Practicing jazz often feels overwhelming because there’s so much vocabulary to learn. Instead of trying to learn everything at once, it’s better to use level-appropriate repertoire to learn small bits at a time. For absolute beginners (and their instructors), Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is a great starting point.
For background and suggested recordings, see the tune’s Wikipedia page. One of my favorite recordings is by Oscar Peterson trio – although the tempo is a bit intimidating for most beginners.
Tomorrow, I’ll go over the melody – which only uses two notes (G and C). For today, I want to talk about the chord progression. Like many jazz standards, “C Jam Blues” uses variations on a 12-bar blues (Wikipedia). For beginners, it’s best to start with a simple progression like this:
In the Byte-Sized Guide to Musicianship, I recommended identifying the function of each chord using Roman Numerals. Basic blues use I (“one”), IV (“four”), and V (“five”) chords, marked here on a keyboard diagram.
Note the chord positions in the 12-bars form. The first four-bar phrase uses the I chord, the second moves briefly to the IV chord, and the third uses a “turnaround” with the V chord moving back to the I.
You may hear people talk about the I chord being the “tonic,” the V chord being the “dominant,” and the IV chord being the “subdominant.” While that will eventually make more sense, I’ve found it easier to think of chord function in terms of the circle-of-fourths.
Note that the tonic is the center of activity – which is easy to see in the key of ‘C.’ The dominant is one fourth down from the tonic, while the subdominant is one fourth up.
Check back tomorrow for more about the melody of “C Jam Blues.”
I’m relaunching this site as Nanoversity of Jazz – a digital platform combining the solopreneur approach of nanobreweries with the structured curriculum of universities. In the next few days, I’ll create a page on Patreon where you can support the project and unlock rewards such as practice exercises. I’ll also be launching the “Nano Jazz” videocast soon, in which I’ll perform and discuss jazz with musicians of various instruments, styles, and backgrounds. In the meantime, here’s my “byte-sized” guide to musicianship, which will serve as the basis for future blog content.
Step 1: Select one or more tunes for practice
Find leadsheet(s) for each tune (or transcribe melody and chords)
Listen to as many recordings of each tune as possible (preferably in multiple styles)
Identify each tune’s key elements (style, form, etc.)
Step 2: Study each tune’s harmony
Identify the function of each chord (in Roman Numerals, noting modulations)
Write out the arpeggio of each chord (up to the ninth)
Identify and write out the corresponding scale(s) of each chord
Step 3: Write parts for each tune
Transpose the melody to the clef and key of your choice (if needed)
Compose 1-2 chorus’ worth of timekeeping (basslines, comping, etc.)
Compose 1-2 chorus’ worth of solo (using transcription material if desired)
Step 4: Take time before each session to prepare
Gather all necessary materials (including journal to set goals and note trouble-spots)
Use a full-length mirror to stretch and check your stance (whether sitting or standing)
Tune your instrument (if applicable)
Step 5: Take time at the beginning of each session to warmup
Play technical exercises for your instrument
Learn chord arpeggios from each tune
Learn chord scales from each tune
Step 6: Conclude each session by learning parts
Play parts (melody, timekeeping, and solos) at a comfortable tempo
Troubleshoot material by slowing down, isolating, and looping passages
Practice improvising variations (notes, rhythms, etc.) for each part
Step 7: Sync timekeeping roles
Play 1-2 choruses of basslines and drum patterns
Add chordal instrument(s) on comping for and additional 1-2 choruses, making sure they balance duties (when applicable)
Add melodic instruments on backgrounds, making sure they’re able to keep their place in the form
Step 8: Construct each tune’s arrangement
Have each musician play through the melody (including drums), troubleshooting and repeating as needed
Have each musician improvise a solo, then troubleshoot and repeat
Determine the arrangement (intro, melody, ending, etc.) and solo order, then run through the entire tune
Step 9: Prepare arrangements for performance
Determine a set list, keeping in mind time restrictions, variety, and pacing
Rehearse the entire set in concert formation, if possible, troubleshooting as needed
Determine contingencies – such as what to do if musicians get lost
Step 10: Take time before each performance to prepare
Visit or research the venue and find out about gig attire
Make sure you’ve organized your music and packed all necessary gear
Allow extra travel time and have a contact for emergencies
Step 11: Take time during performance to focus
Set up in and maintain a good stance and mic position (if applicable)
When playing, pay attention to your bandmates parts and be ready to reset if anyone gets lost
When not playing, stayfocused on (and out of the way of) soloists and take some deep breaths to relax
Step 12: Take time after performance to address logistics
Pack up your gear quickly and discreetly, asking for help if needed
Make sure you’ve taken care of payment and any other issues
When possible, debrief with the other musicians about what did and didn’t work, as well as how to improve future performances