by Tom Varner

varnerHello to all IHS friends. As some of you know, I’ve been working at learning and growing as a jazz improviser on our noble instrument for about 40 years now, ever since I heard Julius Watkins solo with Thelonious Monk and realized that “it can be done.”

I am going to gather some thoughts in this piece that might differ in emphasis from what I might have thought was most important, say, 25 or 30 years ago. (Haha, in other words, now that I am an “old guy!”)

For today, I will put some serious emphasis on what I feel is most important, and what has at times been skimmed over or at least not talked about as much as other elements in a jazz improviser’s skill set—and that is having a solid TIME FEEL. That means the ability to “internalize” the time feel, and to play with rhythmic authority (no matter what the style), and with a rhythmic authority that “locks in” with the drummer or with the bassist or with the general ensemble, no matter what the instrumentation. That “locking in” then allows the player the freedom to push a little bit, pull back a little bit (or a lot), or play right in the “middle of the beat” in order to create an individual rhythmic approach that the player chooses. (Not the conductor!) But this wonderful expression tool can only happen if the overall time feel is solid and “internalized.” For experienced jazz improvisers, this kind of “goes without saying, or is at a kindergarten level” and is a very important part of musical expression (if not the MOST important part), but for classical players, smoothness of the tone, the line, and evenness of the rhythmic pattern being expressed is often the number one priority. What we need to be able to do as good jazz players often is very different from what we need to do as good classical players, mainly in the area of rhythmic attack and providing a steady stream of constant variety in articulation. A series of steady eighth notes in Beethoven, for example should (usually) be smooth and uniform. But a series of eight notes in a “straight-ahead swing” jazz solo might have a huge variety of attacks and articulations to be effective. But again, that jazz solo (even if it is just one repeated pitch!) will only be effective if it is also solid with the overall time feel or “groove.”

So—to begin, we now need an important very advanced technological device …………….. ………….a metronome. We can talk about other technology devices later, but for me, a metronome, pencil and paper, your instrument—well, that is it.

Are you ready for some absolutely beginner (or advanced, depending on how you see it) jazz improvising basic exercises? Here goes.


Step 1. Get out your metronome. Set it to, say, 62 or 63 or 64. You are going to try to hear the metronome beat as the “2 and 4” of a 4/4 swing jazz pattern. That is, the silent “one” is the downbeat of the drummer’s ride cymbal, and the “2 and 4” is the hi-hat. Practice singing or saying “one!” with that metronome beating on 2 and 4. So you are now in 4/4 at quarter = 126 or so, but you are only hearing the 2 and 4 click. If you have never done this before, don’t worry, it might seem hard at first but that 2 and 4 is the same as snapping your fingers with a jazz beat—it comes quickly. Then, play a series of whole notes—say, on a middle C—on that “one.”

At this point I want to talk about that metronome. From here on out, that metronome is NOT a mean stern task-master making you wince, it is your FRIEND. It is your joyful drummer friend and partner that will help you have fun and seriously help you as a jazz improviser. It will not shame you! It will help you groove. For now I will concentrate on medium tempo swing, so in my opinion that “2 and 4” on the metronome is the best practice. Later, for very fast swing, you will want to have the metronome on just the “one,” and for rock or hip-hop or Afro-Cuban or Brazilian music, you might want to have it on “one and three.” To this day, I still practice a mix of these approaches. I still love to try alternating every 16 bars between “2 and 4” and “1 and 3” feels, either with a metronome or with my students in an ensemble. I do this with my “Rhythm Ear Training” classes as well—we will sing rhythmic patterns in alternating swing (2 and 4) and hip-hop or “heavy metal” (1 and 3) going back and forth every 8 or 16 bars.

Ok, onward.

Step 2. Play a series of quarter notes on your horn, maybe a middle C or an F, something easy and comfortable, but imitate the sound of a jazz pizzicato bass walking, and for your own practice at first, accent the “one,” but with that metronome on 2 and 4. You will give each quarter note a slight sforzando –not too much—just imitating that pizzicato attack and lining the notes up with that 2 and 4. Now vary the accents—try it with a slightly more emphasis on the 2 and 4, then go back to the one, try only accenting the 4, etc. Go back to very smooth and even, then switch to very heavy and exaggerated. Experiment. The important thing is to “lock in with your drummer friend.” The goal is to articulate your attack, whether aggressive or easy, with the metronone in the same way that the bassist is lining up with the drummer’s ride cymbal. This is what I wished someone had me do 40 years ago!

