I'm a classic piano player and a beginner jazz pianist, I can play by ear melody and find chords.

I have learned jazz theory very well and learned the improvising scales.

but I have a problem :

I can improvise on a song and emphasize the harmony in it but it does not feel jazzy it is good but weak in the jazz arena.

my swing is good but my improvising is not jazzy enough.

What can I do/train in order to achieve a jazzy improvising rather than classic ?

4 Answers 4


I have a few thoughts for you. First off, r lo is entirely right about his answer; you need to listen to the genre enough for it to become internalized. Playing scales over chord changes will only get you so far and will usually leave your sound less than authentic. Listen to the masters.

To take it one step further, transcribing Jazz standards will help a lot. Learning Jazz melodies helps solidify some of the language used but doesn't necessarily address improvising. Transcribing the solos will really teach you about improvising. However, it is also helpful in learning the language to look at Jazz standards that were played by the greats. Miles Davis had a tendency to play standards but completely change the melody via rhythmic displacement and ornamentation. If you check out the original versions, then compare those to the versions of other great players, you will see the differences and with a little analysis, you may be able to understand how/why they made the changes to the original version. This should help your understanding the language and give you a few concepts to apply when attempting to improvise variations on the/a melody.

Coming from a Classical background I would recommend working into Jazz in a relatively chronological approach. Jazz evolved out of the theory developed by the Classical tradition, so starting earlier in the Jazz history should be more relatable for you. Some of the old Ragtime seems to be a decent crossover point. Be sure to listen to some old Blues as well, since Blues was very much a part of the Jazz evolution and repertoire. Listening to some old Swing music will help you grasp the early choices and approaches of Jazz music and you can hear some of the differences, such as the use of 6 chords, which is later replaced by maj7/min7 chords. While already divergent, once you get to Bebop, the Jazz approach really takes off in a different direction, truly securing itself as theoretically different than Classical. Digging into Bebop will probably be the strongest push to understanding Jazz. It seems to be the epitome of Jazz development (not to say it has stopped). After Bebop there was a time of minimalism, followed by Fusion, which is basically a whole other world, though obviously not unrelated.

A lot of the choices a player will make in a solo have more to do with fulfilling a melodic idea than following the chord changes. Sure, the chord changes are considered when soloing but it is ultimately about the line, the melodic content. Some of what you see in solos is more along the lines of "look what I can do", ie, impressive, showy lines, not as dedicated to the melodic content. It is usually best to find a balance for these opposing approaches. One way to do so, start with a melodic concept and develop a little, then throw in some showy stuff, then some more melodic content, then showy, etc. Some great players, such as Coltrane, were very good at both approaches and were actually very able to accomplish both at the same time. The problem tends to be that the showy stuff for less than incredible players is often limited to certain "tricks", while someone as talented as Coltrane could improvise wonderful melodies while playing virtuosically. Even though he and other greats are capable of virtuosic melodic improv, you will still find that they create a balance between virtuosic and not. Listening to someone shred in circles on repeat gets old, not to mention that having that variety will tend to allow the listener to perceive the showy stuff as more impressive, as they are comparing it to the more easily understood "simple" content surrounding it.

One thing to consider is the concept of chord-scales. A lot of times people will essentially use the modes associated with the chord they are playing within a key but this is not really the approach that modern Jazz musicians take. For instance, if we are in the key of C Major, a more common approach for a Jazz player would be to use C Lydian as the chord-scale. This is because of the #11 from Lydian, which has a more open sound and less room to clash with the 3 of the chord. The idea here is that for chords that are not dominant in nature (including fully diminished 7 chords and other dominant substitutions) we want to create an open feel, partially driven by avoiding b9 intervals, such as created between the 3 and 11 of a major chord. So the #11 will typically be added to any major chord. #11 is also applied to dominant chords, as the 11 tends to change the feeling/function of the chord. Similarly, minor chords tend to pull from the Dorian scale, where the 13 is a whole step above the 5, preventing the b9. Chord voicing and chord-scales is a pretty broad topic and could warrant another question if you need more information.

Beyond that, playing "outside" is one important factor, as in outside the changes. As I mentioned earlier, the line is more important than the chord changes, so if your line feels like it wants some notes that don't fit the chord changes, play it anyway because the line wins. If you have an incredible band behind you, they may even reharmonize their parts to follow your line. Sometimes your line doesn't lead you outside the changes but you can intentionally move out of the changes and it can add to your line's variety. There are many ways to step outside but one of the easiest is to use a sequence; play a line or motive/motif, then move it up or down in a pattern that will call for notes outside the chord-scales.

