20 resources to help musicians get way better at jazz

11 minute read

Here are 20 resources to help musicians get way better at jazz. Jazz is a genre that trail blazed virtuosity and mastery. The great thing about jazz is that you can interpret it as a beginner and also as a seasoned advanced player. For me, it’s a language that teaches musicians how to really push themselves harmonically and technically; in the most musical and self-expressive way.

Disclaimer: All these tools only work as supplements to an important habit – regular practice.

Websites

1. Jazz Advice

This is my favourite resource for learning and understanding tough concepts. Forrest and Eric are passionate and thorough teachers, who pack so much value into their articles. I have bought a few courses from them as well. It’s an outstanding resource for intermediate to advanced musicians.

2. Mike’s Master Classes

Mikes Master Classes lets you buy pre-recorded master classes from leading jazz musicians. Classes are designed to emulate an intimate one-on-one lesson, and they tackle specific areas. I have two classes from Tom Lippincott; Modern Jazz Improvisation and The Joy of Practicing. Every class lets you download the full 2-hour video, extensive PDF and backing tracks for your personal home practice.

Recommended by Tosin Abasi, guitarist of Animals as Leaders.

3. Learn Jazz Standards

This is a great site with strong support from its Facebook group. Members keep the group relevant and fresh, along with insightful tips from the admin. This is great for players like me, who need to stay accountable and reminded to practice!

There’s a great podcast, library of standards and courses to sink into.

Books

4. The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten

This is a gem. It reminds you of why you play music in the first place. Wooten goes through 10 concepts that are interwoven into an epic narrative. It is an existential adventure for those who are open and willing to embark.

Some people describe this book as ‘out there’, but I think that it stands as a compelling allegory that describes how we feel when we are pushing ahead with our craft. If you like Victor Wooten, you’ll enjoy this book.

The 10 concepts are:

1. Groove
2. Notes
3. Articulation/Duration
4. Technique
5. Emotion/Feel
6. Rhythm/Tempo
7. Tone
8. Phrasing
9. Space/Rest
10. Listening

5. The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum

I’ve used a lot of tools from this book. It’s sobering, eye-opening and liberating – all at the same time. This book makes no qualms about the essentiality of regular practice. Harnum talks about the meta-reality of effective practice, i.e. the flow state, effort, planning and techniques. But don’t let that put you off, everything in this book is actionable and usable. It serves a pragmatic reminder that great players are great practitioners.

Notes from the book:

What is practice?
Jonathan Harnum defines practice as anything that you are doing or thinking about that is music related:
  • Watching live performances (one of the best things to do)
  • Playing
  • Thinking about music
  • Listening
  • Talking about music
  • Learning another instrument
  • Jamming.

6. The Inner Game of Music by Barry Greene

I used to have a lot of trouble playing in front of people. In fact, I would be frozen on stage with thoughts screaming “don’t fuck up”, “you should have learned the song better”, “people are going to think that you’re shit” – all happening in the middle of a solo. Many musicians have this problem – it sucks the joy out of performing for a crowd and pulls you out of the moment where you can transcend the music and be free.

This book helped me to start sorting out my insecurities and fears around playing in front of an audience.

This was recommended by John Petrucci, guitarist of Dream Theater.

7. Moving to Higher Ground by Wynton Marsalis

This book was a great resource that provided commentary on the history of jazz and the blues; where it’s going, and what great jazz records to listen to. This book helped me to get a literal and aural understanding of what jazz is about.

