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Teaching Jazz Style Through Guided Listening

By Andrew J. Allen

In the last 50 years, there have been incredible strides in developing new written resources to help students learn how to play music in the jazz tradition. From improvisation to ensemble resources to jazz history, what was formerly a completely aural tradition that one had to “pick up” from jam sessions and whispered advice on the bandstand is now freely available.

However, many have lost sight that jazz is still, at its very core, an art form built on an aural tradition of community. While written resources are an incredibly important factor that have opened up jazz to thousands, the performer’s ears are still their greatest resource. In fact, jazz style can only be hinted at in printed materials. To be truly comfortable, the student must continuously do one thing…

Listening: The Most Important Factor

Anyone learning a new language can tell you that reading with a dictionary can do a world of good. However, there has to be some contact with the spoken language. Otherwise, the vocabulary gained while reading will never be practical. One must learn the accent, the speech-patterns, and the flow of any language.

Jazz is, itself, a language with a multitude of nuances. Even the best educational jazz ensemble chart is only going to be able to convey the smallest amount of information in regard to proper style. What is the teacher to do?

First of all, use listening examples for every piece assigned to students, whether in large or small jazz ensembles. These can be recordings of the pieces being performed, or they can be of tunes in similar tempos and styles. Some directors are hesitant to do this, with good reason: A student should never rely on a recording to learn a piece. They should be responsible for reading and counting themselves. In addition, the ultimate goal of creativity is to have something original to say, not to be an automaton that can only replicate the work of others. Listening should be used as a tool to build skills, and, ultimately, musical comfort and independence. How should this be done?

Factors to Guide Listening

The student’s attention should be drawn to several different factors by the director when listening to any piece for stylistic purposes. Perhaps just a few seconds should be used at a time, with only one musical element as the center of focus.

First, just allow the students to freely listen to a phrase. Then, listen to it again, while focusing on swing style (or lack thereof). Without using intermediaries, have the students replicate the style with a phrase in their own music. This can be an excellent way of moving beyond the “triplet” concept many of us use to introduce swing. In addition, listening and playing back is one of the best ways for students to understand that swing is very different between a Basie chart and a bop tune (or even a Basie chart and an Ellington chart!). Similarly, they will begin to discover that the “straight eighths” of a rock tune are very different than the “straight eighths” of a bossa nova.

As your students will begin to discover, swing, feel, and articulation are all very closely related. If they haven’t automatically started to pick up on this, let that be the next focus for the same phrase. How hard or light is the articulation? What syllable do you want them to use to replicate it? Is there a terminal articulation at the end of the phrase? Which notes should be articulated and emphasized, and which shouldn’t?

Along with these factors, final listenings can focus on elements of interpretation. For instance, what is the style and width of vibrato? How are dynamics treated? How is the ensemble balanced? How much or how little is the rhythm section playing?

For a short while, the director may have to play several recordings in the same style before the students will begin to absorb the stylistic considerations. However, very soon they will begin to absorb all of the lessons of the recorded masters. With more and more aural information, they will become “native speakers” of the language of jazz.

Tonal Models

Every era and style of jazz has its acknowledged masters. A comprehensive list of all of them would be far too voluminous to be useful. However, below, find a few prime examples that each helped to define their style and era:

New Orleans

  • Louis Armstrong


  • Count Basie
  • Duke Ellington
  • Fletcher Henderson


  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Charlie Parker


  • John Coltrane
  • Miles Davis
  • Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band


  • Mahavishnu Orchestra
  • Return to Forever
  • Weather Report


  • Chano Pozo
  • Tito Puente

In addition, each individual student should do just as much listening to the acknowledged masters of their instrument. My “starter list” for young saxophonists is below:


  • Cannonball Adderley
  • Paul Desmond
  • Charlie Parker
  • Art Pepper
  • Phil Woods


  • Michael Brecker
  • John Coltrane
  • Dexter Gordon
  • Joe Henderson
  • Chris Potter
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Wayne Shorter


  • Pepper Adams
  • Gerry Mulligan
  • Gary Smulyan


Jazz is and always will be an aural artform. While print resources have helped immensely in allowing people to learn how to play, the ears are any jazz musician’s most important tools. Luckily, we live in a day and age where technology allows us to almost instantaneously listen to nearly any recording from any artist or era imaginable. Now we can introduce our students to the whole realm of musical possibilities, and allow them to be “fluent” in this incredible music.

Andrew J. Allen is assistant professor of saxophone and coordinator of woodwinds, brass, and percussion at Georgia College. He has performed throughout the world alongside a host of musical luminaries, including The Temptations, Gary Foster, Jeff Coffin, and Ronnie Milsap. Dr. Allen is a Conn-Selmer Artist Clinician and a Vandoren Artist, and his recordings can be heard on the Equilibrium and Ravello labels.

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