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The (Whole) Truth About Jazz Vocabulary

Guest post by Josiah Boornazian.

An Important Question

In this post, I want to focus on some of the philosophical and practical concerns that arise when we ask the question “how do I learn and develop jazz vocabulary?”

(Just to be clear, when I say “jazz vocabulary” here I mean actual music – not words. By “jazz vocabulary” I mean specific musical content and ideas such as melodies, rhythms, harmonies, etc., as opposed to words in English – or any other language – that describe jazz. Later on I will talk about spoken language a lot when I draw some comparisons between language and music, so I want to avoid any potential confusion.)

The most effective way to develop jazz vocabulary is an issue that many jazz musicians actively think about, or at least have dealt with at some point in their musical development.

In fact, it’s a topic that all jazz musicians have an approach to, regardless of whether or not they’re aware of their underlying attitudes toward the subject. Many people have tacit assumptions about the best or “proper” way to develop jazz vocabulary that they’ve passively accepted. Often, many musicians never uncover, question, examine, or even have full awareness of their premises.

I’ve found that I reap greater rewards from my practicing, listening, performing, and composing if I spend some time thinking about the philosophical, as well as practical, issues surrounding jazz vocabulary.

In music, as in life, our philosophies inform our practices and our outcomes whether we’re aware of our underlying assumptions or not, so I’d like to invite you to join me as I take some time to examine some of the widespread tacit and explicit premises we may have about what jazz vocabulary is and how to develop our mastery of it.

I hope that by exploring the philosophy and practice of defining and learning jazz vocabulary, we will be able to maximize the benefits of our practicing and broaden the scope of our musical possibilities as improvisers.

What is Jazz Vocabulary?

To begin with, before moving ahead with the all-important question, I think it’s useful to try to widen our concept of what the phrase “jazz vocabulary” actually entails.

When some people talk about “jazz vocabulary,” I get the sense that they’re using the phrase in a relatively narrow sense, mainly to mean jazz “licks.” Perhaps for some, their notion of jazz vocabulary is slightly broader and includes melodic, harmonic, and/or (occasionally) rhythmic ideas and stylistic norms as well.

But to me, jazz vocabulary means so much more than merely “licks.” For me, “jazz vocabulary” involves much more even than “various approaches to building melodic lines and harmonic structures.”

Vocabulary encompasses more than just melodies. Vocabulary is more than even melodies within specific harmonic contexts. My concept of vocabulary also includes rhythms, how rhythm combines with melody, and how rhythm and melody combine with harmony.

Vocabulary also includes the broader concepts of pitch (particularly timbre and intonation), register, dynamics, dynamic contrast and development, tempo, meter, instrumentation, orchestration, form, expressive and extended techniques, stylistic tendencies, and all the other elements of music – as well as their complex interactions – that we sometimes forget about in the all-too-common jazz obsession with melody/rhythm and harmony.

The more that we look at vocabulary in this broader sense, the more success we will achieve when we attempt to learn, understand, and generate specific pieces of musical vocabulary. To delve deeply into the universe of jazz vocabulary involves exploring and embracing all the complexities, interdependencies, and interactive features within the music.

Music as a Language

Musicians, scholars, and music enthusiasts often make comparisons between spoken language and music. These comparisons are intuitive, perceptive, appropriate, and logical on many fundamental levels.

We often claim that music has narrative or story-telling qualities. We believe that music, in some contexts, can clearly convey certain moods, stories, characters, emotions etc. in much the same way that words can. The similarities between music and language are even built-in to the way we talk about music; take for example, take the simple fact that we use linguistically-tinged phrases like “musical vocabulary” and “jazz language.”

The parallels between language and music run even deeper than mere semantics, however. In his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006), musician and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin discusses the fact that in the human brain, music processing and verbal language processing share a lot of the same neural subsystems. In other words, listening to music and chatting with our friends both trigger a lot of the same regions in our brains in a similar manner.

As complex, wondrous, and fascinating as our ability for spoken language is, music goes a few steps further in mesmerizing us and grabbing our full mental attention on a cognitive level.

