Jazz Improvisation Workshop: Resources

The late, great trumpeter Clark Terry (a featured soloist in both the Basie and Ellington bands) said the most important elements of a jazz solo are:

  • Sound
  • Rhythm
  • Ideas

Technique and theory are important, but they are not prerequisites for improvisation.

Workshop at Madrona K-8
Workshop at Madrona K-8

Four Entry Points for Jazz Improvisation

1. Play by Ear

Jazz is an aural tradition, so it’s important to get off the page and develop a connection between your ears and your instrument. The first step is to figure out familiar songs by ear through trial and error. This is the gateway to transcription, improvisation, and composition.

Articles from my blog:

“Getting off the Page: Play Music by Ear in 5 Steps”

“Playing Changes Part 1: Thinking in Scale Degrees”

Beginning Jazz Transcription: 4-Bar Riff Blues Tunes

“C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington
“Night Train” by Jimmy Forrest
“Centerpiece” by Harry Sweets Edison
“Bags Groove” by Milt Jackson
“That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout” by Shorty Rogers
“Blue Ammons” by Gene Ammons
“Splanky” by Neal Hefti, as played by Count Basie
“Sonnymoon for Two” by Sonny Rollins
Major Blues Scale: 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6, 8
Minor Blues Scale: 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7, 8

2. Rhythm

Rhythm is way more important than “right notes” (video demonstration). Here are a few ways to practice and internalize rhythm:

  • Engage with and internalize the time. Feel it in your body. Clap, stomp, tap, drum, and/or dance along with your favorite jazz records. Buy a pair of drum sticks and a cheap cymbal (or a practice pad).
  • Choose a one- or two-measure rhythm from a tune you are working on. Loop the rhythm repeatedly but improvise your own pitches. You have to be resourceful with your range, dynamics, tone color, articulation, and the shape of your lines to keep it interesting. Then play simple variations on the rhythms.
  • Play along with one of your favorite recordings, and try to copy the groove and time-feel. Listen to all of the sonic and rhythmic nuance. Don’t worry about the pitches for now, just the rhythm. Turn off the recording and continue playing with the same rhythmic feel.

3. Call and Response

“5 Types of Call and Response Phrases”

4. Variations on a Theme

Once you have a mastered a melody, feel free to change it. Change the rhythm, add, omit, or change the pitches.

“How to Improvise Variations on a Theme”


The creative process is messy. Experiment, follow your ears, collaborate with your friends, take risks, and let yourself fail. It’s all part of the process.

Once you have built a strong foundation and are interested in playing chord changes, check out my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at steve@stevetres.com

– ST