Annotated Bibliography

My personal experience with other books on jazz improvisation is limited; my ears have been my best teachers. Here is a listing of some of the books with which I am somewhat familiar, or which have been recommended to me. Most of the instructional books and legal fakebooks are available at any well-stocked music store, or can be ordered through Jamey Aebersold. The ordering information can be found in his ads in Down Beat magazine.


  • Chuck Sher, The New Real Book, Sher Music. This is probably the most popular legal jazz fakebook around today, and perhaps the best in terms of broadness of selection, accuracy, and readability. Many of the most commonly played tunes from other popular fakebooks are included here. It is available in Bb and Eb editions for transposing instruments, and like all of Chuck Sher’s books, it contains lyrics where appropriate. It contains standards like “Darn That Dream”, jazz classics like Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo”, and some contemporary pieces such as Michael Brecker’s “Nothing Personal”. It also contains some pop songs like Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”. Because of its diversity, it does not contain as much straightahead jazz as most of the other books listed here and therefore, while this book is still highly recommended, you may need to find something else to supplement it to fill out the selection of mainstream jazz.
  • Chuck Sher, The New Real Book Volume 2, Sher Music. This is a good companion to the first volume, since there is no overlap, and this book adds a good helping of classic jazz from the 1950’s and 1960’s, including several tunes each by John Coltrane and Horace Silver. There are also arrangements of complex modern compositions by Michael Brecker and others, as well as a few standards. It is available in Bb and Eb versions.
  • Chuck Sher, The World’s Greatest Fakebook, Sher Music. This was Chuck’s first fakebook, but it was not as well received as The New Real Book since it contains even fewer jazz standards. It still makes a good companion to his other books.
  • Herb Wong, The Ultimate Jazz Fakebook, Hal Leonard Publishing. This has hundreds of tunes in it, but is printed in very small typeset to fit them all in, and as a result is very hard to read. Many of the songs are old Tin Pan Alley songs not commonly played any more, so the selection of true jazz standards is not as broad as it looks at first. It is available in Bb and Eb editions, and contains lyrics.
  • The Real Book. This was the standard for many years. It contains a broad selection of standards and jazz classics, and indeed helped define those terms over the last couple of decades. There are many errors in this book, and many of the recordings I hear of tunes from this book over the last twenty years duplicate these errors, which shows that the Real Book has been a primary source of tunes for many professional musicians. It is only recently that The New Real Book has begun to supplant it. The original Real Book is not legal, however, since the authors did not obtain copyright permission for the selected songs, and they do not pay royalties to the copyright owners. For the most part, the original authors do not make any money themselves from this book; most people obtain copies by photocopying a friend’s copy, or from someone who photocopies the books and sells them at a small profit under the counter. If you can find a copy, and your conscience does not bother you too much, it is worth picking up. There are versions in Bb and Eb, and also a vocal version. There are several slightly different editions, with the Pacific Coast Edition and the Fifth Edition being most common. Being of questionable origin, it is hard to tell how these differences evolved, or what exactly the differences are between them, but be forewarned that not all copies will contain exactly the same set of tunes.
  • The Real Book Volume 2. This book, like the original, is illegal. It is not nearly as popular as the first volume, but it does contain a lot classic jazz.
  • Spaces Bebop Jazz. This book is actually available in several forms, none of which are legal as far as I know. The one I have is spiral bound and is printed on standard sized paper, although the music itself is printed small. I have also seen it printed on half size paper and separated into two or three volumes. It contains mostly songs from the swing, bebop and cool eras.
  • Think Of One. I have no idea where this book came from, but someone apparently decided Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver were shortchanged in the original Real Book and produced this rather sloppily transcribed book that is equally illegal and consists almost exclusively of tunes not in the Real Book, many by the aforementioned composers. Very few people seem to know of this book, which is too bad, because there are a lot of wonderful compositions here that are not in any other fakebook I’ve ever seen.

Instructional Books

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books on practice methods, theory, and analysis methods out there. I’ve only seen a handful of them, and no good, holistic, general purpose introduction to improvisation, which is why I wrote this primer. The comments below vary in amount of detail included. Predictably, I have more to say about the books with which I am more familiar, while the ones with one sentence summaries are, for the most part, books that I have never seen but that have been recommended to me.

The books below are listed in the following general order: background material; basic, intermediate, and advanced general instruction; instrument specific instruction; and composing/arranging.

