The Language of Jazz
Posted by Chase Sanborn

Let’s start with the premise that you are already an expert improviser. Every time you engage in conversation, you improvise. You don’t work from a script or recite memorized sentences or phrases. You can walk up to anyone in the world who speaks the same language and improvise a conversation.

You didn’t learn your first language by studying vocabulary and rules of grammar. You learned by immersion—listening and imitating. Immersion is the best way to learn a language. Forget the textbooks, go where the natives speak the language and soon you’ll be speaking like a native. Eventually you learned the ‘theory’ that explains what you were already doing naturally, putting adjectives before nouns, adverbs before verbs etc. Essentially you learned to put labels on sounds (words) you were familiar with.

As you carry on a conversation, you are aware of the meanings of the words you use and you know that adjectives go before nouns. Yet you don’t have to think about these things. Once you are fluent in a language the words flow freely to express ideas without any conscious thought or awareness of the underlying rules. Human communication is miraculous, really, yet most of us master it in the very first stage of life.

Learning to improvise is often compared to learning a language. It is an apt comparison. Music has its own vocabulary and grammatical rules. For example: a dominant seventh chord often resolves down a 5th to a major or minor chord: G7 resolves to C. We can explain why this sounds natural in theoretical terms: the 3rd of the dominant seventh chord is the leading tone of the target resolution: the note ‘B’ is the 3rd of a G7 chord and also the leading tone (seventh note) in the key of C. It is not necessary to know or understand this theory to hear that G7 wants to resolve. Play a C major scale and stop on B. Your ear will yearn for the final half step resolution up to C. That ‘gravitational pull’ exists within the V-I chord progression. Your ear understands this full well even if you don’t! Learning to hear the inclination of notes to move in a certain direction will lead to the construction of a coherent improvised musical line.

In fact, much of what you learn as a student of improvisation is simply the application of labels to sounds you are already familiar with. While jazz theory can seem overwhelmingly complicated, what looks complex to your eyes is often simple to your ears. A recipe book looks complicated compared to simply putting a bite of food in your mouth. Each sense is uniquely equipped to process certain types of information. Trying to learn to improvise solely by applying rules of theory will be a frustrating exercise, as you attempt to interpret sound with senses other than aural. It is much easier to understand a sound than the theory that explains the sound.

Originally, jazz was primarily an aural art. Music was passed on directly from instrument to ear. Musicians sat in the club listening, then went home to try to figure out what it was they heard. Today we have an extensive system of jazz pedagogy, which is essentially the analysis and description of sound. While it is useful to know which scale might sound good if played over a specific chord, until you truly have absorbed the sound of the chord and the scale, and the relationships of the notes within them, your attempts to improvise will be hit or miss at best. Even if you become quite knowledgeable about music theory, you may sound like someone who has learned a language from a textbook: technically correct yet still missing an essential ingredient.

Since jazz clubs are few and far between these days, musicians more often learn from recordings by transcribing solos. While there are great jazz musicians who argue against transcribing solos, I would venture that the majority would agree that transcription is a very important part of learning the language. You will learn more by studying one great jazz solo than by buying a book containing ‘500 Essential Licks Every Jazz Player Must Know’.

Solo transcription is fundamentally intense and focused listening. I doubt anyone would argue against the importance of listening as an essential activity for the budding jazz musician, or any musician. Your ears pick up many aspects of music that are difficult or impossible to notate or describe. You hear the tone quality, articulation, and time feel that make each player so unique and identifiable. This is similar to picking up an accent or figures of speech in spoken language. Hearing the notes played in context, against the rhythm section background, helps you to understand not just the melodic construction of the solo, but also the rhythmic and harmonic underpinning of the music. The note C sounds quite different depending on whether it is the root, dominant seventh, or minor third of a chord. Even if you are unaware of this information when you transcribe a solo, your ear records the sound. In the future, when you hear a CMAJ7, D7 or Am7, perhaps that ‘C’ will jump out at you as a choice note in your melodic line. This is an integral element for the jazz improviser: letting the harmonic structure suggest melodic line.

As an aside, while we are on the subject of language, what makes someone a good conversationalist? A large vocabulary peppered with complex words and the proclivity to talk for hours? Or the willingness to pay attention and respond to what others say? Jazz improvisers and good conversationalists share the ability to listen.

The impression left by learning music by ear is indelible. I predict that once you have transcribed one solo you will agree that you have learned something that cannot be learned any other way. It often leads to the ‘light bulb’ moment, when you start to bridge the gap between performer and composer/improviser. In my next column, I’ll talk about who, how and when to transcribe.

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