Here are all the listening recommendations, below:

Artist
Albums
Louis Armstrong
  • The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
  • Live at Town Hall
  • My Musical Autobiography
Art Blakey
  • Moanin
  • Free for All
  • A Night at Birdland, Vol 1-3
Ornette Coleman
  • The Shape of Jazz to Come
  • Ornette!
  • Chang of the Country
John Coltrane
  • Giant Steps
  • John Coltrane and Jonny Hartman
  • A Love Supreme
Miles Davis
  • The Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings
  • Kind of Blue
  • Miles Ahead
  • Filles de Kilimanjaro
Duke Ellington
  • The Blanton Webster Band
  • The Carnegie Hall Concerts
  • Ellington Indigos
  • The Far East Suite
Dizzy Gillespie
  • Dizzy Gillespie and his Sextets and Orchestra: Shaw ‘Nuff
  • Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt: Sonny Side Up
  • Dizzy on the French Riveria
Billie Holiday
  • Lady Day: The Complete Billy Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)
  • The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve (1945-1959)
  • Lady in Satin
John Lewis
  • MJQ: 40 Years
  • Evolution
  • Evolution II
Thelonious Monk
  • Solo Monk
  • The Complete Riverside Recordings
  • Live at the It Club
Jelly Roll Morton
  • The Complete Library of Congress Recordings
  • 1923-1924
  • 1926-1930
Charlie Parker
  • The Complete Savoy Sessions
  • Charlie Parker with Strings
  • One Night in Birdland
Marcus Roberts
  • Deep in the Shed
  • The Joy of Joplin
  • Blues for the New Millennium
Scott Joplin
  • Ragtime: The Music of Scott Joplin
Django Reinhardt and Bill Coleman
  • Self Titled

8. The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine

This has become somewhat of a jazz bible. This book spans from absolute beginner to professional player. It’s a lifetime effort going through this book, but that’s what makes is such an invaluable resource.

This book was recommended by every music teacher I’ve had.

9. The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony by Joe Mulholland and Thomas Hojnacki

When I first started getting jazz lessons, heaps of the theory went over my head. I’d find myself trying to scramble and recall things that didn’t make sense to me. I tried to go straight to The Jazz Theory Book, but after a few days, I got intimidated and kept avoiding it.

The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony book was the perfect bridge between fundamentals and foundational theory, mixed with practical exercises at an intermediate to advanced level. I refer to this book all the time.

I’d recommend this book for people who are trying to transition their theoretical understanding from beginner into intermediate jazz, and also want to get a handle on practical and ‘real world’ theory.

Everything in this book is laid out in a simple, concise and intuitive manner.

Videos

10. Rick Beato’s YouTube channel

Every musician should have this channel bookmarked. Rick is a master. I particularly love the anecdotal videos where he draws on his past experiences and the lessons learned. You’ll find great information on jazz, film music, production, theory, music business and other meta-skills that come with being a great musician.

11. A Master Class in Jazz Performance and Creativity with Pianist Kenny Werner

“What makes music so attractive? It’s the love and acceptance that the audience see’s in you because generally, people find it difficult to love and accept themselves the way they are – so to see love and acceptance in a performance, that’s half the battle.”
Philosopher, teacher, pianist and author, Kenny Werner talks about the mental game of playing and practice.
This was a mind-bending video that changes your perspective on what being a musician is all about.

12. Gary Burton’s Jazz Improvisation Course

Gary Burton is arguably one of the greatest living jazz improvisers. Here, he talks about how to streamline your thinking so that you can play effectively over changing chord progressions. Gary elucidates on the system that he’s used for almost 60 years.

Have a notepad ready for this video – there’s a great deal of awesomeness to unpack.

Here are some of my notes from the video. Gary Burton’s method is that there are only 10 modes that you need to master to improvise on roughly 80%  jazz tunes. He thinks of each mode in a hierarchical rank of brightness to darkness.

