Big Band Jazz and Swing

Although the big bands are normally associated with a slightly later era, there were several large bands playing during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, including that of Fletcher Henderson. Bix Beiderbecke was a cornet soloist who played with several bands and was considered a legend in his time.

The mid 1930’s brought on the swing era and the emergence of the big bands as the popular music of the day. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie led some of the more popular bands. There were also some important small group swing recordings during the 1930’s and 1940’s. These differed from earlier small groups in that these featured very little collective improvisation. This music emphasized the individual soloist. Goodman, Ellington, and Basie recorded often in these small group settings. Major saxophonists of the era include Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. Trumpet players include Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Shavers. Pianists include Ellington, Basie, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson; guitarists include Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessell, and Django Reinhardt; vibraphonists include Lionel Hampton; bassists include Jimmy Blanton, Walter Page, and Slam Stewart; drummers include Jo Jones and Sam Woodyard. Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald were important singers in this era. Most of these musicians recorded in small groups as well as with big bands. The styles of these musicians can best be summarized by saying they concentrated primarily on playing melodically, on the swing feel, and on the development of an individual sound. The blues was, as in many other styles, an important element of this music.

Early Jazz

The earliest easily available jazz recordings are from the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Trumpet player and vocalist Louis Armstrong (“Pops”, “Satchmo”) was by far the most important figure of this period. He played with groups called the Hot Five and the Hot Seven; any recordings you can find of these groups are recommended. The style of these groups, and many others of the period, is often referred to as New Orleans jazz or Dixieland. It is characterized by collective improvisation, in which all performers simultaneously play improvised melodic lines within the harmonic structure of the tune. Louis, as a singer, is credited with the invention of scat, in which the vocalist makes up nonsense syllables to sing improvised lines. Other notable performers of New Orleans or Dixieland jazz include clarinetist Johnny Dodds, soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet, trumpeter King Oliver, and trombonist Kid Ory.

Other styles popular during this period were various forms of piano jazz, including ragtime, Harlem stride, and boogie-woogie. These styles are actually quite distinct, but all three are characterized by rhythmic, percussive left hand lines and fast, full right hand lines. Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton were early ragtime pioneers. Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson popularized the stride left hand pattern (bass note, chord, bass note, chord); Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis developed this into the faster moving left hand patterns of boogie-woogie. Earl “Fatha” Hines was a pianist who was especially known for his right hand, in which he did not often play full chords or arpeggios, playing instead “horn-like” melodic lines. This has become commonplace since then. Art Tatum is considered by many to be the greatest jazz pianist ever; he was certainly one of the most technically gifted, and his harmonic insights paved the way for many who came after him. He is sometimes considered a precursor of bebop.

A Brief History of Jazz

Listening to other jazz musicians is by far the most important single thing you can do to learn about jazz improvisation. Just as no words can ever describe what a Monet painting looks like, no primer I can write will describe what Charlie Parker sounds like. While it is important for a performer to develop his own style, this should not be done in isolation. You should be aware of what others have done before you.

Having established the importance of listening, the question remains, “What should I listen to?” Most likely, you already have some idea of jazz musicians you like. Often, you can start with one musician and work outwards. For example, the first jazz musician I listened to extensively was the pianist Oscar Peterson. After buying half a dozen or so of his albums, I found I also liked some of the musicians with whom he had performed, such as trumpet players Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie, and started buying their albums as well. Then, upon hearing pianist Herbie Hancock with Hubbard, I found a new direction to explore, one which lead me to trumpet player Miles Davis, and thereby to saxophonist John Coltrane, and the process is still continuing.

Part of the goal of this primer is to help direct you in your listening. What follows is a brief history of jazz, with mention of many important musicians and albums. Note that the subject of jazz history has generated entire volumes. A few of these are listed in the bibliography.

This primer gives a cursory overview of major periods and styles. There is a lot of overlap in the eras and styles described. The later sections on jazz theory are based primarily on principles developed from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. This music is sometimes referred to as mainstream or straightahead jazz.

Your local library can be an invaluable asset in checking out musicians with whom you are unfamiliar. Also, you may wish to share albums with friends. Taping records or CD’s for use by others is, of course, in violation of copyright law, however, and it devalues the musicians’ economic reward. You should use the library, and other people’s collections, to give you an idea of what you like, and then go out and buy it.

Top Ten List

It is certainly not expected that you run out and purchase albums by all of the artists mentioned above. In general, the artists described first and in the most detail within a given style are considered the most important. A fairly non-controversial “Top Ten List”, containing representatives of several styles and instruments, would be Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. These are among the true giants of jazz. After this, personal preferences begin to come more into play.


For the purposes of this primer, we are all musicians. Some of us may be performing musicians, while most of us are listening musicians. Most of the former are also the latter. I will try to use the term performer and listener respectively, rather than the terms musician or non-musician, when addressing my audience. This primer is intended primarily for performers who wish to learn jazz improvisation. It is also intended for listeners who wish to increase their understanding of the music. I believe that all musicians can benefit from a fuller understanding of jazz, as this can lead to an enhanced enjoyment of the music.