  • Jerry Coker, How To Practice Jazz. This is not so much how-to book as a how-to-learn book. It has many practice tips, as the name implies, as well as many pointers to other books, mostly by David Baker or Coker himself, that contain more specific information on improvisation.
  • Jerry Coker, How To Listen To Jazz. This book is a good introduction to jazz from a listener’s perspective. There is discussion of history, the roles of the various instruments, various styles and forms of jazz compositions and performances. There is a straightforward discussion of common techniques and devices. Coker also walks the listener through several famous recordings, pointing out how particular techniques or devices he has described are used. Since most of the available theory texts do a poor job of putting their instruction into a broad context, this volume is recommended as a companion to whatever other beginning or intermediate method books you may read.
  • Dan Haerle, The Jazz Language. This book is concerned with the theory and terminology used in jazz, and is not necessarily organized as a how-to book.
  • Jerry Coker et al, Patterns For Jazz. This book presents a series of patterns based on particular chords and scales, and has you practice them in all keys. The patterns are related to specific chord progressions.
  • Dan Haerle, Scales For Jazz Improvisation. This book lists most of the scales used by jazz musicians and writes them out for practice purposes. It is useful if you wish to see all the scales in one place, but really does not contain that much information that cannot be found in most of the basic or intermediate instructional texts, or in this primer, for that matter.
  • Jerry Coker, Improvising Jazz; David Baker, Jazz Improvisation. These are probably the most widely used introductory texts on improvisation. Coker and Baker are among the most respected authorities on jazz pedagogy. They write from similar perspectives. The emphasis in both of these texts is on basic scale theory and melodic devices.
  • Mark Boling, The Jazz Theory Workbook. This is primarily a beginning and intermediate text.
  • Scott Reeves, Creative Jazz Improvisation. This book has been recommended as one of the most useful texts on improvisation. Like this primer, it places an emphasis on historical context, rather than simply presenting the theory.
  • David Baker, How To Play Bebop. This actually consists of three volumes that are mostly dedicated to developing the melodic line. The bebop scales are emphasized.
  • Hal Crook, How To Improvise. This is an intermediate to advanced level text in that it assumes some knowledge of scale theory. It stresses the use of harmonic and rhythmic devices in melodic development.
  • Steve Schenker, Jazz Theory. This is an intermediate to advanced text.
  • Jerry Coker, Complete Method For Improvisation; David Baker, Advanced Improvisation. These are more advanced versions of their introductory texts.
  • Walt Weiskopf and Ramon Ricker, Coltrane: A Players Guide To His Harmony. This is an entire book dedicated to the Coltrane changes.
  • Gary Campbell, Expansions. This intermediate to advanced text goes through various scales, including some rather esoteric ones, and shows how to construct lines that take advantage of them over specific chords. It assumes familiarity with the basic scales described in this primer.
  • John Mehegan, Jazz Improvisation. This is a series of several volumes published in the 1960’s. At the time, they were considered quite comprehensive, but they contain very little information on developments since that time, or even on advances that were being made at that time, like the Coltrane substitutions and quartal harmonies.
  • George Russell, The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization For Improvisation. This is an advanced theory text that describes some unique applications of scale theory to improvisation. It uses some unusual scales, and shows how to construct complex chromatic melodic lines using these scales as a basis. The process is rather involved, and involves the use of a slide-rule-like device for associating scales with chords. It was considered a landmark when it first came out in the 1960’s, although the direct application of the theories never really gained widespread usage except among a relatively small group of musicians, perhaps because they are so complex. Still, they form of the basis of much of the scale theory as taught by most others, including this Primer.
  • David Liebman, A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody. This is a thorough discussion of melodic chromaticism and what I have called non-tonal music. It contains many examples of lines from recorded solos by John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and other modern players.
  • David Baker, The Jazz Style Of …. This is a series that include volumes on Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, and Clifford Brown. Each volume includes a brief biography and summary of the musical style of the subject. Several transcribed solos and analyses of them make up the bulk of each volume.
  • Martin Mann, Jazz Improvisation For The Classical Pianist. This is an introduction to jazz improvisation aimed at the musician accustomed to a structured approach to learning. There is a lot of emphasis on scales and exercises.
  • Mark Levine, The Jazz Piano Book. This is the most complete book I have ever seen for jazz pianists. It covers scales, voicings, comping, and other topics also discussed in this primer, but it is able to go into greater depth. It contains many useful musical examples, which makes it much more readable. It also contains a very good discussion of Latin jazz, including information that is of use to bassists and drummers. However, it does have its shortcomings. It glosses over the blues, not even listing the blues scale or describing a blues progression except in passing. Also, while it does attempt to put some of its content into a broad context of history and playing situations, this is done in a somewhat haphazard manner.
  • Dan Haerle, Jazz Improvisation For Keyboard Players. This was my favorite book on jazz piano until Levine’s came along a few years ago. Although it claims to flow logically from the beginner level to the advanced level, most of the information is really oriented toward the intermediate. It is not, to me, as entertaining as Levine’s book, and it does an even less convincing job of putting its instruction into con- text. It is available either as three separate volumes (Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced) or as a complete set.
  • Dan Haerle, Jazz/Rock Voicings For The Contemporary Keyboard Player. Most of the information here is duplicated in his book on keyboard improvisation, or in Levine’s, but there is some value in having everything you wanted to know about voicings all laid out in detail in one place. However, it really does not cover as wide a variety of voicings as one might expect for a book dedicated to that purpose.
  • Frank Mantooth, Voicings. The emphasis on this book is on voicings one would use when comping, as opposed to voicings one might use when soloing. Most attention is given to quartal and other more contemporary voicings. It also has more explanatory material than Haerle’s book on voicings.
  • Garrison Fewell, Jazz Improvisation. This is fairly broad text that covers some basic chord/scale theory, chord progression analysis, and construction of melodic lines. It contains many examples, and attempts to explain why the examples sound good. It is geared toward guitarists, but its methods can be applied to any instrument, as they are not concerned with techniques specific to the guitar, such as voicings, picking, or fretting.
  • Paul Lucas, Jazz Chording For The Rock/Blues Guitarist. This book is intended for the musician who knows how to play the guitar, but is familiar only with the five common open string chords used in rock music (C, A, G, E, and D). Other common jazz chords are then presented as variations on these patterns. Some more advanced material on voice leading, chord substitution, quartal harmonies, polychords, and scales is included as well.
  • Joe Pass and Bill Thrasher, Joe Pass Guitar Style. This book covers harmony and applications to improvisation, including chord construction, voicing, substitution, and voice leading.
  • Chuck Sher, The Improvisor’s Bass Method. This book starts with the most basic instruction on playing the bass, including fingering charts and how to read music, and progresses to conventional jazz music theory with applications to playing the bass. It also contains several transcribed bass lines and solos by well-known bass players such as Scott LaFaro, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and others.
  • Steve Houghton and Tom Warrington, Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. This book is a recipe of basic patterns for 30 styles of music, from pop to funk to reggae to Latin to jazz. It includes a CD.
  • Peter Erskine, Drum Concepts And Techniques. This book explains the basics of drum set technique.
  • Frank Malabe and Frank Weiner, Afro-Cuban Rhythms For The Drum Set. This book describes the various African and Latin American percussion styles and how to play them on the drum set.
  • Ed Thigpen, The Sound Of Brushes. This book explores techniques of brushwork for drummers.
  • Andy Laverne, Handbook Of Chord Substitutions. This book, useful for pianists and arrangers, discusses various ways to reharmonize songs. The substitutions are much more advanced than the tritone and Coltrane ii-V types discussed in this primer.
  • Paul Rinzler, Jazz Arranging And Performance Practice: A Guide For Small Ensembles. This book is geared more toward group performance than individual improvisation.
  • David Baker, Arranging And Composing. The emphasis is on arranging for small groups, from trios to groups with four or five horns.

