There are several different and sometimes opposing approaches to the teaching of jazz theory and improvising. This is a good thing because an approach that works for one person may not work so well for another. So what I’m attempting to do here is to present more than one way to look at it so this course attempts to draw on more than one of these approaches. Most of these pages were originally devised for the jazz theory course at Southampton University so it is intended only to give you a brief background and some theoretical knowledge of the skills required for jazz improvisation, arranging and composition.
The tutorials are specifically geared towards “mainstream” jazz which was formulated during the middle period of the twentieth century, as opposed to earlier or later styles. This era of jazz is based on the harmony of popular music at the time, with some innovations developed by the bebop greats such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. Later forms such as modal jazz, and various styles of fusion are not covered, though much of the same theory still applies. Initial learning usually requires some well defined rules. This course attempts as far as is possible to lay down some rules which should be approached as an aid to learning the basics rather than as a dogma to be applied to a subject that ideally is at its best when breaking rules or pushing boundaries. I have used one of the modern approaches of using scales to approach improvisation over chord changes, although I have emphasised several times that this approach, though useful at first, should never dominate the true art of improvisation which relies more on melodic inspiration and original use of the “jazz language”. As no improviser can ever be 100% original, this often means learning phrases and licks from the vast repertoire of jazz greats and gaining an intuitive feel for “borrowing”> and developing them
The course is not a complete on-line tutor for beginners as it originally relied on weekly lectures to fully explain the topics and demonstrate the examples, however anyone with a reasonable basic knowledge of theory should be able to pick up a lot of new ideas and approaches. You should read and understand the lessons, but most importantly play the exercises. Even if you are not a piano player, it is important to be able to play the chords on a keyboard, and transpose them into different keys.
One of the first things to learn is how chords are built from a basic scale. In the chart below we see how the diatonic chords of C major are constructed from the C scale. (Diatonic means they are built purely on notes that are in the key, later we look at chords with notes from outside the key, ie Chromatic)
You can see that from each note of the scale a chord can be constructed by using alternate notes. We will look into and explain more of this later – to begin with it is a good idea to study the chart and above all, play the scales and be aware of the chord notes so you can hear them, not just see them on the screen or on paper.
See example Chord/Scale Reference Chart below. The PDF download includes charts in all keys.Free Download page