Improv Corner - An Interview With Jazz Improviser Jeff Jarvis

  • In an effort to help inspire new ideas and guide existing ones through the developmental process, I thought it would be helpful to read some thoughts about improvising from an established and highly respected California-based jazz improviser. As a Yamaha trumpet artist, Jeff Jarvis has performed throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Indonesia. In addition, he is in high demand as an honors jazz band conductor, clinician and lecturer and often presents workshops for jazz educators as well as students of all ages. He recently allowed me to ask some questions that I thought would help you with your improvisations.

    1. Where do you find inspiration when improvising?
    "Much of my inspiration emanates from the information and energy provided by the other musicians. Naturally, the relevance and success of my ideas are contingent upon my knowledge of the music I’m playing, as well as my command of my instrument. If I am thoroughly acquainted with the melody, my improvised ideas reflect that knowledge. At times, I may even quote a portion of the melody while improvising. Song lyrics also come into play, especially when improvising during a ballad. Like many soloists, I always connect with the song best when I know the words. This makes my solo more lyrical, as opposed to my depending strictly on a vocabulary of “licks” or commonly used jazz figures or phrases. I try to think like a vocalist when I perform songs at slower tempos. Improvisers are always inspired by other musicians they respect. I can’t honestly say I try to recall a specific Miles Davis or Chet Baker lick when I’m soloing, but I will consciously endeavor to play in their respective styles when I feel it’s appropriate for the tune. The success of these approaches is commensurate with one’s ability to perform on his/her instrument. When I listen to some soloists, I often sense brilliant ideas and intentions that never seem to make the trip from their brain to their instrument. I include myself in this group of players. I’m sure there are countless instances where I conceive an idea, and in a split-second, subconsciously edit the line to fit within the parameters of my instrumental ability or how well I’m playing that moment. So, the moral of the story is to continually strive to master your instrument so less and less of those great ideas you hear in your head need to be simplified to suit your ability to play them."
    2. How would you describe the fundamentals of improvisation to a student?
    "(My replies to some of these questions are paraphrased from material presented in a jazz pedagogy book I co-authored with Doug Beach entitled The Jazz Educators Handbook.) Improvisation is the most important aspect of teaching jazz. It can be the most exciting component of the jazz experience. It is an element that makes jazz music unique. Yet there are students and directors who go to considerable lengths to avoid it. Students often have the mistaken impression that improvising is a skill reserved for "the chosen few." Somewhere along the line they heard someone playing a fast, technical bebop solo. They were thoroughly impressed, but also convinced they would never reach that level of proficiency. Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Although he meant to be humorous, there’s a lot of truth to that statement. Remember -- all the great jazz soloists started out as beginners. Improvisation is creativity. And creativity is a very personal adventure. Although degrees of creative intuition may differ from one person to another, everyone can enjoy the tremendous amount of fun and satisfaction derived from performing their own ideas. Those who say they cannot improvise or aren't interested in learning are usually the individuals who really want to learn! Why not be the first to see the look on your students’ faces as they discover that the ability to improvise is hidden inside them? Even after mastering the jazz language, flashy technique is not always the answer. While musicians understand and appreciate a lightning fast jazz solo, untrained listeners and musicians usually react favorably to a melodic solo. This explains the widespread acceptance of jazz greats like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. All these players improvised with a very strong sense of melody. As a result, their music appealed to people’s emotions, as well as their intellect. As the popular adage states … Less is More. Here are some considerations for aspiring improvisers: 1) Allow yourself to be a learner. Give yourself permission to be awkward. Remember the first time you attempted to learn how to ride a bicycle or drive a car? Did it not feel uncomfortable and awkward? Now it almost seems second nature, doesn’t it? 2) Ask for help. We have all been conditioned not to ask for help since our childhood years, often being ridiculed or ignored for being curious. As a result, many people avoid asking questions for fear of looking ignorant in front of their peers. 3) Ask an expert. Many students make the mistake of seeking advice from peers that will sympathize with their ignorance, but have little to offer. Seek help from qualified people. 4) Don’t wait to learn how to improvise. The time will never be just right. "First you jump off the cliff and then you build your wings on the way down." Here is a list of prerequisites for success as an improviser: Skill: The improviser must possess a reasonable command of the instrument. The improviser must possess a vocabulary of scales, modes and arpeggios. The improviser must have an understanding of basic chord construction. The improviser must have an understanding of melodic integrity. Opportunity: The improviser needs encouragement from the teacher. The improviser needs the opportunity to perform in a variety of jazz settings. Listening: The improviser needs an awareness and appreciation of jazz history. The improviser needs to analyze accomplished jazz musicians. The improviser needs an understanding of jazz concept. Originality: The improviser needs to combine his knowledge of the jazz language with his emotion and perspective."
    3. What was your first improvisational experience (jazz or otherwise)?
    "I can’t recall the very first time I tried to improvise, but I would venture a guess it happened very early in my musical journey. Though I played only classical music for the first eight years, jazz music was always part of my environment. My father played it on the radio when we went on car trips, and my mom often woke us up by playing The Hi Lo’s , a great vocal jazz group. My folks would occasionally hear me trying to copy the swing style and inflections of the music I heard daily. I don’t ever recall having trouble with the stylistic aspects of playing jazz. I simply imitated what I heard. As a high schooler in Buffalo, New York, I played in the school band, a local American Legion band, and a community youth orchestra. One day while warming up for an orchestra rehearsal, one of the clarinet players, a local college student, heard me playing the song, “Fly Me To The Moon”. I was using some of the jazz phrasing I had heard as a youngster to embellishing the melody. He asked me if I wanted to play more jazz, to which I replied an eager, “Yes!”. Like most schools, our high school had no jazz band. The clarinetist gave me directions to a jazz club in downtown Buffalo called The Pine Grill. Renowned jazz artists such as Jimmy McGriff, George Benson, and Jack McDuff played the club regularly. My first experience in jazz was to sit in with Hammond B3 Jimmy McGriff. I nervously played the melody and a few choruses of “Fly Me To The Moon” and much to my surprise, the crowd applauded. I was immediately hooked. I started going to the Pine Grill and other clubs to sit in as much as I could. I didn’t think my mom would approve of my riding a city bus downtown to play in bars at the age of fourteen, so I kept this activity secret until I was about thirty years old! By the way, the clarinetist that told me about the jam session was Grover Washington Jr."
    4. Can you offer other helpful hints for student improvisers?
    "The best advice I can offer is to master scales and arpeggios in all keys, and to do lots of listening to jazz music. Let’s take a look at scales and arpeggios: Thanks to a lot of scale and arpeggio practice, my fingers automatically navigate through the various key centers as I improvise. If the chord is a G7, I draw on the many times I practiced the scale, interval, and dominant seventh exercises from the Arban’s Method For Trumpet. A great deal of repetition made me fluent in the various keys to the point that I now can solo without consciously thinking about the key signature. My father, a trumpet player and band director, started me out at the age of eight. He was not a strong improviser, but had a beautiful sound and a smooth playing style. Those aspects of his playing were a part of my early development, as well as traits I attach great value in my own playing. When I was able to do so, we played a lot of duets and exercises from the Arban’s Method, particularly scale and arpeggio studies. I vividly remember the first two scales my father taught me were C# and F#. He never told me they were difficult, so I had no preconceived stigma attached to them. Gradually, my dad introduced me to other challenging keys. When I joined the school band a year later, I struggled to play in the keys of C, F, AND G! Since much of our elementary band music was in those keys, I eventually added them to my “arsenal”. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was comfortable in all major and minor keys, making my band music much easier to negotiate. What does this have to do with jazz? I truly believe my early playing experiences have made me less conscious of key signatures when I improvise, allowing me to concentrate on my ideas. My mother, a vocal music teacher, used to play a musical game with my sisters and I that helped us to recognize intervals. When we were little kids she would play a note on the piano, then ask us to sing it back to her. As we got a bit older, she asked us to name the notes. As we navigated from note to note by related the new sound to the last one we had heard, we were developing a strong sense of relative pitch. This helps me to hear and react to intervals when I improvise. Also, as a brass player, it’s possible to use the correct fingering but hit a number of notes in the harmonic series. Relative pitch allows me to “zero in” on the correct pitch before I attempt to sound the note on my horn. As far as listening goes, it’s arguably the most neglected aspect of jazz education today. Since the typical student’s daily musical environment consists primarily of non-jazz styles, they are likely to perform music in the swing style less accurately and confidently than a rock chart. The logical solution is to tell them to include more swing jazz in their musical environment. Though few educators disagree with this advice, many say they don’t have time to make listening part of their rehearsal agenda. During their rehearsals, students are repeatedly asked to "speak the jazz language" having never heard it "spoken" properly. By using each other as learning models, they produce a crude jazz "dialect" heard only in the school environment. It wouldn’t occur to them to play swing eighth notes in a stiff, unconnected, and over-articulated manner if they heard them played correctly. What should jazz students listen to? For starters, most commercially available charts are promoted by publishers through the distribution of demonstration recordings, usually at no charge. What better way for developing groups to gain an understanding of the chart they’re learning than to hear a professional jazz band’s rendering? Rhythm section players and soloists should be strongly encouraged to listen to recordings encompassing a variety of styles, as their parts require more interpretation than found on the written page. Experiencing the music produces results that no educator, clinician or book can ever hope to equal."