Music is special: not only does it engage the same areas in our brains that verbal language activates, but it in fact recruits every major region of the brain currently known and defined by scientists. This reality might go hand-in-hand with the fact music seems to be the ultimate form of human communication and expression; music seems to allow us to express things that we find at least difficult, if not impossible, to put into words.

In addition to the fact that our brains process music and language in similar ways, language and music are two of the so-called cultural universals – meaning every known culture on earth has some form of language and some form of music. (For more about music as a human universal, I recommend Human Universals by Donald Brown [McGraw-Hill, 1991] and This Is Your Brain On Music, especially page 6).

Finally, and most importantly for our purposes here, language and music share some significant and fundamental structural and conceptual features. Knowing this makes it useful to draw analogies between music and verbal communication in order to help better solidify our understanding of the best way to learn and use new musical vocabulary.

How is Jazz Improvisation like Speaking a Language?

As I argue above, music is a lot like a special type of language. In what ways, specifically though? And how can knowing this help us to learn jazz vocabulary?

As jazz musicians, we all use spoken language and we all play music. We know what language and music are, intuitively. But for the sake of a detailed comparison, let’s take a moment and define them both explicitly.

Verbal or spoken language is a system of communication where we use abstract symbols (words, syllables, sounds, etc.) to represent both abstract and concrete ideas, which could include feelings and emotions.

Music is “organized sound,” to use the phrase famously coined by Edgar Varese. Music is a special form of expressive communication in which we use abstract, organized musical sounds (pitches, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, timbres, etc.) to express intangible emotions.

We can already see the common ground.

Let’s go a step further: everyday speech especially has a lot in common with improvised music.

Through-composed music can be thought of as analogous to a prepared speech or script for a play or movie: they are all totally written out beforehand, and the performer/speaker/actor’s job is merely to interpret someone else’s artistic intentions and ideas. This is very different from how we use everyday spoken language, though.

In everyday speech, we all improvise, literally, every day. Conversation is improvisation.

We generally do not plan out our daily conversations word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase beforehand. Instead, we improvise: someone initiates a verbal conversation by articulating a thought, and then we verbally respond to their ideas and to other stimuli around us by recombining vocabulary we have already learned in ways that express our thoughts and feelings. We can all do this very naturally “on the fly.” Like I said, we converse creatively every day.

Our system of spoken communication generally works pretty effectively because our words have more or less specific meanings which, for the most part, are generally agreed upon beforehand, either explicitly or implicitly, by all parties involved in the communication. This allows for creative verbal improvisation within a context which has some clearly delineated (or at least implied) guidelines and boundaries. The guidelines and boundaries are the commonly agreed-upon definitions of words and the rules of grammar, syntax, etc.

These same general principles that apply to conversational improvisation also apply to musical communication and improvisation.

In other words, since it entails skills and patterns we are all already more or less accustomed to, verbal or spoken conversation can provide us with a helpful model, or theoretical framework, to help us understand and conceptualize improvisation in a musical context.

So, conversation is improvisation. And improvisation is conversation.

When we’re improvising a jazz solo, we’re essentially having a musical conversation.

The “topic” of conversation is the tune we’re soloing on or the content of our imaginations and memories if we’re improvising freely. We contribute our interpretation of the musical content and the emotional spirit of the tune to the conversation by playing our version of the “head” and then improvising over the form of the tune.

As we improvise, we listen and react in real time to the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, dynamic, timbral, and other musical information contributed by the other musicians who are playing the tune with us.

In a sense, we’re actually having a multi-layered conversation or dialogue when we improvise.

In addition to reacting to other members of the band, we’re simultaneously reacting to our memories of what we just played, memories of what others have played over this or similar tunes, memories of other music we’ve heard before, mental visualizations of the structure of the tune itself, and even subtle cues from the audience.

Even if you’re improvising a completely unaccompanied solo with no audience, you’re still conversing with yourself in the sense that you’re reacting to what you’ve just played by repeating it, developing it, and building on it, or by intentionally contrasting or complementing it.

As we grasp the strong similarities between conversation and improvisation, the role of vocabulary in both contexts becomes even clearer.

In both paradigms – conversational and musical improvisation – we have the ability to express meaningful and fresh ideas by rearranging preexisting vocabulary in new and innovative ways (provided the vocabulary we use has generally accepted meanings, or we clearly communicate the intended meaning of our newly created vocabulary).

