Jazz Standards

The following tunes are among those most commonly played by jazz musicians. I have made an attempt to categorize them based on how they are usually played. Most of the compositions are by jazz musicians, except for the ones marked “standard”.

You should try to become familiar with as many of these tunes as possible. Most of them can be found in the Real Book or in Chuck Sher’s books.

All Blues                         blues, modal
All Of Me                         standard
All The Things You Are            standard
Anthropology                      rhythm changes, swing
Au Privave                        blues, swing
Autumn Leaves                     standard
Beautiful Love                    standard
Beauty And The Beast              rock
Billie's Bounce                   blues, swing
Black Orpheus                     Latin
Blue Bossa                        Latin
Blue In Green                     ballad, modal
Blue Monk                         blues, swing
Blue Train                        blues, swing
Blues For Alice                   blues, swing
Bluesette                         3/4, swing
Body And Soul                     ballad, standard
C Jam Blues                       blues, swing
Caravan                           Latin, swing
Ceora                             Latin
Cherokee                          swing
Confirmation                      swing
Darn That Dream                   ballad, standard
Desafinado                        Latin
Dolphin Dance                     modal, non-tonal
Donna Lee                         swing
Don't Get Around Much Anymore     swing
E.S.P                             non-tonal
A Foggy Day                       standard
Footprints                        3/4, blues, modal
Freddie Freeloader                blues, modal
Freedom Jazz Dance                non-tonal
Four                              swing
Giant Steps                       swing
The Girl From Ipanema             Latin
Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat             ballad, swing
Have You Met Miss Jones           standard
I Mean You                        swing
I Remember Clifford               ballad, swing
I Thought About You               standard
If I Were A Bell                  standard
Impressions                       modal
In A Sentimental Mood             ballad, swing
In Walked Bud                     swing
Joy Spring                        swing
Just Friends                      standard
Killer Joe                        swing
Lady Bird                         swing
Lullaby Of Birdland               swing
Mr. P.C.                          blues, swing
Maiden Voyage                     modal
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy               rock
Misty                             ballad, standard
Moment's Notice                   swing
My Favorite Things                3/4, modal, standard
My Funny Valentine                ballad, standard
My Romance                        standard
Naima                             ballad, modal
A Night In Tunisia                Latin, swing
Nica's Dream                      Latin, swing
Nostalgia In Times Square         swing
Now's The Time                    blues, swing
Oleo                              rhythm changes, swing
On Green Dolphin Street           Latin, swing, standard
Ornithology                       swing
Recorda Me                        Latin
Red Clay                          rock
Round Midnight                    ballad, swing
St. Thomas                        Latin
Satin Doll                        swing
Scrapple From The Apple           swing
The Sidewinder                    blues, swing
So What                           modal
Solar                             swing
Some Day My Prince Will Come      3/4, standard
Song For My Father                Latin
Speak No Evil                     modal, non-tonal
Stella By Starlight               standard
Stolen Moments                    blues, modal
Straight, No Chaser               blues, swing
Sugar                             swing
Summertime                        standard
Take Five                         5/4, modal
Take The "A" Train                swing
There Is No Greater Love          standard
There Will Never be Another You   standard
Up Jumped Spring                  3/4, swing
Waltz For Debby                   3/4, swing
Wave                              Latin
Well, You Needn't                 swing
When I Fall In Love               ballad, standard
Yardbird Suite                    swing

Annotated Discography

The best readily available jazz discography of which I am aware is the Penguin Guide To Jazz On Compact Disc, which contains listings and reviews of virtually all jazz albums that were in print in the early 1990’s. The book was edited in the United Kingdom, and there is a slight European avant garde slant to the ratings, but it is still the most complete, accurate, and generally useful discography of all types of jazz available to the general public.

The following discography is included to supplement the history discussion. Many of the specific artists and albums mentioned there are listed here, with a brief description of each. The albums listed are from my personal collection, and are listed in roughly chronological order, organized by style. I have tried to include mainly albums that I know are readily available, especially those that have been reissued on CD.

Basic Recommendations

I encourage you to check out any album mentioned more than once by name in the text of this primer. These albums include Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. These two albums illustrate many of the ideas and techniques discussed in this primer, and are considered among the most important jazz albums of all time.

To supplement these classic albums, you should consider some recordings by the remainder of the musicians in the “Top Ten List”. Most of Louis Armstrong’s important recordings were made before the advent of the LP, so any album of his you buy today is probably a compilation. Look for something that contains recordings made in the 1920’s with the Hot Five or the Hot Seven. Duke Ellington led one of the greatest big bands ever, but also made many recordings in small group settings. Look for recordings that feature Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, or Jimmy Blanton. Billie Holiday’s voice developed and changed over her career; you may wish to check out something from early and late in her life. Charlie Parker’s greatest and most influential recordings were as the leader of a quartet or quintet; there are hundreds of compilations to choose from.

