Why is Learning Jazz Patterns Foreign to Me?

I received this question in an email the other day and I thought it would be good to try to answer it in detail on the blog here so others can benefit from it:



I have always listened to jazz, but I tend to favor simpler, lyrical playing like Houston Person, Gene Ammons, etc., but I like Dex, Mintzer, and Brecker.   All my studies were aimed at classical (I call it “academic”).  I played lyrical jazz well, but I never attempted to play more complex stuff like Mintzer, Brecker, or you.  You once heard a sample of me and said I sounded very diatonic.  That’s true.  I know scales and intervals.  I tend to be very symmetric or linear.  If I play intervals, I play them in ascending or descending pattern using the same interval.  I hear something in your playing that I cannot put my finger on.  It’s like an interval up followed by a different interval down then 2-3 notes of a scale, maybe an approach note, then more dissimilar intervals in the other direction, etc.  Basically, the pattern never sits still or repeats sufficiently for me to hear what is going on.  And having worked only on academic etudes, concertos, and big band, I have no idea what you are playing.  I see jazz improvisation comments about chords.  I can play chord tones and arpeggios, but I don’t play chords on saxophone (I do that on guitar).  Therefore, I only use chords and key to open up the best candidate notes for the music.  Are your patterns (that do not sound like patterns) a way for you to play the chord?  If so, it sounds like much more than the chord.  On guitar I play 13ths and 11ths, but more than that tends to lose the gravity or real chord meaning.   I want to learn to do some of what you, Brecker, Mintzer are doing. 

Your YouTube of Green Dolphin Street (soprano) can serve for some examples.  

[jwplayer mediaid=”29235″]

What are you doing at 2:22-2:23?  I had lots of ear training and music theory.  But these intervals and scales steps do not “ring a bell” with me. 

At 2:51-3:00 there is a good example because you are playing the pattern slowly.  My question is do you and guys that play these patterns “hear” this in your head or when you first began using this type of pattern were you mentally selecting something that you had been taught to play?  You see, I don’t find this type of note choice dissonant or in bad taste, but my ear hears more like a vocalists’ ear, and these notes are never in my head.

On your website in you soprano mouthpiece review of the Selmer Super Session “J” from 00:35-00:40 you have momentarily left the “middle eastern” sound and you play these note patterns that are ok with my ear’s “note police” but I don’t hear it and say “I know what he is doing. He’s playing maj 3rds” or “min 3rds” or “4ths” or “5ths”, etc.  What are you doing?

 So, I am asking three questions and #1-3 are similar.  First and third questions are what are those specific patterns.  Second question is about what you hear in your head versus what you play based on your mental breakdown of the music – you probably hear these notes now, but did you hear them as useful notes when you first learned  them?

Thank you


XXXXX, Thanks for the question, I hope I can answer it thoroughly and give you some answers that help in your journey.

In each of those examples that you ask about,  I am using concepts that have added to my jazz vocabulary over the years. I practiced these different concepts so much, that I can run them together and combine them in different ways when improvising.

Here is the Green Dolphin Street 2:22 example that you asked about:


The first 5 notes BGABG are just a melodic shape I play a lot and practiced on chords in the past. If we put numbers to that shape you have 53453.   I cover patterns like these in my “New Ultimate II-V-I Primer” book.  There are hundreds of simple patterns in that book like this that are so important to get down and they start you off with a solid foundation you can pull ideas from.

The next 5 notes are an approach in E minor from my Approach Note Velocity book. GD#F#D#E.  I’m thinking E-7 here as that is the chord and then approaching the E of measure two.  The notes that have tension on them like D# are ok because they lead to the resolution on a chord tone on the downbeat which solidifies the tonality and resolves the line.  This is an important concept and I teach it in my Mastering the Bebop Scale books, Approach Note Velocity books, The New Ultimate II-V-I Primer book and many of my video and audio lessons.

After the E above, I just run up the F# diminished scale but starting on the E I just resolved to. This is a great scale to use on a dominant chord that is about to resolve down a 5th like the F#7(b9) is about to.  I end on a line in B-7 which is almost all chord tones. Interestingly enough, notice that on B-7 the first 5 notes are the same melodic pattern I started the line with 53453.  