The art forms of conversation and improvisation both involve creativity, generative action, and living with awareness “in the moment.” They also both require a high level of mastery and control of vocabulary and the rules and patterns of linguistic and musical structure.

We can choose to stretch boundaries and/or ignore guidelines. We can invent new vocabulary, or redefine and re-contextualize existing vocabulary.

However, in order to do so, we must first learn the accepted meanings and common usages of existing vocabulary, the rules of linguistic and musical structure, conversational and musical customs/norms/common practices, and where and why conceptual boundaries currently exist.

In other words, we must first learn the rules in order to break the rules in a meaningful way -meaning with full awareness, control, and clear artistic intent.

It’s all about the Process of Creative, Lifelong Learning

When it comes to learning music and improvisation in any context, I emphasize the importance of thinking in terms of processes, concepts, approaches, disciplines, practices, and attitudes, as opposed to thinking in terms of specific referential touchstones. I’ve found that a process-based perspective is more effective, individualized, open-ended, fruitful, and vital when it comes to learning music.

Some musicians, educators, and/or enthusiasts will come along and claim that you have not mastered jazz or that you don’t know anything about jazz until you have studied and/or transcribed and/or mimicked this performer or that solo or fill-in-the-jazz-blank’s most seminal album, but that is pure nonsense.

Some even go so far as to say that there’s one single “correct” or “proper” method to transcribe a solo, and strictly adhering to their method is a prerequisite to achieving true, legitimate “jazzer” status. This is also counterproductive nonsense. It’s like saying if you haven’t read, studied, and imitated the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you know nothing about writing or novels and you have no business calling yourself a real author or trying to write anything of your own. Now, I love F. Scott, but no single artist or work is the be-all end-all in any art form.

The problem with the attitude and the approach that there is only one “correct” way to learn how to improvise, compose, learn vocabulary, or make music effectively is that it fosters a restrictive mindset with a very narrowly circumscribed set of viable musical thoughts and vocabularies.

Having a restrictive, there’s-only-one-way-to-do-it attitude stifles innovation, creativity, and diversity in music. In fact, I strongly believe we should seek the opposite attitude in theory and practice; the wider the variety of new musical attitudes and different pathways to mastery we can discover and embrace, the more rich, varied, and rewarding or musical products will be.

So, the important thing is to maintain an open mind and to value lifelong learning as a practice that we continually strive to maintain. It’s important to remain curious and open to new influences, cultures, and ideas. Also, it’s essential that we work hard at all times to assess and re-asses our underlying mental models, which are the ingrained patterns of how we look at reality. We should strive to always be willing to truly evaluate and re-evaluate our basic conceptual frameworks and to look for catalysts for inspiration, change, and growth in all places – both from unlikely and likely sources.

Translating Process-Based Theory into Practice

From a practical standpoint, this open-minded attitude and process-based learning model gives us a viable approach to studying jazz vocabulary.

In a process-based approach, we make it our goal to learn to recognize musical vocabulary by ear (as well as in written form) through focused listening, practice, repetition, and imitation/transcription (I address these topics in more detail below).

We also focus on learning how to internalize, reinterpret, redefine, re-contextualize, recombine, invent, and otherwise generate new pieces of vocabulary.

As part of our exploration of musical vocabulary, we should strive to internalize a wide range and variety of musical vocabulary. We shouldn’t just focus on melodies/rhythms/harmonies, but rather we need to think about and practice all the various aspects of music making.

Also, we should embrace the practice of studying and experimenting with new vocabulary from non-jazz sources. As jazz musicians, anything we internalize and effectively incorporate into our playing by definition becomes new “jazz” vocabulary.

In addition to practicing musical vocabulary on our individual instruments, we should sing melodies, scales, intervals, scale patterns, chords, rhythms, and the other fundamental building blocks of musical vocabulary.

It’s helpful to practice singing just as we practice our instruments: we learn a lot when we sing along with recordings, play piano or guitar and sing along, sing unaccompanied, and sing with melodic drones (e.g. tanpura drones) to help us develop our musical ears. We can take the same approach with rhythm. We can practice rhythmic vocabulary away from our instrument(s) by tapping, dancing, clapping, marching, or playing drumset/percussion instruments. All of these approaches will help us develop our own personalized sense of musical vocabulary.