Art Blakey was the first musician on this list to record extensively in the LP format. Any of the albums by the Jazz Messengers from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, such as Moanin’ or Ugetsu, are good choices. The quintessential Charles Mingus album is Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which features Eric Dolphy. For Thelonious Monk, the compilations on Blue Note are excellent, as are albums from the 1950’s and 1960’s such as Brilliant Corners and Monk’s Dream. For Ornette Coleman, try one of the early quartet albums like The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and when you are feeling braver, Free Jazz. Ornette also leads a fusion oriented group called Prime Time; you may wish to check out some of their albums as well.

Miles Davis can hardly be fairly represented by only Kind Of Blue; you should also consider The Birth Of The Cool, Miles Smiles, Sketches Of Spain, and Bitches Brew at the very least, as they represent very different periods in his career, all of them innovative. Similarly, John Coltrane is not sufficiently represented by only Giant Steps; you should supplement this with something from the classic quartet like A Love Supreme, and, if you are feeling adventurous, one of the later albums such as Ascension.


    • Louis Armstrong, The Louis Armstrong Story, Columbia – several volumes, including records with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, as well as recordings with Earl Hines and others
    • Art Tatum, The Complete Capitol Recordings, Capitol – solo and trio recordings
    • Bix Beiderbecke, Bix Beiderbecke, Columbia – several volumes, including recordings with various big bands
    • Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington, Laserlight – a sampler including record- ings from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, featuring Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ben Webster, and Paul Gonsalves
    • Errol Garner, Concert By The Sea, Columbia – this was for a long time the best selling jazz album ever
    • Charlie Parker, Bebop & Bird, Hipsville/Rhino – several volumes, includ- ing sessions with Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, and Max Roach
    • Charlie Parker, The Quintet, Debut/OJC – a famous live concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach
    • Bud Powell, The Amazing Bud Powell, Blue Note – trio and small group recordings with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins
    • Thelonious Monk, The Best Of Thelonious Monk, Blue Note – early boppish recordings
    • Miles Davis, The Complete Birth Of The Cool, Capitol – nine piece group with Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis
    • Lennie Tristano, Wow, Jazz – a sextet with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh
    • Dave Brubeck, Time Out, Columbia – featuring Paul Desmond and “Take Five”
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, A Night At Birdland, Blue Note – featuring Horace Silver and Clifford Brown
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, Moanin’, Blue Note – featuring Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, Ugetsu, Milestone – featuring Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Curtis Fuller
    • Clifford Brown, Study In Brown, EmArcy – the quintet with Max Roach
    • Horace Silver, The Best Of Horace Silver, Applause – several of his most well-known compositions
    • Miles Davis, Walkin’, Prestige – one of Miles’ favorite albums; hard bop with J.J. Johnson and Horace Silver
    • Lee Morgan, The Sidewinder, Blue Note – hard bop
    • Miles Davis, Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige – the first great quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones
    • Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue, Columbia – the quintessential modal album, with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly
    • Miles Davis, Complete Concert 1964, Columbia – the forerunner to the second great quintet, with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, playing standards
    • Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, Columbia – the second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, at its peak
    • Miles Davis, Sketches Of Spain, Columbia – with the Gil Evans Orchestra
    • John Coltrane, Soul Trane, Prestige – one of Coltrane’s favorites of his early albums, with Red Garland and Philly Jo Jones
    • John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Atlantic – the album that established Coltrane as one of the most important improvisers of his day
    • John Coltrane, My Favorite Things, Atlantic – the forerunner to his long lived quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones
    • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Impulse – the crowning modal achievement of the quartet
    • Charles Mingus, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Candid – the classic album with Eric Dolphy
    • Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um, Columbia – contains his most well-known compositions
    • Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music, Columbia – supposedly Mingus’ favorite of his own albums; his music arranged for a large ensemble
    • Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music, Riverside – with John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and others
    • Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream, Columbia – his long-lived quartet with Charlie Rouse
    • Bill Evans, Sunday At The Village Vanguard, Waltz For Debby, Riverside – available as a combined set; a live recording from the trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian
    • Wes Montgomery, Full House, Riverside – an early hard boppish recording
    • Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, Prestige – one of his most popular albums
    • Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, RCA – with Jim Hall
    • Chick Corea, Inner Space, Atlantic – an album of mostly straightahead jazz with Woody Shaw
    • Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage, Blue Note – modal, non-tonal, and avant garde compositions with Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams
    • Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil, Blue Note – some of his best compositions, with Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock
