The Imitation Game

September 5, 2017

By Miles Donahue

In the movie “Keep On Keeping On,” Clark Terry talks of what people told him to do in order to learn to improvise. One old-timer told him to sit in a chair with his trumpet, look in the mirror, wiggle his ear, and grit his teeth and that was how to learn to improvise. In the interview with Michel Petrucciani from the album he did with Bob Malach, Conversations with Michel (“Conversations with Michel” Pt. 1 and 2), Michel explains how when he was very young (eight years old) he had memorized 15 transcribed solos by Wes Montgomery. In another interview – this time with Pat Metheny – he told of how, as a teenager, he could sound exactly like Wes Montgomery and when people suggested he should develop his own style and the rest is history.

When Ray Charles started out, he was performing in a carbon copy of the Nat King Cole trio until he invented his own style based on the influence of many. When folks like Terry were trying to learn to improvise there were no transcription books, or sites like Saxopedia. I have had many students come to me with an assortment of books on improvising and they had no idea what to do with them. Improvising is learned through imitation. It was said during Charlie Parker’s career that he could make a million dollars if he were to be paid for all of his improvised lines which others later stole. The people who are successful at teaching themselves to improvise have the ability to either learn by using intuition (playing by ear) – categorizing and remembering thousands of melodic ideas and then drawing on these ideas when improvising – or through intellectual analysis that allows them to develop a jazz vocabulary from which to improvise.

Bill Evans once said that he could not learn to improvise through osmosis. I do not believe he set out to invent a new style of playing, but he arrived at his style by just wanting to learn how to improvise. He was very analytical in his approach to learning. Keith Jarrett, on the other hand, claimed that the ability to play jazz is “out there” and you either get it or you do not; in other words, the ability to play jazz cannot be taught. I agree that improvising is an autodidactic skill, but what can be taught is how to practice so as to develop the ability to teach oneself the tools needed to improvise. If you were not born with perfect pitch and the ability to remember every melody you’ve ever heard you need to practice ear training (singing is ear training) and your mind needs to visualize melodic shapes to draw upon while improvising. If everything you play comes out of a book you are reading, you are not on the highway to success.

One of the things I have students do is play a transcribed solo by a master improviser over the jazz blues chord progression. The solos selected are melodic in a chordal way, so when being played unaccompanied the chords can be heard. I have selected one chorus from Dexter Gordon’s solo on the song “Tenor Madness” from the album Swiss Nights Vol. 1. The chorus selected starts at 117 and finishes at 128.I have discovered that the “Amazing Slow-downer” has the ability to change the key automatically and therefore I have students play along and set the program to go up a 1/2 step each time after setting the loop for this solo. Never mind the theory involved in the solo but the time, feel, and musical inflections can influence a player’s approach to jazz, in general. Dexter’s 8th note feel and his personality are evident in just this short look at his style .The way he can bend a note and the timbre of his sound have influenced many. In the first measure he arpeggiates the chord (8,5,3) and plays the 3rd of the four chord in the second bar. In the third and fourth bar he plays a triplet phrase using the Mixolydian scale ending on the 3rd of the chord. In the fifth bar he plays a minor triad shape on the 1of the key (1,2,3,4,5,3,4,5,3,1) and then the same minor shape starting on the 3 of the key and takes this sound down a 1/2 step and then down another 1/2 step to finally reaches the two-five-one cadence in the chord progression. A cadence is a series of chords that leads to a resting place – a resolution, in this case, to the tonic. Singing this solo is a critical aid to the learning process, as it will develop relative pitch and the ability to hear what you play before you play it.

In a career spanning 50 years, New England–based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed and recorded 14 albums, many of which are available on iTunes. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation and for seasoned players to learn fresh approaches to soloing.

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