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A New Way to Teach Improvisation

Tom Lizotte | April May 2023

Jazz Clinic

Getting students willing to think creatively and improvise fearlessly is a challenge and an opportunity in jazz education. A step-by-step process with a little teacher creativity thrown in can pay huge dividends. Once you have taught the basics, there is an approach that will stimulate student creativity and create a positive and enjoyable rehearsal atmosphere. I call it Pick a Card, Any Card.

The key to a successful experience for beginning improvisers is sequencing. In fact, sequencing is everything. Sequential, logical presentation of new concepts provides a scaffold for student success. Skip a step, and the scaffold collapses. Your opportunity to develop a fearless improviser vanishes. Recovery, I have found, is nearly impossible.

So what is the scaffold and how does it apply to Pick a Card? In this instance the scaffold starts with the blues, a springboard for many beginning improvisation instruction approaches, but not in the way you may think. Because the blues scale absorbs clashes with the dominant chord harmony used in blues progressions, the common approach is to slap a blues scale on that progression.

Herb Pomeroy, the great jazz pedagogue who taught at Berklee College of Music for 40 years, disabused me of the notion that the blues scale first approach is the best way to teach beginning improvisers. I recall our conversation vividly. “Tom, I never teach the blues scale. It desensitizes them to the fact that the blues has harmony. They end up finding that scale naturally.” There is much wisdom to this statement.

Photo by Kirby Fong

Think of it this way: the Bb blues scale is Bb, Db, Eb, E, F, Ab, Bb. The I chord in this progression is Bb. So, right off the bat the Db in the scale clashes with the D natural in the harmony. Herb’s point is proven as soon as the second note of the scale is played.

A better way is to start by teaching them a major pentatonic first – Bb, C, D, F, G. This sound is consonant on the Bb dominant chord. They are now aware of the harmony of the I chord. You have one, three and five as well as two and six (both of which are consonant.) The second chord in many blues pieces is the IV, or Eb. We will put this one off to the side for the time being.

The first key structural part of this progression is measure five. We make this change by giving them a target note for the Eb chord – the root. “Hit that note on the downbeat and you’re on your way.” I call this root default. Early on you have taught them that the blues does indeed have harmony. The other key structural spot is measure 9 – often a V or ii chord. V often goes to IV, so it is easy to say. “In bar 9 your target note is F. This slides down to Eb in the next measure.” A minor chord on measure 9 is another easy teaching opportunity. “Your target is a C, the root of the minor chord that occurs here. This is the only minor chord in this blues.”

In this simple way you have taught them the progression. The added bonus: they now have ears for dominant chords that will be invaluable when you move to non-blues progressions. How often have you gone to jazz festivals and heard soloists who sounded great on a blues but less impressive when applying the blues scale to everything else? That is most often the teacher’s fault.

Once students learn that blues does have harmony, teach them the minor pentatonic. Don’t add the blues scale quite yet. Now is the time to point out, “This sound clashes with the harmony, but that clash is the essence of the blues sound. When you use the minor pentatonic, there is no need to use root default, but you can if you wish.” A short time later, you tell them, “Add a raised fourth note to the minor pentatonic and you have a blues scale.”

Now they have three options – major pentatonic with root default, minor pentatonic, and blues. Once you get this basic note vocabulary taught, the challenge is teaching students to acquire a rhythmic vocabulary. Many younger (and older) improvisers get stuck in what one of my teachers referred to as “run on sentences.” The Pick a Card game can help here.

Here is how it works. First, illustrate that our jazz heroes often traffic in small cells, deceptively simple ideas. On a recent long term assignment I had as a substitute teacher, students and I discovered this while studying Red Garland’s Red’s Good Groove, Horace Silver’s Song for My Father, and Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments. Tenor Joe Henderson and pianist Horace Silver often play little licks on 123 or 134. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Henderson, play their incessant, quickly repeating 321 321 321. In Stolen Moments, Nelson plays two note, long note ideas with sweet resolutions. The cards get the students out of their comfort zone and encourage them to try different improvisation concepts.

Make up flash cards with concepts such as, Minor Pentatonic, Blues, Major Pentatonic, Root Default, Root Solo, Short Ideas, Solo with Space, Longer Lines, Cliche Lick, Call and Response, Triplet Oriented, 123 (creating the three-note idea used by so many hard bop players), Vernacular (a solo with bends or drops, or guttural sounds and glissandi.) Connecting this discussion on three-note cells with the listening you have done is critical. Students need to experience, “I can do this, too.”

Red’s Good Groove works beautifully for this exercise because the harmony is blues, but enriched. For example, measure five’s Eb7 slides into E diminished in bar six. This is a perfect place for a root solo or root default. The ii-V sequence in measure 9-12 provides a chance to teach a cliché lick for the C minor 7 moving into the F7. C Eb G Bb leading into A, the third of the F7. You can extend this by adding the F, Eb and C on the way down. This resolves beautifully to the Bb. They now have ears for ii-V, presented in a non-threatening way.

We start every class with improv, and everyone has to play the same concept. The anticipation is intriguing to watch. I will take out the cards and tell a student to pick one.

The first time we did this, the card was Short Ideas. As we went round robin, there was not a run-on sentence in the room. After class, a sometimes reluctant improviser came up to me and said, “I loved that. That was a lot of fun.” It is also a great in-class assessment tool.

The next cards could focus on the style of Joe Henderson, to teach a few of his accessible licks, and Horace Silver’s iconic use of rhythm. Other cards might include the very different accompaniment styles of drummer Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, and Roy Haynes. For the pianist, good options might include the styles of Red Garland and Bill Evans. The possibilities are endless.

One further word on listening: You must listen in class, and it must be active rather than passive. Come armed with a handout that includes personnel, a bit of background on the composer, and information about the style of the piece. Then, use questions specific to the recording to lead into a discussion. This has many benefits. Every student gets to be heard, and they get into the habit of listening. They really get the feeling that they, too, are jazz musicians. The students will eat this up.

Before learning Stolen Moments we did a directed listening. There was a study guide question on the vibe of the piece. Students referred to the piece as foggy and misty. We read the chart, and they had an immediate grasp of the meaning and style of the piece. On Song for My Father the drummer referred to the feel of the piece as “floaty.” Perfect!

Teachers ask students to be creative. We must be as well. If we do, the collective experience will be incredibly rich.