Video Lesson: A Gentle Introduction to Jazz
I don’t know of a richer and more complicated term in American music than jazz. It can refer to a repertoire, a style of playing, or a historical moment and movement. It can label music thought to be high-minded or too difficult to understand and play. Sometimes it just makes clear a particular scale or rhythmic shade a player might reference.
In its most exciting form, I think of jazz as an expansive process. At its worst, it is the dreaded insult “jazzy,” referring to the hapless singer-songwriter who is both pretentious and middle-of-the-road. All of this might add up to a reluctance to engage with jazz in your own playing. But this lesson will show you a few simple—and satisfying—ways jazz can be applied to whatever music you like to write or play.
Rhythm Is Queen
For me, everything begins with rhythm. Here are three easy feels that I often use. Practice them until they become second nature, then try applying them to your favorite songs.
I call the first pattern “The Django,” after the legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. As shown in Example 1a, play it in swung eighth notes—think long-short instead of even—accenting the “and” of each beat. I strive to make the distinction between the unaccented downbeat and the accented upbeat as musical as possible. The whole pattern should feel smooth and flow from bar line to bar line.
Speaking of smooth and flowing, for slower tempos I like to use what I call “The Freddie” (Example 1b). Inspired by Freddie Green, who was known for his masterly big-band comping with the Count Basie Orchestra, it’s really just a slower, more even Django, played with a silky, steady authority.
“The Brushes” (Example 1c) mimics a classic snare-drum pattern. While the Django and the Freddie can be played with a pick, I find the Brushes works best fingerstyle, with the flesh of your thumb on the downstrokes and your fingernails on the upstrokes.
Try all three of these rhythms first with muted strings to get the feel down, then experiment with different chord grips. You’ll find that muting with your right and left hand, palm and heel, will give you extra control and articulation.
Jazz is by nature a collaborative listening process that can happen with any number or combination of instruments. Since I’m often playing solo guitar, I developed an exercise to teach the fundamentals of a chordal/walking bass style. It also demonstrates another jazz element that can really open up your playing: approaching chords by chromatic runs either up or down to target chords.
In Example 2a, you’ll connect a I chord to a IV using the Brushes rhythm and open strings, then progress to the next key, and so on. Example 2b depicts another common chord progression—I–vi–II–V—and shows how you can use chromatic runs and half-step approaches to add flavor.
6s, 7s, and 9s to Me
Another very easy way to bring some jazz to your playing is by adding notes to chords or melodies. The most common notes added are the major seventh, flatted seventh, major sixth, and major ninth. These chord forms are pretty basic, so the trick to skillfully using them is carefully considering where and how often you call them into service.
One effective strategy is to add different notes to chords each time they come around in a progression. Example 3 is the same I–vi–II–V progression from Ex. 2, but with some chord variations thrown in. Plug in any of the three rhythms from Exs. 1a–c. And next time you’re composing a melody, try starting on the sixth or ninth of the chord, as opposed to any of the triadic notes, and see where this leads you.
The Chromatic Kitchen Sink
Jazz is most exciting to me when the musical choices of the players have an element of surprise. The place I want to feel this the most is in my lead playing. So more often than not, I throw the chromatic kitchen sink, if you will, at a melody. This means I will get from note to note by playing all the pitches in between—just a more rambunctious version of a passing tone, a note that is not in the diatonic scale but played briefly on the way to somewhere else. You don’t stay for too long, only long enough to bring a little surprise and instability to your line. Examples 4a and b are two flourishes I sometimes use at the end of my songs, like “Melody” and my cover of “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.”
I hope these simple techniques will give you confidence to add some new elements to your playing. If you try them with a spirit of curiosity and playfulness, I think they’ll bring you the same joy they bring me.
Erin McKeown is a musician, writer, and producer based in Massachusetts. erinmckeown.com