Sometimes in jazz, like in life, the hardest thing to do is to just get started with something. When it comes to starting an activity like a song, it’s occasionally a challenge to break the ice and get over that first obstacle between you and your goal (making music). Once you’ve gotten a tune started though, the music seems to take on a life of its own and move forward, organically drawing energy from itself.

So how do you start a tune? How do you get that initial motivation and inspiration to kickoff of a jazz standard and set it on its course without always just resorting to the standard format of counting off a tune and starting right on the head?

One way to help you break out of the rut and stay inspired as you start the same songs over and over again, is to occasionally create your own introductions to jazz standards.

Adding an introduction can help set up the atmosphere for a particular tune and prime the audience for the emotional world you want to capture and explore with a given jazz song. Intros also give you space to isolate and explore one particular aspect of a tune and give you a chance to extrapolate and extemporize using the song as a launching point in a different way than you might normally do while soloing over a tune’s harmonic progression.

Introductions help give flow and variety to gigs and jam sessions, and a well-constructed intro can revitalize a tune by introducing a small element of surprise and anticipation for audiences. A great introduction can capture or hint at the spirit of tune by referencing it directly or indirectly, and adding intros to your playing can help you to add new life to old songs.

And on a practical note, sometimes you need to play an intro to give a fellow band member time to fix their equipment, talk to the club manager, find a piece of sheet music, sort out the form of a tune with another musician without having silence/downtime on stage, etc.

So, to help you start adding more intros to your interpretations of jazz standards, here are 8 strategies to constructing an introduction:

1. Tag the last 4 or 8 bars of the tune

Vamp/repeat the chord changes for the last 4 measures of a tune either with the melody or while improvising over it. This works great with almost every jazz standard, because standards are composed so that they are cyclical. The end of jazz tunes almost always transitions smoothly back to the top!

2. Improvise a solo cadenza

This method is most effective if the cadenza quotes or references the melody of the tune. For example, you can take one of the main melodic motives from the song and develop it, morph it, change it, and play around with it. You can also hint at the tune’s chord changes, rhythmic content/feel, and overall mood or atmosphere. Just let your imagination take over!

3. Vamp the first 2 or 4 bars of a tune

Similar to #1 above, this works on most standards. This method usually works best if you don’t play the melody until you’re actually starting the full form of the tune. It often is a great strategy to loop the first 4 measures and have instruments layer in one at a time. For example, you could start with the drums to set up the groove, then add bass, piano/guitar, and melodic instruments one at a time and then move on to play the full tune when you’re ready.

4. Play the melody and/or chord changes rubato or out of time

This strategy works with many tunes but it is especially effective for ballads. You can play the whole tune or just half or part of it, but the idea is to play it unaccompanied and slow down/speed up at will. Also feel free to embellish the melody and insert an improvised cadenza or two. You can add or subtract notes and rhythms, and even play it or modulate it to different key(s). You can re-harmonize it if you play a chordal instrument as well. Don’t be afraid to dramatically change tempos throughout.

5. Improvise a full chorus or a half chorus first, before introducing the melody

Instead of always starting every tune by playing the head first, you can start off with a short improvised solo and then play the melody. This is a fun and simple way to add variety and surprise to your performance practices.

6. Pick an important chord or tonal center from the tune and use it set up a modal vamp

A simple version of this is to pick the first or last chord of a tune or the V7 chord that would create a V7-I movement to the first chord of the song. For example, if the first chord of a song is F-7, you could vamp on C7alt., C phrygian, C7sus4, etc. and the move on to the F-7 to launch the tune after you’ve built up sufficient energy/tension.

7. Create and repeat a riff based off the tune

You can either pick a notable melodic/rhythmic fragment from the tune itself or just invent your own idea that fits the spirit of the song. Riffs are most effective when they are short, catchy, and highly rhythmic.

8. Set up a I-VI-II-V or III-VI-II-V vamp in the key of the tune

This is a very common strategy, and with good reason: it works! Just vamp one of those iconic jazz chord progressions in the key of the tune. This especially works best when the tune starts with a I chord because I-VI-II-V and III-VI-II-V resolve smoothly to the I and allow you to transition easily from the intro into the tune proper.

I hope these strategies are helpful and inspiring. Try to come up with your own intro ideas as well! This list is just a starting point to help spark your musical imagination.

Finally, be sure to practice your intros just like you practice your solos! And there’s nothing wrong with having a few stock intros worked out beforehand that you can pull out on a moment’s notice and use when needed. Also practice cuing the band, because part of creating a good intro is knowing how to successfully transition to the main performance of the song.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
Previous articleLJS 95: 10 Tips for Successful Jazz Gigs and Jam Sessions
Next articleLJS 96: Important Jazz Chord Substitutions You Need to Know
Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in New York City, Miami, and California. He has performed with a wide variety of jazz artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Chris Potter, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Ari Hoenig, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. As a composer, Josiah has been commissioned to write for groups far and wide, including ensembles in California, New York, Texas, and Istanbul, Turkey. Josiah holds a Master of Arts degree in music from the City University of New York's City College campus and a Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, he began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. As an educator, Josiah has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools across the country. He currently teaches at the University of Miami part-time as a graduate assistant. As a scholar, Josiah was awarded a Björn Bärnheim Research Fellowship at the Hogan Jazz Archive during the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information, please visit josiahboornazian.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. I'm looking over old LJS columns (cleaning oit my email inbox) This is very helpuful in creating intros for jazz standard tunes. Another resource is the "intro verse" Many pop and standard songs had "intro verses" like the one in "I Left My Heart in San Francisco … "The Lovlieness of Paris" .etc before the "chorus". " I Left My Heart " …Conventionally the verse was in another key than the chorus. But it set the mood for the rest of the song. I recommend that players learn the lyrics of the standards to get the oroginal intent of the composer, which we are then free to re-interpret ; )

Leave a Comment