Getting to where we want to be as jazz improvisers can be a daunting prospect: there’s so much to learn, and there are so many different ways to approach it. Sometimes it can seem like there’s just too much stuff to practise.
Of course, as we’re often told, transcribing jazz solos from classic recordings can provide many of the answers. But sometimes it can be really helpful to see things written down, or explained clearly step by step.
Luckily, a wide selection of books aimed at developing jazz musicians of all levels has sprung up over the last few decades. So here’s our guide to some of the best jazz education materials out there, whether you want to develop or learn jazz guitar, drums, bass, saxophone, piano or just general theory and improvisation.
The best jazz theory books
The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine
This jazz education classic was first published in 1995, and is now used in conservatory classrooms around the world. It covers the main jazz scales and how to deploy them, as well as more advanced concepts like ‘Coltrane changes’ and reharmonisation, giving over 750 musical examples.
It’s endorsed by the likes of Jamey Aebersold, James Moody and Dave Liebman, and is praised for its well-designed layout and clear explanations – although some critics have suggested that it places too much emphasis upon chord-scale theory, which may make its concepts less applicable to pre-modal styles of jazz.
Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians by Robert Rawlins and Nor Eddine Bahha
Written by a critic of Levine’s approach, Jazzology attempts to cover some of the things arguably skirted over in The Jazz Theory Book, and takes a comprehensive look at a wide range of topics including intervals, scales and modes, typical jazz cadences and arranging techniques.
It is generally very well reviewed, although some less advanced readers have reported that its difficulty gradient is rather steep when it moves from general basic theory into the more advanced realm of jazz harmony.
The musical examples it gives are all written by the authors, unlike the Levine book, which gives real, transcribed examples from classic recordings.
The Jazz Harmony Book by David Berkman
As the title suggests, this is very much about harmony, so don’t expect much information on linear jazz improvising here: this is probably of most use to chordal instruments.
Instead, this book focuses on harmonisation and reharmonisation, or how to choose the chords to accompany a melody in the style of various masters.
It places an emphasis on harmonic function in a way that is designed to help you learn and understand standard tunes, and Berkman has been praised for his easy-to-read, conversational writing style. It includes two CDs with recordings of the author playing examples from the book.
General jazz improvisation books
The Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long series
Jamey Aebserold is a massive name in jazz education. He has been hosting summer workshops since the 1960s, but is probably best known for his extensive series of books, which offer the student the opportunity to play along with a pre-recorded professional rhythm section.
Each book contains concert pitch, bass clef, E flat and B flat parts, while the CDs are panned so that the bass or piano parts can easily be removed from the mix, making them useful for nearly all instruments.
Titles include Nothin’ but Blues, Charlie Parker: All Bird, All Time Standards and Sonny Rollins, with each book typically containing between 10 and 12 tunes.
Some of the accompanying rhythm sections are particularly noteworthy: the Charlie Parker book, for example, features Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Ben Riley.
The Charlie Parker Omnibook
Charlie Parker laid the groundwork for much of the improvisational vocabulary of modern jazz.
The alto saxophonist was one of the founding fathers of bebop in the 1940s, with a virtuosic style that was shocking and radical, yet still highly melodic and full of blues feeling.
There are countless jazz transcription books out there featuring his solos, but this is by far the most famous.
First published in 1978, it’s another classic jazz education text that Jamey Aebersold was involved with: he, along with Ken Sloane, transcribed the 60 Parker solos.
The heads are written out before the solos, so it is a useful resource for learning the repertoire as well.
Available in E flat, B flat, C and bass clef versions, it has helped generations of musicians to study the work of Charlie Parker more deeply.
Inside Improvisation series by Jerry Bergonzi
Jerry Bergonzi is a world-renowned jazz saxophonist, having held the saxophone chair in the Dave Brubeck Quartet for a number of years and working with many other jazz greats.
A highly respected educator, he also teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston and has released this series of jazz improvisation books for all instruments.
With seven volumes covering some advanced concepts including Melodic Structures, Developing a Jazz Language, Pentatonics and Hexatonics, the idea is that students can apply these systems to a whole range of styles of jazz and improvised music.
