The Problem With Studying The “Jazz Language”

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The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

This is all good stuff to do if you’re studying jazz. It lets you go deeply into the  heart of the jazz tradition, giving you perspective and context. It gives you insights about how the musicians formed their ideas. It helps you develop technical skill that you can use as an improviser. It improves your ear. All good stuff.

But then when I asked my student what else he practices, his face went blank. He said, “That’s pretty much it. I want to really absorb the jazz language. All my teachers tell me this is the best way to do that.”

Then I listened to him play. He was very competent, very fluent, had a nice time feel, clearly showing how much, and to whom he had listened.

He was also stunningly unoriginal, and rather disconnected from the improvisational process. Everything he played sounded like an excerpt from one of the lines or solos he’d memorized. I don’t mean he was copying things note for note. It was…well, as if he weren’t really feeling at all what he was playing. It was as if it came from some external source, foreign to him.

As I pressed on in my questioning, he said that he already knew his scales and chords thoroughly. As I sort of tested him on this, he showed great competence with his scaler and harmonic knowledge. So why the disconnect?

Well, as we went further into the lesson, it became clear: He wanted everything he improvised to sound as if it came squarely from the jazz language, the jazz tradition as it were (or at least his conception of those things).

That got me to thinking about what exactly that might mean. Especially, the jazz language. Is there a jazz language? If there is I don’t know how to define it.

Is it certain harmonies used in modern jazz? Nope. All those extended harmonies are found in many different pieces of 20th century classical music.

Is it the chromaticism? No. There’s plenty of chromaticism from other forms of music. Beethoven used it to great effect.

Is it the types of rhythms that are predominantly used in jazz? Not that either. There’s no such thing as “jazz” rhythmic figure. Even syncopation has been around forever.

Is it the time feel? Now at least were getting close. Jazz musicians have a certain way of feeling time and expressing it rhythmically that is immediately palpable.

But what is it exactly? The so called “swing” eighth note feel isn’t even close to being codified. Some musicians (I’m thinking of Clifford Brown here) play jazz eighth notes virtually “straight”. Yet when you hear them play, you can easily tell it’s jazz.

And that’s usually the case. You might not be able to define what the jazz language is, but you can sure recognize it when you hear it. But the bottom line is that for every rule or principle of the jazz language there are countless exceptions. So why all the “learning the jazz language” emphasis?

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

Miles Davis was famous for this. As was John Coltrane. So was Lester Young for that matter. They were constantly pushing back against the established jazz language of their day. And they were consistently finding newer, more innovative ways to express themselves through what we still call the jazz tradition.

How did they do this? Well, if we take Coltrane as an example, he spent a huge amount of time re-mastering and exploring the materials of music: new ways of stacking chords; new ways of thinking about scales and modes; new ways to imagine rhythm and its relationship to harmonic tension. He in essence stopped looking at jazz and started looking at music in the much broader sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

For you this might mean spending a great deal more time creating and learning  your own distinctive scalar, intervalic  and harmonic patterns, building your own language. It could mean spending the next few years of your practice life devoted nearly exclusively to broadening your rhythmic conception (polymeter, odd meters, time feel, etc.). Explore the materials of music deeply.

Use your imagination, intellect, musical knowledge and ear to find (as the great jazz pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano would say) “your own melody.” Don’t let an over-emphasis on language limit your self expression.



    • Phil Nice says

      I see this as a very valid criticism of jazz teaching and music pedagogy in general, but does it go far enough? Is the method (a cerebral, quasi-grammatical approach to improvisation) sound and just the content problematic, or is it actually the method/approach that needs reappraising? I fear the conclusion for many will be to think about different things in the same old way, rather than seeing the question differently.

      I am a stickler for theory and feel that musicians (including singers) who haven’t learnt it just haven’t paid their dues. It is a necessity for communication and development in musical endeavours and can be a boon to creative activities like improvisation. If you can’t structure what you do, then it’s up to others to finish it, place it, move it into context. But do we actually need theory to improvise? I know musicians who can sing much more meaningful and grounded solos than they play on their instrument. I know singers without theory (the world’s full of them) who can sing great solos.

