Traditional Jazz Tuition


20/08/08 - Hi Fred,

I am on a jazz course at the moment - I am the the one who represents pre parker jazz! All others are playing Be-bop and deriratives.

The instructors are top class professionals. There is nothing similar for 'traditional jazz', at least not here in the UK. That is why I asked if you could add a tutoring or mentoring list to your website. People who will specifically teach or coach others who want to play in the 'classic' tradition. Without this link, newcomers and 're-starters' to jazz have nowhere to go to learn the guide ropes. Yes, Yes! Listen and play along to C. D.'s - but there is a whole lot more to it than that. 

Thank you and best wishes,
Jeff Matthews 

From: Peter Boswell, 21/08/08

Dear Fred, 

By coincidence, learning to play what the Dutch call 'Old Style jazz', has been on my mind this week as my guitar player has just been on a jazz course of the sort described by Jeff Mathews. I know the students love it and the staff are top musicians and the bands/orchestras played impressively, but I find the theory way above my head and wonder if there is not a much simpler and effective way of teaching the traditional style. The simple way Owen Bryce used to teach his courses seems to me much more suitable for this style of jazz. 

I have in draft a short list of the aspects of jazz I feel should be core to learning to improvise in jazz and have been intending to forward this to you for debate once I have refined it. So I would like to see an opportunity for debate on your site. Give me a few days to refine.

By the way I picked up the French chord books in a charity shop in London for about £10 so am pleased to read the letters about them.

Here is my short-list of aspects of jazz that I think are core to learning to play. It is purely my personal view based on my own experience. I don’t claim to have practised what I preach all the time. Some of this reflects what I learnt from attending an Owen Bryce jazz course in the 70’s. Who remembers Owen?

I have produced this to stimulate some discussion around the subject of jazz courses and teaching and learning to play jazz. My teaching experience is as a lecturer in landscape design and I find many fascinating parallels in the processes, but I do not claim to be a jazz teacher -just a student.

This the point of view of a trumpet/trombone player, not a chord-man.

Peter Boswell

Learning to IMPROVISE - core aspects


Listen to as much recorded and live jazz (and other music) as possible. Take a broad eclectic approach. Learn the roots of jazz even if your interest is more modern. Listen to the interplay of the different instruments and try to identify the role of each. Absorb that which you like in order to build up a repertoire, in your mind, of sounds, ‘licks’ and phrases and hopefully this material will blend with and enhance your own musical ideas - a sort of acquired instinct to feed your extemporisations.


Learn to busk the tune as this is often the best melody to use -few can improve on the melodies of the composers when extemporising. Also learn the words as these illustrate mood, phrasing and expression.


Now try hanging your improvisations on the melody - Try decorating/enhancing the melody with passing notes, chromatics, scales and incidentals. Start modestly by making small changes to the tune -maybe two or three passing notes. Simplifying the melody -reducing the number of notes - can be equally effective.


Develop adequate instrumental technique to pursue your ideas - practise scales, arpeggios, runs, jazz phrases and combinations of notes. Play sustained notes to develop tone and contrast.


Learn the common sequences thoroughly- those applicable to many tunes such as - The Blues -Bill Bailey -I’ve got rhythm - Everybody loves Saturday Night(latin) ---don’t start with complex tunes. Walk before you run. Use the chords to support your harmonic instincts - not necessarily as the main thing to hang your ideas on, but to add guidance. Don’t drown yourself in theory at the beginning. Relying on technique and harmonic theory at the expense of the melody can lead to inappropriate strings of notes that are not wrong and yet don’t say anything - musical waffle.


As important as melody and harmonic structure is rhythm - how (and if) the music flows -think in sequence, think ahead. This, with good technique, should help to produce flowing connected improvisations.


Get playing with a few others. Listen to and watch the other musicians in the group and respond to the leader’s and each others phrases and signs- avoid each others notes and try to take breath at different times to avoid unintentional gaps. The blending, gelling and ‘fit’ of all the parts is the essence of good jazz.

Yours,  Peter Boswell.

21/08/08 - Hi Fred, 

If anyone requires lessons (especially 'front line' players) in the art of Traditional/Dixieland/Mainstream jazz they can always contact me. I was a teacher for 30 years in schools etc. and students could look me up on 'Ian Royle, musician' on Google for credentials. 

Regards, Ian Royle

John Muskett, 31/08/08

Well done Peter Boswell for clear and concise advice for developing jazzers.

Yes I remember Owen Bryce. In the late ‘70’s when I was with The Phoenix Jazzmen in Chester he played with us twice when his narrowboat (Bix) was moored locally. I have his tuition books which, I think, contain a lot of sense.