Colour: Most bright to the darkest
Mode
Altered degrees of a major scale
(1) – Major
Lydian
#4
(2) – Major
Ionian
major scale
(3) – Major/Dominant 7
Mixolydian
b7
(4) – Minor
Dorian
b3, b7
(5) – Minor
Aeolian
b3, b6, b7
(6) – Minor
Phrygian
b2, b3, b6, b7
(7) – Minor/half-diminished
Locrian
b2, b3, b5, b6, b7
(8) – Dominant 7
Lydian b7
b7, #4
(9) – Dominant 7
Altered
b9, #9, #11, b13, b7
(10) – Diminished
Symmetrical Diminished
b9, #9, #11, b7

Documentaries

13. Universal Mind of Bill Evans (1966 Documentary)

Bill Evans is a master of chord voicings, progressions and telling a story through his playing. This documentary left a deep impression on me. Especially the main message – master the fundamentals, learn them so well that you don’t have to think about them, and don’t move on until you do. There’s no point trying to play way out of your reach, you just end up defeated and left with sloppy technique. Master what you can play, and move up from there.

I watch this often to remind myself that no one is above the fundamentals – so, I definitely shouldn’t skip over them.

14. The Charlie Parker Story

Everyone says that Charlie Parker was the greatest, but, to be honest, I couldn’t get into his music for a long time. It was just too frantic an out of my depth at the time.

This documentary helped me understand the genius and influence that Charlie (Bird) Parker had on music as a whole. The man’s achievements were phenomenal (he was a high school dropout who ended up being called the Johann Sebastian Bach of Jazz later in his career). I love the story of him being ridiculed off the stage as a teenager for screwing up the chord changes in Count Basie’s band. What a comeback story.

If anything, it’s a testament to what passion, hard work, dedication and focus can achieve.

14. Chasing Trane

Coltrane taught us how to incorporate the east with the west. This documentary shows you the level of self-expression and intuition the man had, with emphasis on his obsession with practice. One could say that it was almost erotic. This is a great biography of one of the jazz giants: who showed us how virtuosity, mastery and spirituality can come together to create something grand.

iOS, Android and Web Tools

15. Online Ear Traning Tool 3.0

This is an intermediate to advanced online ear training tool. It lets you cycle through random chord qualities or set up a specific method to hammer home your ear training. It’s a really powerful tool that I’m grateull for.

16. Drone Tool

This is a great tool to internalize a key centre. It also serves to give context when you are practising something modal or running through lines and musical language. The drone makes the quality of your notes immediately clear and apparent.

17. iRealPro

This tool is a godsend. It gives you an extensive library of jazz standards that you can jam along to. You can use the software to program your own chord progressions. There are so many different playback styles that are available in the library. There is a huge online community that amends faulty lead sheets and writes up/updates the forum with more tunes. I partucularly love that you can slow down and speed up the palyback.

This is a must-have for budding improvisers – You almost feel like you’re cheating using this app.

18. Metronome

I have metronomes everywhere, If I’m practising with my laptop, I use the Google metronome. I have a metronome app on my phone. I have a Boss DB-30 next to my guitar amp if I’m practising in isolation.

Here’s something that I’ve had to learn the hard way. Practising vs playing needs to be functionally separated. For a long time, I’d noodle around and think that I was practising effectively. But, really, I was shortchanging myself.

Effective practice is focussed, structured and musical. I use the metronome as a trigger to tell me that I’m about to be engaged in intentional and focused practice.

You can only play what you practice, so practice in time.

19. Sing (your voice)

Everyone can sing. It’s a tool that we’re all born with. If you’re an instrumentalist, the biggest value in signing is not getting a better voice; It’s building a deeper connection with your instrument. Sing the lines that you are trying to learn. When you do this, you use more of your brain and physiology to connect the language of music with your ears and body.

When asked one piece of advice on how to become a better musician, guitar prodigy, Guthrie Govan said: “Play what you hear and sing what you play.”

20. Get a good teacher

If you had to implement one thing from this post, it would be to get a good teacher. Have someone who can professionally critique your playing, tell you how to fix it and push you in the right direction. A great teacher will tell you what you are good at, too. Sometimes we tend to focus on what we can’t do and we can start to define ourselves by our deficiencies. Knowing our musical strengths is extremely helpful because it gives us confidence and momentum as we strive to get better.

Is there a really great music resource or tool that didn’t make the list? Do let me know in the comments, below.

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