    • VSOP, The Quintet, Columbia – live recording with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams
    • Eric Dolphy, Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot, Prestige – with Booker Little and Mal Waldron
    • Eric Dolphy, Out To Lunch, Blue Note – influential avant garde recording
    • Andrew Hill, Point Of Departure, Blue Note – with Eric Dolphy and Joe Henderson
    • Max Roach, The Max Roach Trio Featuring The Legendary Hassan, Atlantic – Hassan Ibn Ali is a little known pianist who combines aspects of Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Don Pullen; this is his only known recording, and is highly recommended
    • Ornette Coleman, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Atlantic – one of his best freebop quartet albums
    • Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz, Atlantic – a collective free improvisation with Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, and Eric Dolphy
    • John Coltrane, New Thing At Newport, Impulse – live concert; half of this album is the Archie Shepp quartet
    • John Coltrane, Interstellar Space, Impulse – free duets with Rashied Ali
    • John Coltrane, Ascension, Impulse – free large ensemble improvisation
    • Albert Ayler, Witches & Devils, Freedom – avant garde
    • Pharoah Sanders, Live, Theresa – similar in style to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but more free
    • Cecil Taylor, Jazz Advance, Blue Note – relatively straightahead music, including some standards, but with Taylor’s sense of harmonic freedom
    • Cecil Taylor, For Olim, Soul Note – free solo piano
    • Cecil Taylor, Spring Of Two Blue J’s, Unit Core – free group improvisation
    • Sun Ra, Out There A Minute, Restless/BlastFirst – avant garde big band
    • Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, Columbia – early, relatively free fusion with Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin
    • Mahavishnu Orchestra, Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia – heavy rock oriented fusion with John McLaughlin
    • Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Emergency, Polydor – heavy rock oriented fusion with John McLaughlin
    • Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, Columbia – funk oriented fusion
    • Weather Report, Heavy Weather, Columbia – pop oriented fusion with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius
    • Chick Corea and Return To Forever, Light As A Feather, Polydor – Latin oriented fusion with Stanley Clarke and vocalist Flora Purim
    • Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life, ECM – esoteric fusion with Jaco Pastorius
    • Steps Ahead, Modern Times, Elektra Musician – tight modern fusion with Michael Brecker
    • Miles Davis, You’re Under Arrest, Columbia – funkier modern fusion
    • Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, Virgin Beauty, Portrait – free modern fusion
    • Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Nice Guys, ECM – post modern jazz, world music, and freebop with Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell
    • World Saxophone Quartet, Dances And Ballads, Elektra Nonesuch – a capella (unaccompanied) saxophone quartet with David Murray
    • David Murray, New Life, Black Saint – octet with Hugh Ragin on trumpet
    • Anthony Braxton, Composition 98, hat ART – a post modern suite featuring Marilyn Crispell, Hugh Ragin, and Ray Anderson
    • John Carter, Castles Of Ghana, Gramavision – a suite of post modern compositions
    • Willem Breuker, Bob’s Gallery, BVHaast – avant garde big band
    • Don Pullen / George Adams Quartet, Don’t Lose Control, Soul Note – blues oriented post modern jazz
    • Improvised Music New York 1981, MU – energy music with Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Fred Frith, and John Zorn
    • Oregon, 45th Parallel, Portrait – New Age pioneers
    • Paul Bley, Floater, Savoy – harmonically liberated trio doing compositions by Paul and Carla Bley as well as Ornette Coleman
    • Abdullah Ibrahim, African Dawn, Enja – solo piano with South African influences
    • Keith Jarrett, Mysteries, Impulse – quartet with Dewey Redman doing relatively free post bop with world music influences
    • Wynton Marsalis, Think Of One, Columbia – adventurous neoclassic quintet with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and Jeff Watts
    • Wynton Marsalis, Marsalis Standard Time, Columbia – standards with rhythmic twists, featuring Marcus Roberts
    • Branford Marsalis, Crazy People Music, Columbia – adventurous neoclassic quartet with Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts
    • Steve Coleman, Motherland Pulse, JMT – acoustic M-Base
    • Steve Coleman, Drop Kick, Novus – electric M-Base
    • Gary Thomas, The Kold Kage, JMT – electric M-Base
    • Cassandra Wilson, Jump World, JMT – vocal and electric M-Base with Steve Coleman, Gary Thomas, and Greg Osby
    • Dave Holland, Extensions, ECM – mostly acoustic modern quartet with Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith
    • Tim Berne, Pace Yourself, JMT – frenetic post modern jazz
    • Michael Brecker, Michael Brecker, Impulse – modern acoustic and electric post bop
    • Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Geri Allen, Etudes, Soul Note – modern acoustic post bop
    • Steve Lacy, Live At Sweet Basil, Novus – modern acoustic post bop
    • Phil Woods, Heaven, Blackhawk – post bop with Tom Harrell
    • Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Discovery, Blue Note – post bop with Cuban influences
    • Don Byron, Tuskegee Experiments, Elektra Nonesuch – post modern, post bop
    • Don Pullen, Kele Mou Bana, Blue Note – post modern with world music and blues influences
    • David Murray, Shakill’s Warrior, DIW – post modern blues with Don Pullen on organ

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.

Breaking The Rules

Charles Ives was a composer who wrote music that was considered avant garde in its day. His father is rumored to have taught him, “you must learn the rules first so that you will know how to break them”. This is especially true in music like jazz, where you are constantly expected to be creative. Following the rules all the time would lead to predictable and boring music. Paying no attention whatsoever to the rules could easily lead to music that was ultimately boring in its randomness.

