Do you really need to memorize Jazz licks?

Maurizio Miotti, a regular reader from Rome, wrote in with a great question.

He says,
  • " My saxophone teacher tells me that I can study music theory and harmony, but if I want to improvise jazz music I have to listen, memorize and play “jazz phrases”. The same situation with learn a new language: you can study grammar but when you talk with someone, you have to use idiomatic expressions because grammar is a set of theoretical roles (sometimes “a little distant” from the current language) and pre-defined phrases are more efficient for communication."
This a very good analogy. Jazz is a universal language that is spoken all over the world. I can go to Poland and call All the Things on the stand and immediately be speaking the same language as the band musically. Licks are very much like idiomatic expressions, they are the elements of a musical language that can be understood the world over. Many licks are favorite patterns developed by an influential player. These are often forever tied to this player as signature licks. Everybody knows exactly who these licks came from as soon as you play them. Yes, Bird and Trane live, because everyone is still playing their shit!

Other licks a
re what I call 'Public Domain' licks. These are pattern and lines that can't really be tracked down to any particular player. These are the first licks that young players memorize as they learn to improvise. Most diminished and whole tone patterns are in this class. These licks are your garden variety stale old Be-bop licks. David Baker has done a wonderful job cataloging these public domain licks in his 'How to Play Bebop' books. These are licks are tried and true, good as gold and oldies but goodies. Everyone has heard these expressions, but they still carry a strong meaning are are understood by everyone who speaks the language. By learning public domain licks you learn how to construct logical and meaningful lines, they can also act as fillers when you aren't feeling totally spontaneous.

If you were to speak using nothing but idiomatic expressions you'd sound ridiculous.

It would be like an albatross round your neck if you thought it was all the rage to jump on the bandwagon with the rank and file who play nothing but licks, thinking they were real deal and the creme de la creme. In all honesty these dime a dozen bean counters make me lose my lunch!

Get my drift?

Like idioms, licks are meaningful elements of a musical language, but they can and usually are overused. I once heard Donny McCaslin say that you need to learn all the common licks so that you don't ever have to play them. Many professional players never get past the point of playing nothing but licks, we would call these guys totally derivative or BOOOOOORING. True, some great licks never get old, no matter how many time you hear them, but some dumb licks can make a great player sound corny and hokey in an instant.

It also d
epends on location. You might get away with playing an old Bebop line in Idaho that would evoke groans from an audience in the East Village. The less the listener knows about Jazz, the better these corny-ass lines sound, because they haven't heard every beginning soloist play them already. You can fool an uneducated audience into thinking that you're can really play by stringing a bunch of stale licks together, it's a fast way to sound like you're playing Real Jazz. Is this really creative? Some would argue that it is and that the goal is to sound good, and playing lots of licks helps you sound good. Many, many players take this way of playing to the extreme and play nothing but licks that they have memorized. They are happy to regurgitate dumb licks for their entire career.

There are different approaches that teachers take with students with regards to learning licks.
The fir
st approach is to have the student memorize a ton of licks in every key. The great disadvantage to this approach is that the student ends up sounding redundant by repeating the exact same lick in many different keys during a solo. Also if the student never breaks free of this mode of learning they end up sounding totally generic. There is also no cohesion in the player's solos, just a bunch of unrelated parts.

  • "That guy sounds like every other tenor player, but no one in particular"
I have my students work out of books like David Baker's How to Play Bebop in order to get them hearing how lines are constructed and also to give them ideas about how to construct their own lines. To me licks are like training wheels that you eventually take off once you've learned how to improvise your own original lines. Even great players sometimes break out an old Bebop lick once and a while, maybe as a nod to a favorite player or for some kind of effect. Sure, I use elements of the many different licks that I've memorized over the years, but only small parts of these licks. Now I use licks as templates from which to build my own lines. I do sound like a Bebop player when I play Bebop because I've incorporated the vernacular of Bebop into my playing over the years. You can hear Bird, Cannonball and many other players in there, but you'd probably be hard pressed to pick out exactly which line came from which player. When I was younger you probably could pick out many Bird phrases in my solos, but as I get older I've created more of my own personal vernacular. The biggest reason players like Pops, Bird, Trane and Woody Shaw were innovators was that they created their own personal language that was so compelling that it influenced players for years to come. Their personal idioms became the public domain licks that everyone else incorporated into their own playing.

How is the evolution of the language of Jazz much like the evolution of language? Once in a while a particularly strong personality comes along, say like a Snoop Dog, and suddenly everyone is putting 'izzle' on the the end of words. Sometimes these fo'shizzles and mo'nizzles pass like fads, other times they work their way into the language and end up in Webster's dictionary or maybe even spoken on the lips of the queen of England.

Yusef Lateef used to tell his students that it is never too early to start developing an original sound and style. The idea that you must first learn all the idiomatic Jazz licks before you can really start creating an original style is total BULLSHIT.

