Jazz Improvisation – Balancing Intellect and Intuition with Examples- By Dave Glenn

Jazz Improvisation – Balancing Intellect and Intuition


            The following article was originally written for the International Trumpet Guild magazine.  I believe it may also be useful for this blog of iJazzMusic.com, a leading publisher of Original Jazz Arrangements and Compositions.

            Most Big Band Charts and Vocal Jazz Arrangements have space for improvised solos.  Often, that becomes a concern for the band director or vocal jazz director when choosing a chart to fit their personnel.  The more good soloists, the more freedom in choosing good material for your jazz groups.  It is my hope that the following blog(s) will help directors and their jazz musicians with the development of their improvisational skills. 
             Several years ago I brought in the great jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig to perform a concert, and give a jazz improvisation clinic for my students at Whitman College.  During his clinic Conrad made the statement that improvising music exercised both intellect and intuition.  That statement struck me as a great way to articulate a philosophy I have tried to teach my students, and tried to achieve in my own playing.  In this article I’ll also attempt to reach a balance between these differing, but complementary approaches to creating music. 

            Teaching the intellectual side of improvising is much easier and more specific than trying to get at the intuitive aspect of creating music.  Perhaps, that’s why there’s a natural tendency to spend much more time dealing with that approach.  In the spirit of finding a balance, I’ll keep my thoughts on the intellectual side of improvising as succinct and as practical as possible.

            I like to teach improvising by selecting a tune, and introduce concepts while learning that tune.  For this blog I’ll use the tune “Solar”.  I put my students and myself through twelve steps in the process of learning the tune.  Hmm, sounds like something out of a self-help book or a Lame Players Anonymous program, but here we go anyway.




 Intellect - Step 1 – Melody


            The first step is learning the melody (duh!).  No, I mean really learning the melody.  Memorize the melody immediately, and play it in all twelve keys.  Taking it around the circle of fifths is a good way to do this.  This exercise will not only assure you of being comfortable with the melody, but it’s also a great ear training exercise – much better than practicing patterns.  Then, work on paraphrasing the melody.  Don’t forget, you can always use fragments of the melody or melodies to other tunes in your improvised solos.  It’s not cheating, and by doing so you are relating your improvisation to the tune itself.  That’s always good! 




Intellect - Step 2 – Analyzing and Memorizing the Chord Progression


            The second step is memorizing the root movement of the chords.  The easiest and best way to do this is by locating key centers, and analyzing the chord function within those key centers.  In other words, learn changes by key and number rather than individually.  By doing this, you are learning chunks of information which will be much easier to remember.  Try starting by locating a dominant chord and seeing whether it may function as a V chord by looking at the chord that follows.  A nice by product of this process is the ability to transpose the changes to other keys relatively easily.  A great book to help you understand this process is “The Jazz Theory Book” by Mark Levine.  Also helpful is examining Appendix C & D in the old book “Improvising Jazz” by Jerry Coker.  The example below illustrates the key centers and chord functions in “Solar”:




Intellect - Steps 3 & 4 – Guide Tone Lines


             The next two steps are constructing guide tone lines through the chord changes.  You do this by playing 3rds and 7ths only, and keeping the line as linear as possible by choosing the closest note (that is a 3rd or a 7th) to the one you just played.  Start your first guide tone line on the 3rd of the first chord and start your second line on the 7th of the first chord.  The examples below illustrate this exercise.  The Seattle-based jazz saxophonist Denney Goodhew introduced this concept to my students and I’ve found it very helpful in getting them to really play the changes:






Intellect - Step 5 – Learning the scales & chord notes of a tune


            The fifth step is another one that is probably self-evident.  Now, expand your note choices by practicing the scales and arpeggios that fit the chord changes.  If you are in doubt about the scales to use again consult “The Jazz Theory Book”.  There is also a very helpful Scale Syllabus that Jamey Aebersold publishes. 