Step 3. Play some major scales this way. Go up an octave, one more note to the 9th, and go back down again. Ha, it will be like you are back in a very hip middle school! Again, experiment with smooth quarters, overly-accented quarters, “right down the middle like a jazz bassist” quarters, staccato quarters, and keep experimenting while still lining up the quarters with that metronome.

Step 4. If you want, bump it up to 72 (so that you are at quarter = 144), or just stay right at 64. Now play a song like “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” while still locking in those quarters with the metronome on that 2 and 4. Do not read any music. It is a great exercise to be able to play songs, even simple children’s songs, at will, and THEN go up a half-step on every repeat. For a nice warmup, do all 12 keys. It is good ear training, good internal transposition practice, and good for you as a future jazz player.   Again, lock in those quarters.

Have you noticed anything? Yes, so far, I have not spoken AT ALL about scales, chord changes, jazz theory, “what scale goes with what chord,” triads, sevenths, upper extensions, etc. In my opinion, all that is less important than getting a good time feel. All that can come later, and it will.

Before the next step, a word about jazz fake books (like The Real Book, etc.) and transposing. I have good relative pitch but not perfect pitch. I tend to “think in F.” Some jazz horn players and some great classical horn players learning about jazz want to see chord changes in C, as they really “think” in C, at least for learning the chord changes and harmonic structure of a tune. (Even if, of course, they would normally read classical music in F.) But perhaps most of us horn players, like myself, “think in F.” There is no right way or wrong way. If I really need to learn the harmonic “ins and outs” of a tune, and it is in a “C” fake book, I will WRITE IT OUT IN F. At the kitchen table, with pencil and paper. I have been doing this for 40 years. I can now do this on notation programs like Finale, of course, and sometimes I do, but for American Song Book standards and one-sheet jazz tunes, it actually helps me learn the tune better if I write it out by hand. Up a fifth, or “up a fifth and down an octave for playability” is how my brain works and does it. Over the years my “from concert pitch to horn in F” transposition has gotten pretty good, whether from bass clef (reading trombone parts) or treble clef, and I might not transpose the melody lines if it is fairly simple, but if I want to solo well over the structure, again, I will write those changes out in F! I would write out “just the changes” in very clear four or eight-bar lines to visually match the structure of the tune, on normal unlined computer printer paper. If you “think in F,” you really should too!

These four books are great (and legal), and I recommend that a horn player get them (or at least one of them) in concert treble clef versions, and plan to transpose and write out the ones you want to work on:

  • The Real Book, Sixth Edition, Hal Leonard Corporation
  • The Real Book, Volume Two, Hal Leonard Corporation
  • The New Real Book, Sher Music Company
  • Thelonious Monk Fake Book, Hal Leonard Corporation

Ok, step 5. Take a tune, like any 12-bar blues that you like (Blue Monk, Misterioso, Au Privave, Billie’s Bounce, Sonny Moon for Two, Tenor Madness, Blues for Alice, Straight No Chaser, etc.), or a standard like Autumn Leaves, All the Things You Are, Stella By Starlight, Body and Soul, What is This Thing Called Love, or any other tune that you like by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, or the other great “American Song” writers. I like Autumn Leaves the best for beginners, especially in concert G minor. Now—put that metronome back on the 2 and 4, and play through the roots of the chords. It is usually just whole notes and a few half notes. Again, try to line up your attacks with that metronome, and maybe change the whole notes to quarter notes and experiment just like you did earlier with scales or children’s tunes. Go through that 12- or 32- bar structure many times, so you start to really hear the harmonic underpinning of the tune. Eventually, add the thirds of the chords. Then the sevenths. After a while, then “walk” like a jazz bassist would, and vary your attack and articulation, while still locking in with that 2 and 4.   Once that structure feels more comfortable, you are then on your way to starting to “solo” over that tune. Remember, it is simply a 12-bar or 32-bar “grid” that repeats, and you will then be putting your ideas over that “grid.” At first, work heavily with the thirds and sevenths of the chords, and if you keep it simple and leave space and groove with that metronome, you will sound good!