Some basic knowledge of music, including familiarity with standard music notation, is assumed in many places throughout the primer. I highly recommend that you have access to a piano and the ability to play simple examples on it. Performers should already possess basic technical proficiency on your instruments in order to gain the most from this primer. Listeners should try to bear with the more technical discussions and not get too bogged down with the details where it seems too far over your head.

There are three main goals of this primer. They are to teach you the language of jazz, to increase your understanding of jazz as performed by others, and, for performers, to get you started on improvising. The language of jazz is mostly a language of styles, history, and music theory. It is the language of liner notes, interviews, and textbooks, and contains terms such as “bebop”, “Trane”, and “lydian dominant”. Learning this language will also provide a framework for understanding the music itself. While it is certainly possible to enjoy John Coltrane without understanding anything about music theory, a working knowledge of harmony can provide a new basis for appreciation. It is also possible to improvise without much theoretic background, but stories of famous musicians who were unable to read music are generally greatly exaggerated, and I believe any musician’s playing can be improved by learning more theory.


This primer is organized as a series of steps toward becoming a jazz musician, either as a performer or as a more informed listener. Most of the steps are geared for the performer, but the non-performing listener is encouraged to try out as many of the playing examples as possible. This should help broaden your ear and help you recognize aspects of the music you might not have otherwise.

The steps outlined in this primer are:

  1. listen to many different styles of jazz
  2. understand jazz fundamentals
  3. learn chord/scale relationships
  4. learn how to apply the theory to jazz improvisation
  5. learn how to accompany other soloists
  6. play with others
  7. listen analytically
  8. break the rules

These will each be described in some detail later.

Some of the material presented here is very basic, and some of it is rather advanced. Those of you who have listened to a lot of jazz but are not performers yourselves will probably find the history discussions to be simplistic, but find the theoretical discussions overwhelming. Others may grow impatient at the explanations of such basic concepts as the major scale, but will be bewildered at the number and variety of musicians discussed. You may wonder why such a broad array of information has been squeezed into this one primer. I believe that, in order to understand jazz improvisation, it is necessary to understand the history, the theory, and the techniques of jazz. I feel that it is important to merge these avenues if one is to develop a broad understanding.

Other Resources

This primer is not the only source of information you can or should be using in learning jazz improvisation. There are books by Jerry Coker, David Baker, and others that can be used as an aid to learning jazz improvisation. Some of these are relatively basic and do not cover much more material than this primer. Others are quite advanced, and this primer will hopefully provide the necessary background to tackle these texts.

In addition to textbooks, another important resource for performers is the fakebook. A fakebook typically contains music for hundreds of songs, but it contains only the melody, lyrics if appropriate, and chord symbols for each. A description of some of the available textbooks and fakebooks can be found in the bibliography.

When practicing, it is often useful to play along with a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums). This is, of course, not always practical. Jamey Aebersold has produced a series of play-along albums to remedy this situation. These records, cassettes, or CD’s come with books containing the music, in fakebook form, for the songs on the record. The recordings contain only accompaniment; there is no melody or solos. Providing them is your job. The piano and bass are on different stereo channels, so they can be turned off individually if you play one of those instruments. I recommend all performers pick up a few of these. Advertisements are run in Down Beat magazine.

Another option is the computer program Band-In-A-Box. This program runs on several different hardware platforms. It allows you to enter the chords for a song in ASCII format, and it then generates rhythm section parts and can play them via a MIDI port through a synthesizer. It actually does a very good job of generating realistic parts, and if your synthesizer can generate realistic sounds, you may not be able to tell you are not playing with a recording of a real rhythm section. Disks are available containing hundreds of songs already entered. Advertisements are run in Keyboard magazine.


This primer began as an attempt to put together some answers to questions commonly asked by beginning improvisers in the newsgroup 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.

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, and my Web page is at I can also be reached at the phone number and address found at the bottom of this page. A note posted to or will 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.

A Jazz Improvisation Primer

This is the online version of my text, A Jazz Improvisation Primer – one of the most well-known jazz education web sites in the world.  Here you can find information on almost every topic relating to jazz improvisation, from jazz history to music theory to practical advice on playing in a group.

A German translation, by Edgar Lins, is online, at  There is also a Hungarian translation at, provided by Makrai Balázs.  A Portuguese translation by Cláudio Brandt can be found at And now there is a French version at Portions of this text are available in Italian, courtesy of Roberto Betti, at

A Jazz Improvisation Primer is brought to you by Outside Shore Music.  While this text is freely browsable, there is no downloadable version of this material. If you would like a printed copy, you can purchase the published version, A Whole Approach To Jazz Improvisation.  If you would like to support the online version, consider supporting me via Patreon.

By the way, this work has been online since 1992, so if parts of it seem a bit dated, that’s why.  Some day I may update it, but as it stands, it’s really a piece of Internet history – almost without doubt, the first jazz education resource ever published on the web.

NOTE: for most of 2017, this Primer was hosted on Teachable.  The course was free but required enrolling, which many of you did.  If you prefer that format, you are still welcome to access it that way as  I would like to know how people feel about that format.  If you have enjoyed the Primer on Teachable, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts on having the Primer on Teachable.

Marc Sabatella



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