      The basis of the activity just doesn’t seem to be theory. Now, theory could be a wonderful tool for the first group to help them translate the lines they can invent and vocalise, onto their instrument. But only if they’re inventing them when they pick up the instrument, which they’re not, because they’ve somehow learnt that the grounding of instrumental playing is theory, rather than the musical ear, which is getting switched off. Somehow, the singers have the advantage (provided they pay their dues), because they’re using their musical ear without the danger of just talking about it.

      I see this as a central problem in all music teaching: theory and silent (“organic”) knowledge eclipsing each other instead of unifying.

      • Bill says

        Great points, Phil! The ear and the aural imagination are of prime importance. But it’s not enough to just “follow one’s ear” to continue to grow as an improviser. One must also “feed” the ear, adding things that were perhaps outside of the current aural imagination. Put simply, there are two ways to do this: Listening to, transcribing and analyzing what others play; and using music theory as a way to explore and ask “what would it sound like if” kinds of questions. The great Joe Henderson was big on the “what would it sound like if” explorations in harmony and melodic structure. Once we discover something that appeals to us aesthetically, it’s easier to get into our ears and into our palate of responses as an improviser. Thanks for your insights!

        • Phil Nice says

          I agree that the ear needs input for development. In continuation of the linguistic analogy, we build musical vocabulary through experience. That’s why I’m a stickler for theory: it’s valuable to have an understanding of what you’re listening to and dealing with. But would you agree that the ear is more fundamental to the process, i.e. that there cannot be true musical creativity without the ear, but there can be without theory?

          The linguistic analogy is interesting, because two rival schools of thought – the grammatical vs. the intuitive – have been battling over something similar in the field of language learning for years, enriching the field with all sorts of progressive methodologies and trials. While I – as a freelance teacher – try to repair so much harm done by an incredibly conservative institutional music teaching where I live, I can’t help feeling that music pedagogy could benefit from a similar upheaval. My students ask me, “What scale can I play over this?” because they’ve been trained in the grammar of music as if it were the foundation of music. If I answer “mixolydian” I’ll hear scales and arpeggios over that mode. If I answer something like, “Play what you’d sing over it. We’ll talk about scales afterwards,” I’ll get some mistakes but a few really authentic, i.e. melodic, musical lines.

  1. Bunn says

    Hi, Bill. Thank you for this great article. Myself has been questioning either about what is jazz and particularly the language. After read this i came to another question, what is exactly preserved in even a very contemporary jazz music regarding the jazz tradition and its language. I mean i have to know it logically, because if you just let your ears or heart to describe whether it’s jazz or not, i think it’s too subjective. Anyone can have a very different perspective on that. If you said there have been thing in common so there’s must be something preserved that can be traced back from the time of first jazzman. it’s noticeable and logical even for today jazz music.

    • Bill says

      Hi Bunn, I do agree that there is something that can be perceived as a continuum of the jazz tradition, but I think it is nearly impossible to define. You mentioned subjectivity (“just let your ears and heart” describe whether it’s jazz or not). To a large degree, I find this to be true. Because jazz is an idiom that is continuously evolving, continuously taking in new ideas, it will always have a certain amount of people who wish to narrowly define it. Perhaps this is why so many great jazz innovators from the past have wanted to stop using the term to categorize the music. Anyhow, thanks for sharing your ideas. I hope to hear from you again.

  2. Jacob says

    Thank you. When I first started to play, I felt this way. But my teachers and my colleagues and other sites constantly said that you must learn the jazz language. But “jazz” is more of a feeling than a set language. I took there word for it, and it’s been very confusing until now. If we copy Miles, we’ll sound like imperfect copies of him, and there are already plenty of those. Notice what he had to say, appreciate it, but no one can ever dream of becoming a creative individual if we just copy. Thank you much.

    • Bill says

      I completely agree, Jacob. It’s important, I think, to listen to lots and lots of great jazz artists if you’re studying the jazz tradition. But as you said, it’s more about the feeling than anything else. And that feeling is a very personal thing. To copy them in any way is to avoid addressing and solving your own musical and artistic puzzles. The deep exploration of these puzzles is what makes an artist great: unique, clear and strong. Thanks for your comments!