So there are lots of things to consider but most of them will be covered by listening and transcribing; those are the most powerful tools. Beyond that, get out there and play with some more experienced people.

  • Thank you for this informative answer. How can one get more great tips like the once said in the 4th paragraph ? Jan 22, 2015 at 1:19
  • Do you mean the paragraph about structuring solos with melodic content vs virtuosic, or the following paragraph about chord-scales? I definitely recommend The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine (or his Jazz theory book). There may also be other question on SE regarding these topics, or you could ask another question that is specific to the concept you are looking to gain more info on. Jan 22, 2015 at 14:14
  • I mean when you talked about these : "For instance, if we are in the key of C Major, a more common approach for a Jazz player would be to use C Lydian as the chord-scale. This is because of the #11 from Lydian" And I have just ordered The Jazz Piano Book I hope it will enrich my harmony and solo as you pointed. Jan 23, 2015 at 11:35
  • Excellent. Levine does discuss chord scales. He addresses a very broad range of ideas in the book (it's actually used as a text book at Berklee College of Music, as well as at USM, the school I attended). One basic approach for adding extensions on non-dominant chords: An extension that is a whole-tone above a chord tone is consider "available", as in it will not clash with the intended harmony. So Lydian and Dorian leave 9/(#)11/13 available without subverting the intended harmony and will often be used for all Maj/Min chords. Jan 23, 2015 at 13:59
  • I just want to thank you again !! I have spent hours and hours listening to jazz improvisations as you recommended , learned the alternations in the scales and played "freely" as in the modern jazz. So after 4 days being exposed heavenly to this stuff, Today I tried to apply it on the piano Guess What ? my melody sound weigh more jazzy with no effort it is awesome :) I'm looking forward to reading this book and enjoying the playing :) Jan 26, 2015 at 15:05

I have the same type of problem going from Rock to Country. I learned the scales and licks for country but can't improvise like a country player.

Why is that? Because music is a language and in order to learn how to improvise you need to know how to speak it. You can learn all the scales and theory but not know how to improvise. So you have to listen to a ton of material from that genre. Get the phrases in your mind and then to the instrument. The short answer is to absorb jazz by listening to it more then any other genre.

Remember players have a feel for their genre. They grew up on it listening to songs since they were a kid and have it in their mind how phrasing works in that particular genre.

  • I liked your answer and the language thing :) Jan 21, 2015 at 14:12
  • read my last comment on Basstickler's answer I have took your answer in concern and worked on it it made my articulations change :) Jan 26, 2015 at 15:09
  • Sounds like you are making good progress. These forums are great help for all of us to improve ourselves.
    – r lo
    Jan 27, 2015 at 13:23

I suggest immersing yourself in fundamental blues as a building block to improve your jazz solos. Messing with the minor/major movement of the third, finding the right place for what some call the "blue note" - the flat five - diddling with the flat seventh, these may seem like child's play compared to what you aspire to accomplish, but if you have these moves and motives under your fingers so they speak for you, you will have a great building block. Get away from a chart, and just play the I IV V progression before branching into the substitutions you probably know very well.

Another idea is to accept yourself as a jazz musician with a certain background that informs how you happen to go about your business. If there is some element of your classical training that creeps into your jazz, well "aren't you glad you're you?"

Lastly, listen to how Satchmo breaks down a melody on his solos. You will notice he rarely gives you a flurry of notes, you usually can identify the fundamental melody. But he approaches the notes as if he were walking through a deliciously muddy field - stepping into them a little early, pulling out a little late. Put this together with Monk's admonition: "Just play the melody." That could be a great starting point for you.


From the melodic perspective:

  • Make sure you are playing the right harmonizations, jazz harmonies need to use the tensions and sometimes the altered notes on the dominant chords; and the #11 on the major chords; and also jazz musicians tend to harmonize certain passages in certain ways with passing chords and such. From a harmony perspective these contribute a lot to the jazzy sound and directly influence what you do in your solo:
  • you target the basic chord tones, but in order to reach the target you approach them with leading tones and other chromatic approach tones
  • there are a variety of "tricks" that jazz musicians hand down to eachother, you can't really find these in books, but any working jazz musician has learned some of them and can teach them to you. Things like: if you have a minor chord, use the major third to get to the minor third; you can use both the b6 and 6 regardless of which is diatonic to the key you're in; leading tones are using when working your way up the scale but not down;

From the rhythmic perspective:

  • phrasing
  • anticipation of the next chord on the "and" of the previous chord
  • resting on target notes

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