How Is Jazz Like Chess?

December 5th 2007 by Eddie Lewis

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m not a very good chess player but I do enjoy playing the game. Now, there are lots of people who compare jazz to chess in saying that you need to think ahead in both. I won’t dispute that comparison. However, when I think of jazz and chess, my comparison is much different.


To me, jazz is like chess because they both have limitless possibilities. With those limitless possibilities comes the daunting task of making confident decisions. How do you pick one item from a limitless menu of delicious food? Then, to add another level of complexity to the picture, what if the menu changed every time you placed an order? In both jazz and chess we are working with other people who are affected by our choices and we by theirs.

That’s why memorized moves and memorized licks don’t work. They’re too static in this dynamic context. In chess, if you play a memorized sequence of moves, then your opponent will likely recognize those moves and take advantage of the situation. Same thing with jazz. If you play a memorized lick in jazz, real jazz musicians will recognize that it’s memorized – not necessarily because they had heard it before but because they can detect your lack of dynamic sensitivity.

Even worse is the fact that by playing memorized licks, you are basically turning off your ears and becoming unaware of your musical surroundings. It’s just like in chess when you’re spending five or six moves on a memorized sequence, not even paying attention to what your opponent is doing in his five or six moves. In chess, this kind of insensitivity will cost you the game. And that’s exactly why some beginners do so well against some of the players who have memorized a lot of moves. The beginner doesn’t have any moves. Every turn is a new game to them and they see only what’s on the board at that given moment. The memorizing player misses that in the way they play. They are not aware of what’s on the board at that given moment.

So, to me, I guess my comparison is the opposite of what I’ve heard other people say. To me, jazz is like chess because you have to think about what’s happening NOW. In such a dynamically changing environment, NOW is all we’ve got.

But don’t mistake this to mean that we should never work on memorizing moves or memorizing licks. I didn’t say that. I said you shouldn’t use memorized licks in your jazz solos or memorized moves in a chess game. Memorization is part of the learning process. In jazz, it’s like, “learn this lick, learn that scale, memorize that solo, memorize that tune – now forget all of that and just play”. Like I said, I’m not much of a chess player, but I can’t imagine that it would be any different from playing jazz. You memorize and learn tons of moves and then, when you actually get to the game, you put all of that out of your mind and play the game.

I think this is important because it puts all of that information into your subconscious mind. From there it indirectly influences your game or solos. Just because you’re not consciously thinking about it doesn’t mean that you’re not benefiting from it. But by moving that information to your subconscious mind, you free your conscious mind to think about what’s going on here and now. This makes you more functional in the ever changing environment of playing jazz or chess.

And to me, that is what makes chess and jazz so similar. It’s all about the here and now.

About Eddie Lewis

Eddie Lewis is primarily known as a Christian free-lance trumpet player in Houston, TX. Eddie makes a living playing trumpet, teaching trumpet and jazz improvisation, writing trumpet music and authoring trumpet books. His second book, Daily Routines for Trumpet, is used regularly by thousands of trumpet players around the world. If you would like to purchase some of his CD's, feel free to visit our online music store at
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