How to Be a Jazz Musician

Are you a frustrated jazz musician? Do you play your notes correctly but can't find the right sound? This will help you learn how jazz works and how to get it into your system.


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    Listen to a lot of jazz music. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Pepper Adams, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet, Oscar Peterson Al Jarreau, Ray Brown, John Scofield, David Benoit, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Peter White are all excellent and very different jazz artists.
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    Listen night and day. Go for days without any other music. You will notice the difference.
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    Find out where you can see live jazz performed in your city, and go see performances often.
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    Jazz often have a triplet feel called 'swing.' It can be explained many different ways, but the best way to learn it is just to listen to jazz. However, be wary; artists such as Monk and Mingus have distinctive styles of swing that may not sound good on all charts.
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    Train your ears and brains: Try to follow the rhythm of a song throughout. Start with a simple 4 measure beat, swinging track by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (check the syncopation on "Moanin'"). Move on to tracks and both.
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    Only after this analytic approach, synthesize. Listen to the interaction of great tightly interacting jazz groups, like the ones of Bill Evans or Dave Holland, in live contexts. Notice how they "feel" each other in the group, how they react to one another. The musical experience will be more and more rewarding and gain depth as you do so. Try approaching more complex music.
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    Compare a jazz track to a modern pop track or a classical piece. Write down the differences you hear in how the notes are being played.
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    Play a blues scale. There are many different blues scales. Here is "C": C, E flat, F, F sharp, G, B flat, C.
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    Play your chromatic scale in your left hand, and hold each note for two beats.
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    Choose a C note (middle, high, etc.), and play it repeatedly with your right hand at the same time as you play the chromatic scale with your left.
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    Experiment with different rhythms. After a few times through, add "E flat" while playing.
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    Play C and E flat together or separately. Make your way up through all the notes in the blues scale above.
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    Learn the blues scale at least in the seven major keys.
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    Try to memorize solos on recordings that you like, and re-play them yourself. This takes a lot of patience, but will take you great steps ahead.
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    Register at and absorb it.
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    Try things out and find stuff that sounds good. Go to Jam sessions to try out new ideas.
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    Practice as much as you can.
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    Assemble a small jazz combo or even big band to rehearse on a weekly basis. This will not only help your reading and improvisational skills, it will help you become a better ensemble player. (i.e. learn to play in tune, balance with other players, etc.) Some of the best things you can learn are from other jazz musicians, so be sure to assemble the best players you can to perform in your group. Ideally, they should be better and more experience than you. You won't learn anything by trying to be the "star" player in your ensemble. Visit for some free downloadable big band and combo materials.


  • Play a lot! Spend time to jam along a backing track
  • Take things slow. It doesn't happen overnight or in a month.
  • Basie is a laid-back style, inspired originally by Count Basie with Freddie Green and Jo Jones. Play a little behind the beat when playing it, but don't drag.
  • When practicing jazz, set your metronome up so that it's beating only on beats 2 and 4 - these are the important beats in jazz, the back beats
  • If you want to learn jazz or any piano, take lessons because it is good to have someone coaching you.
  • There are certain modes you can learn, such as the dorian, which is the second degree of a major scale. There are many various modes, and variations of thus, and although they are not strictly necessary in order to play jazz, it helps when you are starting out by limiting yourself to the modes, and then working from there.
  • When practicing scales/chords (to your metronome on 2 and 4) try articulating the off beats; later, you can also try to shift the rhythm by one beat every time you play a scale.
  • The play-along series by Jamey Aebersold can be a very helpful practice tool because it includes a rhythm section that you can play along with. Bass/Piano can be cancelled by panning left/right.
  • Learning the chords in a simple 12 bar blues is great for beginners. The chords are traditionally 1|4|1|1|4|4|1|1|5|4|1|1. 1 is the root, or first note of the key you're playing in, and the other numbers are respective degrees of the scale. (so if you were playing a C blues, the chords would be C7|F7|C7|C7|F7|F7|C7|C7|G7|F7|C7|C7.) other variations include a "2-5-1" turnaround in the last four measures, or a 3-6-2-5-1.
  • Don't be afraid to improvise! Explore the scales and just play whatever sounds Jazzy, then add some twist to it and make it sound Jazzy!
  • note on above: all the beats are important in jazz. The 2 and 4 are traditionally where the drummer plays time on the high hat. Be careful of accidentally emphasizing 2 and 4, which might happen if you set your met. to just those. Practice with it on 1-4 as well. Actually, an emphasis on 2 and four every measure gives a stronger groove overall. The music will swing harder, feel better and there will be a better sense of time.


  • Instruments take a long time to learn. Don't be frustrated if you don't pick things up right away. Practice as often as you can.

Things You'll Need

  • A good instrument
  • Nimble fingers
  • Patience and time
  • Basic knowledge of reading music and playing notes
  • Jazz and blues music to listen to
  • A metronome
  • Determination

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Music Techniques