A Few Favorite Tools for Studying Jazz Improvisation

By Carolyn Walter

Like many musicians, I consider myself to be a lifelong student of jazz improvisation. Every goal I reach leads me to brand new challenges; most of us could spend a lifetime just on sheer technical mastery of our instrument, let alone the pursuit of a truly original, authentic improvisational voice. That said, I feel lucky to live in such an information-rich an age, with such a wealth of practice tools and educational resources so easily available.

A perfect example would be obtaining a copy of The Real Book, which used to be a bit of a fly-by-night affair due to copyright restrictions, has been made easy these days: this ubiquitous collection of “standards” and other very commonly played jazz tunes is now published legally by Hal Leonard.  Their edition contains almost all of the songs contained in the original bootleg volumes, and has the advantage of being far more accurate and legible than its predecessor.  As it happens, this music school and jam-session staple is on sale at Sheet Music Plus for a few more days (along with lots of other useful fakebooks), so there’s no need to sneak around any longer!

The Real Book

First and foremost, I’ve always been told that the most important thing any aspiring jazz musician can do is listen to recordings of the greats. As I progress in my journey as a performer, student and teacher, the wisdom of this old chestnut becomes more and more evident. Listening is a constant source of inspiration, motivation, and the very best teacher when it comes to learning the language of jazz. How would any of us have learned our first language without listening to our parents speak?

Web forums such as www.allaboutjazz.com are excellent resources when looking for recommendations on new artists and classic recordings to listen to.  There are hundreds of youtube channels devoted to classic recordings of live performances, and stand-alone pages such as http://www.jazztube.com and http://www.bestjazzvideos.com to browse.

After absorbing jazz vocabulary through listening, it is equally important to sharpen your ear so that you can assimilate this vocabulary in to your own playing.  Books such as the Real Easy Ear Training Book are a great place to start honing your aural skills as they pertain to jazz, especially if you already have a basic general music background.  For fun, customizable ear training practice, I highly recommend the excellent free ear trainer tool available at www.iwasdoingallright.com. You can even download ear trainer apps for iphone or Android here,  The site’s proprietor writes a great jazz-related blog as well.

Another piece of jazz pedagogical wisdom tells us to transcribe, transcribe, transcribe! Figuring out favorite solos in all styles is a key part of putting the pieces together.  Using your ear to learn and memorize or write down improvised solos is great for your own chops, as is the analysis of professionally transcribed material.  As a saxophone and woodwind specialist, I grew up working out of the classic Charlie Parker Omnibook – usually slowing those solos down to a fraction of their tempo on the recordings just to comprehend their brilliance! Hal Leonard Publishing has a staggering variety of transcriptions out under the “Hal Leonard Artist Transcription” label – I was extremely pleased to find some of the work of one of my personal heroes, Eric Dolphy, available for perusal.

Finally, I feel like I should mention the plethora recorded accompaniment tracks available these days.  while there is no real substitute for getting out there and playing with other people – going to jam sessions, taking classes, playing in ensembles, etc. – the vastly-expanding universe of jazz play-along book and CD sets is an invaluable resource to folks wishing to shed at home. Impressively enough, Hal Leonard has taken it upon themselves to produce a play-along set for the most of the aforementioned Real Book.

The Real Book Play-Along

Luckily, the set is broken up to separate volumes, so there’s no need to purchase the entire set if you don’t want to.  My personal favorite in the world of jazz play-along material would be the tried-and-true Jamey Aebersold series, for the stellar rhythm-section work available as well as the sheer breadth of selection.  A few favorites which work well for beginners include:

Jamey Aebersold - How to Play and Improvise Jamey Aebersold - Nothin' But Blues Jamey Aebersold - Blues in All Keys
Jamey Aebersold - Maiden Voyage The II - V - I Progression

Although it would be easy to go on and on about my favorite jazz resources available today, the best way to learn about all of the options would be discussing them with your fellow musicians to discover something great.  What are your favorite tools for learning and practicing jazz improv?

Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

8 Responses to “A Few Favorite Tools for Studying Jazz Improvisation”

  1. 1 eugene cantera September 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Carolyn – Great post and super resources! I would also like to bring to your attention the DLP Music Program which is a FREE online source for learning Jazz (co-written by Dan Haerle of Aebersold, UNT, and a Jazz Ed. Hall of Fame inductee). 20 lessons, quizzes with ear training and original tunes and play alongs- DLP also has a robust social component that connects members to DLP/DSM faculty and each other – I hope you will check it out!

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