Getting young improvisers to solo over standard tunes isn’t as hard as it seems. The key is to develop a consistent teaching approach. You can accomplish this in three steps.
1. Melodic Paraphrase
This approach is how players learned to solo in the earliest days of jazz and was returned to the forefront several years ago by Tony García in his book Cutting the Changes. The point is that the tune – not the written chord changes – is the crucial starting point. Jazzing up the melody by changing just rhythms ensures immediate success and a firm grounding in the melody, which is inextricably linked to the harmony. Avoid the temptation to start adding things immediately. Stick with one moving part at a time.
The wisdom of García’s approach is that, given chord changes too soon, students will run away from the tune and just play the math of the changes. This makes them less aware of the sound of the chord changes. Melodic paraphrase trains the ears for the changes rather than the eyes.
2. Tonal Centers
Start with a major or minor pentatonic, depending on the mode of the tune. You can say, “The tune is in Bb. The first melody is in that key. At the second melody you switch to Eb. When the original melody returns, you go back to Bb.” I avoid what jazz educator Shelly Berg describes as the magnetic fourths and sevenths. In a major pentatonic, everything is consonant. Thus, if a student sticks to the pentatonic, which is not always easy, everything they play sounds right.
By approaching tonal centers this way you have taught AABA (32-bar) form as well as a common modulation scheme for jazz standards – tonic to subdominant. Introduce this to students, and they can hear form in a 32-bar format a mile away. Teaching form and its link to harmony is important because you do not want students counting. They should be listening to the harmony, especially to the turnaround. Again, the focus is on listening, not math.
Without putting a set of chord changes in front of them, you have trained students’ ears for the prevailing sound of the piece. This is critical for intelligent soloing. Often when adjudicating jazz ensembles, I hear soloists with great rhythmic ideas (which is probably the toughest part of all this) and no idea of the harmony or tonal centers. This the fault of the teacher much more than the student. The prevailing sound approach gets them on their way but not through every chord in a piece. Now is the time to present written chord changes.
3. Chord Changes
When teaching about chord changes and target notes, sequencing is everything. Students can feel overwhelmed with too much information. With the right format in small doses, success becomes far more likely.
Focus first on important anomaly chords, those not in the key. For now, passing chords, which are generally on beats three and four, can be put aside. An example of an important anomaly chord is the so-called train whistle chord, described alternatively as an augmented fourth or flatted fifth in measure 3 of Ellington’s Take the A Train. The tritone melodic interval creates the need for this chord. Because the interval is in the tune, paraphrasing melodically will produce the right sound. Now is a chance to get a little adventurous. The augmented chord implies a whole tone scale. If you teach students even a few notes of that scale, they will have an indelible impression of the sound intended.
There are other target chords that are important structurally. The ii chord often functions this way. In standards it can exist in a sea of major chords or secondary minor triads. The ii, because of its relation to V, is a big deal. Another example of structurally important chords occurs in Summertime, where four bars of D minor lead to a G minor chord. This is the first chord change in the tune, and one young improvisers often miss. This chord change is a big event. Have them target the root (I call this root default). This is easy. When they become comfortable with this, sneak in the third and you have the shell of the G minor harmony.
Let’s apply this approach to three jazz standards.
After teaching this piece in melodic paraphrase, break down the tonal centers. Summertime is perfect for young improvisers because it has one tonal center with a two-measure modal interchange, which can be ignored until you are deep into teaching the piece.
Use D minor pentatonic at first, then D natural minor. Target the G minor chord in measure 5 Then, teach D harmonic minor. This allows them to get the right sound on the ii°-V-i (Edim-A7-Dm). You can then make the ii°-V a target sequence by giving them the arpeggio: E-G-Bb-D and resolve on a half step to the C#, the third of the A7 chord. This cliche lick will work in any minor setting and will get students off to a strong start on Summertime.
Take the A Train
This standard is a pretty friendly blowing vehicle. The procedure is the same. After working on melodic paraphrase, have students study the tonal centers. The A section is in C major, the bridge is in F major – the fourth relationship on the modulation again. Then there is a two-bar move to D dominant. To make this shift, have students use D major with a lowered seventh scale degree. In the process, you have secretly introduced the concept of dominant scales. You can simplify further by having players toggle back and forth between the root of the F chord, the third of the D7, and the third of the D minor.
The first target chord is the augmented chord in measures three and four. After that, focus on the ii-V-I in measures five through seven. The D minor chord is a crucial target because it is the only minor chord in the A section of the tune.
I’ve Got Rhythm
This piece and the blues are the two most important jazz soloing vehicles. An estimated 85% of all jazz progressions are one of these. Because there are more than 160 contrafacts on I’ve Got Rhythm, the piece is the key to the kingdom. The beauty of this tune is that it can be taught with a pentatonic scale and four chromatic notes.
Beginning pedagogy for this chart is a Bb major pentatonic. Immediately point out the form: repeated A section, bridge, and return A. In the A section, the only anomaly chord is the Ab. Because it is a passing chord, we can put it to the side for the moment.
The action in this piece takes place in the circle of fifths bridge. The first task is to connect harmony by giving students a chromatic that starts on the first (D7) chord. The F# in the first chord (the third) becomes F on the G7 chord (the seventh). This slides down to E on the C7 chord and then to Eb on the F7. It is important to note that thirds resolve to sevenths and vice versa. You can also start with the seventh (C) on the D7 chord and slide it down chromatically.
Guide tones are helpful as a springboard. The best approach I have encountered for teaching the circle of fifths is in Joseph Charupakorn’s Jazz Improv Basics (Hal Leonard). In the book, he teaches the arpeggios for the two-bar sequences starting with a half-note sequence, then a half-note/eighth-note sequence, then quarters and eighths, then with lower neighbor tones and passing tones. This sequential approach helps students connect the dots.
The key to all of this is keeping it simple. In the initial stages, take one step at a time. Do not move on until you know students understand and can execute what you are presenting. It is better to be too methodical than too fast. In this instance, too much knowledge can prove detrimental. With just enough information at the right time, the voyage will be smooth. Get students to walk before they try to run.