  3. cjb says

    Great article Bill. You know, that’s what makes this art form (jazz) so great. We all may be americans for example and speak the english language but we think and express our feelings differently. No two humans are exactly alike. When we improvise in jazz, I think this uniqueness allows each of us to bring something different to the table.

    • Bill says

      Yes, I agree. And one of the things all living languages have in common is that they are constantly changing, always taking in new words, sounds and expressions (and sometimes letting go of others). Whichever language we speak, there is (as you said) always a way to express something personal and perhaps even unique. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. David says

    …If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language.

    I’m so tired of this dictum that “jazz is ABOUT innovation”. Bird innovated and sounded great. Coltrane innovated and sounded great. On the other hand, the world is full of musicians who are extremely innovative, but sound terrible. I say it’s more important to “be yourself” than to innovate. To me “being yourself” means exposing the real you. If other people follow your lead, great, you’re an innovator. But if not, you’re still being yourself and you’re improvising will sound authentic and real.

    • Bill says

      Hi David, I completely agree with you that to only aim for “innovation” is most likely going to result in inauthentic self-expression (in any medium). We witness this all the time. But as an improviser and teacher of improvisation, I also hear lots of inauthentic self-expression from students who are imprisoned by this notion of what they think the “jazz language” is.
      In essence they are not finding anything to play that is truly their own. I’m not talking about being “innovative” here. I’m talking about somebody who has just not looked deeply into the whole process of improvisational self expression. It is the stunning lack of authenticity, not innovation that inspired me to pen this article.

      I find it interesting that the very people who have established this so-called jazz language were innovators (Young, Parker, Coltrane, To me, this says that the “language” of jazz is a living thing, and has perhaps a bit more to do with self-discovery than rigidly recycling a pre-established idiom. At any rate, I thank you for your comments.

  5. David says


    I forget which great pianist said it, but when complimented on his originality, he said something like, “I tried to copy pianist X, but apparently I wasn’t very good at copying”.

    Perhaps that’s the goal, to be good at copying the masters…but not too good. 🙂

    • Bill says

      David, I love that quote! And it is true in so many ways. Lester Young (from what I’ve read) said that he was sort of “copying” Frankie Trumbauer. Yet you and I know that he doesn’t at all sound like him. I think that’s part of what makes “natural” innovators more, well…natural. They tend to sound like themselves no matter what. As you and I would probably agree, Lester Young wasn’t trying to be innovative. He was merely expressing his authentic self. Thanks for that!

  6. Green says

    For me there is/are always a/some person(s) who had this viral so we’re all can come up with the idea of jazz language. It’s inevitable. Language is culture, widespread through tradition. Jazz languange for me is like hearing some people talking in chinese, japanese, and korean. They somewhat sound the same and their alphabet look the same although we can distinguish them. It’s our job to find the core of the language, and that’s the truest sense of jazz language. The rest is about evolving or variation just like we have in those far east languages.

  7. Peter Lemer says

    I tell my students to spend half of their practice time messing about mindlessly.

    I mean it: no intention, judgement, correction, comparison.

    It isn’t easy 🙂


    • Bill says

      Pete, I think that is great advice! Learning how to have fun and get comfortable with whatever comes our way as we improvise will open us all up to some wonderful expressive possibilities.

  8. says

    The plethora of jazz programs on the college level have graduated tons of young musicians who really know the vocabulary (which is important) but who have no individuality and are not really improvising. It’s almost as if they feel they have to prove they know every genre and every lick. Unfortunately this is reinforced by the jazz industry which celebrates the ability of a child prodigy to imitate, and misinterprets this as great artistry.

    • Bill says

      I’m in complete agreement with you on this topic, Roberta. (I’m also an admirer of your unique improvisational artistry!) As you well know, to actually improvise is a deeply personal form of expression. Learning components (licks, repertoire, etc.) of an improvisational “language” is an important gateway in studying a particular genre of improvistation. But alas, it is only that. It has little to do with the communicative and expressive essences of improvisation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. rpjazzguitar says

    I appreciate this discussion. Lots of great points.