Book for learning jazz saxophone
Jazz Conception by Jim Snidero
Jim Snidero is an acclaimed jazz alto saxophonist from New York.
His Jazz Conception books each offer a collection of etudes filled with jazz vocabulary, and based upon common jazz chord sequences and jazz standards.
Accompanying the book is a CD, which has two versions of each etude: one demo track played by Snidero, to allow the study to copy his sound and phrasing, and one without Snidero, for the student to play along with.
The CD features a first-rate New York rhythm section: Mike LeDonne (piano), Peter Washington (double bass) and Kenny Washington (drums).
The book is also available in Easy and Intermediate versions, and has been published for numerous other instruments.
Technique of the Saxophone – Volume Two: Chord Studies by Joe Viola
Joe Viola was a legendary teacher at Berklee College of Music who taught dozens of renowned saxophonists: Joe Lovano, Jerry Bergonzi, Seamus Blake, Jane Ira Bloom and Branford Marsalis, among others.
Although his Technique of the Saxophone series focuses more upon instrumental technique, this second volume offers workouts over common chord types, utilising approach notes or ‘neighbour tones’, opening the door to various melodic possibilities and helping the player to become a more fluent improviser in all keys, despite the fact the book barely mentions the word ‘jazz’.
Exploring Jazz Saxophone by Ollie Weston
A newer addition to the jazz education syllabus, this book by British educator and saxophonist Ollie Weston is perfect for the intermediate instrumentalist who wants to start delving into the world of jazz and improvisation.
The book guides the student through the history of jazz and explains theories and concepts with a clear, jargon-free style, utilising a range of tailor-made studies and exercises.
An accompanying CD (with MP3s also available) contains recorded examples and play-along tracks.
Books for learning how to play Jazz drums
Modern Rudimental Swing Solos for the Advanced Drummer by Charley Wilcoxon
Charley Wilcoxon is not a well-known name, but as an educator he has had a huge impact upon the lineage of jazz drumming.
Two of his most famous students, Philly Joe Jones and Joe Morello (best known for playing with Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck respectively), became long-time advocates of his work.
Jones in particular is known for quoting some of these rudiments in his solos, and when he in turn began to teach he would encourage his students to utilise this book.
Kenny Washington, the New York drummer, is another current prominent advocate of Wilcoxon’s method. Wilcoxon’s books were originally hand-written teaching aids, often dedicated to specific students.
The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley
John Riley teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and holds the drum chair in New York’s Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, having also played with the likes of Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Bob Mintzer and many others. He was also a student of Charles Wilcoxon.
This clearly written, well-paced book contains challenging exercises to help the student soak up the language of bebop rhythm, and is accompanied by a play-along CD. Peter Erskine (who made our list of best jazz drummer of all time) calls it “the definitive book on bop drumming”.
A follow-up, Beyond Bop Drumming, was published in 1997.
The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary, as Taught by Alan Dawson by John Ramsey
Another Berklee College of Music jazz education legend, Alan Dawson taught the likes of Terri Lynne Carrington, Tony Williams and Clifford Jarvis. This book, by one of his former students (and a prominent drummer himself), lays out Dawson’s method and explains how he applied the theories from classic old percussion books to jazz drums. It also includes his famous ‘Rudimental Ritual’.
Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer: Coordinated Independence as Applied to Jazz and Be-Bop, Vol. 1 by Jim Chapin
Chapin is known as “the father of jazz independence”, and this 1948 book is a classic of the drum education cannon.
As the title suggests, it focuses on the development of independent limb coordination, but Chapin was also one of the first people to write down the comping figures of early bebop masters like Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and this book is a required study topic with many top jazz drum teachers.
Jazz piano books
The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine
This is another acclaimed and widely used text by Mark Levine, the author of The Jazz Theory Book.
A comprehensive guide to learning jazz piano, it covers areas such as chord substitutions, chord voicings, modes, and also discusses the styles and techniques used by the most important pianists in jazz between 1930 and 1990.
Some users have suggested that the book is best for the intermediate player who already possesses some theoretical knowledge, and the book may be used most effectively as a manual to consult as and when required, rather than as a step-by-step method.
