My Worst 5 Mistakes When Learning Jazz

From a classical perspective, jazz is the mysterious art of playing all the wrong notes and making it sound good. So for many years I tried and failed to understand what I was meant to be doing and why.

Let’s dive right in to the 5 biggest mistakes I made and how I can help you avoid them!

5.  Forgetting Technique

Once I realised the fun of improvising I became absorbed in endless “noodling” – my melodic phrasing got better and better… but surprisingly, my technique got worse and worse.

I stopped playing scales and arpeggios, believing that Bill Evans’ fingers must’ve found their way around those keys naturally. After all, all the greats were masters at improvising, right?


Within a year I couldn’t play the C major scale 2 octaves. That’s like… grade 2 stuff! 

It was while listening to Corey Henry’s “Lingus” solo I realised that all the greats had indeed woodshedded hundreds of scales and could play them much faster than many classical pianists.

So thats #5 – there’s more to jazz than major and minor. You gotta learn all the modes, the altered and diminished scales, major and minor blues. Oh and that list doubles with arpeggios!

bill evans transcription jazz

4.  Listening/Transcribing Without Understanding

What would you say if I showed you the transcription above? 
For many years I wouldn’t say much at all, because I had no idea of why it sounded the way it did.

Asus resolves to Dm (perfect cadence) sure, but how does E7(#9)/Ab fit into any of this?!**

In despair I would often proceed to close the transcription or stop the recording and go noodle some more over “Cantaloupe Island” instead. Oh how terrible that was! I didn’t understand people who said jazz was “all about listening”… cos transcriptions/recordings are useless unless you make an effort to understand them.

**The voicing Evans uses for that E7(#9)/Ab looks like a C altered chord (C9(b13)) which revolves via a perfect cadence to Fmaj13 (the first bar sets it up)

3.  Left Hand Voicings

This one mostly goes out to pianists, but also applies guitarists in a way. Let me tell you a story of how I absolutely butchered a 10-minute rendition of “Autumn Leaves”… for a 4-minute max assessment task…

Only a year after starting jazz, I dusted off the keys after the previous performer in a very much “I am jazzier than thou” way. I then sat down and let my right hand wander around the keyboard for over double the allowed time, but what was worse?

I forgot about the left hand.

On the recording my LH can be heard hitting aimless basslines, playing chords either in root position or incorrectly (or both) – and often not playing at all!

To fix this I needed to sit back and LEARN THE VOICINGS! In the example below, the LH is barely moving and only playing 2 notes, but it works because it adds to the harmony without crowding out the melody or doubling up on the bassline.

Using this method to intuitively get through a chart is much harder than it seems, requiring months of dedicated practice.

2.  Playing It One Way

By “it” I mean anything – a tune, a chord, a feel…

When starting out many jazz musicians just learn, let’s say… a standard the way Bud Powell played it. That’s great, but Bill Evans played it differently, Herbie Hancock probably added a kazoo solo 😉 and YOU can play it YOUR WAY too!

Any tune, even Giant Steps can be played as a ballad, for instance – here’s proof (played by Ivan Akansiima) Here’s the original for reference at ~170 bpm.

So the goal of jazz education is to learn the tools needed to play any tune in any way imaginable – the rest is up to you.

I’ll never forget how my jazz teacher – Adrian Lim-Klumpes ripped through a post-bop version of Schubert’s “Ständchen”. Now that was cool!

1.  Not Breaking The Rules

While you certainly need to learn the rules before you can break them, some of my biggest breakthroughs happened on late nights where I tried something new – and it worked!

Yes you can use scales other than the blues scale to play blues.

Yes you can play “Giant Steps” using only C major (but kids, don’t try this at home)

And YES, the altered scale is literally all the wrong notes

So go out there and PLAY SOME JAZZ!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *