School of Danderfer: How to play jazz, part 2


Hello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Gather ’round students, the Danderf-edification continues…

Chapt 2: Jazz is a language

The simplest and most accurate way to describe the process of learning jazz is to compare it to learning a language.

So imagine how you’d learn to speak a new language. You’d listen to the language a LOT to get the general sounds, rhythms and phrasing in your ear. Then you’d begin imitating simple words such as “hello” or “thank you” or perhaps a few trusty swear words. Then comes the part where you string together a few of these words into short phrases such as “Hello, my name is _____” and so on, until you’ve got a handful of simple phrases under your belt.

Word by word, phrase by phrase, you’re digesting the information of this language. In other words, you’re internalizing the language.

In jazz music, this imitating is called transcribing. As the great jazz trumpeter/educator Kevin Dean taught me when I was 14 yrs old, “Transcribing is the key to playing jazz.”

It’s that simple.

Transcribing is the process of listening to snippets of music, i.e. part of a jazz solo, figuring out what the notes are (by playing them back slowly on your instrument) and writing it down on notation paper. Typically, these ‘snippets’ of music are 1-2 bars long. Write out bar after bar, after bar… and eventually you’ll have the whole solo.

If this seems painstaking, that’s because the first two or three of them really are. My first solo transcription (a Charlie Shavers solo on “Embracable You“) took about a week to write out, one or two notes at a time. The next solo I transcribed (by Artie Shaw) took almost as long but looked WAY better. Now, I have a book of transcribed solos that I’ve compiled over the years. So yes, it gets easier and easier with practice, but you know what? It’s also REALLY FUN to transcribe and at the end of it you get to play kinda like your favourite musician.

A few tips before you get started:

1. Choose wisely. The first few solos you transcribe shouldn’t be too fast, or too complicated. Find an easier solo (that you still LOVE) by one of your favourite artists.

2. You can skip parts. If there’s one or two bars of improvised jazz insanity in an otherwise straightforward solo, you don’t have to write it out. I won’t tell anyone.

3. Instrument of choice. You don’t have to transcribe a tenor sax solo necessarily if you play tenor sax, or a bass solo if you play bass. But it’s easier to transcribe the same instrument as the one you play, the solos will be in the right range for you and will likely “sit” more comfortably on your instrument.

4. Structure. Start out by writing down what the time signature is and, if possible, what the key signature is. If you can figure the form of the song (i.e. how many bars is the melody?), that’s good to know too.

5. Teachers help. Although this process is essentially teaching yourself. It’s still quite useful to have a professional look at your transcriptions and let you know if they’re correct and, if not, how they could be improved.

“Why can’t I just buy a book of transcribed solos?” you ask?

You can. In fact, it may help to see what a really professional transcription looks like and to play along with a few. However, reading someone else’ transcription doesn’t help to internalize the jazz language. By writing out solos yourself, you’re working intensely on ear training AND digesting the information within a solo bite by bite.

Remember… “Transcribing is the key to playing jazz.” This is how every great jazz musician learned to play, through the aural tradition of listening to, and copying, other great musicians.

Once you can speak this new language, it’s still years before you become fluent in a new language. And fluency in a language doesn’t make you a poet either. Becoming a poet in a new language takes even longer, but thankfully, as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a lot of fun along the way. Or at least… it should be. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Chapter 3! Any questions? Go ahead and post them. Have a great week!