Intro to Jazz Piano by Mark Harrison
With step-by-step explanations and examples written out in all 12 keys, this may be more suitable for beginners than The Jazz Piano Book.
It focuses largely on chords, beginning with simple three-note voicings, as well as an introduction to soloing. It includes audio, with demonstrations of the book’s material and backing tracks.
An Approach to Comping: The Essentials by Jeb Patton
Patton is a highly respected New York pianist, who has played with Jimmy Heath, George Coleman and many others.
He provides a detailed guide to ‘comping’, or accompanying a soloist, which has received glowing endorsements from Hal Leonard, Benny Green, Renee Rosnes and Monty Alexander.
It covers basic comping rhythms and voicings, as well as 11 note-for-note transcriptions of Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Tadd Dameron, and Barry Harris playing behind a soloist.
It also includes two CDs with demonstrations and play-along tracks. A second volume covers Advanced Concepts and Techniques in jazz piano comping.
Books for learning jazz bass
The Jazz Bass Book: Technique and Tradition by John Goldsby
Viewed by many as the definitive jazz double bass education book, this text guides the player through building bass lines, harmonic theory, practice methods and instrumental technique.
It discusses the qualities of over 70 of the greatest double bassists in jazz history, including Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, Eddie Gomez and Charles Mingus, with transcribed examples.
Goldsby himself holds the bass chair with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, and his book includes a foreword by Ron Carter. It is available with either an accompanying CD or access to online audio.
The Bass Tradition by Todd Coolman
Perfect for the bassist who wants to develop their authentic jazz vocabulary, this is a collection of 36 transcribed solos and walking bass lines from 18 of the greatest bass players of all time.
It ranges from legends of the swing era like Jimmy Blanton and Milt Hinton, through to 1950s favourites Paul Chambers and Sam Jones, and fusion players like Stanley Clarke.
The transcriptions, written in bass clef, are on essential standards like ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Confirmation’ and ‘All The Things You Are’.
Ray Brown’s Bass Method: Essential Scales, Patterns and Exercises by Ray Brown
Ray Brown is regarded one of the all time greats of the double bass.
Most famous for his role in the Oscar Peterson Trio, he also played with Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and led his own popular trio.
This book is an extensive workout through a range of scales and exercises. While many players report finding things to work on for life in here, beginners may prefer something more along the lines of a step-by-step method book.
Other great jazz bassists have published their own educational texts, notably Rufus Reid’s The Evolving Bassist, and Ron Carter’s Building Jazz Bass Lines.
Best Jazz Guitar books
Jazz Guitar Single Note Soloing, Volume 1 by Ted Greene
This is a detailed guide to single-line jazz improvisation on the guitar, beginning with scale-based exercises.
Some users have suggested that this book is not really suitable for players below an intermediate level, and students will need to have fairly good sight-reading skills to play the written exercises.
Ted Greene wrote a number of other classic jazz guitar books, including Chord Chemistry and Modern Chord Progressions: Jazz and Classical Voicings for Guitar.
Jazz Guitar Method, Complete Edition by Jody Fisher
A more modern step-by-step method book, this brings together four existing texts to create a comprehensive guide to learning jazz guitar.
It includes examples notated in both TAB and standard notation, and each new musical concept is illustrated with a related etude or piece. It includes a CD with audio demonstrations of the material.
Jazz Solos for Guitar by Les Wise
There are transcriptions here of solos by many of the jazz guitar greats, including Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and others.
What’s more, they are accompanied by phrase-by-phrase analysis, to help the student understand and apply the techniques used by the soloist.
The book includes online access to a high-tech audio player, which allows the student to loop, change the panning, key or tempo of the demonstration and backing tracks.
We hope this list has given you some ideas f0r your next book to learn more about jazz and improvisation, whatever level you’re at. As mentioned already, transcribing great jazz solos is still the best way to make progress on this topic, and we’ve put together this list of 10 essential solos that every musician transcribes.
If you’re looking for more listening inspiration, you can also check out our lists of some of the greatest albums and players of all time, in the Discover Jazz section of this website.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!
Last update on 2021-01-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API