This article is copyright 2016 by Antonio J. García and others and originally was published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 45, No. 1, January 2017. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Getting Started with Jazz Improvisation

by Craig Arnold, Tony Baker, Antonio García, and Bill Holmes with Michael Dickinson

This article is excerpted and adapted from the panel discussion “Thoughts on Getting Started with Improvisation,” presented March 21, 2015 at the American Trombone Workshop in Fort Meyer, Virginia. The U.S. Army’s SFC Craig Arnold served as ATW Educational Coordinator and gathered three accomplished artist/educators to share their thoughts with the live and online attendees regarding how best to introduce trombonists to the art of jazz improvisation.

Tony Baker’s jazz and classical background includes performances with Andy Martin, Butch Miles, Ingrid Jensen, Pete Christlieb, the Woody Herman Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In addition to serving as Professor of Trombone at the University of North Texas, he is also a member of the Dallas Opera Orchestra. Antonio (Tony) García has performed with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins and is a Bach/Selmer clinician/soloist. He serves as Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and as Associate Jazz Editor of the ITA Journal. MSG (ret.) Bill Holmes, best known for his long career with the U.S. Army Blues, is a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and has performed with Cab Calloway, Quincy Jones, Tito Puente, James Brown, Patti LaBelle, and the Saturday Night Live Band. SFC Craig Arnold has been a member of the United States Army Band “Pershing's Own” since 2001, actively freelances in the Washington, D.C. area, and has been teaching privately and in the public schools for over 25 years. Before joining the Army Band he was a member of the Albany and Allentown Symphonies, The National Repertory Orchestra, The Metro Lyric Opera of New Jersey, The Monumental Brass Quintet, The Riverside Trombone Quartet, The Sonny Costanzo Big Band, Prince William Symphony, and performed around the world with the European-based Philharmonic of the Nations.


Arnold, Baker, Holmes, and García at the 2015 ATW.

photo credit:
courtesy U.S. Army


Lesson One

CA: This year’s topic is teaching younger students to improvise—people who are young to jazz music. In most cases we’re talking about someone who is in middle or high school, but this could be someone older who has picked up the trombone again or just started with jazz. Perhaps these students have no theory background and hardly any improv-listening background. Teachers such as myself who aren’t daily jazz musicians may feel overwhelmed by this challenge.

So Tony Baker: let’s say that a student comes in for a 30-minute lesson and says, “You know what, Mr. Baker, I want to learn to improvise!” What’s the first thing you do?

TB: It really depends on the student. I’m going to be upfront and say that I don’t have any tried-and-true methods for teaching very beginning improvisers how to do it. But for me a good place to start has always been the blues. You are dealing with three chords: I, IV, and V. I write out a rough sketch of three lines, four bars each, and explain where the chords go and what scales go with them. Then I’ll play an example showing where the changes happen, and usually students can hear those shifts.

Another avenue is simple back-and-forth playing between the student and me, adding one or two notes to the pattern, depending on how the student picks it up. I give students a short list, not long, of tracks they can go and listen to on their own to hear examples of jazz: probably not Michael Brecker, but something simple and old-school.

CA: And what about you, Bill: what would be the first thing you would do?

BH: Pretty much the same way as Tony. I try to emphasize swinging more—not that you aren’t emphasizing it, Tony: rhythmic patterns of one note and two notes; then move on. I’ll start with the blues, too, because that’s an easy form. I’ll show the student the notes that she can play, then limit the amount. For example, I’ll show her the Dorian scale but then show her even two notes out of that she can play, really emphasizing the rhythmic aspect.

Like Tony Baker said, the form is very important to know as well: recognizing that they have two bars of this chord and two bars of that. I will play with them and have them listen to examples. I like to play J.J. Johnson for them because he might play a G and stick to that for a long time; and students always say, “wow”—because he can do all that on one note.

CA: Tony García.

