How To Learn Jazz: A Beginners Guide

how to learn jazzSince I started this site I’ve received numerous emails from readers asking me the best way to get started learning jazz as a beginner.

For jazz beginners this beautiful style of music can seem intimidating and hard to tackle.

Don’t worry though. You’re not alone! I remember feeling the same way myself as a young musician while listening to great jazz musicians. I would sit in my basement and just listen over and over again to people like Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, and others. How were they playing like that??

I was so amazed by how they sounded but I had no idea what they were doing to get that magnificent sound. I constantly wondered where I could I even begin to sound like these guys?

Now, many years later as a pro musician I look back on those uncertain times and wish I had discovered a clearer direction when I started.

So, in order to help the beginners out on their own path to growth, I’d like to discuss some core components of what you need to to begin to play this wonderful style of music.

Hopefully this will give you guys a more focused start on your jazz journey. This is the starter guide/advice I wish I would have had as a newbie. Let’s get to learning!

1. Start With Learning Some Jazz standards 

Learning jazz is truly like learning any new language.  Every time you learn a new “word”, or in our case a new chord, lick, or a new scale,  it becomes a piece of vocabulary you can then use in a sentence.

Now, of course learning new “words” is important to any language but if you don’t know how to construct and speak a full sentence it will always be hard to communicate.

To continue with our metaphor, learning jazz tunes is the equivalent of us truly being able to speaking in sentences. Once you know tunes then you can apply any new musical idea you learn to jazz songs.

So, the first step should be to spend some time actually learn some jazz tunes. A good starter point for any new tune is to just start by learning the melody and the chord changes.

Jazz Tune Suggestions To Start With

You can start with tunes like Satin Doll, Blue Bossa, Misty, Autumn Leaves etc.  If you need more ideas of beginning jazz tunes I would recommend you read this beginning jazz standards to learn article.

You should also check out this discussion of jazz fake books where we discuss some of the best fake books to learn from.

2. Aural Tradition and learning the Jazz Language

We’ve discussed this before in our switching to jazz from classical article. The fundamental approaches to learning jazz are different than classical. All the notes are written out in classical music. In jazz some of the notes are written out but alot of the style of jazz music needs to be learned by ear and listening.

The true essence style is transferred by listening. It’s very important that you invest your time into figuring out what you’re hearing.

How To Figure Out What You Hear

Spend time figuring out the things you love on your favorite recordings.

You don’t have to figure out a whole album of material you like.  You can start very simple. Just figure out 2-4 bars of something you really enjoy. In a perfect world this would be on a song or chord progression you are already are familiar with.

To help me study things more closely I like to use a music loop and slow down program called Transcribe. I use it on a daily basis and I find it very helpful to study faster or more detailed music at a slower and more manageable tempo.

Listen closely for things like note choices, articulation placement of rhythms, etc. This kind of stuff can be very different than classical. Especially when it comes to beat placement and where accents are played.

It’s not required that you notate everything you hear but it’s important that you can at minimum play along with the recording in time. If it’s too fast for you to play along with at full speed use Transcribe to slow the recording down for you.

On a final note, please keep in mind that when you play jazz, rhythm and articulation take on a much greater significance Never forget that. It’s not just the notes it’s how you rhythmically play them. As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t go that swing!”

3. Jazz Piano Theory Concepts 

It is also very useful to spend time learning more about jazz piano theory. Learn some common chord progressions. Even if you’re not a piano player knowledge of chords will be very helpful.

Learn some fundamental jazz chords and some chord voicings. A good place to start would be these chord lessons on shell voicings, rootless minor voicings, rootless dominant voicings, or even a I-VI-II-V-I chord progression. You can even start by learning some solo piano chords.

4. Start to acquire some jazz vocabulary. 

One of the best ways to really learn the essence of this style of music is to study the licks of master jazz musicians. A good place to start is to learn a few II-V-I (2-5-1) licks. It’s the most common chord progression in jazz.

There are tons of licks from the jazz masters to learn on this site. You could start with this Barry Harris lick, or this Bud Powell Lick, a Charlie Parker lick, a Red Garland lick, or even a Bill Evans lick.

