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How to Start Playing Jazz With 3 Easy Steps

I get emails quite often from our readers and podcast listeners who come to Learn Jazz Standards looking for answers. In fact, just about all of our jazz community is here for this reason, and I imagine you are in the same boat.

While everyone comes from different musical backgrounds and exposure to jazz, there are those who reach out to me who feel overwhelmed. They just want to know how to get started.

This a typical question I get: “Brent, I’m really interested in learning how to play jazz but I just don’t know where to start. What steps can I take to start learning today?”

I personally love this question, because I get so excited to help and invite someone new into the jazz community! The truth is, jazz can be an overwhelming music to learn. There are so many different approaches to it, and the music itself can be challenging.

But today’s lesson is all about trying to make getting started simple. If you are in the brand new to jazz camp, I don’t want you to feel intimidated. I want you to know that you can get started today and you need relatively few music theory skills or knowledge of the genre to get started.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to understand how to play your instrument on a basic level already. At least to a certain degree. You don’t need to be exceptional, and you don’t need to have mastered your instrument by any means.

But if you are looking to jump into jazz with little to no experience, follow along with these three steps:[vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-headphones” color=”sky” size=”xl” align=”center”]

1. Pick a jazz standard and listen.

Step one has nothing to do with playing your instrument. When it comes to learning jazz, or any style of music really, you need to be listening. I’m assuming that if you are here, you have some level of interest in jazz, and that means you probably have been listening to it. Good, that’s one of the most important things you can be doing for your jazz education!

But I want you to hone in on one song for now. Each step will revolve around this one song. Which jazz standard should you pick? Let me suggest four possibilities:

  1. Freddie Freeloader
  2. C-Jam Blues
  3. Autumn Leaves
  4. Blue Bossa

If you click any of these links you can get access to chord charts, a bio, recordings and other tools to help you learn these songs.

Why did I choose these? These are more harmonically simple than most jazz standards, the most difficult being Blue Bossa. But they are very common and great starter standards. Freddie Freeloader and C-Jam Blues are both jazz blues songs, and the blues is really important in jazz. They also have the least complex melodies.

The idea for this step is to simply pick one you want to study and listen to it a lot. On your commute to work or school, at home, or on a walk. Search on YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, or iTunes for as many different version of the song. Seek out the original and then find other versions for different perspectives.

You want to familiarize yourself with the song and internalize it so that when it comes to start learning it, half of the work is already done.

Not too bad so far right?

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2. Learn the jazz standard.

You are already familiar with the jazz standard and now it’s time to learn it. Jazz standards are the vehicles in which jazz musicians use to improvise, so obviously learning jazz standards is a really important part of starting to play jazz.

There are two parts to learning a jazz standard (or any song) and that is learning the melody and learning the chord.

Now, the common temptation, especially for a beginner, is to find sheet music and learn the whole thing that way. But in jazz, the common tradition is to learn jazz standards by ear. Not only will this help you improve your ear and your musicianship, it will help you truly internalize it. The extra effort will be worth it, trust me!

Learning the melody:

I suggest starting with the melody. The melody is the defining part of the song so it’s a great place to go. You’re already familiar so all you should need to do is translate what you hear to your instrument.

Listen to the recording and work through it slowly. Play the first phrase or two, stop the recording, and figure it out on your instrument. Once you have learned the entire melody on your instrument, practice playing along with the recording. This is important!

Learning the chords:

This is the more difficult one, but I want you to give it a try. Luckily, with the links I gave you, there are chord charts for all of these songs that you can use to help you and check your work.

Start from the beginning and see if you can identify the root note (bass note) of each chord in the chord progressions. Listen to the bass player. After that, see if you can define what quality of chord it is. Have trouble with some of the chords you’re seeing on the chart? You can find out the formulas to 7th chords here.

Do your best. This is tough, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Don’t feel bad if you get stuck and need to use the chord chart.

Once you have learned the whole song practice along with the recording, and follow along with the chords, making sure you know where you are in the form at all times.

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3. Learn jazz language from the standard.

Now, in many ways just by learning that jazz standard you have begun to learn and better understand jazz language. I call it language because that’s exactly what it is. Learning jazz is relatively almost the same as learning a new language. You need to start developing some vocabulary.

So the idea of this step is to pick one of the recordings of your jazz standard and learning some musical ideas from it by ear. A lot of musicians call this learning “licks”. Whatever you like to call them, you are essentially learning sentences that you can use to play over particular chord progressions in the jazz standard.

Go to one of the solos and start finding little ideas you are curious about. Try to figure out, by ear, what they are playing and translate it to your instrument. Just pick out a few ideas.

You do want the ideas to be within the range of your ability. In my course 30 Days to Better Jazz Playing, I always suggest for my students to learn Miles Davis’ solo on Freddie Freeloader because he plays very simple melodic language. It’s accessible to almost any skill level but is still a great example of how to navigate those chord changes.

And that’s a good week’s worth of stuff to work on! It’s a giant step forward in understanding and learning how to play jazz. Take your time with these tasks and don’t feel any pressure. If any of this seems challenging to you, don’t sweat it! Nothing new is ever completely easy, and some of these challenges only get easier to do over time. Make it your goal today to start your jazz journey and complete these first steps!

Of course, there is so much more you can do, and if you explore our blog or podcasts you could stay busy for years. But if you are interested in the music theory side and practical skills you need to develop for becoming a great improviser, check out our eBook Zero to Improv.

If you need help with your jazz practicing and getting that together, be sure to get our free eBook The Ultimate Jazz Guide to Practicing.

Best of luck, you’ve got this!

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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