There are many rules and conventions that have been presented here. There are no criminal penalties associated with breaking any of them, however. You should experiment as much as possible to find new ways of doing things. The rules of harmony presented here form a framework, but it is not a rigid one. I have already suggested that the manner in which you utilize these rules will shape how you sound. How you break the rules will similarly help define your own style. Experimenting with the rules of harmony is just the beginning of individuality, however. Look for other non-traditional ways to express yourself. Try hitting the piano keys with your fist. Try overblowing your saxophone. Try removing the first valve slide on your trumpet. There are an infinite number of possible things you can do with your instrument.

Also, expand your listening to include other types of music such as classical or reggae, and see if you can learn from them and apply those lessons to whatever you play. It is severely limiting to think that all jazz music should consist of 32 bar songs, walking bass lines, swing ride cymbal patterns, and head-solos-head forms. The world does not beat in four-four time.

Listening Analytically

Now that you have some idea of what it takes to play jazz, you should have a much more critical ear. You will be less likely to be impressed with mere technical facility, and can listen for melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sophistication. On the other hand, if the music still reaches you emotionally, do not worry that it does not seem particularly adventurous when scrutinized closely. Do not let your analysis of the theoretical aspects of music interfere with your reaction on an emotional level. The theoretical knowledge should be a tool to help you understand music you might not have otherwise appreciated; it should not detract from your enjoyment of any music.

As a performer, now that you have some idea of the things a jazz musician is expected to do, you can listen to the great ones and learn from them. You can listen to the early Bill Evans trios and see examples of interplay within a rhythm section, and try to develop ears as big as theirs. You can listen to Thelonious Monk and analyze the way he used dissonance and syncopation, and see if you can achieve the same effects. You can listen to the emotional outbursts of John Coltrane or Cecil Taylor and expand your concept of how directly you can express yourself.

Playing With Others

As soon as you can get an appropriate group of musicians together, you should begin to play in a group setting. This is helpful for many reasons. First, if several players are at approximately the same level of ability, then they can learn together. If one member is more advanced than the others, he can help them along. A good rhythm section can often give a soloist ideas or help provide the confidence to allow him to take more chances. On the other hand, you should avoid the temptation to have too many horn players, as you will find the tunes dragging out longer and longer as everyone gets their solos in. The rhythm section will tire of the chord progression, and the soloists will grow impatient waiting their next turn. It is probably counterproductive to have more than eight or so players together at once for this purpose.


Once an appropriate group of people has been assembled, you must decide what to play. It helps if everyone in the group has access to the same fakebooks. That way, when a person calls out a tune, you can be reasonably sure everyone will have it in their books. The New Real Book by Chuck Sher is recommended, since it is available in transposed versions for most wind instruments, and contains a good variety of tunes. You may wish to agree in advance on the tunes to be worked on, so everyone has the chance to familiarize themselves with the changes.

Although it is not necessary to designate a leader for a group, it does help if there is someone to choose songs, decide on the order of soloists, pick a tempo, count the song off, and generally keep things moving along. It is not essential that this person be the best musician in the group, but it should be someone with some leadership or organizational skills.


Once you have selected a song to play, you need to keep in mind the things we have observed about form. Normally, the group would play the melody first. While learning a song, you may decide to have everyone play it in unison, but you should eventually give each performer a chance to play a head by himself, to allow everyone to work on making a personal statement even while simply playing the melody. In performance situations, it is also usually more interesting for the listener to hear a melody interpreted by one individual, rather than stated in unison. This is particularly true for ballads. Fast bop tunes are normally played in unison, however.

For songs with 32 bar forms, the head is usually played only once. For blues tunes or other shorter forms, it is often played twice. The melodies of many songs end on the second to last measure of the form. For instance, Clifford Brown’s twelve bar blues “Sandu” ends on the first beat of the eleventh measure. Usually the rhythm section stops playing for the last two bars of the form to allow the first soloist an unaccompanied two measure lead in, or solo break. In some tunes, such as John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, this break is traditionally observed on every chorus, but usually it is done only as a lead in to the first solo, or at most as a lead in to each solo.


Once you are into your solo, you are largely on your own, although you should listen to what everyone else is doing around you, feeding off what they are playing, and leading them with your own playing. This is your chance to apply the techniques you have learned so far. Think melodically. Take chances. Have fun!

I have said several times that a solo should tell a story. This means it should have a clear exposition, development, climax, and release. If you were to chart the intensity level of a good solo, you would often find that it starts at a low level and slowly builds to a climax, after which it tapers off quickly to lead into the next soloist or whatever else comes next. Beginners often have difficulty deciding how many choruses to play. This is something that varies for each performer. Charlie Parker normally took only one or two in recordings, although this was partially because of the limitations of the 78 RPM format. John Coltrane often took dozens of choruses, particularly in live performances. When there are many soloists, you probably should try to keep it on the short side, to keep everyone else from getting bored. In any case, when you are approaching the end of your solo, you should somehow convey this fact to the other musicians so they can decide who goes next, or whether they want to trade fours, or take the head out.