Garcia panel

Holmes, García

photo credit:
courtesy U.S. Army

AG: Whatever Tony and Bill say goes double for me. But I also believe that one of the remarkable things about jazz is that it is available to anyone at whatever their vocabulary is. In the United States, for example, whether students are age 8 or 80, most do not know what the blues form or blues scale are or the Dorian scale. But they do know at least half their major scales, which comprise a lot of great music.

So when students walk in fitting that description, the very first thing I have them do is play over a great standard tune. Otherwise, I’d have to teach them the blues scale or the Dorian before I could get them improvising lines. If I pick the right tune from the Great American Songbook—a tune that I know will work with their using just one major scale—students can start improvising immediately and successfully. We won’t even play the melody; I won’t show any sheet music. And I usually start with a bossa nova because I don’t have to worry about the student being able to swing or not at first: I’ll utilize the straight-eighth phrasing with which the student’s already familiar.

To bring that point to life, I’m now going to play the rhythm-section background to the lovely standard “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” And it is in Eb; so I’m going to start singing an Eb scale, and I want you to join me. (He plays the recorded accompaniment; and the audience joins in singing the Eb major scale repeatedly, root to ninth and back in eighth notes.)

Okay, so we just went through a complete chorus of a tune that has 34 chord-changes going by. Virtually no one in this room knows which chord is playing when, and yet our Eb major scale sounds fabulous. Come to jazz with the vocabulary you already have. Straight eighths, ballad or bossa nova, in this case the key of Eb: now make up your own melody. And if you don’t know what you want to play, wait: listen! And when something comes to you, play it.

Inevitably it will sound fantastic. And when I ask students to improvise again, they say “yes.” That’s the number-one goal in jazz education for beginners, whether they are age 8 or 80: have them want to learn more and not be scared away.

Some jazz musicians might view this approach as a cop-out, but it’s an authentic point of entry. Look at the melodies written by the Tin Pan Alley composers or by Antonio Carlos Jobim: count the accidentals. These composers were geniuses. Other than the pure aesthetic of music, they had one purpose in composing: to make money. If they wrote songs that weren’t singable by the American audience, they were fired. So they wrote melodies largely out of the major scale and put great harmonies behind it. And if it’s good enough for Gershwin, it’s good enough for Johnny or Susie’s first solo. From there, students are interested and come back for more; so we can then go anywhere: new scales, chords, forms, and more. So the right even-eighth standard tune can be a great entry point into improvisation.

CA: Okay, some really great ideas from each of you.


CA: Now you all mentioned something about style. I know, for example, that I try to play something with some kind of style for my students. Often we will play back and forth, yet the student just doesn’t get it. I know that listening will help students learn this vocabulary; but what do you do to help them develop their style—a style of which they have no concept. Bill?

BH: Generally I’ll try to break down the pattern that they are trying to play. And I’ll break it down to just one note. I’ll play it and have them play it after me. We’ll just keep going back and forth until they get it. Then we’ll move to another two, three, or four notes. And we’ll just keep doing it. Usually, they’re not holding a note long enough or short enough. It’s just a matter of them listening to me do it, and I will also try to find a recording of that style and tell them to go home and listen to it.

CA: Tony Baker, what would you do for style?


Tony Baker

TB: Well, I’ll tell you that the students don’t like it; but what I have found really helpful is making them sing. Get the horn off their faces altogether and have them produce style without worrying about where the notes are on the horn. Just sing it, and hear yourself actually doing it! Once the student is singing it well enough, I may record him doing it, play it back to him, and say, “Now listen: you are actually singing with pretty good style. Do you think you can play it that way?” Most of the time it is immediately better because he heard himself producing it.

Some students don’t make this connection; but most subconsciously realize, “Oh, I just need to take it from the same place and put it on the horn now.” I don’t particularly like scat-singing myself; I don’t think I have the greatest voice in the world. But often students can hear style better from me when I sing it, too. If I were to play an idea on my horn and then have students sing it, then they are trying to match my trombone-playing; it’s a confusing message. So we scat back and forth.