There are so many lessons on this site.  Start somewhere. Start anywhere. Just get started!

5. Building Your Own Jazz Vocabulary

Once you learn your licks and/or your chords make sure you spend time figuring out what makes each piece of vocabulary work. How are they built? What are the building blocks? What are the core components?

By getting to the essence of each piece of vocabulary can use them as a springboard for coming up with your own licks.

By coming up with your own vocabulary you’re essentially finding your own voice within the jazz tradition.

At it’s highest level jazz really is about personal expression.  So, analyze, understand, imitate, and then reinvent. Welcome to playing jazz and enjoy the ride!

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What will you start to learn first? If you’re already have some experience what will you learn next? Please leave a comment below and let us know!

If you are new here please remember to subscribe to the free jazz lessons email list right below this article.  You’ll be receive all the latest and greatest lessons right in your inbox.

Steve Nixon is the proud owner of Freejazzlessons.com. He is a world touring jazz and blues keyboard player and educator.

Steve is the author of Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership (A comprehensive all-in-one online jazz piano course.)

He is also the author of the The Jazz Masters Method DVD (A study of 9 legendary jazz piano players).

If you are a blues piano fan you can also check out his popular Learn Blues Piano DVD Course.


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  • antonio augusto orselli

    Good advice, Steve. Sometimes it is hard to sort out so much information that I think it is too much to learn and then goes away the stimulus.  But I will try this guide. Thanks.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      My pleasure!

  • Rico

    I started out with a simple book-Play piano in a flash- and as you said you learn the melody to a favorite song and then the chord changes, put them together and suddenly you are playing the piano !  After that it is up to you how far you want to go. You will need to learn the scales and how to play in all 12 keys. You need to know the ii-V-1 progressions. Take one song and learn to play it well; then, go from there.

  • Luke Leone

    Thanks steve

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      No problem Luke.  Have fun with this stuff!

  • Xavier

    Thank you for your advice. I’m taking this post as a starting point to begin working out jazz piano.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

       My pleasure Xavier!

  • frank

    I have always wanted to learn jazz.. I feel overwhelmed I just need some guidance to get started.. I am 37 felt it was late but no its not.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

       As long as you’re committed to improvement and enjoy the practice you’ll be able to progress at any age.

  • Bert

    Hello Steve

    just joined your lessons and I’am fascinated

    I started playing piano from scratch 4 years ago (at my 65 th year) and followed classical tutoring, yet being an jazz addap,t I started download score sheets with just the chords plus text and the melody line, of many classical songs and ballads out of mainly the 50thies
     
    So I do know a lot of chords by now, but did not see always the connection and or the width of a chords range. I do write out the complete left hand and try to place and break the chords into a nice rithem, I find that sometimes hard .  I play by now songs like: misty , nobody knows you when your down and out , Into each life some rain must fall and so on. I hope to learn a lot from you and look forward in receiving some advice

    kind regards

    Bert 
     

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

       Welcome Bert to the community here!

  • Sandesh

    Hello Steve
    am sandesh from Nepal. Could you please tell me more more chord progression other than II V I, and can i used same scale for the whole progression,Right now am using G major Scale (Am7-D7-Gmaj7) and i replace D7 with Ab7 which is tritone is that right?

  • Mark Carey

    wow, i stumbled upon your site today while practicing my trombone. I have been stuck playing notes on the page for 40 years and want to break out of that. I have ideas but don’t know how to get them out of my head. this might be the ticket!

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

       Hi Mark,
        There are a ton of lessons on improvisation on this site. Welcome to the community here. Happy to have you!

  • W.Sgobbi

    Thank you for the excellent material! I’m brazilian and started to listen, practice and love jazz songs!

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      My pleasure. Jazz is a lot of fun and I’m sure you’ll fall in love with the style.

  • Jude Schoch

    Hi Steve,
    I started learning piano a few years and have learned some of the standards. I’ve listened to the whole spectrum of jazz players and I feel most interested in the work of Bill Evans. I’m hoping to learn some of the complex harmonies he crafts so well. I just found this site yesterday and it looks like there is plenty of helpful material here.
    Thank you so much for this resource.
    Jude

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Welcome to the community here Jude! Glad to have you. Yes, Bill was one of the all time greats. His harmonies are unbelievable! There’s some free lessons on Bill’s playing on the site as well as a section on him in the Jazz Masters Method DVD. Thanks for leaving a comment and welcome again!

