Teaching the Blues: Your First Ten Jazz Lessons

Teaching the Blues:
Your First Ten Jazz Lessons

By NAfME Member Chad O’Brien


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a masterclass in which Dave Liebman discussed the state of jazz education. While his perspective may have been a little cynical for my taste, he voiced a concern nearly ubiquitous among professional jazz musicians:

Is it possible to teach jazz improvisation in a formal setting without corrupting its inherent values of freedom and originality?

As a performer and educator, I have grappled with this issue and developed a curriculum that teaches students vocabulary, style, and repertoire while still imparting the spirit of jazz and fostering each student’s unique voice.

The 2015 NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles Jazz Ensemble performs at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Photo: Howard Rockwin.

Where to Start

The 12 bar blues form is a logical place to begin instrumental jazz instruction. Not only does it constitute a large percentage of standard repertoire, it provides a perfect vehicle to teach students about the history, harmonic evolution, and expressive elements of jazz, as well as, perhaps even more importantly, improvisation.

Too often though, ill-equipped educators teach the blues scale and throw their students in the deep end. This approach fails to address the most fundamental aspects of improvising – the dominant/tonic (tension/release) relationship, idiomatic vocabulary, communication between soloist and accompaniment, and storytelling through motivic development. The way to accomplish these objectives is by teaching jazz as the greats learned it: through repertoire. Focusing on tunes with specific harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, a beginning jazz instructor can help students understand these elements while creating a healthy environment for exploring their own musical identity.

Your First Jazz Unit

The cornerstone of success in any music classroom is knowing your repertoire. The five tunes covered in this unit are “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington, “Sonnymoon for Two” by Sonny Rollins, “Splanky” by Neal Hefti, “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy, and “Tenor Madness” by Sonny Rollins. While each song has been selected to teach one or two specific skills, there is a basic pattern to follow in your instruction.

Students should start by learning the melody and root movement by ear, then with sheet music. As it will be the first time many of your students are exposed to jazz, this should be paired with as much listening as possible. In my own practice, I give guided listening assignments as homework. If time allows, have students transpose melodies and bass lines into additional keys. This is an important, frequently required skill in jazz and is also a great way to challenge even your most proficient students.

The bulk of class time should be spent on improvising. Each tune has specific characteristics that should shape your lessons. Guide students through an analysis of the melodic and rhythmic content of each song; then, have them improvise using that content as boundaries. On “C Jam Blues,” construct solos using only the notes and rhythms of the melody. You will be amazed how quickly students pick up on the dominant/tonic relationship. “Sonnymoon for Two” and “Splanky” introduce the minor pentatonic scale and minor blues scale respectively as well as a few more rhythms and a lot of idiomatic vocabulary. When studying “St. Louis Blues,” the first through-composed blues head, students can use the major blues scale that comprises the bulk of the melody; the primary motif in this song is also a great way to introduce outlining chord changes. Have the students use the blues scale everywhere except the 9th bar where they should quote the melody to outline the V chord. Not only is quoting a very practical skill, it also helps you assess your students’ understanding of the blues form. Finally, Tenor Madness provides an excellent introduction to voice leading. Have students combine all the techniques and scales they have learned in this unit to improvise a solo that follows the guide tone line from the melody.

Though the sequencing of skills is logical, this can be a lot of information for students. At every step, encourage students to play musically above all else: leave space, vary dynamics and articulation, and communicate with each other. If they maintain these characteristics, even if they master only the first couple techniques, your students will be playing memorable, quality solos.

sheet music
iStock.com / mustafagull

While learning the melody, root movement, and improvisation techniques for each song should take priority, there are many opportunities in this unit for enrichment activities. You can present on the history of the blues, teach additional vocabulary and how to transcribe, or compose an original blues head as a group. Students can compose their own riff-based blues, transcribe solos, or transpose tunes to unfamiliar keys as homework. Let your imagination run wild and add any supplemental activities that might give your students a more professional, enjoyable experience.

This is just a (very) brief overview of the principles behind this unit on teaching the blues. You can find detailed lesson plans, sheet music, and other resources here. I will also be presenting on this topic at the NAfME In-Service Conference at 3:00pm on Thursday, November 10th, 2016. If you have any questions about this unit or its application, please feel free to contact me.

Member of the 2015 NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles Jazz Ensemble. Photo: Howard Rockwin.

Then What?

These lessons can serve as a primer for just about any other topic in jazz. Personally, I follow this with a unit on simple jazz standards (Autumn Leaves, What Is This Thing Called Love, etc.) and ii-V-I’s; you could move on to modal jazz, funk, bossa novas, or even more blues! After this unit, your students will listen in a totally different way to learn music quickly and completely. Regardless of skill level, they will experience music like a professional and make choices in their improvisation to discover and demonstrate the ir own voices. Best of all, your students will understand how marvelously accessible jazz is and have fun making music together!

About the Author:


NAfME member Chad O’Brien graduated from the Eastman School of Music with a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies (Trombone) and Music Education. He currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he freelances and maintains a studio of private brass students.

As an educator, Chad studied with Christopher Azzara, Richard Grunow, and Kathy Liperote. He teaches private students on trombone, euphonium, trumpet, tuba, and in the fields of jazz and music education. Chad formerly held positions as the Band Instructor at Rockland Country Day School in Congers, New York, and Adjunct Brass Faculty at the Francis W Parker School in Chicago, Illinois. While living in Chicago, he also taught at the Beverly Arts Center and the Birch Creek Academy (Jazz Session).

In his 15 years of applied study on trombone, Chad has studied privately with Mark Kellogg, Hal Crook, Andy Rosza, and others. Among many others, Chad has played with ensembles ranging from the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra to the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the Dave Rivello Ensemble to the internationally renowned rock band Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Follow Chad on Twitter at @OBrientrombone.

Chad O’Brien will be presenting on his topic “Teaching the Blues: Your First 10 Jazz Lessons” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/NAfME2016. And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, October 10, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)