Jim Doherty, director of the UW Madison Jazz Orchestra, will be leading our east side sessions at Talula’s. For the first session or two Jim will conduct a workshop during the first set (we’ll still jam for the second set). This is a fantastic opportunity for inexperienced improvisers to work on fundamentals. A workshop like this typically runs $25 or more but we’re offering it for free (donations encouraged). The first one is October 9th and Jim has prepared some materials to work on in advance. Here’s Jim:


I am not a super advanced improviser myself, the kind of guy who can go to a jam and play on anything that’s called. Maybe that’s why I am taking a stripped-down approach, because I need it myself. But the reasons go deeper than that, and I feel pretty strongly that everybody, beginner to advanced, needs to have a concrete, innate understanding of basic jazz harmony underneath what they are doing.

By this I don’t mean an intellectual understanding, but the kind you can feel. When a young improviser negotiates chords, he/she is translating a symbol, basically (G7, etc…) into music. This is one of the more unfortunate aspects of jazz: the cold, archaic system of letters and numbers, not to mention scary terms like “altered” chords, “super-lydian” approaches, “tritone substitutions”, blah blah. That stuff all exists, but it is intimidating, and it should eventually be learned with the ear as well as the brain.

And it should only be addressed after feeling comfortable with the basic architecture: I, V7, IV7. It is no coincidence that these chords are found in the blues, and that is why the structure of the blues is so important to the young jazz musician. If you don’t know your way around I, V and IV, you can’t play the blues, and if you can’t play the blues, there’s no reason to be trying to learn the Omni-book.

Everything we do in the first set on October 9 will be in Bb. I want people to be so familiar with I, IV and V in Bb that there is almost a physical feeling to the chords, like feeling your way around a very familiar house in the dark: you know exactly where a doorknob is going to be, where the walls are, where the stairs start. This is not because you spent hours studying a blueprint of your house but because you have spent years walking around in it.

Your band-directors’ and music teachers’ advice will come in handy as you seek to feel more and more at home in any key: scales and chords are the basic ingredients that you will draw on. This doesn’t mean that you will play scales, audition-style, in your improvisations, but you will certainly be playing parts of them, and chunks of chords as well. Music is made up of steps, skips and silence, and the best solos are a crafty mix of these three elements. Don’t let anyone tell you not to practice patterns: patterns are one of the best ways to get your brain and fingers into the mind-groove of playing inside harmony. Critics of pattern-practicing claim that it inhibits creativity; this is nonsense. The goal is not to use those patterns verbatim in your solos, but to get SO used to playing in a key that your ideas flow instinctively, and this isn’t going to happen until you know where that “doorknob” is without having to think about it.

So, we will start with simple chord patterns, in Bb, which are all found in the blues, and end with the blues, and a couple other tunes, including Happy Birthday and Falling in Love with Love, which use those patterns as well.

The first Pattern is what I call “V7 sandwich”.

You can hear this simple but elegant progression in several Mozart Piano Sonatas, and in lots of Bach, as well as the blues. It lends itself, like the blues, to question-and answer-type ideas. Play SIMPLE and INSIDE ideas. Don’t be afraid to re-state the “bread” (I) ideas when you get to the “filling” (V7), but use the nearby V7 chordal tones when you do. For example, you can play a riff based on Bb, D, and F for the first 2 bars. When you get to the 2nd 2 bars, re-state the idea, but use A, C and F instead, or C, Eb and F. Then develop the idea more, or play something else, before resolving back to I for the final bars, bars 7 and 8. Make your ideas catchy, and use space (rests) as thoughtfully as you are using your notes.

The second pattern is “IV7 sandwich”.

Whereas the first example is a close look at the turnaround of the blues, this one is a close look at the crucial bar 5 of the blues, where it goes to the IV chord. In essence this is an inversion of the first exercise because the tendency to move DOWN a fifth (the strongest harmonic tendency in music) happens on the 3rd bar here, when it goes to the IV from I7, whereas in Exercise A, that moment happens in bar 7, when V7 resolves to I. Note that both of these moments happen in the blues. Be thinking about where, and how, you can translate what you are doing here to the blues form.

The third pattern is a scale exercise I like to do. You can do it in either direction, and in any key, of course, but we will be doing it downward, and in (what else?) Bb. The goal here is to learn to think ahead and react.

Here are the rules:

1) The first note of every 2 bars has to spell, over 16 bars, a descending Bb scale.
2) Those first notes will determine whether to outline I, IV or V
3) The criteria for what chords are chosen should be whether those notes occupy 1, 3 or 5 of the I, IV or V
4) Your starting and ending notes, Bb’s, should outline Bb. Being the 5 of V, you could have chosen them to outline V, but for the sake of simplicity, and logical harmony (starting and ending in the home key) we will go with outlining Bb when you play Bb.
5) SO: when you parse this out you will realize that you really only have one choice, what to do with F when you get to it. Here you can either outline I or V7, or run through both of them if you want. We will count on the rhythm section to react to what you are doing here and cross our fingers.
6) You could actually figure out and memorize the progression, but it would do you more good to approach this exercise more reactively: As you approach the next note, your brain is thinking about what the note is, what harmony is called for based on that note, and then of course what idea to play. This mental workout is the point here, the repetition of this process makes your brain work faster, and your ears hear better, so try to play each time with a clean slate, and ignore the fact that there is a pretty set progression (with the exception of the one choice in the middle).

Next we will play an actual tune, one that you are very familiar with:

I chose this because you all know it, it encapsulates the 2 “sandwiches” you learned and the progression is great to play over. We will do it in 4/4, so elongate biiiiirthday and youuuuuu in your mind to add those extra beats. Study the melody and how it works over the harmony. Note that there are a couple suspensions, including the very first downbeat (a 6-5 suspension). If you have a piano, play the melody over the chords (happy birthday’s first (pickup) notes start on the 5th scale degree of the tune’s key).

Next we will play the Bb blues, hopefully with an improved grasp of the progression. We will use the V IV turnaround today.

Don’t hesitate to use the blues scale as a piece of what you do, or an ingredient to throw in, but don’t use it exclusively. Many of us were told to simply play the blues scale over the blues; it is a way of achieving some instant success to a beginner, and an easy way for teachers to tell students what to play. What we want to do though is outline the form and show our knowledge of it.

It’s fascinating, too, how that knowledge gives our sound more confidence. A beginner, for instance, who is lost but playing the 9 of a chord, sounds like he’s playing the wrong note, whereas a more experienced player sounds good playing the very same 9 in the very same place, because he/she knows it is the 9, and knows what to do with it–and that confidence shows through in the sound. It’s like the voice of someone who knows what they’re talking about versus the voice of someone who’s not so sure.

Lastly we will play Falling In Love With Love, which can become part of the Jam’s repertoire eventually. Here is a full size PDF:  Falling in Love with Love.

The chords are simplified somewhat but pretty close to the original harmonic structure. Note that the A sections (bars 1-8 and 17-24) are V7 sandwiches. Have fun, this is a beautiful standard. Check out Kenny Dorham’s version, originally on “Quiet Kenny”, but now available on itunes as part of a Dorham collection.

I hope this day’s approach helps, whether you are a beginner or more advanced. If you are a beginner, dig in hard to these exercises and start to get the feel of I, V and IV. Move on to other keys if you feel you are ready. If you are more advanced and feel that you have moved beyond these basics, then that itself is a sign that you need them more than ever. The best musicians in the world spend hours playing scales, arpeggios, and basic progressions. It never ends: the more advanced the stuff you tackle, the more important it is that you master the fundamentals.

-Jim Doherty