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CONCEPTUAL JAZZ: Preparing for the Upcoming School Year

By Frank Caruso

While discussing a topic for this issue Mike Jeffers suggested I share some ideas that will aid in making this a productive year of progress for jazz students. I decided to categorize topics which will accommodate different levels of playing ability. It is important to realize that jazz players at all levels never leave the category of practitioners. If you hear jazz players who sound exactly the same as they did 10 years ago they don’t fit into the category of practitioners, as jazz is a creative music.

Here are a few lists.


  1. Master a 12 bar blues pattern in 3 keys. (like C,F & Bb) There are several publications that can guide you through this. My book on improvisation starts with learning how to improvise on a 12 bar Blues. This is a great staring point since “one scale fits all”. A “Blues Scale” is designed to allow you to navigate over basic “Blues” changes using the “Blues Scale” of the key you are in. This is very helpful in ridding you of any fears of improvising and puts you in touch with your “intuitive voice” which is where a big part of the Jazz language lives.

  2. Start to learn how to become proficient at playing iim7- V7-Imaj7 changes. There are several publications which have examples and explanations of this basic principle of Jazz harmony. Start keys you are familiar with. My book at has a very easy explanation of this aspect.

  3. Begin to think of chord changes as “Incomplete Scales”.

  4. Always work on improving your sound. This is a given.

  5. Begin to recognize a “good time feel” and begin to establish playing in a rhythmically consistent “pocket” or “groove”. Ask your jazz instructors for listening suggestions


  1. Master playing a 12 bar Blues in as many keys as possible. For intermediate students 5 or 6 keys should do.

  2. Work on “Bird Blues”. (Blues for Alice) is a perfect choice.

  3. Begin to master all your major and minor scales in all 12 keys. For minor keys master Dorian scales first. Your instructor should be able to assist you with these.

  4. Work on becoming a good sight reader. I found that drum books are best for learning to read rhythms. My favorite is a book by Louis Bellson and Gil Brienes titled “MODERN READING TEXT FOR DRUMMERS” I like it because it takes a student through a chronological series which really helps in learning to subdivide measures.

  5. Master “Rhythm Changes” at as fast a tempo as you can execute them. Bb is a good starting key for those.

  6. Study Latin rhythms as much as possible. Great book for this is “THE SALSA GUIDEBOOK” by Rebecca Mauleon. Comprehensive treatise on the different polyrhythmic devices used in Latin music.

  7. Learn how to play in tune and work on the overall sound of your instrument

  8. Ask your instructor for a list of Standards you should be learning.


1) Learn the various scales that can be used over certain types of changes. (Lydian, Whole/Half, Half/Whole diminished, Altered scales (7th mode of ascending melodic minor), pentatonic scales, tetrachord improv, Lydian Dominant, Tri-Tone scales, etc. Begin to experiment on incorporating them into your solos. Scott Reeves and Masaya Yamaguchi have excellent books on these types of scales.

2) Learn how to execute ideas in a “perfect rhythmic setting”. Listen to drummers like Roy Haynes and Steve Gadd. There are others. In my mind they stand out.

3) Ask your instructor about “tritone” substitutions and a chromatic approach to harmony.

4) Begin to master tunes like Giant Steps and 26-2 by Coltrane and tunes like Humpty Dumpty and Spain by Chick Corea.

5) Always strive for a great sound. It is highly recommended that you sound great on whatever instrument you play. (Watch a video “An Evening with Eddie Gomez” on YouTube) he deals with this subject very well.

6) Learn to read and play in “odd time signatures. A great book for this type of study is “ODD TIME READING TEXT FOR DRUMMERS” by Louis Bellson and Gil Brienes. A very sensible chronological system on learning to subdivide odd time measures. Clap the exercises before you start to apply pitches to them.

These a just a few suggestions to begin to prepare you for what’s coming up in the next few weeks. Please remember these are broken down into categories.

Take each item and devote a specific amount of your available practice time to each individually to avoid feeling like you’re running fast and standing still.

If you have any questions feel free to contact me at


About Frank Caruso

Frank Caruso is currently serving on the Jazz Studies Faculty at Elmhurst College. His book on improvisation is available at which can be used by all instrumentalists. Frank also teaches at a private studio (The Music Suite) in Naperville and can be reached at



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