How do you learn to improvise jazz on trombone?

As I write my book I’ve been sending excerpts to players for their input. I’ve also been reaching out on various forums for thoughts and perspectives. While I certainly maintain strong opinions about how one goes about gaining proficiency with jazz improvisation, I want to hear what others have tried – what works and what doesn’t. I am also eager to ask about the challenges players face learning what for many seems like a near-impossible dark art called jazz improvisation.

A recent forum post I started has spurred some enthusiastic comments regarding improvisation and the challenges players face. On the subject of how players learn improvisation, one popular answer revolves around scales.

From when I first began to play jazz, scales were the unquestioned methodology for playing over chord changes. Major, minor, dorian, lydian, mixolydian, diminished, blues, whole tone… There is a scale for every chord. Learn them in every key and every octave. They are your badge of jazz improvisatory proficiency.

I think there is a value to learning scales but I also believe there is a danger in applying them inappropriately. As I listen to players, I often hear a tendency to confuse scales with music. I think in many cases, scales satisfy a deep-rooted need to play notes for the sake of playing notes. After all, the great players seem never to be at a loss for notes as they effortlessly whiz through the changes. Scales seem to provide that jazz vocabulary for the note flurry that seems to be the hallmark of good improvisation. But is that what scales truly should provide and is that why we practice them incessantly?

The value of scales is that it builds the technical facility needed to play jazz well. As difficult as trombone is to fluidly move through various tonalities, scales provides us with a template for training our arm movement and inner ear for manipulating key centers.

But what happens when scales become, not just a mechanical tool for learning, but the actual stuff of your musical phrases?

I mentioned recently in one of these online discussions my good friend and partner on my CD Roads Less Traveled, Gerry Pagano. I remember after a long day of recording tracks for the CD, we kicked back in my studio and played some jazz with our old reliable rhythm section lead by Jamey Aebersold.

I think that was the first time I’d heard Gerry improvise and I was shocked by how well he played through the chord changes. He was weaving melodies through the changes by nothing more than his ear. To my knowledge jazz is not something Gerry plays or even practices so I took it as an example of pure improvisation unencumbered by rote patterns, imitation, or scales. Instead of dedicating a good portion of his life to maniacally running up and down scales, he’s been sitting in the back of the St Louis Symphony playing bass trombone performing and listening to the great melodies of the ages.

The premise of that portion of my upcoming book on improvisation is that good jazz playing is born of melodies, not memorized patterns and scales. Patterns and scales do have their place in the practice room to help build flexibility and familiarity with key centers but the challenge many players face is in leaving scales for scales sake out of their performances. Scales can be the tonal diarrhea signaling the lack of authentic spontaneous music.

I am developing what I believe is a practical method for getting outside of those memorized patterns and scales living inside your head and instead playing with a musical fluency facilitated by the tonal and rhythmic accompaniment you hear and the melodies to which your musical instincts lead.

I don’t know how to give you more talent, but I think I can guide you in using whatever talents and gifts you possess to create authentic and satisfying music as you improvise this great music called jazz.

9 Comments

  1. Kenneth F Erfourth on November 12, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Wow. Excellent.

    I hear a lot of jazz players who can do changes, but only a few who can make music from the changes.

  2. Henry Howey on November 12, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    I’m a teacher who is also a minor historian of brass pedagogy. My most recent work is explained here:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/cps5myoavbceeyq/LignerTranslated.docx?dl=0

    Let me know your thoughts.

  3. Davi on November 15, 2016 at 4:48 am

    Obrigado pelos esclarecimentos, caro mestre, apesar de tocar já há alguns anos, o universo do jazz é novo para mim. Mas sempre fiquei muito perdido entre as muita escalas existentes, na verdade elas são até apavorantes.

  4. Michael Lake on November 15, 2016 at 7:01 am

    Translation from Davi:
    Thanks for the clarification, dear maestro, although playing for a few years now, the jazz universe is new to me. But I’ve always been very lost among the many existing scales, in fact they are even terrifying.

  5. Henry Howey on November 20, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    NASM is requiring all schools accredited by them to include improvisation in their curricula.

    This should be a golden situation for you, especially if you can think beyond trombone.

  6. Daniel Shatwell on December 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Improvisation is based on listening and picking up what people have done before you. Some of the most expressive and exciting things have been communicated with simple pentatonic scales …

  7. Hiron on October 23, 2018 at 3:17 am

    The brass instrument is popular with many people because of the powerful sound that most of the instruments produce. Whether you want to learn trumpet, trombone, French horn or tuba, a lot of breath is required to push out the powerful sound.

  8. Andy on February 9, 2022 at 5:16 am

    Hi Michael, stumbled across this post whilst searching for some learning resources on Jazz trombone. I was a high standard player many years ago but in orchestras and brass bands, after a 20 odd year hiatus I’ve picked it up again but really all I want to do is play jazz now :). Improvisation is so alien to the way I was taught and the ensembles I played in that it’s like starting from scratch – do you have any recommended books or guides? Did you finish your book? I’m very much in favour of melody based improv and not technical showing off…

    • Michael Lake on February 9, 2022 at 7:56 am

      Hi Andy, You’ve come to the right place for melodic improv. You should go to my main site, http://www.musicsavvy.com and on the bottom right pop-up enter your instrument and your greatest struggle, which for you is improvising more melodically. You will then receive a few emails with videos geared specifically toward improvising more melodically.

      Regarding a book, my book, “Trombone Improvisation Savvy” has been out for a few years and goes through the steps for improvisation on the horn from beginner to more advanced.

      One thing you’ll notice throughout all my materials is that they are audio (ear-based) rather than theory(eye/left-brain-based). There is a place for the analytical brain in understanding certain important elements of improvisation, but I prefer to focus on elevating people’s ears. I think musical and fulfilling improvisation evolves best from that.

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