    About Jeff Jarvis:
    Amherst Records artist, Jeff Jarvis has distinguished himself as a multi-faceted music industry professional. His solo recordings as a jazz trumpeter and composer have placed high on national air play charts and have won him critical acclaim. Jeff’s early career as a studio trumpeter encompasses over 100 albums for such names as Lou Rawls, Melba Moore, and Michael Jackson. Live performance credits include Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Bellson, Joe Williams, Jon Hendricks, Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Henry Mancini, Slide Hampton, Kevin Mahogany, Grady Tate, Eddie Daniels, Rob McConnell, and Doc Severinsen. Jeff is frequently commissioned to compose for various school, military and professional musical groups. He is a contributing editor for The Instrumentalist, in addition to writing for other music trade journals such as Flute Talk, Band & Orchestra Product News, and Jazz Educators Journal. Jarvis has co-authored The Jazz Educators Handbook with Doug Beach, and a jazz piano book with Matt Harris entitled The Chord Voicing Handbook. A Yamaha trumpet artist, Jeff has performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Indonesia. He has most recently been featured with the USAF Airmen of Note, Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Jazz Orchestra, US Army Jazz Ambassadors, Jazz Knights of the United States Military Academy Band at West Point, Riverside Jazz Orchestra, Oslo Big Band (Norway), US Army Blues, Frank Mantooth Jazz Orchestra, Denver Symphony Orchestra, USAF Shades of Blue and more. Jeff is on the adjunct faculty at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. In high demand as an honors jazz band conductor, clinician and lecturer, Jeff presents workshops for jazz educators and students of all ages. He is the music director of the Central New York Jazz Orchestra, serves as jazz coordinator for the Texas Bandmasters Association, and is a former Vice-President of the International Association For Jazz Education. Jeff is CEO of Kendor Music, Inc., the first educational music publisher to provide jazz charts written especially for students.