Developing Vocabulary: Innovation vs. Imitation

Imitation is an important step in the process of learning new vocabulary, musical or linguistic. Just as children learn a language through the imitation of skilled speakers such as their parents and teachers, imitation is an important part of the process of learning musical vocabulary.

But also, continuing the comparison, children truly thrive and start to develop their own personality and values when they learn to break away from mere rote imitation and they try to recombine vocabulary they’ve learned in new ways to express their own thoughts/feelings/ideas, which may be fundamentally different from their parents’ and teachers’ ideas.

As important as imitation is to learning how to improvise, I want to caution against the potential pitfalls of focusing too much on mere imitation and/or focusing on imitation for too long a period of time in our practicing.

It’s important to follow through and move on to the next important developmental steps after imitation, which are, as Clark Terry famously said, assimilation and innovation.

We internalize or assimilate musical vocabulary we’re imitating through repetition by playing, singing, and listening to the vocabulary over and over again.

After assimilation, the important next step is to take the material and vary it, change it, morph it, deconstruct it, rework it, and develop it into our own unique vocabulary which could, but does not necessarily have to, still fit in the original stylistic idiom. Then we can build on what we’ve learned; we can supplement it with our own insights, discoveries, intuitions, and experiments.

Through this process, we can step back and watch as the musical ideas we’re working on develop into something new, different, individualistic, and potentially innovative.

Transcribing melodies and solos by great jazz performers is an important part of the process of musical imitation and assimilation, and I’m definitely an advocate of transcription, but I think that, just like imitation in general, there’s a danger of overemphasizing transcription. I know great musicians who transcribe a lot, and I know world-class improvising musicians who have barely transcribed an entire solo’s worth of material their entire lives – if they’ve even transcribed at all!

There’s also a potential problem if we don’t emphasize a holistic, multi-faceted approach to transcription. I don’t think it’s enough simply to transcribe a solo or fragment of a solo and write it down (or memorize it) and leave it at that. Again, transcription is a form of imitation; I believe it’s important to follow through to the next steps of the process, which include repeating and working out the ideas we like best from the solos (in all twelve keys, at different tempos, in different time signatures, etc.) and morphing them, changing them, rearranging them, and molding them into our own vocabulary/ideas.

Also we need to make sure we sufficiently “get inside” the transcription both in terms of nuance and in the sense of figuring out what the soloist’s intention is artistically, musically, and emotionally. As we imitate an artist by transcribing his or her work, we’ll get the most out of the process if we try to match every subtle aspect of the music, as opposed to focusing on just the melodies and rhythms. We should match the player’s time-feel, timbre, dynamics, expressive techniques, and all other aspects of their playing.

Also, and most importantly, we should keep bringing the focus back to the processes behind the music. It’s important to try to figure out what the underlying procedures, methods, devices, and concepts are that the improviser is using, as opposed to just passively mimicking specific musical phrases or “licks.”

Context is Key to Assimilation and Innovation

To repeat, as we learn to improvise by imitating and assimilating new vocabulary, we need to learn the fundamental vocabulary, grammar, and standard practices through rote memorization and repetition.

Throughout this process, however, we must also simultaneously be aware that we have the freedom to recombine the vocabulary in new and interesting ways. It is our job as improvisers to try and discover the originally intended meaning behind the vocabulary we are learning, but also to remain open to the possibilities implied by the new and different contexts and ways in which we can apply the vocabulary we’re learning.

But, again, in order to do this we first must understand the original context of the vocabulary, and perhaps figure out what is the most traditionally “appropriate” vocabulary for any given musical situation.

For example, we wouldn’t use the same vocabulary when speaking to a typical a five-year-old that we would use while talking to a typical neuroscientist. Likewise, the same principles often apply in music: traditionally, different contexts often call for different sets of vocabulary.

