Essence of Jazz

The core of jazz is improvisation. This is also what sets apart jazz music from many other forms of music.  A friend of mine, who is a keen composer, once asked me, ” don’t you jazz musicians get bored of playing the same standards all the time over and over again” and I replied “Well, the thing is, everytime we play it is different from the last, and we seldom know what’s going to happen next.”

Check out this video of some great musicians jamming away at casino lights ’99 montreaux jazz festival. I doubt that they’ve rehearsed this song more than a few times, and doubt that what they played were what they rehearsed. Notice the frequent signaling between musicians.


Notice also how each musicians were one by one soloing over the same chord structure. Improvising a melody is a key factor in determining a jazz musician’s musical prowess. But there are also many ways to improvise. I remember the old days when I first started playing jazz. While the chords were moving, my head would be formulating all the possible notes that I could play, based on the chord/scale relationship chart. And my fingers would be running up and down the keys based on whatever notes that are possible for me. Who knows, sometimes I might get some really fast, jaw dropping, nice licks. BUT THAT’S NOT JAZZ…



I dare to bet you a KCLau album CD, that Earl Hines hears every note that he is about to play before he played them. It is only when you achieve that will you be able to truly enjoy the pure joy of jazz piano playing the way he did. 

‘Only play what you hear. If you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything.‘It wasn’t until after a few years of extensive listening and playing jazz did I learn to understand what the great jazz pianist, Chick Corea, was quoted saying. Well the first question a beginner would be asking is, what should I be hearing. Cause if I don’t hear anything, how am I to play anything. This issue can best be tackled from the perspective of a scat artist.

Check out this video of Ella Fitzgerald, demonstrating her amazing scat singing techniques. And perhaps you should know, that Ella confessed in an interview that she never received any formal music education. Well, William Hung confessed to the same thing too on national Tv. 🙂

This clearly shows that the human brain is able to create, and improvise melodies to fit the harmonic structure of a piece of music. Just play a few chords on your piano, I’m sure most of you can straightaway feel a melody coming out of your head that fits the chords you are playing, although you may not know what the notes of the melody is at all. However, without well trained ears, your melody might only be dwelling around a major scale or just a blues scale, cause that’s what we all hear day in and day out on the radio and everywhere. Only when the brain is frequently feeded with attentive listening to more complex harmonies and melodies, will it try to imitate or emulate, and thus create complex improvised melody lines. And this process is thoroughly explored by jazz musicians.
Before we move on, check out this video of Bobby McFerrin, another great scatter.


Now that your head is filled with melodies, the next question arise, how to turn imagination into reality? Or in plain english, how to play on your instrument what you hear in your brain. The solution lies in proper ear training. Yes, your ears are the bridge that connects your brain and your fingers.

Many musicians will go all the way to demonstrate that he is pre-hearing every note he is about to play, by scatting along in unison with what he is playing. A proof that he is not just running scales with his fingers, or just executing a lick that has been learnt before hand. Guitarists often do that, while sax and trumpet players don’t have the luxury of doing it.


Some musicians also do that unintentionally when they are deep into their solos. It is undeniable that they too have good pre-hearing capabilities, but the control of their vocal cords is another story. That’s why some people would call it grunting instead of scatting, some just call it pure noise. Keith Jarret maybe the “master” of that. 🙂


But many jazz tutors are encouraging their students to hum along the melody they are improvising. Besides training your ears, it also helps build solo lines that are more melodious. However, there is another school of teachers who strongly believes that humming along would be a distraction for students. Neither side has been proven right or wrong. I personally choose the first, but would be very happy to hear your opinion… 

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also want to read up on these other interesting posts. Have fun and enjoy..

Famous Quotes from Best Musicians

How to Transcribe, and the Benefits of Doing it

The Unfortunate Musician

Top Five Most Embarrasing Moments in Piano Performance

Top 10 Reasons People Learn Piano


  • KCLau

    Reply Reply June 22, 2007

    I also prefer to scat along with my solo. By doing this, I found that my relative pitch really sucks

  • bena

    Reply Reply June 22, 2007

    awesome videos!! Thanks for sharing your insights and comments, its very helpful! 😀

  • Rick

    Reply Reply June 23, 2007


    Great article! I just featured this article and your transcription article on my site:

    As you’ll see at my site, I frequently discuss ear training and the importance of being able to play by ear. I also created a couple of ear training tools to help myself and others with ear training and improvisation:

    Keep up the good work!

  • Madz

    Reply Reply March 15, 2009

    Where can i find “Lullaby of birdland” Ella Fitzgerald free sheet music?
    Email me if found

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