How to improve your jazz improvisation on trombone



Playing jazz well on trombone requires a number of skills including:

  1. a certain level of technical facility on the horn
  2. fluency with the many flavors and keys of scales
  3. a knowledge of harmony and chord progressions

To build these skills requires coordination between your ear and your arm. To put it another way, the skill of jazz improvisation demands that you play what your “inner” ear hears. This is the opposite of rote patterns. Now, nothing wrong with having patterns under your belt but use them as a way to launch you into fresh new melodic ideas. This is a tip for developing your “inner” ear/arm coordination.

Play an easy short phrase. You could play the first four bars of Rochut #1, or the first four bars of the jazz standard “Never be Another You”, or even the first short phrase of Happy Birthday. Then play any note other than the first note of the original phrase you played – and play the phrase starting on that note. For example, the first note of Happy Birthday starts on the fifth of the tune, so whatever note you choose to begin with, that determines the fifth of the new key. Now play Happy Birthday in that new key starting on that note.

Start on that random note and play whatever phrase you choose in all 12 keys and in whatever octaves you can reach. You can vary the exercise by going up or down chromatically, in whole tones, in the circle of fifths or randomly. And it really doesn’t matter what melody you choose as long as it’s in your ear well enough to do this. If you’re some musical genius that can hear a melody for the first time and transpose it by ear in every key immediately, you probably don’t need to do this in the first place. Bravo!

As you develop your facility for hearing and playing phrases in various keys, choose longer and more difficult phrases. For example, play phrases from Bach Cello Suites or the first four bars of Chick’s tune Windows, or the first phrase of Freedom Jazz Dance. Do this exercise with a friend who plays piano or guitar. Hear his or her ability to play the changes rapidly moving from key to key. Have them choose a key on a standard tune, and give yourself the challenge of picking it up and playing it quickly.

I promise if you do this exercise on a regular basis, your jazz improvisation fluency will go through the roof! Try it and let me know.

1 Comment

  1. Duke on February 28, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    As a young kid just starting out this kind of thing was only available by word of mouth. It wasn’t improvisation but I remember being astounded hearing Dorsey on a record laying down the melody in B like it was nothing. After the much older local players I asked got done laughing, they said take a song, learn it on trombone in all 12 keys and make them all sound just as easy. Very humbling at the beginnging (and sometimes now 50 years later). It really helps everything in your playing life – a different singer shows up and all they keys have to change, or on a sit in or sub job they want to see what you are made of…
    Printed this out to help me keep in shape. Nicely done and well organized Mike. Thanks.

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