[A related side-note about context: it’s also important to note and keep in mind that the underlying meaning(s) of musical and spoken vocabulary can vary greatly by culture and by individual. Sometimes we’re taught oversimplified ideas, such as the notion that the minor mode is “sad” and the major mode is “happy,” but those types of statements are grossly misleading generalizations. The emotional meaning behind the music depends on the immediately relevant musical contexts as well as so many other variables in the music, including tempo, meter, dynamic level, instrumentation, register, form (and the specification location in a given form), harmonic/melodic/tonal contexts, etc. And then of course there are socio-cultural and individual contexts to consider as well. For just one example, consider that a lot of traditional European-Jewish celebratory music is in the minor mode and yet is very joyous and up-beat.]

Ok, but how do we truly Innovate? Hasn’t “it all” been done before?

We could try and invent completely new vocabulary, but sometimes if we do this “in a vacuum,” it can all too easily turn into a dry and pedantic intellectual exercise which simply results in musical “babble” that has little or no meaning.

I think the key point here is, again, to learn the “rules,” to be fully aware if and when we’re breaking the “rules,” and to understand the “whys” and “hows” behind what we’re doing. In a word, we have to have clear artistic intent. Sometimes honest “mistakes” and authentic ignorance of the “rules” in music can lead to good artistic results. But often the breaking of the “rules” due to willful or lazy ignorance, incompetence, or insufficient control of the elements of music leads to less effective musical results.

To illustrate this point, imagine an ignorant, careless infant randomly pounding and stomping on a piano’s keyboard while playing with a non-musical toy, then visualize Keith Jarrett going into one of his frantic, frenzied “attacks” of the piano (for which he was particularly famous in the 1960s). Superficially, they might sound somewhat similar (though Keith’s playing will be inherently more controlled, purposeful, meaningful, dynamic, subtle, and skilled). Yet one (the infant) sounds like meaningless, obnoxious sonic babble, the other (Keith) is intensely compelling music.

The difference is Keith’s clear musical and artistic intent, combined with the thousands of hours of musical training that led Keith to become a true world-class master of his instrument (and a masterful musician in general). The infant on the other hand is not creating music because it has no intention of doing so – it’s merely playing with its toy and the striking of the keys and subsequent sound is random, unintentional, and unorganized (and therefore doesn’t fit our definition of music as organized sound).

All of this is not to say that it is entirely impossible or undesirable to develop completely new vocabulary from scratch. (Although I would note that many people question whether it truly is possible to create utterly new musical vocabulary “out of nothing,” since generally, we’re already “boxed in” to some degree by our culture, e.g. the fact that we rely on the Western pitch system, for the most part. That being said, even within the Western system there are innumerable combinations of pitch, timbre, rhythm, melody, harmony, and we will likely never exhaust all of the possibilities. And this remains true even when we acknowledge the fact that not all variations of pitch, rhythm, timbre etc. are necessarily noticeably different or “meaningful” to most musicians/listeners. It’s an interesting discussion which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.)

Likewise, I’m not saying that we can’t communicate with sounds and vocabulary that are essentially the musical equivalent of verbal nonsense syllables and babble. I’m merely saying that understanding the original context that is “appropriate” or “native” for vocabulary is a key step in our developmental process – a process which ultimately leads to freedom of artistic expression and innovation.

Over time, we can learn how to take vocabulary ideas out of their original context(s) and put them into new contexts in order to create something new and meaningful. But, again, my point is that the process of internalizing vocabulary necessarily includes figuring out its original context first ,before taking the next steps of experimenting and developing new vocabulary through the recombination of old vocabulary and pure invention.

Why should we care about Innovation or “Progress” with Jazz Vocabulary? Is “Progress” Inevitable?

Innovation and progress are important recurring themes in the narrative of jazz history, and perpetual change helps to quintessentially define and re-define jazz. In a sense, when we talk about musical change or progress, we’re essentially talking about new musical vocabulary, or at least the re-contextualizing of “old” vocabulary.

