Jazz Improv – Where To Begin?

Where does one begin when teaching jazz improv? This question, and the enormity of the topic, can be almost paralyzing. We don’t want to overwhelm or turn off a young student by introducing too much theory too soon, but at the same time, they need tangible materials with which to experiment and manipulate.

Personally, I was torn between starting my 10-year-old son with either the blues, or Miles Davis’ “So What.” I could formulate arguments for either entry point, but I ultimately chose the 12-bar blues. As long as the material is digestible and stimulating, it probably doesn’t matter too terribly much what concept is introduced first… at least that’s how I’m feeling today.

To introduce Logan to the blues progression and song form, I wrote out the roots of each chord in whole and half notes.

Blues Progression Roots

I assumed that after we read and sang through it a few times, he could then play his own rhythms using the notated pitches. To a degree, this worked, but he got bored with it quickly and was very limited in the rhythms he played.

The solution was adding a “menu” of rhythms from which to choose. I had him pick just one of the listed 1-bar rhythms, tap it first, and then play it consistently through the progression, as he outlined the chord roots. Once a level of comfort was achieved, we added a second rhythm and alternated back and forth.

Random 4/4 rhythms

Here is a glimpse into our practicing this week:

Logan is a kid that loves rules. He loves them, but also needs to test them and break out of them after a while. Given this personality trait, I believe this system will work well for him.

We are going to stick with these exercises for the remainder of the week, choosing various rhythms from the Random Rhythms page. Practicing this exercise will help him to see more options, and will facilitate building a rhythmic vocabulary from which to draw upon. After just a few days, he already has the progression internalized and I can see that he is chomping at the bit to deviate from the rhythmic patterns and do his own thing, which is the goal.

I think we’re on a good path.


The notated examples above can be downloaded here (in PDF format):

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