All of this comes down to the ear, doesn’t it? Getting students to hear what it is they are trying to play, then finding the easiest, most natural way possible to get them to produce by way of aural information and guidance. In my studio at UNT over the years I have found that more and more lessons are about what they are doing with their voice as much as about the instrument. If I can get them producing it vocally, it often makes it easier for them to produce it on the horn. If nothing else, it gives them a hint as to what they could accomplish if they could indeed put it on the horn.

CA: Tony García, do you have anything else you want to add to that?

AG: How could I disagree with either of these guys? But I’ll demonstrate Tony Baker’s point a bit by playing this recording; and if any of you in the audience recognize this, just join in with me singing along. (He plays the recording, singing along with the soloist note for note; and the majority of the audience immediately joins in singing the same.) It’s Miles Davis soloing on “So What” from the KIND OF BLUE album, of course.

I emphasize to my students that just as most of you learned English from your parents, we learn jazz from our jazz parents. And the only way students can prove to me that they have internalized that language is to sing it. So in my studio, I require that when my students transcribe solos, they sing it before they play it on the horn. If they can’t sing it, I don’t want to hear it on the instrument. You can use then transfer that knowledge from singing to playing: not only in terms of how you form your oral cavity or move your tongue, but in your conception of breathing, cut-offs, rests, dynamics, articulation, pacing, and more.

Singing informs you so heavily that I believe anyone who doesn’t pursue singing as an approach to the jazz trombone, much less classical, is trying to leap over a hundred years of jazz history and several hundred of trombone history. I don’t know of any jazz musicians of quality that in private—at a rehearsal, for instance, or in conversation—have not been able to scat-sing to me what they have in mind.

CA: I find that when I refer my students to listen to a specific trombonist as a model, sometimes they pull up something on YouTube that is not a good example of what I want them to hear. So how do you approach this in your own studios? Do you have files that they can download? Do you provide a listening list? Perhaps you could share with us now some great examples of the blues or other styles you actually have your students listen to after that first week of starting to improvise. Why don’t we start with you, Tony García?

AG: A great question! Most of my students are in college at VCU; but some are more on the beginning side, electing jazz trombone lessons as classical or music ed majors. They’re fine musicians and want to learn but have not been exposed much to improv. So I take an approach that’s a bit opposite of what you described. I like them to go on the hunt!

So I tell them, “Okay, next week come in with two or three nominations of a medium-swing solo: either blues or a standard tune, not too high of a range, not too fast on the notes.” I’ll mention specific trombonists, like J.J. Johnson, etc. But I might say it could be vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whom I’ve particularly found to be a very great example of clarity for trombonists, even while transposing down an octave.

When the students return, I will approve or disapprove of their choices; or I’ll say, “Do this one first, and we’ll return to this one later.” But I want them to go on the hunt because as with any good hunt they’ll come back to me and say, “Look I found this! I found this! I found this…what’s this about?” Great! So now they’re inspired and can “own” something they heard themselves. It’s an epiphany for them, as opposed to my having given them a list. And maybe they stumble on saxophonist Sonny Rollins or a great Clark Terry solo along with trombones.

Another great tool in my syllabus in that regard is that I require the students to start a channel on Pandora named for a trombonist. If they start with a “J.J. Johnson station,” soon they’ll be hearing Bob Brookmeyer or Frank Rosolino or Carl Fontana. As long as they are coming back to me with ideas, it’s not my idea—which is great.


Bill Holmes

CA: Bill?

BH: I pretty much do the same thing but expand it to singers. Because if students are playing a tune such as “The Girl from Ipanema,” now they’ll hear the words and their phrasing. And different singers will sing it differently than what a player would do: where a horn-player might not play the melody straight, most singers will sing it pretty straight so that my students can hear the style.

As far as recommending specific musicians for my beginning improvisers to listen to, I lean towards J.J. Johnson. Miles Davis is a personal favorite in the era that he played simply but swung hard. I point to vocalists Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and singers of that era. And I think the student then understands phrasing much better.