I don’t think that perpetual “progress” is necessarily inevitable or absolutely compulsory per se in jazz (at least not in the sense that many people mean it – more on this below), but I do believe, as Sydney Bechet pointed out, that jazz vocabulary, or at least our interpretation of it, has an innate tendency to constantly change to reflect its shifting contexts (e.g. different and new times, practitioners, and cultural backdrops): “You know, there’s this mood about the music, a kind of need to be moving. You just can’t set it down and hold it. Those Dixieland musicianers, they tried to do that; they tried to write the music down and kind of freeze it. Even when they didn’t arrange it to death, they didn’t have any place to send it; that’s why they lost it. You just can’t keep the music unless you move with it.” (from Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, Treat it Gentle [Da Capo Press, 2002])

Historically and currently, there’s plenty of evidence that jazz (and by extension jazz vocabulary) is always changing. Jazz has a wonderful pliability, adaptability, and flexibility as an art form. Jazz’s ability to change, however, does not necessarily imply or reflect an innate desire for or tendency toward a mono-directional progression. Jazz is clearly always changing in the sense that we can take older ideas and reshape them and redefined them for our own expressive purposes. Jazz also has always, and I suspect it will continue to, openly invite experimentation and self-conscious mixing with other styles and idioms.

But sometimes I think people equate “progress” or “change” with “better” or “superior” or “improvement.” I think the idea that “progress” or “change” is tantamount to “improvement” is founded upon a misconception of what these terms mean. People sometimes have an oversimplified or poorly defined view of the subtle concepts of what “good,” or “better,” “improved,” and “progress” mean in music.

Is progress defined merely by increasing complexity, or on the contrary, by a purifying simplification? Or both? Or neither? Should we define “better” or “superior” in terms of technical achievement and accomplishment or artistic creativity, (or both, or neither) and if so, by what standard? Is there a universal standard for judging “progress?” Or does “good” mean what is most appropriate and fitting for the contemporary cultural social setting? These are all provocative questions that, though beyond the scope of this post, we should all be willing to consider and discuss, because we can’t have a real dialogue about the issue of “progress” until we define our terms first (which is easier said than done!).

No matter what, it’s clear that it’s important that we are aware that we have the ability to change and adapt our music and our interpretations of our music to our environment, goals, needs, circumstances, desires, and contexts. As artists, only by being open to adaptation, change, innovation, and progress can we ensure that we will accurately reflect our unique cultural perspectives and our personal insights into the human condition.

Extramusical Inspiration

It’s also vital to note that inspiration for musical vocabulary and musical ideas does not and should not always come directly from other musical sources.

In other words, music comes from more than just other music.

Again, it’s important to remain curious, open to new influences, cultures, and ideas, and to work hard to assess our underlying mental models at all times. We should always be willing to really evaluate our basic assumptions and to seek inspiration, change, and growth in all places – both from unlikely and likely sources.

And yes, we can and should apply these attitudes and disciplines to every other aspect of our lives as well, in addition to music. Like Keith Jarrett hinted, non-musical sources of inspiration are more important than music itself: “saying ‘music comes from music’ is like saying ‘babies come from babies.’”

So it’s important to nurture an exploratory attitude and to cultivate the practices of lifelong learning as we try to tap into the richness of the human condition and the human experience in all aspects of our lives.

It’s therefore also important that we take periodic breaks from practicing in order to get involved in other activities in life, away from music.

I believe that the main purpose of art and music is to allow us to express our thoughts and feelings about the human condition and the human experience. If we spend all of our free time in life practicing, then we will not have any time to experience life in a deep, varied, and meaningful way. If we have little or no life experience, then we will not have very much, if anything, of value that we will be able to express through our music.

We should take time to experience the world around us by connecting with others through interpersonal relationships; reflecting on our own memories, thoughts, and feelings; traveling and exploring other cultures; exercising and participating in other physical activities to sustain good health; and engaging with other inspirational works of art such as great literature, movies, television, theater, and visual art, in addition to music.

Engaging with the world around us in all of these ways not only enriches our lives, but also gives us boundless sources of artistic inspiration and the raw emotional material which we can convert to meaningful human expression through our music.

If we live life with full awareness of the inspirational potential inherent in reality, then we will likely feel a strong desire to seek out experiences that are worthy of artistic expression.

In other words, there’s more to life than music.

We need a balanced lifestyle where we actively seek out enriching life experiences and try to absorb the artistic insights such experiences can provide us with.