The dearth of personal tutors in the traditional style may be because many of those of us who got into jazz along the traditional path did not enrol on courses and are not good readers. It’s quite difficult to structure a teaching plan if you’ve never been on the receiving end, and not easy to teach without reading fluency. A good tutor, whatever their personal preferences, should be able to help budding jazz musicians of all styles. Over the last seven years I have been for one or two lessons a year from Steve Berry and attended one of the Jazz Summer Schools At Burnley Mechanics.

For instrumental ability a good music teacher (not necessarily a jazzer) should be able to help, especially in matters of correct technique, tone production, useful exercises, good practice and overcoming particular difficulties. Tutor books are also good; “The Jazz Method For……..”  (Trumpet, Saxophone, Clarinet by John O’Neill) take a pupil through graded exercises so that more “distant” keys and difficult intervals are progressively introduced.

Comments on Peter’s listed aspects are as follows:

Listening, Learning Melodies, Playing about with Melodies - Agree totally.

Technique -  Agreed. Learn to play in all keys. Remember the middle eight of Basin Street Blues (in Bb) starts in G (on a D7 chord), and the middle eight of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes starts in B. I would advise playing Tin Pan Alley tunes in their written keys and jazz tunes in the composers’ originally recorded keys. Then try them up a minor third, a fourth, a fifth (also useful for accompanying female singers).

Chords - Essential learning for all, I feel. Although some gifted musicians can instinctively hear harmonies, most stumble on more awkward sequences. I suspect many don’t know that the written chord for bar 29 of All Of Me (in C) is Dm7-5 and play an A note instead of an Ab. I loved the use of the words… Musical Waffle but would suggest that this is not solely the preserve of the harmonically literate. I know musicians, ignorant of chord sequences, who can produce improvisations that don’t particularly fit the chords, but are not categorically wrong. An interesting gift.

Rhythm, Ensemble Playing - Agreed. And when playing, LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. To others (there should be need for few signals during a tune or when and how the ending is to be played) AND to yourself (intonation, tone and volume in particular). And have FUN.


Unless you’re a pianist, get a keyboard and mess around with it; if you’re a rhythm player try learning a horn.  Good luck, don’t despair, I’m still working on many of the things listed. One day……..

John Muskett

Jeff Matthews, 01/09/08

May I say how useful Peter Boswell's outline of jazz improvisation will be for those wishing to start. Johns Muskett's contribution is also excellent. Lets have more from all of those jazz musicians out there. Ian Royle has come forward and offered help which is very generous. 

So you play great jazz but don't know the theory or read music? Well, that shouldn't stop you from offering to help. Jazz is an oral tradition. People in the past learnt by listening, copying, and playing with bands. So if you play a phrase to learners who know their instrument sufficiently, they will eventually absorb what they hear. Many of the really great players picked up the basics and continued their studies under other jazz musicians. Those who wish to know the theory in greater depth can buy the books and/or find a good teacher - perhaps even if not a jazz musician.

I would suggest the new learner should have about 5 - 10 tunes (to start with) (suggestions for tunes?) which they can play reasonably well and confidently and then ask for a sit - in with a friendly band. Just one number would be sufficient. This brings me to another point. Bands, audiences, please be patient with new players (and new bands). Because from new players come the future musicians and bandsmen who will keep this music going. I played with a band recently who seemed to want to scupper me by playing obscure tunes, or familiar tunes in non-standard and more challenging keys and then pushing the first solo onto me. Great experience, and I passed, just, but not really helpful. But, with an absolute beginner, that experience could be the decider on whether instruments go back in the roof or end up on Ebay. 

I do hope this is a helpful thread for new players and for those of us on a steep learning curve and wishing to play great jazz.


Jeff Matthews

John Muskett, 10/09/08

Hello Fred

Responding to Jeff Matthews' request for suggested tunes, here goes:

All were recorded by Louis Armstrong between 1924 and 1935 (7 before 1930) and can be found on the Red Hot Jazz website. Most go no higher than D (concert); Muskrat Ramble goes up to Eb, Georgia and Keepin' Out Of Mischief go up to E.

Basin St Blues (Bb), Everybody Loves My Baby (Dm/F), Georgia On My Mind (F), I Can't Give You Anything But Love (F), Keepin' Out Of Mischief (C), Muskrat Ramble (Ab), Rockin' Chair (Eb), Solitude (Db), Some Of These Days (Dm/F), St. Louis Blues (G/Gm).

The keys are mostly Louis', though he also recorded Everybody Loves in Em/G, I Can't Give You in G and Rockin' Chair in Db. (There is always some doubt over keys on old recordings because of turntable fluctuations - the same take can vary on different compilations.) With the big bands Louis often changed key near the end of a tune to enable him to finish on a satisfactorily high note! The keys, for the most part, agree with other significant recordings, and with sheet music and chords in Les Grilles.

