I was recently asked by a musical acquaintance (not a jazz musician), what it would take for him to learn how to play jazz. Immediately years of practicing, jam sessions, gigs, lessons and hard work raced through my mind. He seemed to be looking for a steps 1-2-3 sort of an answer, and of course I was struggling to come up with one.

I have been playing and teaching jazz for a good while now, and the only thing I’ve really concluded is you need passion to learn how to play jazz. Every student I’ve taught who didn’t have a passion for jazz either dropped out fairly quickly, or made it clear they didn’t want to go there. Any style of music you want to learn requires a degree of passion, but I find this especially true for jazz.

Passion aside, my friends question got me thinking about what it really does take to become a jazz musician. What kinds of skills does a jazz musician need to be equipped with? So for those who are wondering, here are 5 general skills a jazz musician needs that cover a host of other sub-skills:

1. Needs to be an emulator.

Most styles of music call for some degree of emulating (modeling one’s self after), but this is really a huge part of being a jazz musician. To learn jazz language, one must imitate musicians he/she admires to improve vocabulary and delivery. This starts by simply listening to lots of jazz music, but then can be applied by learning solos by ear.

Practice: Make listening to jazz a regular part of your routine. If you are not already, start learning solos, or parts of solos from jazz musicians you admire. It can also be helpful to learn smaller licks and phrases that you particularly like.

2. Needs to be a good listener.

I’m not talking about listening during a classroom lecture, or listening to a venting friend in need. I’m talking about while you are playing with other jazz musicians, having the ability to listen to them just as much as yourself. Jazz is all about interaction, playing in the moment, and improvising. To do all of these things well, you must be hyper aware of your surroundings and able to split your focus. It’s not the kind of music where everybody knows their part and all they have to do is play it. No, it’s a music that can change on a whim, and it should be free to shift. Listening to others should always be a priority, compared to what you are actually playing.

Practice: Next time you find yourself in a playing situation, try to shift your focus from what you are playing to what everyone else is playing. Make a conscious effort to worry less about making yourself sound good, and focus more on making the band sound good.

 3. Needs to be persistent.

Because jazz can be such a musically demanding art form, it requires a certain level of dedication to become good at it. A jazz musician can’t be focused on the short-term, they have to be in it for the long-term. Not only that, a jazz musician should view their musicianship as a journey and not a destination.

Indeed, if you want to be a jazz musician you need to love to practice. Meaning: While you do have goals of improvement in mind, you just love to play your instrument anyway. This doesn’t mean it’s always going to feel easy. In fact, their will be many bumps on the road. Sometimes you will feel like you have reached a plateau and are going nowhere. Practicing will feel stale and dry. But it’s at these moments when you need to be persistent. If you don’t persist, and persist because you enjoy playing, you will never get over that next mountain.

Practice: I have a coffee mug that says “Go the extra mile: it’s never crowded.” Meditate on that.

4. Needs to have technical ability.

I believe it’s important for a jazz musician to have some degree of technical ability on their instrument. This doesn’t mean they need to have killer chops and play mind-blowing virtuoso lines. But it simply means there needs to be some priority given to being able to navigate the instrument with ease.  As a rule of thumb: if your instrument is holding you back from what you want to musically express, it’s time to fix it.

As an actively gigging jazz musician, I am constantly running into situations that require me to hit the practice room later. It could be a blazing fast tempo, or some odd chord changes. Regardless of what it is, I need to keep my hands able to do what my musical situations require.

Practice: Start you practice sessions off with some technical exercises. Make the fundamentals of your instrument a priority.

5. Needs to have harmonic knowledge.

Now of course, musicians playing any style need to have some harmonic knowledge. But again, this is especially true for jazz musicians because the jazz repertoire is harmonically rich. A jazz musician must know what a ii-V-I is or a tritone substitution. They need to know how jazz musicians create harmonic movement. They need to learn jazz standards so they can understand how to improvise over different chord progressions. Jazz musicians need to understand voice leading and how different chords connect with one another.

The more you understand harmony, the way it sounds, and the theory behind it, the better equipped you’ll be to improvise in a jazz setting.

Practice: Learn jazz standards. Let the music teach you how to play. Each tune presents different harmonic contexts and challenges. Let them be your guide.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications "500 Jazz Licks" and "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.