CA: Great. Tony Baker: some examples for style?

TB: My jazz instruction is very individual; so it depends on who the students are and what they need. I try to be as specific as possible, providing the artist, tune, and album it can be found on. But there are some general things that I tell newer players that they ought to be listening to: the Basie Band, J.J. Johnson, early Miles, as far back as Lester Young. I recommend vocalists also, especially Sarah Vaughan; she’s a personal favorite of mine.

I do try to keep my listening list short for my students, and they know I’ll test them on it to see if they actually listened. “What did you hear? What did you think of this?” That tells me if I can expand the list or not.

To give you a little bit of background about myself: I’m mainly a classical trombonist who plays and teaches some jazz. So I’m still really figuring out for myself how to get better at this music and how to go about learning it—but in a way that keeps me in touch with where the student is because I came to love this music seriously at a fairly late age.

CA: If I’m at a student’s house, the parents hear us listening to music on the computer together. They must think to themselves: “Why am I paying this guy for them to listen to stuff on the Internet?” And yet I find it incredibly important for students to listen to artists. Do you spend time in your lessons listening to this music with students, pointing out specifics, and asking them questions?

ALL: Yes!


CA: You’ve all talked about imitation: you play something, and they play it back. There are times when students find one idea I played that they keep coming back to. Then I feel like I’ve injected this little disease into their improv. (Sings a short “lick.”) And all of a sudden they are playing that in every measure. So how do you get them to be more creative, to come up with more ideas of their own and not just imitate. Bill?

BH: I’d stop the student, and we would talk about that. “It’s good to imitate me, but you really want to have a conversation in jazz, especially if you are trading. If the pianist plays something you like, then you can try to play it; but you can’t keep playing the same thing over and over simply because it’s in your comfort zone.”

Then I’ll play that same idea that they’d overused, but I’ll play it a little bit differently. “Now you play it differently than what I played, or somehow answer what I did. Let’s play question-and-answer: you play something, and I’ll play something different. Then you play something different because we are going to have a conversation.”

CA: Tony Baker?

TB: I have to tell you I have a little different point of view. I relate learning how to play jazz as a beginner very much to a child learning how to speak a language. And those of us who have children know that there’s a point at which your toddler is saying some word over and over and over again. That’s not a bad thing: children have to get comfortable and familiar with that word first; then later, on their own, they are going to start to add to that. So with very young players, I don’t get so worried about that repetition: I find that that will take care of itself. After a while they are going to get tired of it. Most students who want to play jazz are curious human beings and are going to expand.

But if it’s a junior jazz studies major in college who’s playing the same idea over and over again, then I will insist that she be more creative, that she get outside of the box a little bit more. And if we are doing a lot of playing back and forth, I’m going to play with more creativity and variety because, as parents, we are not going to start talking like the toddler. Instead, we are going to keep talking the way we talk; and that will spur the player’s imagination: “Oh, I haven’t tried that thing he played; let me add that to what I’m doing.”

CA: Tony García?


Antonio García

photo credit:
courtesy Eastman School of Music

AG: Sometimes a less-experienced player is constantly moving on to new material, never reusing and building from the original musical idea, never realizing the value in what he first played. When that happens, I reverse the role, making me the person who is going to do all the copying. “What I’d like you to do is improvise across two measures and stop. I’m then going to improvise over the rest of that blues chorus and maybe play the next chorus as well, showing you what great material you played. I’m going to capitalize on your material.”

This is something we can learn from any great preacher or politician. They focus on an idea and say: “This is my idea. I believe in this idea. I believe you should believe in this idea. And if you agree with me that this is the right idea, then think about this.” We can construct solos in the same way.