    I’m not sure that I really have anything useful to add. I’ve struggled for years to absorb what I think of as jazz language — with limited results.

    Eventually, I kind of gave up on it, figuring that if I hadn’t accomplished it in the years I spent trying, it just wasn’t going to happen.

    At that point, I decided to focus on developing an individual style and not worrying too much about the elements of standard jazz education any more.

    The single most useful thing I did was spend a couple of hours with my pedalboard.

    Now, if you ask me “what is the perfect jazz guitar tone?”, like a lot of players, I say “‘Wes”. But I knew I was never going to sound like that and, in a way, I didn’t really want to. I used a Boss ME 70 at the time (ME 80 is better, I think) mostly for the tuner, the volume pedal, reverb and the occasional effect. I didn’t have any patches, because I told myself that I’d always need to adjust things on the fly. Having the pedal board allowed me to put the amp further away (where I can’t reach it) and still be able to control the sound.

    Anyway, I spent some hours playing with the effects modules and eventually came up with two sounds that were most compatible with the way I improvise. To my ear, they add some thickness and some sustain to the guitar. That allowed me to play sustained notes and stinging high notes (like BB) without it sounding too thin.

    Later, I read something about how your tone is your voice. Same way that Sinatra’s voice works for him. That made sense to me. You have to find your own voice and then figure out what you’re going to sing.

    Like anything else in music, this approach won’t be useful to everybody, but I’m sharing it because I found it helpful to break through to something new after years of marching in place.

  10. Dan Waldis says

    Bill, that is an excellent article that highlights a common theme (no pun intended) in the jazz art! I might add that students can also benefit from the practice of creating.

    Students need to make conscious efforts to create something they have never done. For instance, Stravinsky was quotes as saying that rhythm is the driving force in music. A student’s mind can be opened by working with a given rhythm (or rhythms) to create phrases. Another way for a student to explore is to try improvising using only specific intervals. A third way for explore is to not play the first phrase that comes to mind during an improvised solo, but think of something else. And yet another way is to explore techniques that use Bill Evans’ brilliant analogy between Japanese art and jazz improvisation (on the original liner notes of “Kind of Blue”). The idea is to explore possibilities.

    Thomas Edison had a saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” To me, that almost sounds like a drudgery. I like to think of it as ‘one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent EXploration.’

  11. bill says

    Having only just now found your column, and read the offerings from your esteemed clientel, I would like to offer my views.
    There are some valid arguments for and against techniques in note bashing, theory in depth, ear training etc. Out of the millons of jazz guitarists worldwide, a few stand out,(Pass, Montgomery, Kessel, Django) a great many of the rest are really good proffesionals.
    Many more supurb amateurs. The point here is a that a great many of the jazz greats from the past, (think Django) could not read or write, let alone know any theory! YET! They stand out.
    todays musicians have a plethora of learning material easily readily available, and are we at the TOP? should we not all be much better musicians than we are? There is still a mystery missing ingredient. Until we find it then its more practise.

    • Dan Waldis says

      Bill, more practice is truly the fundamental method for growth. And of course, this presents the question of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ to practice in order to maximize the absorbing of jazz improvisation / harmony language into the subconscious mind. The education materials and perspectives that have developed over the last 40-some-odd years are, of course, attempts to answer that question with some sort of organized, comprehensive system(s).

      Nonetheless, transcribing improvised solos and playing along with them does seem to be the a direct method of learning. And the gap that exists between assimilating theoretical knowledge (scales, scale patterns, etc) and coming out the other end with coherent, interesting improvisation in the jazz vocabulary often seems quite large.

      For me, whatever system of knowledge is used, the practice of consciously creating (in the moment) is a most important aspect — for instance, thematic reference during an improvisation. This is a way of combining what has been impressed on the subconscious mind with theoretical and systematic thinking.


  1. […] Saxophonist Bill Plake’s blog addresses issues directly related to the study of jazz. He makes a lot of wise suggestions about developing healthy physical and mental habits, learning to really hear yourself, the value of making mistakes, having clear musical intentions and so on. One of my favorite (and potentially controversial) pieces is The Problem with Studying the “Jazz Language”. […]

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