How To Learn Jazz [The Complete Guide to Jazz Improvisation]

Jazz education is still a relatively new phenomenon, at least compared to the process of teaching classical music, which has been developed over centuries.

The whole thing can seem quite mysterious.

It can be relatively simple to teach someone how to play a piece of written music – there’s pretty much a correct way that it should sound – but how do you learn how to improvise your own material? How did all those great players through jazz history learn how to play like that?

Especially given that many of the greatest jazz musicians emerged at a time when there were no formal jazz education in conservatories or universities.

Luckily, there are a number of things you can work on that will help you develop as a jazz musician. Most of these can be done on your own, wherever you are based. If you follow these steps and develop a dedicated and focused practice routine, you should find that you start to make real progress.

These articles were curated by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp (who started out as a saxophonist, getting his bachelors degree in music from London’s Guildhall School of Music) in collaboration with other professional jazz musicians and educators from the Jazzfuel network.

10 important steps to learn jazz:

How to learn jazz

Listen to the jazz greats and be enthusiastic about the music!

You wouldn’t expect to be able to speak French with an authentic accent if you’d never heard what a native French speaker sounds like.

Similarly, you can’t expect to be able to play jazz with an authentic voice without first listening deeply to the masters.

When you meet top players, they’re almost always extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about jazz and their favourite records. So try to listen to the greats from across the history of jazz.

Think about what you like and don’t like, and become obsessed with your favourite tracks and albums!

It’s a slow process, but all that information and knowledge will ultimately inform your own playing.

Watching live music is also important, and a great way of meeting people on your local scene.

“When you are studying Jazz best thing to do is listen to records & live music as much you can & absorb everything.” Carla Bley

Develop your instrumental technique

It’s important to have a solid technical foundation on your chosen jazz instrument, so that you can execute your ideas properly when you come to improvise. So it’s a good idea to include some regular technical practice as part of your routine alongside more ‘creative’ improvisation-based work.

Most instruments will have their own standard study books – Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist is the classic example for piano, and there’s a famous interview of Charlie Parker by fellow alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, where they talk about practising exercises from the Klose: 25 Daily Exercises for Saxophone book.

Your sound is extremely important too: it’s the thing that audience members will notice first of all. So wind players: don’t forget those long tones!

Transcribe jazz solos

In jazz, this usually refers to learning a recorded solo and playing it yourself.

There are various ways of doing this: some people like to sing the solos before playing them, which can really help you to internalise the material. Some like to notate solos: seeing it written down in the form of sheet music might help you to analyse the content.

There are numerous benefits to transcribing.

It can help you to develop your vocabulary and sound more authentic, and allow you to understand what makes your favourite players sound so good. And playing along with recordings and trying to match them as closely as possible will help with your sound and feel.

Finally, the actual process of doing it is good for you, and will really help you to develop your inner ear and musical memory.

A few educators have discouraged transcription, suggesting that it might hinder the student’s individual artistic voice. But countless great jazz musicians have talked about how it has helped them develop: Charlie Parker famously learnt Lester Young solos note-for-note, and it certainly didn’t stop him from forming a sound of his own!

There are books available that contain written out transcriptions, and these can certainly be useful (especially if used alongside a recording of the solo in question), but you might find that you get more out of it in the long run to transcribe it yourself.

We highlighted some of the most famous jazz solos to transcribe here.

“There are so many amazing solos out there that it’s really hard to go wrong. I would recommend learning any solo (or chorus, or phrase, or lick) that you find compelling. If it speaks to you, if it moves you, if you dig it, then by all means transcribe it. And you may find that the actual process of transcription is just as important as what, or who, you choose to transcribe.” Joshua Redman

Learn jazz standards

You may ultimately prefer to focus on playing original music, but you can definitely gain a lot from learning jazz standards. In fact, most great players would consider it a fundamental part of becoming an accomplished jazz musician.

These tunes from the American songbook tend to share lots of similar chord sequences and cadences, so learning jazz standards can really help you get to grips with the fundamentals of jazz harmony.

They have practical uses too: you can play ‘Stella By Starlight’ or ‘All the Things You Are’ at jam sessions almost anywhere in the world, and there are some gigs where it’s expected that you play well-known, classic jazz repertoire.

Learning jazz standards from memory will help you understand the material more comprehensively, and what’s even better is if you can learn them in multiple (or even all 12) keys.

This will help your general musicianship, help you internalise the tune and chord sequence more deeply, and also allow you to play in various settings: for example, singers often like to play songs in unusual keys to suit their vocal range.

So why not set yourself the target of learning 10, 20 or even 50 jazz standards off by heart?

