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Read This Now: The Ten Commandments of Jazz Soloing

Posted by David Bloom on May 14, 2014 3:37:00 PM



These Ten Commandments are designed to stimulate an enlightened level of jazz soloing for those seeking to move beyond mere imitation in the language of jazz and achieve a level of individual mastery.

I derived them from listening and identifying the best concepts present within the most remarkable solos of the most revered masters. Embracing these commandments will serve to guide and focus talented musicians to create solos of profound musical value.

You may note similarities from one commandment to another, but thinking about each one separately should afford the serious musician many different solutions to common problems.


 1. Thou shall tell a story. 

Any art involving time as an essential part of the presentation must strive to tell a story. The story may be literal or abstract, but should produce an arc (a series of events having a connection or progression.) Whether the performance art form is ballet, opera, theater, or music, we must find out more about the characters (depth), or new things must happen to them (breadth).

You can't tell a good story if your characters and plot are not developed. Every element of the story is critical to its effectiveness. The start determines whether we want more.

The second act amplifies our interest. The third act is the conclusion or payoff (or lack thereof). The solo must travel to a destination in the player’s mind, in order to take the audience along. Otherwise, why would anyone want to listen? Tell a story every time you play.

2. Thou shall play only what’s necessary. 

We experience a dramatic difference between listening to playing what’s important and what’s self-indulgent and frivolous. When on the bandstand playing what you think is jazz, you should imagine the jazz greats listening to you (and if you don’t think they are, you should probably not be up on the bandstand).

One good way to accomplish this is to record a one-chorus solo, then assess what should and shouldn’t have been played. After you can play a lean one-chorus solo, you have earned the right to play longer solos.

3. Thou shall not abandon ideas. 

Many jazz musicians end ideas before they’re fully developed. This is similar to telling the set-up of a joke and forgetting to deliver the punch line. Both amateur and professional musicians desert good ideas only to end up with weaker ones, random fragments with seemingly nothing much in common. Appreciating the potential of every idea and developing the gems that you play can solve this problem. 

4. Thou shall not abuse repetition. 

Players who aren’t mindful about the level of interest being either created or not, will negligently play the same gestures forever. Over-playing and under-expressing sours a few more audience members on jazz. If you listen carefully to yourself, you will start pruning what you play and end up with only the best stuff.

5. Thou shall play with the rest of the band.

Cooperation and camaraderie have a power palpable by the listening public. Nothing is as exciting as hearing selfless musicians playing together. This is not to be confused with musicians playing at the same time, but not with each other. One way to guarantee a more communal result is to look at each other with admiration while playing together. Appreciation inspires the best in each other.

6. Thou shall listen at all times to what was just played and to the rest of the band.

 Listening deeply is the greatest proof we comprehend the presence of important things going on outside of us, which demand our attention. It is rather easy to perceive a “jazz band” that isn’t one. It sounds like a chicken coop. No one answers or responds to what others are playing, and are just frantically trying to get noticed. That is not even close to a real jazz band. The remedy to this affliction is to imagine you are in a verbal conversation with good friends, without words.

7. Thou shall not overuse any musical element.

The polarities of musical contrast: loud-soft, short-long phrase lengths; slow-fast rhythmic and rest values, low and high registers and consonance-dissonances, must be used constantly. For example, if a loud volume is used exclusively, it becomes an element of extreme predictability and hence little interest. Loud is an important gesture, but when used with no relief, refreshing by soft sounds, the value of loud decreases with each new measure. Using of the polarities of music eliminates the problem of too much of the same musical value.

8. Thou shall show the audience appreciation with dignity. 

Nothing can convince an audience that you honor them more than showing you never take them for granted. Every piece, mood, groove, tempo, arrangement and solo should show the public how much you love music, and how much you appreciate their interest. 

9.Thou shall use silence with the same commitment as playing sounds. 

Silence has profound purity. It shouldn’t be disturbed unless you have  a darn good reason. Whether it’s one sixteenth note rest or 20 measures, silence creates anticipation, providing us with the ultimate question: “When will another sound occur, and what will it be?” Silence also frames and emphasizes the last phrase played and makes it important. If you don’t use rests, you don’t understand language. 

10.Thou shall stop when the story is over.

Many jazz players don’t know when their story is over. I have experienced countless wonderful first-half of solos ruined by a five-chorus epilogue. The players were good enough to start a very compelling story, but not wise enough to know when the story was over and stop playing. The ability to know when to end your solo isn’t just a matter of stopping at some arbitrary point; it’s having a vision of the entire solo, and how to complete your musical statement with an artistic ending. Musical story telling seduces audiences of all styles and nationalities, to listen to your music.

David Bloom