You can be working on your own unique way of playing from the very beginning by learning to make everything you absorb your own. Yes, practice the public domain licks and patterns, but as you learn them put your own twist on them. Displace a note here and there, change a rhythm, leave a note out, add an accidental, just do something to it. Take different pieces of patterns and combine them in unusual ways. I have my students look at David Baker's ii-V7 licks (the ones that are all in the same key and stacked one above the other) and play the ii-7 bar from one lick and a V7 bar from another lick. I have them try all different V7 resolutions with the same ii-7 bar. Then I might have them play the same ii-7 bar and play an improvised V7 using a diminished scale, then a whole-tone, then an altered dominant, ect. Then I have them play different ii-7 bars while keeping the same V7 resolution the same.

You don't have to wait until you've mastered the Jazz language to start creating your own personal idioms. On the other hand if you create a personal language that has no relationship at all to the languages that everyone else is speaks then no one will be able to converse with or understand you. Remember Steve Martin's routine when he talks about wanting to have a kid and teach him to speak random gibberish for laughs?

It all comes down to balance. A good balance between original and idiomatic material is essential in order to sound fresh and still sound like you're grounded in the Jazz tradition. You don't want to alienate the other musicians or your audience by playing the music of the spheres all night. You also don't want to sound like the you sleep with the Omnibook under your pillow
(which I thoroughly approve of by the way) or that the only record you own is Heavy Metal Bebop.

Why bother even pulling out your horn if you're just going to play licks that you memorized from records and books? Respect the tradition by adapting it's idioms and making them your own own, not by being stuck playing nothing but music from before 1957. Take a chance and be creative, even at the expense of sounding sloppy and bad once in a while. Try not to use long licks, instead only use short fragments.

Innovate as you emulate. It's possible to sound very original without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Foshizzle Monizzle?

How to Play Bebop - Volume 1


Kontakt said...


this is a great article!!!

A few remarks:

What we, beginners, often do is learning to use various sound effects (I mean glissando, vibrato etc.) without thinking about them. Then we work for years to get rid of all that stuff and it's really difficult. If anyone among the readers came from rock'n'roll or smooth-jazz background, you know what I mean...
Using memorized licks could be dangerous the same way - if I would use my favourite Garret-out-lick without any context I can find myself sounding like s*t. Every lick should be taken as music, not as something we use while playing and thinking of football altogether.
Of course, we should be able to make some new music and not using cliches much while improvising --- you're definitely right!!!

Thanks again for your great post!

Greg Sinibaldi said...

Hi David,

Good points. I think how jazz is taught is a huge factor.

When kids are in high-school (most anyway) they want the quickest way to get what they want. They come to thier teachers and say, "I want to sound like this or I want to win that solo competition"

Its easy for the lazy teacher to tell them "play this lick over this ii-V, and this one over diminished etc." And the kids dig it, which makes it even easier to give them this stuff.

Its quite another to actually teach a kid how to discover and create their own music. Teaching in this way is exhausting and takes considerable energy.


David Carlos Valdez said...

Exactly. Licks become short cuts for the lazy and you could also say for the cheaters. I've heard so many high school and even college big band soloists play note for note memorized solos and cadenzas. To me that goes against everything that Jazz improvisation is about. Teachers let or even facilitate students to do this because of the competitive nature of high school Jazz festivals.

Getting that trophy is more important than teaching the students to actually improvise.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Licks kill creativity!!!!!

Unknown said...

Hey David -

Do you use a specific approach or method when having your students work from Baker's How To Play Bebop, or do you just have them follow the book as written?


Me Me said...

Great advice, David! I recently went through something similar, practicing a scat solo to a latin big band arrangement by my producer Wayne Wallace of Take the A Train. I looked at the classic Ray Nance trumpet solo and of course Ella's scatting on it. My goal was to quote or at least emulate a bit of each of them, plus add some of my own licks (and a few lyrics). On top of that, it had to be in clave. I know it's not a difficult song harmonically speaking, but I found myself thinking a lot about the themes you talked about here.


Me Me said...

Oh, an I will definitely check out "How to Play Bebop."

MonksDream said...

Alexa, you are very lucky to be learning from Wayne Wallace. I had him for Big Band and he was very good about getting people to follow their own sound.

I remember him telling me to just play Dorian when I was trying a whole bunch of confused sounding minor shit over some chord. He always encouraged us when we sounded good, with our own spin on things.

Later, when I had been probably listening to too much Trane, he told me to "listen to Miles." This offended me at the time, but on later reflection he was just trying to get me to relax, listen, and lay back into the melody while I played.

Me Me said...

Yes, I am lucky. He's a great mentor, and he makes me work hard.

Jay said...

Here are some thoughts in no particular order:
How might that lick that sounds great over one chord sound if I played it exactly the same, but over a different harmony?
How would it sound if I played that lick backwards?
Or if I create inversions from it?
How about if I study that lick until I understand why it works so well?
I was also thinking about the place for licks in teaching about and when playing in helping define the idiom.

Unknown said...

I definitely agree that Jazz is an international language. It's something that everyone knows, whether they really like it or not. Knowing the proper Jazz licks is going to help you speak that language better.