by Russ Nolan

Teaching Jazz As A Language: First Words

One for the most challenging aspects of learning how to improvise or how to teach improvisation is where to start. Most of us did not grow up listening to Jazz around the house, however, we did grow up listening to one or two spoken languages that gradually became our own. It’s by the same process that we learn the Jazz Language.

How does one develop a vocabulary? I have found that easiest way to start is with the Blues Scale. These six notes not only cover over the basic Blues changes, but can be applied in various harmonic situations. Just as a child’s first words are ‘mama’ or ‘dada’, we can use the notes of the Blues Scale as the same building blocks. When teaching in a group setting, I will use a ‘Call and Response’ format. Many students I encounter, even at the high school level, have never had a formal jazz improvisation lesson. I’ll start by playing a rhythm with the tonic and have the students imitate it. Then I will ask them to come up with their own. After a few students have tried this on their own, I will ask, ‘I you can improvise with one note, why not try two?’ And so it goes until we have progress through all six notes. 

Blues Scale Examples – Beginner’s Jazz Language

Teaching Jazz As A Language Blues Scale

Teaching Jazz As A Language Blues Scale Vocab

























By adding one note at a time, the students are not overwhelmed or intimidated by the information. They leave the workshop with tools that they can immediately apply and the confidence to try it again.

Part 2

Russ Nolan Jazz Educator and Clinician

Russ Nolan Jazz Blog


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