Intellect - Step 6 – Combining Melody fragments, Guide tones, Chord notes & Scales


           As a sixth step I have students improvise, specifically combining the guide tone lines, fragments of the melody and connecting them with notes from the scales/chords (I like to think of scales and chords as the same information just arranged differently).  To tie this to language, I often think of the 3rds and 7ths as being nouns and verbs, the 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths as being adjectives, adverbs and prepositions, the 5th as being an article or comma and the tonic as being a period.  Another good jazz theory book that will inform this step is “Jazz Improvisation: The Goal Note Method” by Shelton Berg.  Here is one example of that exercise.




Intellect - Step 7 – Rhythmic ideas


            Rhythmic ideas are often overlooked in teaching jazz improvisation.  In order to counteract that tendency, I have students write out 2 rhythmic motives and then use those motives for an entire chorus.  This exercise gets them comfortable with using rhythms as a basis to their solos.  By doing so, they will instantly add coherence to their playing.  A helpful activity is to have them construct a glossary of idiomatic jazz rhythms. 




Intellect - Step 8 – Time & Feel


            Playing with great time is also something that many young players have problems with.  As my eighth step I have my students use the click of the metronome for the 2nd and 4th beats only (emulating the high hat).  I also have them tap their foot on two and four only or even walk in place, with the right foot on 2 and the left on 4, while they improvise.  This gets them physically connected to the time.  Have them also assume the role of the bass player in establishing the pulse as a part of this exercise. For the basis of this example I’ll use the example for Step 6 (no pun intended!), but have them improvise instead asap.




Intellect - Step 9 – Linear playing


            Steve Owen, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Oregon, has shown me a couple of exercises that have also produced instant results.  As my ninth step, I use his exercise designed to help players play longer melodic lines.  In this exercise, the player is to play a chorus of the tune just playing whole notes, then the next chorus using half notes.  Continue this progression with half note triplets, quarter notes, quarter note triplets, eighth notes, eighth note triplets and, if possible, sixteenth notes.  In this exercise don’t worry about playing a “wrong” note, the purpose is to get used to playing long lines.  In fact this exercise also works as a good way to get used to dissonance, using dissonance for tension and release.


 Intellect - Step 10 – Connecting ideas


            My tenth step is also a Steve Owen exercise.  In this activity, you have the student start each phrase with the same note or motive with which he/she finished the previous phrase.  This is a great way to get them to connect their ideas.  You’ll also find by doing this exercise that your students aren’t really paying attention to what they are playing.  By forcing them to remember how they finished the phrase, this weakness will be illustrated. 
            Seattle based jazz pianist Randy Halberstadt has an exercise that’s similar so I’ve also included an example of his exercise here. 




Intellect - Step 11 - Phrasing


            Phrasing is another overlooked aspect of creating music.  Get your students used to thinking about their phrasing by mapping out phrase lengths on the tune being learned.  Balance between long phrases, medium phrases, short fragments and silence.  This will also help them realize how effective silence can be in defining their melodic ideas.




 Intellect - Step 12 – Music as a Language


            My last step combines aspects of the previous two exercises.  In this exercise I have my students specifically think of sentence construction and punctuation.  I then ask them to improvise using good grammar.  I also encourage them to listen to themselves speak and try to copy the tone of voice and the natural rise and fall of language.  This will also help them see the connection of music and language, which will help them connect ideas and use better phrasing. 




            When Chuck Tumlinson approached me about writing this article for the International Trumpet Guild he said to keep it between 750 and 1500 words.  At the beginning of the article, I claimed I would try to achieve a balance between intellect and intuition.  Here I am at 1200 words and I still haven’t really talked about intuition.  So much for being succinct!   Oh well – onward to the world of intuition.




Intuition – Step 1 – Active Listening


            Listening to recordings with an active mind is without a doubt the most valuable activity for an aspiring jazz improviser.  I know you’ve heard it all before, but I truly don’t think this can be over-emphasized.  Jazz is a language, and like learning any language an important aspect is hearing that language spoken.  Also, don’t limit yourself to just listening to jazz – great music of all genres will positively inform your playing.