If you intend to trade fours after the last solo, someone usually indicates this by holding out four fingers where everyone can see them. Usually, you will go through the soloists in the same order in which they originally played, giving them four measures each. The bass player is often skipped; sometimes the pianist is as well. Often, the drummer will take four measures in between each of the other soloists. More so than during the original solos, the intensity of the four bar phrases will usually be at a consistently high level, and the soloists should try to develop and build upon each other’s ideas. This cycle may be repeatedly as long as is desired; someone will usually tap their head to indicate when to return to the head.


The endings of songs are, without question, the most difficult to keep together. When you have played a given song several times with the same group of people, you may have planned and rehearsed endings. But when playing a song for the first time with a particular group, chaos almost always results at the end. There are a few standard tricks you can use to end songs, however. Once you are familiar with the basic endings, then all it takes is one person to act as leader to get everyone to follow along.

The easiest ending, used in fast bebop tunes, is to simply cut the tune off short after the last note. This works for rhythm changes tunes such as “Oleo”, and other bop forms such as “Donna Lee”. As a variation, you may wish to hold the last note out. Or, you may cut the last note short, but then repeat it and hold it out after a few beats rest. This is done especially on 32 bar forms in which the melody ends on the first beat of measure 31. This note is cut short, but then repeated and held on the first beat of measure 32, or as an anticipation on the fourth beat or on the “and” of the fourth beat of measure 31.

Another ending commonly used on ballads and slow swing songs is the ritardando. Simply slow down over the last two or three measures, and end on the last note of the melody, which may be held out as long as desired. A variation on this technique is to stop on the second to last note, or on any note near the end that falls on the penultimate chord, and have one soloist play an unaccompanied cadenza, signaling the rest of the band to rejoin him for the last note.

When playing medium tempo or faster tunes, a popular ending is to play the last several bars three times before the last note. In a 32 bar form in which the last note is the first beat of measure 31, you would play the form through the end of measure 30, then play measures 29 and 30 again, and then once more, before finally playing measure 31. This can be combined with the ritardando or the cadenza approaches, or the last note can simply be played short.

Another approach is the III-VI-ii-V turnaround. If the song ends with a ii-V-I cadence in the last four bars, then you can replace the final I chord with the four bar progression III-VI-ii-V, which may be repeated several times. For instance, in the key of F, if the song ends

| Gm7 | C7 | F | F |,

then you can replace this with

| Gm7 | C7 | A7alt | D7alt | Gm7 | C7 | A7alt | D7alt | Gm7 | C7 |...

You can also use tritone substitution on any of the dominant chords. In addition, you can use the I chord F instead of the A7alt chord. You may continue this chord progression as long as you like, soloing or collectively improvising on top of it. This is called a vamp. The song is finally ended with a I chord, usually preceded by frantic hand waving to ensure that everyone ends together.

Another popular ending is sometimes called the Duke Ellington ending, because it is associated with arrangements of tunes like “Take The A Train” that were written by Duke or performed by his band. This ending assumes the song ends on the first beat of the second to last measure of the form, that the last chord is a I chord, and that the last note is the root of that chord. Assuming the piece is in C major, you simply replace the last two measures with “C, E, F, F#, G, A, B, C”, where the second note is a sixth below the first, not a third above. If you try to play this line, I think you will recognize the intended rhythm, so I will not try to notate it.

Dealing With Problems

You should be prepared for any number of things to go wrong. If you lose your place in the form, or sense that someone else has lost theirs, do not panic. If you have become lost, stop playing for a little while to see if you can hear where everyone else is. This should not be too difficult if you are familiar with the song and the other musicians are reasonably secure about their own places. Someone who is sure of where they are may wish to call out changes, or shout out “BRIDGE!” or “TOP!” at the appropriate times, to get things back on track. If one person is clearly in the wrong place, and everyone else is sure of where that person is, they can attempt to move over to match the out of place performer, but this is difficult to coordinate. Also, it is better to try to correct the person who is out of step than to have everyone be out of step together, because ideally, you want the form to continue uninterrupted.

Another thing that can go wrong is an unintended tempo change. Some people tend to rush, some tend to drag. Sometimes the interaction between two musicians with good time may cause the tempo to shift. For instance, if a pianist and bassist both play behind the beat, this may make the tempo appear to drag, and the drummer may slow down to not appear ahead of them. If you are convinced the tempo is moving, you may wish to try to conduct a few measures to right the tempo. A metronome can help keep you honest, but playing with a metronome will usually be hopelessly frustrating, because it is virtually impossible to keep a group synchronized with one. For one thing, it is often difficult to hear a metronome when several people are playing. For another, it is difficult to get everyone in the group to adjust at the same time and in the same way should the group collectively get ahead or fall behind. Nonetheless, practicing with a metronome can be a useful way to solidify your concept of time. One particularly sadistic band director I know used to start us off with a metronome, turn the volume down after a few measures, then turn it back up a minute or so later to see if we had drifted.

Other Instruments

The use of other instruments, such as brass or woodwind instruments, as accompanying instruments is usually limited to a few background riffs, or repeated phrases. This type of accompaniment is popular in blues bands. Usually one horn player will play a simple line based on the blues scale, and other horn players will pick it up and repeat it.

