7 min readMar 19, 2017

Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” -George Gershwin

This article is not an official lesson plan for teaching jazz, nor is it a quick Sunday morning read. This article is meant to give the reader a feel of jazz music and help know about its elements.


Jazz is something that is unique to everybody. There isn’t just one melody backed by a single emotion. The way jazz is played is very different from the way it is perceived. While a saxophone is known for its tenor, the trombone is known for its groove and the trumpet for its class. When all these variables collide in a harmonic tandem, jazz is created. It holds the ability to bring out a unique sentiment from each of its audience, creating a roller coaster of emotions in the process. So, as said before, this article will not help you learn how to play jazz, it’ll help you to understand it.

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

-Louis Armstrong


People say jazz artists play whatever they want to. Though they are absolutely correct, what they don’t realize are the limitations under which they do it. Jazz music depends a lot on improvisation and the key to improvisation is thinking out of the box. Famous artists such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, John Coltrane, all have an amazing ability to make up music as they play, especially during live shows. Once, in a live performance, John Coltrane was said to have created a 25-minute improvisation act from just a 10-second melody.

For an artist to improvise on jazz, they must make it their language. There is no analytical thinking involved. When they play, they don’t realize how or why they’re playing the next note. It’s a rhythmic flow of thoughts, which occurs unconsciously. The best way for an artist to improve their improvisation skills is by practice. Once the basic progressions and notations of jazz are known, the only thing the artist needs to do is keep an open mind, and entertain the possibility that, out of the millions of chord combinations, any chord can be next. This gives them the freedom to choose how they progress down the melody, thus creating a unique song.



  1. This works for any instrument you might play like a piano, a guitar or a flute. Choose a starting note and an ending note. The ending note decides the cadence of the melody. Now, keeping in mind the jazz progressions (harmonic minor iv-V-i, melodic major v-iv-I, etc.), find multiple ways to reach from the starting note to the ending note.
  2. This method is a bit more restrictive but can yield better results. Select a scale to work with and note down all possible keys and progressions which can be included in that scale. Check the same keys and progressions on the instrument, getting a feel of how to get to them. Now play inside this scale using different combinations of styles and skills.

“A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges.” -Benny Green


Some people say jazz is confusing and, at times, annoying. It is not so easy to grasp a jazz beat until you know its breakdown.

In musical theory, there is a concept called an eighth note. Simply put, four beats make up a unit, and by dividing these four beats into halves, we get what is called a half beat or an eighth note. To make the concept clearer, listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Its intro is three eighth notes before a half note. Consecutively, it can also be read as three half beats followed by a full beat.

In jazz, the beat is divided into three parts, with the first two parts tied together. This makes the note pair uneven, with the first eighth note longer than the second. This variation is called swing beat.

Swing music originated in the Southern United States, during the turn of the twentieth century. Almost fifty years later, some musicians decided to clear this “error” and evened out the beats, making them equal in length, and thus a revolutionary new genre emerged known as rock n roll. The theory of eighths serves as the key difference between swing music and rock n roll.

“Forget about upholding the tradition and just play who you really are.”

-Terence Blanchard


Classical fanatics would say that modern jazz is a rip-off of all the old riffs and tunes. But the evolution of jazz is governed only by its audience. These days, jazz has become faster (owing to Coltrane) and more dynamic in its melodies, though its popularity has fairly diminished. More instruments are included which expands the number of varieties of songs, making up hybrid music.

There are still some things that no one can understand, like what goes on in the mind of a jazz artist while improvising. But that is the beauty of jazz. It is like the saying goes, “You don’t have to understand something in order to like it.”

“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

- Lou Reed



NOTE: There are multiple jazz courses provided by these universities. For more information, visit their websites.

  1. Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts
  2. College of Music, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas
  3. New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, Massachusetts
  4. The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, New York, New York
  5. Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California
  6. Frost School of Music, University of Miami, Miami, Florida
  7. School of Music, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
  8. Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  9. Los Angeles College of Music, Los Angeles, California
  10. Jacobs School of music, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
  11. Juilliard School, New York, New York
  12. Herb Alpert School of Music, UCLA, Los Angeles, California
  13. Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio
  14. Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  15. Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York
  16. Yale School of Music, New Haven, Connecticut
  17. California State University, Los Angeles, California
  18. Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee
  19. Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, England
  20. Conservatoire de Paris, Paris, France
  21. Seoul Institute of the arts, Ansan, South Korea
  22. Global Music Institute, New Delhi
  23. Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, Chennai
  24. The True School of Music, Mumbai
  25. KMMC: The Conservatory, Chennai
  26. Delhi School of Music, Delhi


  1. The Jazz Theory Book — Mark Levine
  2. But Beautiful: A book about Jazz — Geoff Dyer
  3. How to listen to Jazz — Ted Gioia
  4. Effortless Mastery — Kenny Werner


  1. Jazz Appreciation by University of Texas
  2. Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players by Hamilton College of Liberal Arts
  3. Music in the 20th Century by Peking University
  4. The Blues: Understanding and Performing an American Art Form by University of Rochester
  5. Jazz Improvisation by Berklee College of Music
  6. Jazz Piano by Berklee College of Music
  7. Jazz Guitar 101 by Berklee College of Music
  8. Jazz History 101 by New York Jazz Academy
  9. Introduction to Improvisation and Jazz Theory by New York Jazz Academy


  1. Jazz Fellowship by Luminarts Cultural Foundation
  2. New Music Grants by BMI Foundation (Invitation only)
  3. Monash Jazz Music Scholarship by Monash University
  4. Jazz Studies Scholarship by University of Oregon
  5. Jazz Scholarship by Berklee College of Music
  6. Scholarship in music by ASCAP Foundation
  7. BMI Future Jazz Master Scholarship by BMI Foundation
  8. Davidson Fellows Scholarship by Davidson Institute

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Authors: Amish Mathur, Fellow at is an online data-driven, cultural context-aware networking platform, bridging the role model & mentorship gap.