Jazz Improv: Alive and Kickin’

By vailjazzteam

Nothing will sweep you more off your feet like a sultry improvised jazz solo that flows out of the trumpet’s bell seamlessly. You watch the fingers go up and down on the piano keys, re-harmonizing chords on the spot in fact like you’ve never heard like quite before, and you hear a vocalist show off with an impressive use of range, and extensive syllabic vocabulary and intriguing rhythms. In 2016, the digital era may be taking over, where fancy new microphones and recording devices come out often, and programs on the computer that instantly transcribe music. However, there’s one thing that can never be replaced by technology, the art of jazz improvisation. Today jazz improvisation is still alive, well and kickin’!


Over 150 years ago, prominent jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Jelly Roll Morton and Bing Crosby would pave the way for the art of jazz improvisation. Going beyond their comfort zones, exploring new articulations, phrasing, colors and chord progressions to create new and interesting sounds to the ear, sounds that you would not expect. Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, and Duke Ellington would continue to experiment with this style throughout the years and would even become mainstream music. Today, jazz improvisation has reached entirely new levels and boundaries thanks to incredible performances and recordings by artists such as Kurt Elling, Keith Jarrett, Michel Camilo, and Gary Burton.


Jazz improvisation has now greatly influenced other musical genres with its spontaneity and groove, including pop, rock, and R&B. Jazz improvisation has also spread beyond vocalists, horn and keys players, and can now be heard on instruments such as the ukulele, harmonica, melodica, and the harp! Many artists today have combined elements of pop music with the technique and style of jazz improvisation including Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum, Chris Botti, Bobby McFerrin, and Hiromi. These artists have strived to make jazz improv sound cool and relevant to a younger generation of music listeners and a much wider audience than before.


While jazz album sales may be lower compared to the past, there’s now more ways than ever to experience jazz improvisation live. Including jazz cruises, festivals around the world such as (Vail and Montreaux,) music camps that offer weekly instruction specifically on improv such as ( Vail jazz workshop, Bob Stoloff vocal jazz academy and Jamey Aebersold jazz camp), and thousands of videos on youtube that capture real live performances, recordings and tutorials from new jazz breaking artists.


To some musicians and listeners, jazz improvisation may be a bit intimidating and overwhelming. Often young musicians trying to pick up jazz improv get discouraged, thinking “I’ll never be able to scat or solo”. While there are many credible techniques out there, and no right way to learn jazz improv, here are some tips that may help you understand and perform jazz improvisation.

-Listen to all the great innovators of improvisation (traditional and contemporary). Jazz improv stemmed from classically trained pianists, experimenting on the piano and in their compositions. Listen not only to the great jazz legends, but also artists that improvised in classical music, and even in country and folk songs. Take notes about the vocal timbres, color of the instruments, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions, and melodic lines. In a sense start transcribing what you hear, very slowly, and one step at a time.



  • Go see live jazz performances, witness this incredible talent firsthand, and wrap yourself in the moment. Because improv is such an “in the moment” experience, there’s no better way to really feel it and grasp it than to soak it all up in a live music setting.


  • Try it yourself! Start with the instrument you are most comfortable on, or simply with the voice. Think of it as rapping, or slam poetry, let the words, syllables, and notes come and flow through you. It may not be a perfect solo the first time you try, but the more you practice, you will train your ear to pick up certain rhythms, tensions and melodic lines. There are many jazz instrumental background tracks you can play along with, and even try teaming up with another musician and trade fours to really keep you on your toes!


  • Challenge yourself! Now if you are really serious about learning the techniques and mechanics of jazz improv, start by brushing up on your music theory. To feel most comfortable at taking a solo, these players know their chords, scales, modes, solfege and tensions all from memory. Study which notes belong to major and minor scales, chords, know your sharps, flats and accidentals, without having to look at sheet music. This will help provide you with the framework to solo confidentially.



Remember you can always apply the concepts of jazz improv to your daily life of originality, spontaneity, and quick thinking even if you yourself are not a musician.