Here are 10 of the most common jazz standards to learn, as a starting point

Learn vocabulary or ‘licks’

While jazz is of course based on improvisation, most players will have phrases or ‘licks’ that repeatedly crop up in their solos.

This is certainly true of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, for example.

Obviously we want to avoid sounding like we’re simply churning out a bunch of pre-prepared phrases, but when used sparingly and thoughtfully, this kind of vocabulary can add substance and authenticity to your soloing.

You might need to practise ‘inserting’ them over appropriate chord sequences in quite a formulaic, unmusical way at first, but after a while they should start to appear more naturally, and you’ll be able to modify and expand upon them and make them your own.

To find jazz vocabulary to use in this way, listen out for phrases that appeal to you on records, and highlight your favourite parts of the solos you’ve transcribed.

Learn scales and modes

Jazz education is sometimes criticised for placing too much emphasis upon chord-scale theory. And, certainly, scales alone won’t make you sound authentic.

But ultimately, it’s very much worth learning and working on your scales. First of all, practising them across the entire range of your instrument will be good for you on a technical level, and it will also help you to become comfortable in all of the various key centres.

Perhaps take major, melodic minor and harmonic minor scales in all twelve keys to start with, then try diminished and whole tone scales.

It’s also good to be familiar with the different modes that are derived from these various scales: for example, dorian, mixolydian and lydian scales are arrived at by starting on different notes of the major scale, while the altered scale is derived from the melodic minor.

Singing these different modes before you play them will help. And of course, it’s worth remembering that there are some types of jazz where knowledge of these modes is essential.

Here’s our guide to the most common jazz scales & modes

Find a great teacher

Most of these ideas can be worked upon on your own, from wherever you live. But having a good teacher can be really beneficial: they can make sure that you’re on the right path, help you set appropriate goals and offer an outside perspective.

There’s a long history of teaching in jazz.

From imposing, formal teachers like Lennie Tristano (who taught the likes of Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Phil Woods and David Liebman), to mentor figures like Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie: young musicians would crowd around them to soak up some wisdom in salon-like settings.

Now, of course, there are reputable jazz programmes in conservatories and universities around the world. But this route isn’t for everyone, and some budding musicians may prefer to study outside of an institution.

This may be easier said than done, depending on where you live.

If you’re outside of a major city you might not be surrounded by expert jazz educators. Luckily, the internet has gone some way to solving this issue, and many top players and teachers now offer online lessons, which you can take from the comfort of your home.

In fact, many of the musicians in the Jazzfuel community around the world teach jazz improvisation and instrument-specific lessons alongside their performing work, so we’ve put together a selection of these who are experienced in virtual 1-to-1 lessons.

Depending on your instrument, you can find some more in-depth guidance here: 

“A great teacher stimulates his student’s creativity enough so that they go out & find the answers themselves.” Herbie Hancock

Play with other jazz students

People sometimes feel that they have to reach a certain level through private practice before they can go out and play with other musicians.

But, the fact is, playing with other people is just as important as personal practice: there are some things that you just can’t get from playing on your own.

One good way to do this is to attend jam sessions and start playing all those jazz standards you’ve learnt!

Most cities will have a regular jam, and this can be a great way to meet other enthusiastic jazzers, and to get used to playing onstage. What might be even better is if you are able to fix up your own informal sessions with a few like-minded players. And try to play with the best musicians you can:

“You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.” Stan Getz

Learn about the history of jazz

Jazz has a complex history, and it’s good to know as much about the context of the art form as possible.

It was created by African Americans under oppressive and challenging conditions, and some of the struggles they faced are quite remarkable: Louis Armstrong’s autobiography describes how he grew up in New Orleans in almost unimaginable poverty; Miles Davis and Bud Powell were both affected deeply by being beaten in racist incidents by policeman; numerous black artists faced overt discrimination when visiting the segregated south.

Many of our favourite players were (or still are) hugely interesting characters too – snappy dressers, outspoken thinkers or fiery characters – so it can be fascinating to learn about the personalities behind the music. There are lots of great books about jazz, and the music has also proved to be fertile ground for brilliant documentaries.

To get you started, check out this list of the best jazz books of all time, or some of the essential jazz documentary movies to watch.

Learn jazz piano

If your primary instrument isn’t already a chordal one, you may like to learn some rudimentary piano skills.

Most high-level jazz musicians (who aren’t already first-study pianists) will at least have some basic keyboard ability, and this is something that can be helpful in all manner of ways.

You’ll find it much easier to learn the harmony of a tune by ear if you can play the chords yourself, and many musicians like to compose at the piano.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, here’s our guide to some of the best books for learning jazz piano.

How to learn Jazz – popular articles