Why Write Jazz Etudes?

posted in: Jazz | 6
Photo by Pin Lim at forestphotography.com

I just finished and submitted an etude for this year’s Texas All-State Jazz trumpet auditions. I’ve submitted similar etudes every year for about five years now, I think. This year was a little different because I didn’t have much time to write. So to save time (this sort of sounds like a GEICO commercial :-)) I just took the etude I was writing already and modified it to fit the Texas All-State format. I’ve been practicing Chick Corea’s Spain recently and part of the process I use for learning tunes is to write a series of etudes for that tune.

What Good Is Writing Etudes?

I told a student yesterday that writing jazz etudes is sort of like making a jazz improv “wish list.” Composing an etude is the same as improvisation. The only difference is that composing is in slow motion, improv is in real time. Looking at it as a wishlist helps to explain why writing your own etudes can be so beneficial for your improvisation.

When we improvise, the music is moving forward so quickly that we cannot theorize our way through a solo. I don’t think most younger jazz students understand this. The theory in our improvised solos is not in our minds as we perform. By the time we get on stage to play a tune in public, all of the theory should have been worked out in advance.

I submitted only one page of my Spain etude for the All-State jazz etude. On the second page of the etude I used the augmented scale in a few different spots. The theory behind my use of the augmented scale came long before I wrote the etude. Now, when I practice the etude, it will help me become more comfortable with improvising over that scale in that harmonic context. Later, when I genuinely improvise over Spain in public, I will no longer need to think about the augmented scale and the theory that justifies that scale. I will have the technique to improvise according to what sounds good to me, not according to what is theoretically justifiable.

Here is the second page of my Spain Etude:
Spain Jazz Etude – Page 2 – Trumpet in Bb
Note: this is not the same material I submitted to the Texas Jazz Educators Association.

Without this middle step in the process, without going through the slow motion process of composition, too much of the real time improvisation is left up to chance and limited by our inability to think through the advanced theory as we perform.

In Practice

I’ve been writing my own jazz etudes for almost thirty years now. It was recommended to me as a technique in my early college years as a way to learn how to improvise. My teacher used to suggest writing two or three “solos” for the same progressions, memorizing them and then trying to forget about them.

I do not believe this technique works as a stand alone technique for learning how to improvise. But it does make for an excellent transition from a more theoretical approach to something more feeling or sound based.

When I practice the etudes, I memorize them after I compose them. This is important because nothing we do in jazz improv is read. The music must originate from within us. So when we memorize the etudes it internalizes the wish list, turning it into something accessible to us in performance.

After the etude is memorized, I will use it as a stepping off vehicle for improvisation. I begin by playing the etude and then continue the improv while trying to maintain the same feel, sound and style.

When I feel like I have finished learning the tune, I will put the etudes away at least for a while. When I come back to that tune later, I may pull the etudes out again, but as my musicianship matures on that tune, I will eventually get away from the etudes completely.

Do You Write Jazz Etudes?

If you do, I’d like to hear about it. How do you use them? What do you use them for?

6 Responses

  1. Life Builders: Al Mendez - Eddie Lewis Ave.

    […] I recently posted an article about the use and effectiveness of writing jazz solos. My history of doing this goes back to Sombrero. I soon matured to the next stage and was improvising every solo I played, but everyone has to start somewhere! If you would like to read that article it’s called Why Write Jazz Etudes? […]

  2. Will

    I just started to. For some reason a lot of my practicing doesn’t get into my playing so I hope this helps. I’m working on motifs and development. I have a lick book from Greg Fishman so I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate these into a logical solo. I figure if I don’t how know how to compose a solo with a lot of time I won’t be able to on the fly during improv.

    • Eddie

      Hello Will,

      Welcome to my blog. Yes, that’s the right idea. Improv is composition on the fly. Any skills we gain as composers can greatly enhance how we improvise.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Rick

    What a great blog. Thanks for sharing. I did this kind of naturally but it’s the best thing that ever happened to my playing. It’s far more Thematic, not saying I’m sonny rollins, but my solos actually have a flow and a logic to them now. But few Jazz educators are sharing this knowledge. Although there are some conflicting reports, I heard Joe Henderson and Steve grossman also followed this approach with students. Thanks for sharing!

    • Eddie

      Hello Rick,

      I’m glad you like the site.
      Thanks for your concurrence of ideas. Most of what I teach is not really new information. But you’re right, a lot of modern day jazz educators do not teach this stuff.

      Thanks for your comments,


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