Intuition – Step 2 – Playing Free


                I find it extremely useful to spend some time every day playing free.  Practice getting out of the way and letting music happen.  I know this sounds “new age”, but so often we just end up playing what we’ve practiced and it always sounds mechanical.  Especially after going through all of those steps prescribed above, I feel it is important to counteract the “intellect” by practicing being creative.  Remember how cool it was when you first started playing your instrument?  Remember how fun it was to mess around when you were supposed to be practicing?  Try to find that childlike curiosity again and play around with it.  At first, you’ll probably find this hard to do and a little disconcerting.  So much freedom is a bit unsettling, but once you start doing this on a regular basis you’ll find that it’s a great break in your regular practicing routine and you’ll quickly see the positive effects on your playing.  Plus it’s a lot of fun!!


Intuition – Step 3 – Telling a Story


              Another way of dealing with intuition is to approach playing with a message to convey.  Tell a story.  This way you start using your heart as well as your head, which will make playing music more satisfying for you and for your audience.  Draw on personal experience, the lyrics of the tune etc., to help you open up in this way.


Intuition – Step 4 – Borrowing ideas from your bandmates or arrangement


            A great way to get good ideas for your solo is to listen carefully to the solo before you and “borrow’ an idea or two.  When I played with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, I played a solo right after Gary Keller, a great tenor sax player.  I always just tried to keep my mind clear of preconceived ideas before that solo, and respond to the last melodic idea Gary played.  Not only did that guarantee a good idea to start my solo, but Gerry Mulligan liked it too because it served as a unifying factor in the arrangement.  Mulligan also used to like it when I used bits and pieces from the arrangement in my solos.  This is a good way to keep a gig, and make more meaningful music in the process.


Intuition – Step 5 – Listening to the rhythm section for ideas


            Along these same lines, one of the most important advantages of playing with good phrasing and using silence is being able to then listen to the rhythm section for ideas.  I particularly like to listen to the rhythms being used by the comping instrument and the drummer to inspire my rhythmic ideas.


Intuition – Step 6 – Balance between Unity and Variety


            I had a composition teacher tell me once to always check the balance between the concepts of unity and variety when composing.  Of course, improvising and composing are very closely related activities, so that same general idea will help an improviser.  Most of us need more unifying devices.  Don’t be afraid of repetition.  Sequence your ideas, making subtle changes in the rhythms so you have both aspects of unity and variety.  Listen to Bill Evans and Bob Brookmeyer.  Those two players are terrific in their development of melodic ideas.


Intuition – Step 7 – Shape


            Pay attention to the shape of your solo.  Dynamics, use of the ranges of your instrument, rate of activity, variety of articulation all will help add life to your playing.  All are often overlooked.  Don’t be afraid of even using staging devices. Think of how fun it was to see Clark Terry in a self-dialogue, playing muted trumpet with one hand and flugelhorn with the other.


Intuition – Step 8 – Composing


            Composing is one of the greatest ways to learn about music.  When I am working on a piece, I always find myself being more aware of the music I’m listening to, and even the everyday sounds around me.  In addition, I always learn something new about music when composing.  Most of the time, whatever I learn eventually informs my jazz improvising.


Intuition – Step 9 – Having more to say


            My last comment on developing the intuitive side of playing has to do with having more to say.  Read great books, study great works of art, watch ballet.  Be curious and observe life closely.  Develop an interest in many things, and you’ll find that you have more to draw from when trying to express yourself musically.




            In reaching a balance between the concepts of intellect and intuition, the idea is to have knowledge of the language of jazz (really music in general), while having the freedom to access your intuitive impulses.  Feed the sounds and ideas into your head and ears, and then when you stand up to take a solo think of the story you want to tell.  The better the vocabulary and grammar and the more one has to say, the more eloquent the message.      


1 comment

  • This is without question the best article about jazz improvisation that I have ever read. There is so much incredibly useful and insightful information contained in these 1500 (or so) words that beautifully describes the improviser’s journey. I would recommend this to anyone who plays or teaches jazz.

    Tim Brewer

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