic that resolves to the dominant which wants to resolve to the tonic. This cycle of subdominant, dominant, Tonic repeats with modulations to different keys throughout most tunes. Sit down at a piano and play these II,V,I chords and you will hear how the tonic acts as a magnet for the subdominant and dominant chords. You can think of it as a way of establishing a key within the chord progression of a tune.

Not only can you have a II,V,I progression in a Major key you can also have a II,V,I in a minor key which is called a tonic minor. If you look at figure 4 I have written out an Eb harmonic minor scale and to the right have written the corresponding II,V,I chords that have been built from the Eb minor scale. Note there are some differences as the fifth of the IIminor 7 chord is lowered a half step as it is built from a minor rather than a Major scale. This IIminor chord is also called a half diminished chord due to the lowered fifth. For these II and V chords you may use a harmonic minor scale but for the Iminor (with a Major 7) you may use either the melodic or harmonic minor scale. This establishes a tonic minor tonality. In fact if you see a IIm7, V7 leading to a tonic minor, for example Em7, A7, Dm, you should use the corresponding D harmonic minor scale for the II and V chords which gives you the lowered fifth for the II chord and lowered ninth for the V chord.

In figure 5 I have analyzed the chord progression for the song “Just Friends” which basically means I have identified the modulations to different keys. For the purpose of improvising the tonic Major is always a I chord, the minor 7 is always a II chord and the dominant 7 is always a V chord. If the song has a tonic minor the tonic minor is a I chord rather than a II chord and has a raised seventh. You will see I have written the corresponding Roman numeral above the chord symbols as well as the key that section of the song is in, for example – I: Bb, Bb being the key that section of the song is in.

If you look at the last measure of the third and seventh staffs you will see I have also written “pivot chord” beneath the Dm7 chord. The reason for this is that the Dm7 (IIm7) is acting as a tonic minor to the Em7 and A7 chords that precede the Dm7 chord while at the same time the Dm7 is acting as IIm7 due to the G7 chord that follows it. Study the analysis and try it yourself on what ever song you wish. If you have any questions feel free to ask them and I will answer them as I am able.

By looking at the analysis we can see that the song begins in the key of Bb and modulates to the keys of Ab, F, Gb, F, D minor, C, F, Bb, Ab, F, Gb, F, D minor, C, F, and back to Bb again. If this is new to you it may seem complicated at first but once you understand these concepts you will see it is really quite simple, it just takes a lot of verbiage to describe it.

Looking again at figure 5 you will notice I have labeled each 8 bar section of Just Friends with the letters “A” and “B” in boxes down the left hand side. A vast number of songs are written in the standard 32 bar format which in turn is divided into 8 bar sections. The structure of songs can be described by these 8 bar sections, in this case Just Friends has an “A, B, A, B structure. Notice that the chords of both “A” sections are identical with each other and the “B” sections are identical with each other. Another common structure would be “A, A, B, A.” The “B” section is often referred to as the bridge. The true identity of any tune is actually the chord progression, even more so than the actual melody, many Jazz compositions are based on the chord progressions of popular standards. One of the most used was the chord progression of the tune “I Got Rhythm” and many tunes are often described as having I Got Rhythm changes to the point that this progression is instantly recognizable by experienced players.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lesson 6: Surrounds

After working on the exercise I gave you in lesson 2 you should be ready for the next step which is to write a solo over the chord progression of a tune but this time using only eighth notes and this time utilizing the full scales rather than just chord tones making the phrases any length you like. Again try writing it without the use of an instrument rather write what you think would sound good. Keep in mind you want to put chord tones on the down beat and non-chord tones on the up beat as much as possible as well as putting to use the device of crossing from one chord to the next using chord tones that are a half or whole step apart. After writing the solo play it to see if it sounds the way you expected it to sound and change anything you don’t like. You can also use your new written solo to practice your swing feel. After you have done this practice playing over the changes (chord progression) again using eighth notes only, chord tones on the down beat etc. which will be more challenging and thus more fun than the exercise in lesson 2. Also utilize the concepts I gave you in lesson 4 which is more difficult than you might think. Hey, who said this was going to be easy? Seriously you will find it easier as you keep practicing and actually begin to think about what you are doing and record, record, record so you can hear what you are doing, hint: melodic lines made up of scales will almost always sound the most melodic and please don’t try to fit your favorite licks into your composition, the idea is to learn how to improvise not play memorized segments of melodies, same goes for musical quotes.

I want to introduce you to a device called surrounds. Surrounds are used by just about everyone in Jazz and are quite useful in adding tones outside the key of a chord and for changing the direction of your melodic lines. Surrounds are used to actually surround or lead to the 1, 3, and 5 of any chord. To surround a chord tone first play what ever scale tone is immediately above the chord tone you are surrounding followed by note that is always a half step below the chord tone you are leading to. You can also reverse this so the half step comes first. If you look at figure 6 I have written two examples of surrounds, notice that the A# and C# notes are not in the key of G Major (Gasp!). You can also use what is called a half surround where you only use the note that is a half step below the chord tone to lead into said chord tone. Try to implement the use of surrounds into your written solo and when you actually practice playing over the chord progression. Of course you have your chord tones memorized so you should have no problem with this, cough. For wind players try using the articulation “N” on the lower note of the surround which is a typical articulation used in Jazz for this type of figure. The “N” is only used on the upbeat when it is leading UP to the chord tone and never on the down beat.