Free jazz forms allow for less structured accompaniment. If you listen to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, or John Coltrane’s Ascension, you will notice that the horn players who are not soloing are free to play whatever background figures they want. The result is often cacophonous, but if that is the desired effect, then that is not bad in itself.

At the other end of the spectrum are big band arrangements, which often have intricate written out horn backgrounds for solos. Arranging for horn sections is similar to accompanying on piano in that the parts generally form voicings of chords and are used in a rhythmically interesting way. The parts are generally smoother and more melodic than a typical piano accompaniment, however, both because the piano part is usually improvised whereas the horn arrangement can be preplanned, and because it is easier for a horn section to play melodic lines voiced in chords than it is for a pianist. Horn section arrangements often emphasize articulation, or variations in attack and dynamics, more so than a piano is normally capable of. Commonly used devices in horn section arranging include the use of sforzando, or notes of sudden loudness; alternating staccato, or short note, and legato, or long note, passages; bent notes, or notes in which the player alters the pitch briefly while playing, and falloffs, or notes in which the player rapidly lowers the pitch, sometimes by an octave or more, usually to end a phrase.

You do not have to play in a big band or be an accomplished arranger to use horn section accompaniment. Often two or three horns are enough to play interesting background figures. Most of the same principles used in piano voicing can be used in horn section voicing. Drop voicings are especially effective. When there are only two horns, lines moving in parallel thirds often work well. Listen to Miles Davis’ The Birth Of The Cool, or any of Art Blakey’s recordings with the Jazz Messengers, for ideas on how one can arrange for relatively small ensembles. David Baker’s book Arranging And Composing can help get you started as well.


As with the bassist, one of the roles of the drummer in traditional forms of jazz is to play a steady beat in the style of the song. By steady, I mean with regards to tempo, and do not mean to imply that you should not be creative and vary your patterns. I cannot shed much light on the specifics of drum techniques, but I can describe some basic patterns and styles, and give you some hints on other aspects of the role of the drummer.

The basic 4/4 swing beat consists of two components: the ride pattern and the hi-hat pattern. The fundamental ride pattern is the “1, 2 and, 3, 4 and” or “ding ding-a ding ding-a” pattern played on the ride cymbal with swung eighth notes. The hi-hat is normally closed sharply on “two” and “four”. This is what most simple drum machines will play when the “swing” setting is selected. This pattern is appropriate for many jazz songs, especially medium or up-tempo standards or bebop tunes. Slower songs like ballads often call for the use of brushes on the snare drum rather than sticks on the cymbals as the main pattern. There are a few books that can help you in constructing patterns for other styles; one such book is Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. The most important of the styles you may be expected to play are described below.

The basic shuffle beat consists of eighth notes on the ride cymbal and possibly snare. The second and fourth beats are usually more strongly emphasized as well. The basic jazz waltz or 3/4 swing pattern consists of “one, two, and-of-two, three” or “ding ding-a ding” on the ride cymbal, with the hi-hat on “two”. Other variations include using the hi-hat on “two” and “three”, or on all three beats; adding the snare on the “and-of-two” or on the “and-of-one” and on “three”.

Three forms of Latin jazz you should be able to play include the bossa nova, the samba, and the mambo. The essence of most forms of Latin jazz is the clave, which is a type of rhythmic pattern. The basic clave is two measures long, and consists of “one, and-of-two, four; two, three”. There is also an African clave or Rumba clave in which the third note is played on the “and-of-four” rather than on the beat. The bossa nova uses a variation of the basic clave in which the last note falls on the “and-of-three” rather than on the beat. These clave patterns can also be inverted, meaning the two measures are swapped. The clave would usually be played as hits on the rim of the snare on a traditional drum set, although it is often not played explicitly by the drummer at all, in which case an auxiliary percussionist may play it.

The clave is supplemented with other patterns on other drums. The bass drum may play on “one” and “three” with eighth note pickups. The hi-hat is closed on “two” and “four”. Other patterns may be played on a cymbal or on a cowbell. Typical mambo patterns include “one, two, three, and-of-three, and-of-four; one, two, and-of-two, and-of-three, and-of-four” or “one, two, three, and-of-three; one, and-of-one, and-of-two, and-of-three, four”. A simple pattern consisting of “two, four, and-of-four” is played on the snare rim and the mounted tom instead of a clave. Bossa novas may use a pattern consisting of straight eighth notes on the ride cymbal. Sambas have a double-time feel. The cymbal pattern is usually straight eighth notes, and is often played on a closed hi-hat. The snare drum may be simply hit on “four” instead of playing the clave.

Certain compositions, such as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” or Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl”, have unique drum patterns that are indelibly associated with the particular song. Listening to recordings of a song to be performed before trying to play it is probably more helpful for drummers than for any other musicians, since fakebooks generally do not provide many hints for the drummer.

A good drummer will not simply play the same pattern over and over for an entire song. For one thing, you may vary the pattern, perhaps by playing only quarter notes on the ride cymbal, or occasionally varying the rhythm to “ding-a ding ding-a ding”. Or, you could play the hi-hat on every beat. You may also want to use the other drums, such as the toms, as part of your basic beat for a song. Tony Williams is a master at varying his patterns in this way.

