The Path To Becoming A Jazz Musician: Listening, Playing Changes, and Keeping A Long-Term Perspective

If you are interested in learning to play jazz, there are several things you should do when you are getting started. I have been playing jazz for several years now, and I can tell you that when I first started it was quite difficult to know where to start, what to play, and when to play it. Jazz is one of those areas of music where everyone who plays it is highly opinionated, and they all seem to have different opinions on how you should play and who you should listen to. I can tell you from experience that no matter what you play in your solos, and how good they are, you will be receiving lots of criticism from your fellow musicians. If you can learn to take this criticism in stride, and not let it get you down or affect your playing, then you will already be a lot better off than I was when I started learning jazz.

One of the first things you need to do as a beginning jazz musician, is to interact with your fellow jazz musicians and listen to as much jazz as you possibly can. Jazz is an old art form, more than a hundred years now, and there are many different styles and genres of jazz. As you listen to more and more jazz, you will begin to have a much better idea of what you want to sound like in your own playing, and you will take a lot of ideas away from the musicians to whom you have been listening and start to reword these ideas and use them in your own playing. It is totally fine in jazz to use other people’s liberally, in fact it is actually encouraged, and so you should do as much imitation as you can when you are first learning to play, because your fellow musicians will respect you that much more for having actually taken the time to learn the history of the music, rather than just playing what you think is jazz. In order to speed up your jazz education that much more, you should do some research on the best jazz albums in whatever genre of jazz you are trying to learn, and make sure that you are listening to high quality music, as this will give you plenty of ideas and help steer you in the right direction in your playing.

When you are learning how to play jazz, it is also very important that you learn jazz chords and scales, which are the basic building blocks of jazz playing. Jazz has a totally different harmonic foundation than most other types of music, and even though it uses many of the same chords, they are applied in different ways. So even if you think you know your seventh chords and ninth chords, I’m not saying that you don’t, I’m just saying that the same chords will be applied very differently when used in a jazz setting, than when they are used in a rock music or classical music setting, for example. It takes most people years to fully understand jazz harmony, and it is a language that is constantly evolving. However, the best place to start when you are trying to learn jazz harmony is with the blues. The blues are pretty much the root of all jazz music, to a certain extent, and when you can learn to solo comfortably over a basic twelve bar blues, you will be ready to move on to more complex chord structures such as rhythm changes and other long-form chord sets.

Learning jazz is a life-long process for those who are really serious about it, so don’t get discouraged if you aren’t soloing like Charile Parker after six months of learning jazz tunes. As long as you take some time every week to learn tunes, work on playing over chords (“changes”), and go out and listen to as much jazz as you can at local gigs, you will improve steadily. Keep in mind, too, that the best way to learn any style of music is to play it, so I’d encourage you to get together with your fellow jazz musicians often and play as much music as you can. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as advanced as they are, if you can play often with jazz musicians who are more skilled than you are, you will find your learning curve accelerating quite quickly. This was the case for me when I was first starting to learn jazz, as I was constantly playing with more skilled musicians than myself. However, they were always very encouraging, and helped steer me down the right path: The path to becoming a jazz musician. I hope that the same goes for you, and that you enjoy your journey through jazz music.

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Active Listening Exercises For Learning To Play Jazz Music

If you’re learning how to play jazz, or are a musician who wants to learn how to play jazz, then you are probably already familiar with the basics of music theory like scales, chords, arpeggios, and the like. However, one thing you may not yet be familiar with which all jazz musicians take for granted, are the concepts of active listening and passive listening.

Most musicians, and indeed most people in general, do both passive and active listening from time to time, and they can both be important to develop musicianship and new musical skills. Passive listening is essentially any listening that you do to music, when you aren’t specifically trying to learn the music itself. Passive listening can be things like putting on the radio while you drive, or when you are cooking dinner, and most people do this sort of listening every day without even thinking about it. But that is exactly the point, is that because you aren’t really thinking about what you are listening to, you aren’t really learning the music to which you are listening. If you really want to learn music, than you need to be paying attention while you listen to it, and trying to actively absorb the new musical language, patterns, and effects which are used, and this leads us to the concept of active listening to improve your musicianship.

Active listening can be any form of listening activity where you are engaged in the music one hundred percent of the time. For example, active listening when you are learning to play jazz music often consists of activities like transcribing a solo that was recorded by a famous jazz musician on your instrument. Another form of active listening can be imitation, like getting together with a friend or colleague and playing musical phrases back and forth, trying to imitate as closely as you can what the other musician is doing.

Active listening exercises like these are some of the best exercises for learning to play jazz, or any other form of music, because they really enhance your improvisatory skills, and your on-the-spot thinking as a musician. Whenever you are trying to learn a new style of music, I would highly encourage you to pursue active listening activities as much as possible, rather than just reading notes off of a page and “learning tunes” by rote. I assure you that, by actively immersing yourself in the new style of music which you are trying to learn, you will speed up your learning curve immensely. When I was learning to play jazz (and I still am, although I’m a professional jazz musician now) I made a goal of doing at least two hours of active listening per day, and was able to absorb many jazz drumming concepts and skills very quickly this way, much quicker than I would have been able to had I made studying out of a book my primary method for learning.

Don’t get bogged down by Jazz Teachers throwing book after book, and chord chart after chord chart at you. Though these types of exercises are great, too, as long as you are actively listening to jazz, you will improve rapidly and will grow as a musician.

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Leon Russell’s This Masquerade

If you can struggle through the intro, the original version of this great song is beautiful – much more haunting than Benson’s version:

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Spooky, By Mike Shapiro and Harry Middlebrooks, Jr.

Most people don’t know that the song Spooky, made famous by the Classics IV, was actually originally recorded as an instrumental by saxophonist Mike Shapiro in the mid 60s. It was later rerecorded by the Classics IV in 1967 after guitarist James Cobb and producer Buddy Buie added the lyrics.

Apparently, Mike Shapiro had the same publishing company as Cobb and Buie, who heard the tune, liked it, and put lyrics to it.

The classic element of this story is that Shapiro ended up playing the great sax solo on the Classics IV version. I’ve always loved the tone and style of that solo, kind of jazzy and slightly edgy.

Here’s a version of the original recording of Spooky featuring Mike Shapiro on the tenor saxophone:

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Soul Vaccination

I had to great thrill and honor of auditioning with Tower Of Power about 20 years ago.

I remember quite clearly one of the songs we played was Soul Vaccination. I was reading the lead tenor chart and, man, all those syncopated notes just looked like dots flying by; it was really hard to read. I should have just played it from heart; after all, I’ve heard the tune about 10,000 times. I still love listening to it!

Everybody get in line!

That’s Norbert Stachel playing lead tenor. I think he’s the guy that got the gig on that audition. If so, I can see why they hired him – he’s smokin’! Check out his use of the flat 13 at about the 2:15 point. That’s not the way Lenny Picket played it but I love it!


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