Cutting my teeth playing jazz flute was very difficult because, as much as one practises, there is no substitute for playing with experienced players. Jazz musicians do not suffer fools gladly, and novices may not be treated kindly, so my advice to anyone who wishes to play standards and light jazz is to first hone your skills using ‘Band in a Box’ software.
I suggest learning a few well known tunes in several styles and keys. Really learn the words and play the tunes until you can hear the chord sequences in your head and really understand the structure of the tune. Then you can start to really become audacious with your favourite tunes and the improvisations start to flow. It’s about quality not quantity - playing a few tunes really well will get you the respect you need to play with good players.
A great tune on which to start improvising is Over the Rainbow. The tune’s chord structure is the usual AABA 32 bars, with the A parts based on the scale, so for the first 16 bars the player can just play a scale against the chords. (I use this as an example to explain how playing solos harmonically is really a great way to practise). At first, play ‘Over the Rainbow’ in the key on F and just play the natural scale, one note for each bar to start with, and then rhythmic patterns on each bar.
When I learnt about ‘Band in a Box’, it allowed me to play my favourite tunes with any combination of instruments, in any style, key and tempo. Once I had a few dozen standards really off by heart I got brave enough to join the small combos and I naturally improved and started to really enjoy playing without fear.
If you look up ‘Band in a Box’ on the internet you can probably download a trial to see if you like the software. But I am sure that once you experience the massive amount of styles and tunes you will be keen to purchase a copy. ‘Band in a Box’ will really improve the harmonic skills needed, and the art of reading chord symbols is really not as hard as players make out.
There are many software books such as the Real Book, Jazz Pad and many classical books also. With 'Band in a Box' it is possible to write your own music with the choice of hundreds of instrument combinations. I personally only need the originals and I have a repertoire of 10,000 tunes from which to choose. I often do gigs with just my computer and flute - the band is never late, and is always in time and tune!
Having used Band in the Box now for 6 years I have also found this software brilliant for teaching as the student has to play in time and tune, so important for the novice at the start of his or her playing career.
Recording yourself when improvising will at first be painful but it is mandatory to hear how bad you are before you start to relax and know the chord changes. Your own style of improvising will emerge, so don’t make the same mistake in playing too many notes. Good rhythmic patterns and ghosting notes work well, and the pentatonic and diminished scales will add interest. Knowing all the modes will help. My method is to play tunes I love regularly in several styles, tempos and in at least four different keys.
I promise you will enjoy this fabulous software. So have some fun playing simple tunes and have a go improvising. If you play a few ‘bum’ notes it will do you good to understand why some notes are dissonant. In jazz there are no rules that haven’t been broken, and the tension and release used by using passing notes becomes a normal device to tantalize the listener.