Often, a drummer will play a simple two-beat during the head, and switch to straight four for the solos. One of the easiest ways to change the feel of a piece is to simply switch cymbals for the ride pattern, for instance when there is a change in soloist, or to mark the bridge of a song. Marking the form of a tune is another important role of the drummer. Most typical song forms have 4 or 8 bar phrases. At the end of each phrase, the drummer often plays a more complex pattern or fill to lead into the next phrase. Another tactic is to change the basic beat from phrase to phrase. As a drummer, you should always be conscious of the form of the song, and know where any breaks, special introductions, or codas are. You should be able to sing to the melody to yourself during solos if necessary, so that you can outline the form for the soloist. This will help the soloist keep his place, by allowing him to recognize when you have reached the bridge, for example. Also, the soloist is usually structuring his own phrases along the lines of the original form. By adhering to that form yourself, you will usually be supporting the development of his ideas. Art Blakey is a master of playing the form and supporting soloists in this way.

During a solo, an instrumentalist may leave deliberate breaks in his phrases. As with the pianist and bassist, the drummer may decide to fill those spaces with some sort of answering phrase or counterrhythm. Drummers may also create tension through the use of polyrhythm, which is two or more different rhythms superimposed on each other; for instance, three against four. A drummer can either try to play two different rhythms himself, or work with the bassist or another accompanist, or the soloist, to create a polyrhythm between them. As with the use of counterpoint in bass lines, however, you need to balance the desire for rhythmic variation with the realization that clutter or chaos can result if you go too far.

Since everyone depends on the drummer to keep accurate time, rhythmic stability is essential. However, the rhythmic interest of the drum part is also important, and it is vital during drum solos. Percussion is not only about rhythm, either. As a drummer, you cannot play lines that are interesting in a traditional melodic or harmonic sense, but you can vary the timbre of your lines by playing across drums or cymbals of different pitches. You should still think melodically when playing the drums.


The function of the bass in a traditional rhythm section is somewhat different than that of a chordal instrument. Like a pianist, a bassist must normally outline the chord changes, but the bass usually emphasizes the roots, thirds, and fifths rather than any extensions or alterations. In traditional jazz forms, the bass player also has a very important role as a timekeeper; as much as a drummer, if not more so. That is why bass players so often play walking bass lines that consist almost exclusively of quarter notes or rhythms that strongly emphasize the beat.

In this respect, learning to play bass lines is often easier than learning to solo or play voicings. You do not have to worry much about what rhythms to play, and your note choices are more limited as well. When you listen to great bass players like Ray Brown or Paul Chambers, you will see that a large part of their playing is quarter notes and scale based lines.

When a pianist plays in a solo setting, he must often provide his own bass line accompaniment, so pianists should learn how to construct good bass lines as well.

Walking Bass Lines

There are some simple guidelines you can use to produce good sounding bass lines. First, you generally should play the root of the chord on the first beat of that chord. The previous beat should be a note a step away. For instance, if the chord F7 appears on beat “one” of a measure, then you would normally play F on that beat. You would normally play E, Eb, G, or Gb on the last beat of the previous measure, depending on the chord. If the chord was C7, then you might play either E or G, since they are in the associated mixolydian scale. Or, you might think HW diminished or altered scale for the C7 and play the Eb or Gb. The Gb is also the root of the dominant chord a tritone away, which has already been described as a good substitution, so Gb makes a particularly good choice. The note does not necessarily have to be justifiable in the context of the chord; it can be thought of as a passing tone to reach the first beat (the downbeat) of the next measure.

These first two guidelines take care of two beats for each chord. In some tunes, such as any song based on the rhythm changes, that is all you get for most chords, so your bass line can be almost completely determined by the chord progression. Of course, you will probably want to vary your lines. You are not required to play the root on the one, nor are you required to approach it by step. Remember, these are only guidelines to get you started.

If you have more than two beats to fill for a particular chord, one way to fill the remaining beats is to simply choose notes from any associated scale in mostly stepwise motion. For instance, if your chord progression is C7 to F7, and you have already decided to play “C, x, x, Gb” for the C7 chord, then you can fill in the x’s with D and E, implying the lydian dominant scale, or Bb and Ab, implying the altered scale. Either of these choices might also imply the whole tone scale. Another popular pattern would be “C, D, Eb, E”, where the Eb is used as passing tone between the D and the E. You will probably discover other patterns that you will tend to use a lot. Playing patterns is generally frowned upon when soloing, where you are expected to be as creative as possible. When accompanying, however, patterns, like those given for voicings, can be an effective way to outline the harmony consistently. As a bass player, you are expected to play virtually every beat of every measure for the entire piece. It is usually more important to be solid and dependable than to be as inventive as possible.