So I’ll ask the student to play another two bars; and then I’ll keep stealing and showing her how much potential she has in her own idea—to the point where I say, “Now you solo; you listen to yourself; and you be the first one who hears your idea and steals from yourself.” I find that promotes the student’s listening to and reflecting on solo-content to build that dialogue. Almost all soloing is a dialogue—even if you’re the only person in the room—because you are playing, hearing yourself, and commenting. So this exercise promotes listening to yourself.

If the student is more advanced—that junior jazz studies major who has a rhythmic crutch that he’s constantly going back to—one approach meriting some success in my studio is using the rhythmic phrasing of The Great American Songbook. Those melodies and their rhythmic phrases have withstood the test of time of some 75 years. So I’ll ask, “What’s your favorite standard tune?’ And he might reply, “Satin Doll.” “Great. I want you to use the rhythmic phrasing of ‘Satin Doll’ as you solo over the blues.” And he looks at me and says, “Really?” So I’ll show you an example as to how take the rhythms of that tune and build a solo. (He cues a blues-accompaniment recording and sings an improvised example.)

You can steal from the great rhythmic construction of standard tunes. When I’ve brought that wellspring to students and said: “Now, drink from that!”—it usually breaks them out of their rut. They realize that they can come to the vocabulary they may already know and love—standard tunes—borrow all those phrases, and try to see what happens when they play such rhythmic shapes over a different chord change. They realize: “I am in control of my own poetry; I can make something new out of something old. It’s not about always coming up with new ideas, it’s also about having something to say with vocabulary that’s already existing.”


CA: We have a variety of technological resources we can employ with our students: the Internet, SmartMusic, Jamey Aebersold recordings, and more. What are some of the newer resources you’re using in lessons? Tony Baker?

TB: The iRealPro app is fairly new; it allows you to play back and export sheets of chord-changes from your phone. But I have found myself getting away from using play-alongs as much, instead making students work things out with just a metronome. That forces students to really use their ears and fill in the blanks. Play-alongs were created to be helpful tools; but sometimes they become a crutch: we mentally take them for granted to the point where we have a hard time connecting with the rhythm section on this play-along. Without play-alongs, students really have to hear the accompaniment in their own heads: “Where is the time? Where do the changes shift? What’s in the chord change? Can I represent the changes in my solo without any sort of play-along?”

Often the students can’t handle the challenge the first couple of times. But I remember back in my own experience as a student that for some of the best practice I did there was no play-long or boom-box available. I just had a lead sheet in front of me, and I had to shed those chord-changes and realize the music out of my horn. So for me the new thing is not using any of that technology at all!

AG: I’m all for that. Certainly as the students are to progress, they have to improvise on their own—and also outline the thirds and sevenths of chords over the chord-changes in sequence and in the time-feel of the tune so that they can equip themselves to solo not just using the tonic key of the tune but actually “making the changes.”

The iRealPro app is definitely in most of my student’s lives, and it’s very valuable. But I would say that the most valuable technological tool for my students and for me is any technology for looping melody or harmony. Quicktime can loop; Audacity—which is a free Pro Tools-like software available on Mac and PC platforms—can similarly take a phrase and loop it so that you can hear it as many times as you want without necessarily being interrupted by what was before or after. It simulates patience on the bandstand.

I’m not suggesting you slow the music down: no one is going to slow it down for you on the bandstand. But whether it’s Miles Davis or Tony Baker teaching you, he’d repeat a lesson over for you so that you could hear it in real time. Students then realize, “If you give me enough repetitions in real time of those two measures, I can hear this idea. It’s just when I hear the next bar that it erases my memory. But if I hear just those two bars, I’ve got it.” Then they’re fired up to learn because they realize the potential in listening to something several times.

CA: Bill, do you have anything else?

BH: Yes, somewhat similar to Tony Baker using a metronome, I use a “drum metronome” that I can play from my computer at a variety of tempos: Jazz Metronome Backing Tracks.

AG: There’s a similar app for phones that my students sometimes use: Drum Genius.


CA: At some point you need to introduce aspects of theory to the beginning students. What elements of theory do you find yourself teaching first in, say, the blues so as to give them more understanding? Would you teach them scales, or would you talk to them more about chords? Bill?