  • Jecha

    Hai Steve, I’m a newbie in this “jazz world”, and I’d like to know what should I do to learn many crazy jazz chords. Playing jazz sounds interesting and I hope i will be able to do it. I’m 15 years old and I’m studying classical piano. I’m not a pro, so please teach me… :) thank u…

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Welcome Jecha! There are a lot of great chord lessons on the site. Use the search bar on the site and type in chords. That will help you alot. Also, if you’re on the email list you’ll receive several chord lessons in your inbox.

  • tom keys

    Hey Steve,
    Some time ago you were writing about learning extended chords (like Maj13#11 etc). You’d suggested the reader to record those chords and then put it on a mp3 player for example. This looks like a very helpfull tool to me for learning to hear the more extended chords with more tensions and alterations. I’m gonna record those chords in cubase using MIDI and a piano VSTi. But now i’m wondering; how do you suggest me to record the chords…. I mean when you play for example Cmaj13, do you take ALL the chord tones C E G B D F A or do you leave some notes out? Like the 5th…. What do you think is the best way to record this for the purpose of learning the ‘sound color’ of those chords? (I mean all chords…. maj, dom, dim, etc) I can hear all triads and 7 chords, but have never practiced more extended chords. Yeah, I can hear the Dom7b10 chord but that’s the only more extended chord I can hear now haha

    Hope to hear from you! If you want I can share the files with you to put on your website.

    Kind regards,
    Tom

  • Andrew Steven Gradwell

    Hi Steve, I am Andrew from South Africa. Coming across your FREE JAZZ LESSONS, my long held wish came through. I will make it come true through your lessons.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Great to hear Andrew! Welcome to the site. Happy to have you here.

      • Andrew Steven Gradwell

        Thank you for the lessons I will now embark on my musical journey, and have hours of endless enjoyment.

  • Vincent Stead

    Hi Steve, I am 19 and I’ve come a long way going through my music periods. The Beatles -> Classical -> Rock -> Metal -> Alternative rock -> Alt pop/indie -> now Jamie Cullum and now straight into jazz, I feel very relieved that I found this website. I will go directly into this atmosphere as Jamie has moved the Jazz pop artist inside of me, and I hope to evolve into something deeper theoretical jazz :))
    Thanks Alot Steve

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Awesome Vincent. Sounds like quite a journey so far. We’re happy to have you here as a member of the community. Please feel free to share the site with your musician friends.

  • Lol

    Hi Steve

    Always wanted to play piano. Finally teaching myself with basic adult piano course bypalmer, manus etc. however my true motivation is to learn to play jazz in particular piece peace. Should I just listen to that and learn that? Or continue learning chords. But I ultimately want to play jazz piano. Can you advise me please?

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      You should work on chords and your piece. The more skills you have the more you’ll understand this style.

  • Kyle

    Hi Steve. I’ve been listening to Pat Flynn and loved your intereview. I’m a drummer trying to get the online thing sorted but in my spare time (Currently 30 mintues a day) learning piano. My dream is to write a latin jazz album where I’ll piano and drums. I’m still at the beginning with the piano but it’s good to know I have you to fall back on when I’m ready

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Cool Kyle. Nice to hear from you and welcome to the community here!

  • Artemas

    Hi steve, so I’ve been listening and playing the piano for years..recently I made the decision to focus on Jazz and make it a lifestyle therefore I want to start over, I know about chords, progressions, quite a few scales but I wanted to start again from fresh….any idea as to what I should start with first? Should I start with scales, chords then progressions ? what order would you suggest for someone who wants to progress more and more in jazz with UNDERSTANDING of what they are playing? Thanks

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Hi Artemas,
      Welcome to the community. You’ll want to really make sure you’re focusing on the topics mentioned in this article. Also, check out this guide I wrote. http://www.freejazzlessons.com/jazz-practice-guide-1/ thanks!