Pedal Point

The term pedal point, often shortened to simply pedal, refers to a bass line that stays on one note over a changing harmony. Certain songs, such as John Coltrane’s “Naima”, from the album “Giant Steps”, are written with explicit pedal point, either with the notation “Eb pedal” over the first four measures, or through the notation of the chords as

| Dbma7/Eb | Ebm7  | Amaj7#11/Eb Gmaj7#11/Eb | Abmaj7/Eb |.

When you see a song explicitly call for pedal point, that is usually an indication to stop walking and instead play only whole notes.

You can also find your own opportunities to use pedal point. In a ii-V-I progression, the fifth can often be used as a pedal note. For example, you can play G under the progression | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |, or just under the first two bars. Under the Dm7 chord, the G in the bass makes the chord function as a G7sus chord. The resolution to the G7 chord then mimics the traditional classical use of suspensions, which always resolve in this manner. This is also commonly done in progressions that alternate between the ii and the V, as in | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 |.


Scott LaFaro started a small revolution in jazz bass playing in the early 1960’s through his use of counterpoint. His bass lines had almost as much rhythmic and melodic interest as the melody or solo he was accompanying. This can be distracting to some soloists, and to some audiences, but many find the effect exciting.

One opportunity to use counterpoint is in ballads or medium tempo swing tunes where the melody has long notes or rests. One of the most famous examples of Scott LaFaro’s counterpoint is on the version of “Solar” recorded by Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian on the album Sunday At The Village Vanguard. The melody is mostly quarter notes, with whole notes at the end of each phrase. Scott plays long notes while the melody is moving, and moving parts where the melody is staying still.

Bob Hurst has a different approach to counterpoint. Rather than playing lines that sustain their own melodic or rhythmic interest, he plays lines that create rhythmic tension in their interaction with the beat. One technique he uses often is playing six notes against four beats, or two quarter note triplets per measure. It sounds like he is playing in three while the rest of the band is in four. This type of rhythmic counterpoint is difficult to sustain for any length of time, and may confuse inexperienced musicians.

When experimenting with counterpoint, remember your role is usually still that of an accompanist. Your goal is to support the musicians you are accompanying. If they are being thrown off by the resultant complexity, or are producing enough rhythmic tension on their own, then this may not be a good technique to use. You will have to use your own judgement to decide when the music will benefit from the use of counterpoint.

Other Bass Patterns

The techniques described above are applicable to most styles of jazz. Some particular styles impose their own particular requirements on the bassist, however. A two-beat or half-time feel means playing only on beats one and three in 4/4 time. A two-beat feel is often used on the head for standards. When playing in 3/4 time, you may either play walking lines or just play on the first beat of each measure. Many of the Latin Jazz styles use a simple pattern usually based on alternating roots and fifths. The bossa nova, a Brazilian derived style, uses the root on “one” and the fifth on “three”, with an eighth note pickup on the “and-of-two” and either another pickup on the “and-of-four” or a quarter note on “four”. The samba, another Brazilian derived style, is similar, but is played with a double-time feel, meaning it sounds as if the basic beat is twice as fast as it really is. The root is played on “one” and “three” while the fifth is played on “two” and “four”, with a sixteenth note pickup before each beat. The mambo and other Cuban derived styles use the rhythm “and-of-two, four”. The latter beat is tied over to the “one” of the following measure.

A full description of all the different styles is beyond the scope of this primer. There are a few books that can help you in constructing patterns for various styles; one such book is Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. For now, all I can do is repeat Clark Terry’s advice, “imitate, assimilate, innovate”. Listen to as many different styles as you can and learn from what you hear.

Other Scale-Based Voicings

There are other logical ways of constructing voicings; too many to describe individually here.  Most approaches are similar in that they they associate a scale with each chord and construct the voicing from notes in that scale. By using a scale approach, you can devise your own patterns for voicings. For instance, a second with a third stacked on top is a somewhat dissonant but not too cluttered sound that many pianists use extensively.  For a chord such as Fmaj7, you can apply this format at any position in the associated F lydian or F major scale.  Since the F major scale contains an avoid note (Bb) in this context, one would normally opt for the lydian scale and the B natural, so that none of the generated voicings would contain any avoid notes.  The particular pattern described above yields “F G B”, “G A C”, “A B D”, “B C E”, “C D F”, “D E G”, and “E F A” over the F lydian scale.

Most of these voicings are very ambiguous, in the sense that they do not readily identify the chord.  As with the 3/7 and quartal voicings, however, you will find that the presence of a bass player, or just the context of the chord progression being played, will allow almost any combination of notes from a given scale to make an acceptable voicing for the associated chord.

You may wish to experiment with different patterns and different scales to see if you can find any voicings you particularly like.  Often, the goal is not to find a voicing that completely describes a given chord, but rather to find a voicing that conveys a particular sound without seriously corrupting the chord.  You may find that at a given point in the music, you may wish to hear the characteristic authority of a perfect fifth, or the characteristic dissonance of a minor ninth or of a cluster of several notes a second apart, but without the characteristic wrong note sound of a completely random selection of notes.  Thinking of the associated scale and putting your sound into that context gives you a logical and reliable way to get the sound you want without compromising the harmony.