10 steps to telling your story

How does an improviser construct these stories? - 10 steps to telling your story.

Here is a list of the basic processes involved in constructing a jazz improvisation:

  1. Listen
  2. Learn the melody
  3. Motifs
  4. Chords
  5. Blue notes
  6. Bass line
  7. Chords with Walking Bass
  8. Arpeggiate
  9. Scales
  10. Chord Substitutions

Master improviser Barney Kessel


  • Listen to as many recordings of the piece as you can find
  • Try to find the first recording of the piece
  • Was it in a movie? Watch the movie (e.g. Autumn Leaves)
  • Was it in a musical? Watch the musical and see it performed live if you can
  • What are the lyrics?
  • What is the mood? Happy? ... sad ??
  • What is the rhythm.... walking - running - skipping ?


  • Identify the important motifs (melodic fragments)
  • Most melodies are built on 1 or 2 strong motifs
  • Is there a distinctive interval in the motif?


  • Play the chord progression as a series of melodic arpeggios.
  • Try and play the "guide tones" - (the 3rd and 7th degrees) - on the strong beats.


Play the appropriate scales, running up to the 9th degree where appropriate and joining them up smoothly.
  • Apply the common chord substitutions to the turnarounds
  • Add upper chord degrees where appropriate
  • Alter the dominant chord