New to jazz but don't know where to start?

Such a wonderfully rich and broad genre can be overwhelming - especially if you encounter elitism within the field. That by the way happens in every walk of life, but doesn't make it any easier!

Here are some ideas to get you going - for trained musicians and non-musicians alike:

1. Find your first song to learn

Which song springs to mind with the word jazz? It's likely this song is a well-known standard, often covered, and would be a good starting point. If you like it, pick that one! If not, find a jazz playlist on your streaming service or YouTube and pick one from there.

2. Listen, listen, listen!

Create your own playlist with as many different versions of your chosen song, very importantly including the song's original recording. See how many interpretations you can find! You'll soon discover how different the same song can sound.

3. Find the right key for you

Jazz is best sung in your lower register with, at times, an effortless spoken-like quality. If the song is too high, it makes this harder to achieve.

a. If you don't play an instrument and don't know how to find the key that is right for you, try playing around with a website like - find the backing track to your chosen song and experiment with the key function, shifting the key up or downwards until it is comfortable to hum along. The website will tell you which key you have selected.

b. Another great practice tool with just a one-off payment is the practice tool and app iRealPro

This invaluable resource is full of jazz standards and includes the chord charts (without melody or lyrics) and backing tracks to most songs you'll want to learn. You can alter the key, speed, groove and instrumentation to your preference. It's life-changing!

4. Get hold of the sheet music in your chosen key

This is not essential, but will help you develop your ear. Most jazz musicians prefer to learn aurally, but it's really useful to have the lyrics, form, chords and melody in front of you.

Even if you can't read music notation, you can follow the rise and fall of the notes and observe the rests where you don't sing. A "leadsheet" (melody line with chords above) will do nicely, and the is a great site with the audio play available online!

If you're a visual learner, type the name of your chosen song into YouTube followed by "easy piano". You will often find videos demonstrating the progression of notes with light up piano keys or highlighted notes on moving sheet music, yet these won't necessarily be in your chosen key.

5. Listen and follow the sheet music

Don't sing out loud. Listen to the original recording, follow the music and internalise what is in front of you.

6. Listen and sing along

Sing along with the original and/ or your favourite recording.

7. Sing with the backing track

Go solo! Sing along with your backing track or iRealPro in your chosen key.

8. Sing without your backing track

Check that you've really nailed it by muting the backing track and singing a-cappella and from memory.

9. Analyse the form

It's important to understand the form of a jazz song. The form is a way of describing the structure, layout or blueprint of the song. When singing with a band, you'll usually sing the full form (the whole song) before the band offers some solos. The wonderful freedom of jazz means that the length of solos may vary from gig to gig. You'll need to know when to come back in afterwards. This used to terrify me! Knowing where you are in the structure of the song is therefore really important and practice makes perfect! A typical jazz standard will have an A and B section and will usually have the form AABA. 

The B section is usually 8 bars long and is called the "middle eight". (In pop, you might call it the "bridge".)  

Can you pinpoint this structure within your leadsheet and lyrics?

An instrumentalist will usually solo over the chords of the full form, but may just solo on the A section. When coming in again after the band solos, you will therefore either come in from "the top", "the head" or start of the song, or the B section - the middle eight - if the solo was just on the A section. You will need to listen carefully to the chord progressions as the band takes their solos so you can come in at the right place when they nod to you aka cue you in.

10. Embellish and make it your own!

When the song is completely under your skin, make the melody your own. There are many ways you can do this. Here are three:

a. Back- or front-phrasing

Delay or bring forward the start of a phrase.

b. Experiment with space

Deliberately lengthen and shorten words and notes within a phrase. Try speaking the words over the accompaniment. Notice the freer rhythm and the space between the words. Think of how many ways you could sing the opening two words in Blue Moon: extended, legato and sultry "1,2" Bluuuuuuuuuue mooooooooon; light, staccato and skippy "1,2,3,4" Blue Moooooooon! 

c. Modify the melody

On your repeat of the form, modify the melody to keep things interesting, add riffs (a short phrase with extra, added, improvised notes), chromatic passages (notes outside of the key, using halftones/ semitones), blue or colour notes (notes outside of the diatonic chord). You can use the recordings you've listened to for inspiration.

The embellishments, modification and creativity are introduced on the recap/ vocal return after the instrumental solos.

So now's your time to get going! If steps 9 and 10 prove a little tricky to do solo, or you'd like to delve further into what's beyond this - including jazz theory and improvisation - we here at Sing Jazz International will be very happy to help!

Happy singing!

Written by JENNIFER, SJI jazz voice & piano teacher

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