Three and four-themed traditional tunes may be more awkward as there is more to learn, often there aren't reliable dots available and it can be difficult to distinguish the lead and harmony lines on old recordings. Most on my list have vocals which can mean one fewer chorus for the horns to play (no such relief for the rhythm section!). For a three-parter, Beale St. Blues (Bb/Bb/Eb - goes up to an F note in the second theme) could be tackled, and practice on twelve-bar blues in G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab Db (and maybe all the other keys) is useful. Don't forget the minors.

Good luck to all,

John Muskett 

David Fox 14/09/08

Note from a wanabe trad player

For amateur musicians wanting to play in a band there are adequate opportunities in orchestras, brass bands , wind bands, big swing bands, but none for old style traditional jazz.

The Owen Bryce course can be enjoyable but unlikely to enhance one’s ability in the playing of jazz. (The course twice attended did not help me) On other courses and workshops for jazz there is usually wall to wall sax players all aspiring to be the next Charlie Parker. The honking cacophony at jam session time is an experience to frighten the horses and the very few brass players present.

I took advice from suggestions by musicians letters on your web site and some of it worked for me:

1) Make sure you can play your instrument. The set of 32 bars of most jazz tunes is not difficult to play, but you must be able to read the music on sight. For those playing by ear the same articulation level applies.

2) Invest in good playalong CDs such as the now famous fantastic set of eight by Keith Nichols.

3) Learn the tunes, I repeat --LEARN THE TUNES and play them over and over until you dream about them. You will eventually play them without dots. Those who play by ear will learn the tunes more quickly..

4) You will need the music dots at the outset for playing along to the CDs .Invest in fake books but make sure you buy the one suitable for the pitch of your instrument. eg Bb Book for trumpet tenor sax and clarinet players, Eb Book for alto sax players, C for concert pitch instruments. For brass band trombone players who are used to treble cleff you will need the Bb book. The arrangements in the fake books are mostly in the same key as the tunes on CD (Return to the tunes in other keys when you are more experienced) The music in the fake books show the chords written above the stave, so they are also useful to those who play from chord lists.

When I hear a ‘must have’ jazz tune I can usually find the dots to set me off playing it.

A useful web site is:-

Careful with the chords--not always correct.

5) Persuade your local (FRIENDLY) band leader to allow you to sit in at their rehearsal (if they have one) and try out the one tune you have practiced like mad to perfect.

6) Improvisation is another story and much more difficult for the dots reader. Another letter in this section has suggested that you extemporise on the melody. A method I use but not with a great deal of success. A good imagination is useful for improvisation. You are in fact making up another tune as you go along. Playing thirds in slow tunes creates close harmony which can be fun for the learner such as myself.

6) Non profit amateur groups urgently required.

Good luck - David Fox

Tony Pringle - 17/09/08

Hi Fred,

When I was learning I was lucky. I could go and watch Ken Sims every week at the Temple on Dale Street in Liverpool - I watched his fingers and took note of the ways in which he used quiet choruses to give greater impetus to the louder choruses that followed. The other big help was Lyttleton's book - "I Play As I Please". I took him literally - I found the players I liked) George Mitchell, Kid Howard, Lee Collins, Louis, Red Allen, etc), listened, tried to play along, learned some chords from a friend and eventually ended with my own style. Watching the trumpet players with the various London bands that played at the Cavern didn't hurt.

I think you have to find a sound that you like and work towards it.

This probably doesn't help much, but it's how I did it.

Cheers,  Tony

Dear Fred,

              I have been rather surprised that your request for "teachers" has fallen on somewhat stony ground, even amongst such a notoriously skint section of society.  I felt the truly modest (What???) need to respond, even though the bailiffs are not presently expected:-
      Most new pupils, especially the adult ones, have little idea of the effort which will be required to fulfill their dreams. (Ask any teacher).
      I had an alto "hopeful" recently whose sole musical ambition was to play "The Bluebells Of Scotland" at his son's wedding. He thought it might take one lesson...or perhaps even two!
      I most definitely can NOT teach anyone how to play jazz.
 I make my own efforts to do that, (with success, according to some), but with so very little of it in my own ears.
      I can show how to get round an instrument...sax, clarinet, flute, or even piano, and how to make nice sounds....but actually playing "jazz" will always be a personal problem, just like it was for Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz.
       I will help if I can, but a sense of humour is mandatory!

                           Allan Bentham. 05/10/08 (Allan died on August 10th 2014)

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