Here is the 2:51 line you asked about:


At the 2:51 mark I start the line based off of the minor ii-V going to E-7 in measure two. All I am doing is using approaches from my book in E minor to start the line and lead it to the E-7 of the second measure. Those approaches just happen to match perfectly with the F#-7 B7 chords.  The great thing about approach lines is that because they are moving in and out of a given tonality the can sound great over chord changes that are passing underneath the lines.  To check out this concept in action these lessons are great:

In measure two, I am just using the A7 bebop scale material from my “Mastering the Dominant Bebop Scale” book.   I start with a bebop link in A7  EBDBC# (You can use these over E-7 like I talk about in the book) then I head down the A bebop scale C#BAAbG and end with a resolution link from my bebop book based off of the A altered scale.

As you can see, it’s not as simple as “What are you doing?’ I’m combining different concepts and elements that I worked on for years.  In the above example I am using: approach note pattern, bebop pattern, altered scale pattern.

In the Super Session J soprano mouthpiece clip (click here to here the full clip)  at the :35 mark, that is simply me leaving the harmonic scale sound of the “middle eastern sound” (as you state in your question) and changing the line to a bebop sounding minor line in C minor.  I’m still thinking C harmonic minor but combined with approach note patterns.  I’m also forming the line in a more straight ahead context where I’m thinking more G7b9 to C minor.  So in this case the line is:  


These are all short ideas from my Approach Note Velocity book that I have linked together to form this long line.

Do I hear all these things before hand and just play them? Yes and No.  I imagine them and think of them but most times they are part of my language and vocabulary.  When you speak, do you hear or imagine the word you are about to say before you say it?  To me,  it’s similar to speaking.  When I talk or type I think about what I want to say or communicate and then I choose from the words I know how to best communicate what I want to say.  So when I am playing, I try to think the same way.  I combine  musical words together to form phrases much like you link words together to form sentences when you speak.  

The key is really knowing these musical words.  If you don’t know a lot of words,  communicating is hard if not impossible.  I have practiced many musical words over the years over and over in all keys……probably almost as much as I have spoken words (maybe not, but I have practiced an awful lot) so the end result is that I can play with very little thought sometimes.  Many students tell me this is a foreign concept and impossible for them to do but I show them that this isn’t true.  While talking to them,  I ask them how many of the individual words they thought of in the last sentence they just said.  Usually the answer is none.  They just thought of what they wanted to say and then started speaking and they found the words. Everyone does it while speaking every day! That is improvising!

So if we can do it while speaking and using words,  why do we have such a hard time with musical sentences?  The key is learning musical ideas in smaller groupings much like words I think.  In my Mastering the Bebop Scale books and Approach Note Velocity books I divide the ideas up into 2-8 note musical words.  The power of this is that you can combine these musical words any way you like just like when using words when speaking.  This is where the improvisation part comes in and makes it more interesting.  Instead of learning a 4 measure lick that I can play only one way, I prefer to learn the lick by dividing it up into shorter musical words that I then can combine in a hundred different ways depending on what I think of or imagine.  

When I was a kid and even in college I was  taught that the key to bebop was memorizing these long licks and lines.  I spent hours and hours learning 4 measure lines like I have in my “The Best II-V-I Patterns” book.  These are great lines and worth memorizing and mastering but memorizing these lines is like memorizing a whole sentence in a foreign language.  As an example: “Excuse me, where is the bathroom?” If you need a bathroom that sentence will be extremely useful BUT, it has limited use because you can’t use it in a different context or for different things.  It becomes useful when you start learning more words and combining them together.  Like pencil, road, bus, police station……now you can substitute all those words for bathroom and get way more use out of that one sentence.  What if you learn more words to use instead of “where”?  How about what,when and how……..now we have expanded our options even more!  I hope that illustrates the point, the more words you learn and the more you practice using them in different combinations the better you will be at communicating in that language.  The same holds true for the musical language.