History And Biography

As with the instructional literature, my knowledge of the history and biography literature is also limited. The following books are listed roughly from the more general to the more specific.

  • Bill Crow, Jazz Anecdotes. This book contains short stories told by and about jazz musicians.
  • Nat Hentoff, Jazz Is, The Jazz Life, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. Nat Hentoff is a noted jazz historian and critic. These books include stories from his personal experience and anecdotes told to him by other musicians.
  • Brian Case, Stan Britt, and Chrissie Murray, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Jazz. This book contains short biographies and discographies of hundreds of musicians.
  • Joachim Berendt, The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond. This book organizes its discussions by decade, by instrument, and by major musicians and groups. Each section can be read independently.
  • Ian Carr, The Essential Jazz Companion. This covers the history of jazz throughout the 20th century, discussing many artists and styles, and describing specific recordings. Carr has also written biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett.
  • James Lincoln Collier, The Making Of Jazz. This is an in-depth survey of jazz history.
  • Frank Tirro, A History Of Jazz. This is a relatively technical survey of jazz history.
  • Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz, The Swing Era. These books by noted his- torian, critic, and composer Schuller are considerably more detailed than most, as they are more focused on specific periods. There may be more volumes in this series as well.
  • Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters Of The …. There are volumes in this series for different decades. Each contains biographies of twenty or so major musicians of the era.
  • Leonard Feather, Inside Bebop. Feather wrote this book to try to explain bebop to skeptics back in the days when the music was new and controversial.
  • Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People. This book contains interviews with various legends of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • Valerie Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life. This book concentrates on the avant garde and new music of the subsequent decades. It is highly political in nature.
  • Ross Russell, Bird Lives. This is an anecdotal biography of Charlie Parker.
  • Gary Giddens, Celebrating Bird. This book contains many photographs.
  • Dizzy Gillespie, To Be Or Not To Bop. This is Dizzy’s autobiography.
  • J.C. Thomas, Chasin’ The Trane. This is an anecdotal biography of John Coltrane.
  • Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles. This is a colorful historical perspective by the man who was perhaps the most influential jazz musi- cian ever, with a career marked by innovations spanning almost half a century. However, be forewarned that the language is often crude.
  • Charles Mingus, Beneath The Underdog. Mingus’ biography is even cruder than Miles’, and is less interesting as a historical document, except in as much as it documents Mingus’ sexual history.
  • Graham Lock, Forces In Motion. Lock provides a fascination insight into the music and philosophy of Anthony Braxton.