BH: It really depends on the student’s current level of understanding. But again, my approach is a little different than Tony García’s since I’ll teach them the blues or pentatonic scale. Then, if they understand, I’ll tell them what the chords are. I’ll tell them that a C7 chord is the notes C, E, G, and Bb. And they’ll ask, “Why a Bb?” And I’ll explain that the B is lowered from the B natural of the C major scale to a Bb in the C dominant scale.

I don’t want to get too complicated: since it’s a C Blues, I could say that the Bb is in the key of F major. If it’s a younger student, I try to really make things bare-bones. So that’s why I usually start with the pentatonic scale. I do like Tony’s idea of using the major scale first; I may try it!

CA: Tony Baker?

TB: When it’s time to talk harmonically, I try to not talk about specific chords like Ab or a dominant 7. I go to numbers because they are universal: you can take numbered chord-progressions to any key. So instead of thinking of the blues scale as Bb, Db, Eb, E, F, Ab, and Bb, you think of the steps I, bIII, IV, #IV, V, bVII, I—in Bb, if that’s your key at the time.

I have to tell you: years ago I was very resistant to learning jazz in this way—progressions numbered by scale-degrees—since I was coming from a classical background, where sometimes it’s all about the letter-names. But I found that numbers made that information accessible no matter where I happened to be harmonically. So that’s where I go next.

CA: Tony García?

AG: I’m going to offer a little sideways answer. What’s the number-one thing that new improvisers are afraid of when they solo? Playing wrong notes! So before I start introducing chords, I want students to know there are no wrong notes! I refer to this in the handout, but I’ll give you an example now: we are going to sing all the wrong notes!

I’d typically have you do this on your horns, but they’re not in the room; so we are going to sing along with a chromatic scale played by my recorded trombone over a medium-tempo F Blues. There’s only one requirement: if you hear a note that sounds weird, wrong, dissonant—crescendo, sing louder; and if you hear a note that sounds fine, consonant, fits—sing it softer.

I usually start slow and work our way up to a faster tempo, but I’m going to leap-frog to this medium F Blues; and we’ll start singing on an A natural. (He plays the recording of trombone and rhythm section and has the audience sing a chromatic scale with him in a rhythmic pattern.)

Students quickly realize they can play any note over any chord as long as they “sell” the dissonance convincingly. We can do the same exercise over “Satin Doll,” or a Wayne Shorter tune, or over any tune. This exercise proves that the most important factor is not the chord-changes but how you sell dissonances with consonance. And when students realize that, they’re not so afraid of improvising. Then I can start some theory and talk about the IV-chord.

Final Thoughts

CA: I really appreciate all the great suggestions everyone has offered today. Now I’ll give you each a chance to say something to wrap up. Why don’t we start with Tony García?

AG: I’m just delighted that this hip topic is being discussed: making the learning of jazz trombone accessible for players who aren’t doing it yet!

BH: I’m really excited that so many trombone players are here who want to play jazz. So just keep playing, keep listening, and have fun!

TB: To those of you looking for information you can use in your own instruction of your students, I just say that whatever you do, just try to be encouraging: be positive. And this may sound funny, but set the bar low. Make the lesson about enjoying producing music that is not on the page. If you do that, you open the door to learning for both yourself and for the student. If we instead set the bar too high at first, we get frustrated and disillusioned because we are not reaching that bar. Start off with no bar! Just make it about students enjoying playing and figuring out what they hear and enjoying learning about jazz. If you do that, students will learn no matter how well they already play.

CA: Does anyone in the audience have any questions they want to ask?

Audience Member: How do we assess students’ musicianship and skills towards approaching jazz trombone?

CA: Tony García?