I think we are good for our “session” for today. I hope to bring the next steps (scales, melodies, developing a jazz vocabulary) in the next newsletter.

In the meantime – LISTEN to these great players, and especially to how they articulate their phrasing with quarter notes, and eighth notes, over that “grid.” Are they tonguing? Air attacks? Aggressive? Easy? Big variety? Smooth? Alternating staccato with legato? Pushing the beat? Pulling it back? Right up the middle?

(This is a sample of the greats from the 50s and 60s who are a perfect starting point.)


  • Kenny Dorham—“Quiet Kenny” especially, but everything he did!
  • Miles Davis—anything from early 50s to mid 70s!
  • Harry “Sweets” Edison—the master of quarter notes, with Count Basie and Frank Sinatra.
  • Chet Baker—50s, 60s, and also his “chamber jazz” such as “The Touch of Your Lips” from 1979 and early 80s. (Only trumpet, guitar, and bass.)
  • Clifford Brown—everything he did.
  • Blue Mitchell—his work with Jimmy Smith and with Horace Silver.
  • Clark Terry—everything he is on, and his own “Color Changes.”


  • Curtis Fuller—especially on “Blue Train” by John Coltrane, and many other 50s recordings.
  • JJ Johnson—everything he did!
  • Jimmy Cleveland—his work with Gil Evans, such as “Gil Evans Plus 10”
  • Jimmy Knepper—his work with Charles Mingus.

Tenor saxophone: these players are great for a beginning (or advanced) jazz hornist to imitate.

  • Dexter Gordon—all his Blue Note recordings. Beautiful phrasing, and “easy” to copy and learn from.
  • Gene Ammons—similar to Dexter, very “horn-friendly,” I learned a lot imitating him.
  • Hank Mobley—also, all his Blue Note recordings.

Horn: Of course, Julius Watkins, John Clark, Willie Ruff, John Graas, Vincent Chancey, and all of the next generation too! So great that the numbers are growing.

A note on technology: In my opinion, nothing can “do the work for you and magically make you better” other than your own hard work with that metronome, pencil and paper, and PLAYING with your peers and playing along with recordings. And simply listening. I can also try to talk about transcribing and learning from great solos in the next installment. The “Jamie Aebersold” series of play-alongs and jazz study guides can be helpful, but DO NOT get bogged down in worrying about how to “do it right” – there is no one way to learn. There are other helpful jazz study materials and books available by Jim Snidero, Steve Treseler, Scott Reeves, Willie Thomas, and many many others. A quick online search will bring you to hundreds of options. Again, DO NOT get overwhelmed by this. Again, there is no right way or wrong way. At first, just have FUN with that metronome and your horn!

Another helpful tool for your smartphone or iPad-like device is the “iRealPro.” It is under $10, I think, and will give you all the chord changes of hundreds of tunes—but not the melodies. A quick turn of a dial and you have the chord changes in F. It can be used as a play-along device too. But I only use it if I am in a pinch to quickly get changes in F, and I still prefer to write them out by hand!

So, friends, get out that metronome and get to work and have FUN.

Let me know how it is going. Feel free to join me on Facebook, and visit my site at


Tom Varner is a jazz and improvised music hornist and composer, and has been active in the music scene for over 35 years. He moved from NYC to Seattle in 2005, and now teaches at Cornish College of the Arts.  Tom has a B.M. from NEC and an M.A. from The City College of NY.  He studied horn with Thomas Newell, and briefly with jazz horn pioneer Julius Watkins. Tom plays on over 70 recordings, and has 14 out as a leader/composer. His newest CD is a nonet project, "Nine Surprises," and was recently featured on NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."  Tom has played with a very wide range of ensembles, from Quincy Jones and Miles Davis to the Mingus Orchestra to Jim McNeely to John Zorn.

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