This primer began as an attempt to put together some answers to questions commonly asked by beginning improvisers in the rec.music.bluenotenewsgroup on the Internet computer network. In the process of putting the text together, however, it gradually grew into a more comprehensive treatise hopefully suitable as a beginning guide to the self-study of jazz improvisation.
As I expanded the scope of this work from the simple question and answer sheet to what it is now, one of my objectives was to make it also useful to people who have no intention of becoming jazz performers, but who wish to increase their understanding of the music in order to gain a better appreciation for it. Some listeners delight in not knowing what goes into the music, considering it in the same vein as sausages in that respect, but I sincerely believe that one’s enjoyment of music can almost always be enhanced by a better understanding of it.
This primer assumes the reader has a certain familiarity with basic concepts of terminology and notation, but no more than one might have learned in a few music lessons as a child. From this foundation, the primer gradually delves into relatively advanced theory. The amount of information presented here may appear overwhelming to all but the most ambitious of non-performing listeners, but I believe the study is well worth the effort.
The theory discussed in this primer could easily take hundreds of pages to cover adequately, and should be accompanied by transcriptions of musical examples and excerpts from actual solos. However, it is not my intention here to write the Great American “How To Play Jazz” Manual (but see below for information about the CD-ROM I am developing). Think of this primer more as an introduction to the subject, or as a survey of the various topics to be covered by other texts. I also feel that jazz improvisation cannot be understood or mastered without a feel for the history of jazz, so I have included a section on history. Again, my treatment here is rather cursory, and should be considered only an introductory survey.
One could argue that instead of reading this primer, one would be better off just reading a history text and a theory text. There is probably some truth to this. However, this primer tries to relate these approaches in a manner that cannot be done with separate texts, to give you a broad idea of what jazz improvisation is all about. It also takes a less pedantic approach than most improvisation texts, encouraging you to find your own voice rather than merely teaching you how to play the “right” notes. I think you will find that the history, theories, and techniques discussed here go a long way toward explaining what is behind most of the jazz you hear, but are not necessarily enough on its own to allow you to reproduce it or even fully analyze it. If it points anyone in the right direction, encourages them to check out more comprehensive texts, or motivates them to take some lessons or a class, then it has succeeded.
Because this primer was written before the advent of the Web, before the days of on-line graphics and sound on the Internet, this primer is all text. This is unfortunate, since it makes the sections on chords, scales, and voicings much more confusing than they deserve to be. It also makes for an overly technical and dry discussion of such a free and creative art form as jazz. It would be nice to be able to target this primer at the more typical beginning improviser, the high school or college student who is not necessarily especially technically inclined. Musical examples would undoubtedly help me make some of my points that are probably being lost now in the bewildering verbiage. Also, I think using examples to streamline some of the more tedious explanations would help me focus the primer a little better. To some extent, I have addressed this by making available the printed version of this text, called A Whole Approach To Jazz Improvisation.
I have begun on a multimedia CD-ROM version of the primer, to be called A Jazz Improvisation Almanac. This that would include hypertext, graphics, and sound. It will also be greatly expanded; probably on the order of three times as much text, in addition to all the examples I’ll be able to include. However, that project is on hold as I came to realize I had bitten off more than I could chew. You can check outwhat there is of it online (and there is quite a bit).
Anyone interested in helping out with the CD-ROM project may contact me directly. If any readers have any suggestions for my CD-ROM project or have any other comments or feedback for me on this primer, please let me know. My electronic mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and my Web page is at http://www.outsideshore.com. I can also be reached at the phone number and address found at the bottom of this page. A note posted to rec.music.bluenote or rec.music.makers.jazzwill often get my attention as well.
The first edition of this primer contained no copyright notice, but was covered anyhow under United States copyright law and under the international Berne convention. This edition carries an explicit copyright notice. You may browse this text online, but because the printed version is now published and sold, I ask that you not attempt to download and print this version.
Finally, I would like to thank some people who contributed to this primer. Solomon Douglas, Jonathan Cohen, and Sue Raul reviewed the early drafts and gave me lots of good suggestions, most of which were incorporated into the first edition. Jonathan also contributed some material for the discussions on modal music. Since the first edition was made available, thousands of people have read it. I have received many comments and have tried to incorporate as many of the suggestions as possible. While it would be difficult to list everyone who gave me feedback, I would like to especially acknowledge Russ Evans, Jos Groot, Jason Martin Levitt, Scott Gordon, Jim Franzen, and David Geiser.