Just like language has some rules that help you to communicate and make sense so does the musical line. Sure, you can just practice saying random French words in Paris and string them together to form a long sentence but people will not know what you are talking about.  It’s the same with the musical words. Through the practice of learning them and stringing them together you start to learn what works and what doesn’t.  What sounds good and what doesn’t.  There is learning the words but then there is learning how to use them together to communicate!

In the examples above, I can breakdown every line into it’s musical words or links as I like to call them in my Bebop books.  When I’m transcribing solos I try to do the same thing with what I’m transcribing.  When I practice I do the same with whatever new material I am working on……….

In your email you asked the question:

Second question is about what you hear in your head versus what you play based on your mental breakdown of the music – you probably hear these notes now, but did you hear them as useful notes when you first learned  them?”

When I figured out how to create these smaller musical words and started doing it, they did sound good to me. I played them, I thought they sounded good, and then I would start to practice them.  The hard part isn’t finding the good sounding pieces or words but rather putting those pieces together.  That is what took me the most practice.

So when you hear me playing all of these mysterious fast lines and phrases I am not just making them up on the spot but rather putting the musical words together in different orders in the moment.  That’s why although it might have a similar sound it’s not the same exact line many times.

You also ask this question above which I think is important also:

I see jazz improvisation comments about chords.  I can play chord tones and arpeggios, but I don’t play chords on saxophone (I do that on guitar).  Therefore, I only use chords and key to open up the best candidate notes for the music.  Are your patterns (that do not sound like patterns) a way for you to play the chord?  If so, it sounds like much more than the chord.  On guitar I play 13ths and 11ths, but more than that tends to lose the gravity or real chord meaning.

Chords are the framework. The more you know them and hear them the better.  When I’m improvising I’m creating these lines but I always try to be mindful of the chord I am playing against.  If I am playing over E-7 I know how all 12 chromatic notes sound against E-7.  I know which ones sound good and which ones sound ok and which ones have a lot of tension and dissonance.  I know which notes are the resolution notes and sound the most consonant also.  All these things are super important.  Am I playing the chord?   No, not strictly speaking but……if you were to analyze my examples above you would see that I am outlining the chords with my downbeat notes.   Not all the time as you can see above but most of the time. These lines sound good  and hip because there is a balance of tension and release.

All this isn’t to say that I also don’t just improvise or imagine shapes or spontaneously play something that is new.  That happens all the time also and I get super excited when I discover new ideas while playing.  The elements I am specifically talking about above are related to the examples you asked about.  Ideally, for me, I like to have a healthy balance between using the language I know and venturing out on the edge and trying to create something new.

Hope this helps,    Steve

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.


  1. Excellent article and response! This makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing, Steve.

  2. Very thorough response, and very clearly explained!
    Thanks, Steve.

  3. Avatar Anderson Kerigma says

    Dear Steve,

    I’m a Brazilian saxophone player… I’ve been playing the alto, tenor and soprano horns for many years, but not going seriously and deeply into the techniques to build up my chops. Although I’ve known your wonderful website for jazz classes years ago, only now I think I can manage my time to endure a long and consecutive journey for thoroughly learning the jazz “misteries” with you.

    As I join the website program, what should I do not to get lost amongst so many great lessons and information? Is there a recommendation in the lessons order?

    Thank you,

    Brasília, DF, BRAZIL

    • Hi Anderson,
      Right now the site is setup like a library. You can browse all the lessons by category, read the descriptions and watch a video sample to get an idea what the lesson is about and the difficulty of it. After that, it is really up to you and what you decide you want to work on this month. I’m not sure what level you are at but if you have been playing for many years I don’t think the order of lessons is that important. What is important is that you pick a subject and topic that excites you. Focus on it and practice a lot. When you get to an intermediate level and have a lot of the basics down then it’s just a matter of what you want to focus on and master at that point. Hope that makes sense. Let me know if you have more questions, Steve

  4. Avatar joe nickerson says

    great patient explanation Steve!

  5. Avatar Anderson Kerigma says

    Thank you so much for your kind answer, Steve!

    Ok, I’ll try to browse every virtual corner here, to choose which lesson I shall primarily focus on. And yes, I let you know as soon as I find any difficulty or have any other question at all. 🙂


  6. Bop is like weight lifting ; it takes time to get to the real heavy weights

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