How do jazz musicians learn to improvise?

The 100 most important jazz standards

>> Jazz standards> Play by heart

Play by heart [2/4]

For any ambitious jazz musician, it is highly recommended to memorize jazz standards that are played over and over as quickly as possible. The goal should be to only use a realbook during sessions for pieces that are seldom played or, ideally, to leave it at home entirely.

The minute-long leafing through the notes and the tiring discussions about the next piece, until the lowest common denominator of all musicians (and real books) present, does not seem particularly professional.

In addition, the aim is to break away from the notes in jazz improvisation. Jazz is more than just reacting reflexively to chord symbols that the eye sees chorus after chorus on the sheet of music. Of course everyone starts like this, but the development should continue. It is important e.g.

  • actively listening to the other musicians in the band
  • to pick up on or respond to melodic or rhythmic motifs of fellow musicians
  • to develop a feeling for the form so that you no longer have to count the bars
  • to think in bigger arcs when improvising

For all of this, jazz notes are only a hindrance. So get away with it! Your own ears are the best sheet of music!

There are musicians who know 500 or even more than 1000 jazz standards by heart. But if you don't know a single one by heart, you shouldn't despair immediately. The first minimum goal could be to learn the 25 most frequently played in the sessions of the regional jazz scene within a year. That would be a new piece about every two weeks. There are some tips on the next page.