In a nutshell. Well, oftentimes musical rules are made to be stretched yes? And with "tongue in cheek" implied, lest we lose sight of the art because of rules? Even golden ones ... ? Either way, each of the styles of American music has it's rules, some written, some not. They create in one sense the vocabulary of sounds, which are internalized, developed and preserved by the composers and players, who in their creative ideas bring forth these rules thus a style of music. Cool?

wiki ~ vaudeville

The following ideas are simply a few of the guidelines used in creating our various American styles that have come to be common practice among the players. Mixing in some general ideas about creating improvised musical dialogue. i.e., performance, hopefully the following ideas will be of some benefit. The "mantra" part of the title is concerned with ways of approaching the resources from the perspective of the emerging jazz artist, who stylistically by far and away has the longest row to hoe so to speak in learning the jazz language, and usually receives in exchange for their efforts the broadest sense of perspective of our musical resources. So with this in mind, here are a few "golden" rules from academia days at college and bandstands from here to there.


Play the melody. When all else fails, play the melody. When we run out of ideas when soloing, our artistic interpretation of the melody will always work. Always? Well, some advanced players might view this as being overly simplistic, but they probably got to where they are by using this idea at some point in their development. For the majority of us, especially emerging soloists, it's nice to have something solid to fall back on when "the well" goes dry, and the melody of the tune we are playing is usually a sure bet.

One idea per chorus. That one idea per chorus just might be enough ... This simple idea can be applied to nearly all the styles. It's probably not an idea for the burnin' 8 bar players, the players that get 8 bars between the vocals, or split 16 with the fiddle player. Oftentimes these players just try to jam in all the coolness they to keep the thing a crankin' etc. For those that play "standards" and get plenty of blowing time, this one idea per chorus goes along way, especially if your on a longer gig, say 4 / 45 minutes shows. Making the most of each of our ideas often creates a nice interactive format for players and listeners alike. And the dancers ...? Don't worry, they're just too busy havin' fun! As Duke Ellington had been known to remark ... "if it sounds good ... it is good." One idea per chorus, and run the idea through the form and changes.

Three's a charm. When creating sequences and permutations of an idea, phrase the idea three times then perhaps look to evolve the idea into something different. This idea of repeating an idea three times has been around for a while, we hear it in all of the American styles and from the Euro cats as well. With so much cool music in four and eight bar phrases, the song form A / A / B / A, the common practice among players of repeating the last line of a song three times to take it out etc., no wonder eh? Three's a charm right? Exceptions? Always, this is American music. One important exception is when climaxing a solo, often times the repetition of one idea gets the energy level up over the top so to speak. Keeping things simple at this crucial point in the ride makes it easier for the other members of the group to join in the fun and energy. Once there, cycling a rhythm 3 times and then evolving to a new rhythmic pattern with the same pitches ( or not ) can make things go way kaboom. Try it, the trick is getting the group to that point I guess.

Backing a soloist. Strive to always get underneath a soloist in the mix when playing a supporting role in the group. Is there anything more distracting when presenting ideas than to be interrupted? Well, probably. Anyway, the simple idea here is to try and stay supportive to what the soloist is doing. The "underneath" part is mostly in terms of volume, although other factors are of course involved. Hear a bit of whole tone color in the line? Perhaps slip in an appropriate colortone to enhance the phrase etc. When playing with a group of varying abilities, the tendency might be to overblow an emerging talent, especially in live performance situations. Strive to be compassionate and follow this basic rule, for all of us at whatever level of ability have something important to say. The idea is to simply help folks say it. Leaving the rest of whatever to be dealt with off the bandstand. So, perhaps the real golden rule of "do unto others ..." is the idea here. For folks who can follow these ideas, there is a ton of satisfying work out there, for even some of the best of the best were sidemen at some point in their careers.

Anything from anywhere. Perhaps the long term goal for the jazz artist. Any melodic idea, any chord color, from any of the pitches of the chromatic scale. Perhaps it's more like, "everything from everywhere?" To simply attempt to exhaust our musical resources? A way tall order? Totally. For some of us it's a lifetime of devoted study. Perhaps among the coolest thing an artist can find eh? A lifetime of devoted study.

The arpeggios. Accurately arpeggiating the changes clearly outlines the harmony. So, am I being master of the obvious again? Oh well, just that in this case running arpeggios is a "go to" thing when the " improv well" starts to run dry. The Bebop cats where masters of this. In the Charlie Parker "Omnibook", we find Bird's lines chock full of arpeggios, which Mr. Parker used as a "launching pad" to get into the upper parts of the chords, releasing the degree, weight and direction of tonal gravity. Once free of the gravity, the improvisational hang time increases exponentially. So, if your heading towards anywhere near Bopville, learn those arpeggios.

A metronome. If possible, practice with a metronome. In the scheme of things, it's all really about time anyway right?


Bass line story. Play just the roots of the chords in exploring a new song. This can give a startlingly clear picture as to the emotional character of the composition. Hearing the bass lines somehow "reveals" the heart and soul of the piece. Try it. I first heard this idea from jazz legend Clark Terry.

Sing the line, play the line. Perhaps the single most important aspect of internalizing the vocabulary and projecting one's ideas.

Teach it. As we as players develop over the years, so many times do we come into contact with players of different abilities than our own. These meetings become opportunities for growth and enrichment in the sharing of ideas. For one of the ways in which a person may solidly internalize a concept is when trying to explain these ideas to another artist. So, although not a golden rule of improvisation, the idea here is perhaps more of a golden rule of learning. That if we really want to learn something, a good way to internalize our own knowledge is to try and teach it to another. And lest we ever forget all of the times when older, more experienced folks helped us along on our way ...

Your ideas. If you come up with an idea you like, run it through the other 11 keys.

If you come up with an idea you really like, try to write it into a song.

Make a 12 bar blues.

Coda. And when on the bandstand. One part of working the music magic is getting up on a stage and making it happen. While not for everyone, and depending on the band and gig, just know that there's a lot of different roles to make it all happen. Some directly under the lights, and others off in the shadows to all sorts of varying degrees. All combine to make show biz. And when the band has fun, the show is fun and the community has fun together :)

"I have to be my own teacher, curious to know the reason for things."
wiki ~ Laurindo Almeida

References. References for this page come from the included bibliography; method books and through listening and finding the licks by ear. When you need university level answers, go Alaska University Music !