In a sense, such an artistic-minded lifestyle allows us to always be “practicing,” even when we’re not directly working on music: every activity we engage in will ultimately shape and nurture our creative selves, which in turn will influence what we can express through our music.

Putting it all Together

Finally, although we break musical vocabulary down into separate and distinct components to facilitate practicing and analyzing the fundamental elements of music, we need to keep in mind that this process is very different from the process of actually making meaningful music.

We don’t often actively think about the rules of grammar or definitions of specific words when we converse with each other.

Likewise, we have to “let go” to a certain degree of everything we’ve learned and studied and just let the music and emotion “flow” out of us when it comes time to actually improvise. But what flows out of us will be shaped, informed, and influenced by what (content) and how (process) we’ve studied, practiced, and listened to, as students of music.

So, in order to be fluent and effective speakers and improvisers with our own unique styles of communication, we have to do our “homework” first – which means mastering a wide range of vocabulary.

Making music requires imagination, experimentation, courage, and most of all, artistic and emotional intent. Merely taking the separate individual chunks of musical vocabulary we’ve developed and stringing them together in a haphazard way (i.e. without clear intent and without an understanding of context) will not result in effective, meaningful music.

Randomly throwing together music vocabulary we’ve picked up from various sources (regardless of the quality of the sources and our execution) will not create meaningful music.

Expecting good music to automatically emerge from the act of simply repeating randomly borrowed musical phrases is like mixing all of the raw chemical elements (i.e. hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, etc.) that life is made of and expecting it to miraculously turn into a living human being.

Ultimately, it is up to us as creative improvisers to take the fundamental building blocks of musical vocabulary and synthesize them into complete and meaningful musical creations.

Experience has taught me that, as Aristotle famously argued in his Metaphysics, the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts.

Likewise, the final process of putting small chunks of musical information into coherent, expressive musical ideas is somewhat mysterious and difficult to objectively explain.

An effective and meaningful piece of music, musical performance, or improvisation has a total unity and cohesive significance that is difficult to objectively define or describe.

This element of mystery is perhaps part of what attracts us to music, especially improvised music, in the first place.

So, as you continually explore and develop new jazz vocabulary, I encourage you to embrace the wondrous mysteries of improvisation and music making as you travel through the magnificent, nearly infinite universe of sound-art.

Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in Brownsville, New York City, Miami, and California. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Jazz and Applied Saxophone at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For more information, please visit:


  1. I stumbled upon this article while searching for a method of measuring my jazz vocabulary. I was trying to figure out how many tunes I could name after hearing, say, just the first eight measures. It is possible to estimate one’s spoken word vocabulary by taking a test. It would be fun if there was a similar metric for jazz or classical, or whatever…

  2. Hello, my name is Autumn, I'm a 20-year-old saxophonist who attends the University of Arizona. I study jazz under Angelo Versace and Jason Carder, and although I've been playing saxophone for 10 years, I just started learning about jazz theory and improvisation/vocabulary my first year of college. (I am now a 3rd year student) I feel like I'm really behind when it comes to vocabulary- my teachers/peers say my improvisation sounds fine, and that I have great phrasing, but they say what I play doesn't represent jazz vocabulary. I constantly listen to jazz, transcribe, and practice incorporating jazz licks into tunes, but when I actually improvise on stage or at a jam, none of the licks come out and I just play random rhythmic phrases that sound like some other genre. What am I doing wrong/is there something you think I can do to change the outcome of my playing? People literally ask me, "do you listen to jazz?" and it's very frustrating… thanks!! Love this website!

    • Hi Autumn,

      Even though Josiah, one of our writers, wrote this post, I'm happy to chime in. First off, don't get discouraged! Learning a musical style, or music in general, is just like learning a language and it takes time. It sounds like you are doing the right things, so just keep doing them. Keep learning licks, take them through all 12 keys, listen to jazz, and internalize the music. Try to identify things you may fall back to in your live performance. Sometimes we cling to things that we are comfortable with when we perform. Identify those things. Try this: spend some time and compose your own solo over one of your favorite jazz standards. Create something that to you defines great jazz language as you know it, and a solo you would be proud to improvise. Composition is slowing the improv process down, and it can be helpful to give yourself some time to define what you already know. Keep it up!


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