For the purposes of this primer, we are all musicians. Some of us may be performing musicians, while most of us are listening musicians. Most of the former are also the latter. I will try to use the term performer and listener respectively, rather than the terms musician or non-musician, when addressing my audience. This primer is intended primarily for performers who wish to learn jazz improvisation. It is also intended for listeners who wish to increase their understanding of the music. I believe that all musicians can benefit from a fuller understanding of jazz, as this can lead to an enhanced enjoyment of the music.

Some basic knowledge of music, including familiarity with standard music notation, is assumed in many places throughout the primer. I highly recommend that you have access to a piano and the ability to play simple examples on it. Performers should already possess basic technical proficiency on your instruments in order to gain the most from this primer. Listeners should try to bear with the more technical discussions and not get too bogged down with the details where it seems too far over your head.

There are three main goals of this primer. They are to teach you the language of jazz, to increase your understanding of jazz as performed by others, and, for performers, to get you started on improvising. The language of jazz is mostly a language of styles, history, and music theory. It is the language of liner notes, interviews, and textbooks, and contains terms such as "bebop", "Trane", and "lydian dominant". Learning this language will also provide a framework for understanding the music itself. While it is certainly possible to enjoy John Coltrane without understanding anything about music theory, a working knowledge of harmony can provide a new basis for appreciation. It is also possible to improvise without much theoretic background, but stories of famous musicians who were unable to read music are generally greatly exaggerated, and I believe any musician's playing can be improved by learning more theory.


This primer is organized as a series of steps toward becoming a jazz musician, either as a performer or as a more informed listener. Most of the steps are geared for the performer, but the non-performing listener is encouraged to try out as many of the playing examples as possible. This should help broaden your ear and help you recognize aspects of the music you might not have otherwise.

The steps outlined in this primer are:

  1. listen to many different styles of jazz
  2. understand jazz fundamentals
  3. learn chord/scale relationships
  4. learn how to apply the theory to jazz improvisation
  5. learn how to accompany other soloists
  6. play with others
  7. listen analytically
  8. break the rules

These will each be described in some detail later.

Some of the material presented here is very basic, and some of it is rather advanced. Those of you who have listened to a lot of jazz but are not performers yourselves will probably find the history discussions to be simplistic, but find the theoretical discussions overwhelming. Others may grow impatient at the explanations of such basic concepts as the major scale, but will be bewildered at the number and variety of musicians discussed. You may wonder why such a broad array of information has been squeezed into this one primer. I believe that, in order to understand jazz improvisation, it is necessary to understand the history, the theory, and the techniques of jazz. I feel that it is important to merge these avenues if one is to develop a broad understanding.

Other Resources

This primer is not the only source of information you can or should be using in learning jazz improvisation. There are books by Jerry Coker, David Baker, and others that can be used as an aid to learning jazz improvisation. Some of these are relatively basic and do not cover much more material than this primer. Others are quite advanced, and this primer will hopefully provide the necessary background to tackle these texts.

In addition to textbooks, another important resource for performers is the fakebook. A fakebook typically contains music for hundreds of songs, but it contains only the melody, lyrics if appropriate, and chord symbols for each. A description of some of the available textbooks and fakebooks can be found in the bibliography.

When practicing, it is often useful to play along with a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums). This is, of course, not always practical. Jamey Aebersold has produced a series of play-along albums to remedy this situation. These records, cassettes, or CD's come with books containing the music, in fakebook form, for the songs on the record. The recordings contain only accompaniment; there is no melody or solos. Providing them is your job. The piano and bass are on different stereo channels, so they can be turned off individually if you play one of those instruments. I recommend all performers pick up a few of these. Advertisements are run in Down Beat magazine.

Another option is the computer program Band-In-A-Box. This program runs on several different hardware platforms. It allows you to enter the chords for a song in ASCII format, and it then generates rhythm section parts and can play them via a MIDI port through a synthesizer. It actually does a very good job of generating realistic parts, and if your synthesizer can generate realistic sounds, you may not be able to tell you are not playing with a recording of a real rhythm section. Disks are available containing hundreds of songs already entered. Advertisements are run in Keyboard magazine.

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