A Jazz Neophyte’s Survival Guide

Free Jazz Institute

This is a great source of information including jazz theory, transcriptions, original compositions and jazz recordings, suitable for the more advanced player.

Jazz Theory and Improvisation

Books and website articles about about jazz theory are, by their nature, voluminous and difficult to assimilate. This is one of the best overviews for beginners, written by Pete Thomas, originally for a course in jazz music at Southampton University.

Over time we aim to provide complementary articles which are bite-size pieces of education to help get players new to jazz started.

Backing Tracks

Playing along to backing tracks is a great way to improve your playing and much more fun than practising alone. Here are some links to good websites:

Pre-recorded backing tracks are great, except that they always seem to be a little too slow or too fast, or are in the wrong key. No problem: the Amazing Slow Downer (for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android) can fix both those problems without distorting the recording.  The Amazing Slow Downer costs money (shock, horror), but you can download a trial version for nothing.

Audacity is another useful tool for doing all sorts of things with audio on a computer, including changing the tempo without altering the pitch.  It runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows, and is completely free (as in beer).

Band in a Box (BIAB) has been around forever and it’s still great.  It costs serious money, though.  Install it on your Windows or Mac computer, type in the chords to any song and it will play a backing track in any style you choose.

MMA Musical MIDI Accompaniment is a free alternative that requires a bit of geeky computer tinkering.

iREALB is similar to BIAB but for the iPOD, iPAD and iPhone.

Sheet Music

MuseScore is an excellent (and free) piece of software for writing music scores: it does transposing and chords and all sorts of stuff.

A Little Theory

For jazz improvisation, you can regard the 7th as the note below the tonic (or “root note”) and the 9th as the note above the tonic. Both notes are used freely in jazz improvisation, in any octave, for solos, for basslines and for adding to chords.

There are two types of 7th: major seventh (or ^7) is a semitone below the tonic, so the note B in the key of C.  Flat seventh (“dominant 7th”) is a tone below the tonic, B♭ in the key of C.

There are three types of 9th: standard 9th is a tone above the tonic, D in the key of C.  Flat 9th is a semitone above the tonic, D♭ in the key of C.   Sharp 9th (augmented 9th) is three semitones above the tonic, D♯ in the key of C.

For some tunes and harmonies, you can choose freely which 7ths and 9ths you use. This applies for instance to a tune like “I Got Rhythm”.

Sometimes it is more important to play the “correct” note.  There are three ways of detecting the right types of 7th or 9th:

  1. By ear (the best way because your fellow musicians may not be sticking to the same script!)
  2. By using the notes that appear in the tune as written.
  3. By reading the chord changes – this is useful in a tune that changes key or harmony a lot, such as “The Nearness of You”.  This way you are free to use the 7th and 9th of each passing chord rather than just the dominant key of the tune.

You don’t need a full understanding of chord symbols to do this!

The following chords use a major seventh (applies to all root notes, C used as an example): C major 7th (C^7), Cminor/major 7th (Cm^7), C major ninth (C^9)

The following use a flat seventh: C seventh (C7), C ninth (C9), C minor 7th (Cm7), C minor 9th (Cm9)

Ninths are a tone above the tonic unless otherwise specified, so chords with a flat 9th will be marked, e.g. C seventh flat 9th (C7♭9) or C minor 7th flat 9th (Cm7♭9).

Chords with a sharp 9th will be marked, e.g. C seventh sharp 9 (C7♯9), C seventh augmented 9 (C7+9) or C minor seventh sharp or augmented 9th (Cm7♯9 or Cm7+9)

Stephen Godsall © 2012