AG: There are a lot of possible answers to that. Ask whom they are listening to: do they listen to any jazz? Improvisers? Trombonists? Sometimes they haven’t, which is okay! I’m the poster-child for late development. When I got into college as a jazz major, I had never heard of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis; so I have no qualms with anyone coming to me with a clean slate. That said, once I know whom they are listening to, that tells me a lot about what they currently appreciate or don’t.

Beyond that, I assess whether their current improvisation is over just the tonic key or a couple of keys, or whether they can communicate some thirds and sevenths of chord-progressions as they solo.

TB: Not to copy Tony, but that’s exactly what I do. I find out how much they are listening to, and I’ll have them play something. Even if they don’t know any jazz tunes, I can still put on the blues and tell them: “This is Bb Blues; just play for me. Let’s see what you have.” Then I can get a good sense of how well they play the instrument, how good their ears are, and how much jazz they have listened to based on how stylistically developed they seem to be. And sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised.

BH: I agree with both of these guys.

CA: Another question?

Audience Member: How do you adjust your initial plan for the lesson if the student is too shy to play well? If you asked me to demonstrate my improvising for you right now, I’d be really nervous.

CA: That’s a good question. Bill?

BH: I do try and have an open mind because the next lesson the student might return to nail it and be really good. So any plan I’d had in mind then needs adjustment. When I’m teaching, I’m always making adjustments.

CA: I would be embarrassed to improvise in front of you guys as well. Do you have anything you want to add to that, Tony García?


Baker, Holmes, and García

photo credit:
courtesy U.S. Army

AG: You can create an environment where there are multiple people improvising at the same time: there is safety in numbers! Let’s say I walk into a middle school where, for whatever reason, the students aren’t as excited about improvising. Maybe they’ve been “burned” before, or maybe they’re just terrified. So I might put on a play-along or play changes at the piano; and I say: “You all know your C major scale; so here we go—everybody!” And I get everyone in the room to improvise—playing or singing simultaneously, each with their own musical ideas. “Now this half of the room keep going; this half, you’re out. Now just the other half of the room” over the chord-changes.

I direct them down to a fourth of the room, down to an eighth of the room. “Now you two have a musical conversation together simultaneously: trade!” All of a sudden there is one person making music over the chords: done! Safety in numbers: get as many people improvising at the same time as possible, and weed them out from there. That’s usually my answer.

TB: If it’s a one-on-one lesson, I do two things: one, I just try to be as encouraging as possible. I smile and tell him to keep going. Then I play with him, then let him play; then I’ll play but won’t play my best stuff, keeping it fairly simple so the student doesn’t feel too intimidated by what I’m doing. I’ll try to keep my improvisations just one notch above what he just did so that it’s something he can relate to. He’s not going to relate to a real complex lick. I just try to be encouraging and play back and forth with him. Even the most elementary students can figure out when you want to trade four or eight bars with them. Keep your ideas somewhat relative to what they are doing so that they are less intimidated and are learning from listening to you.

CA: That’s great. I would love to keep talking to these great musicians all night, but we have run overtime. I do invite any of you in the audience to come up and ask questions of them individually. Thank you all for coming, and please let’s thank each of our panelists.

Recommended Links

·      To see the entire panel discussion (including hearing the musical examples referenced above), visit <> and scroll to 8:30:20.

·      To receive a PDF of García’s handout for the session, click here.

·      Find all of the archived ATW 2016 performances and educational sessions at <>.

·      For more information on various resources mentioned above, visit Pandora <> (or the iTunes or Google Play versions), Jamey Aebersold’s site <>, iRealPro <>, Jazz Metronome Backing Tracks <>, and Drum Genius <>.

·      For more information on the panelists, e-mail Craig Arnold at <> and Bill Holmes at <>; visit <> and <>.

In May 2017 Michael Dickinson receives his Bachelor of Music degree in Trombone Performance from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied with Dr. Ross Walter on bass trombone. As a member of the VCU Broad Street Brass Quintet he has performed in Cartegena, Colombia; and as a member of the VCU Trombone Choir he has performed at The American Trombone Workshop. E-mail him at <>.

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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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