Jazz is the quintessential “cool” form of music, a relaxed, almost informal take on musical notes that avoids all of the traditional chords and focuses on rhythm, sound, and the texture of live performance.
But if you’re looking to capture that same jazz soul, you can’t do it by taking up the wrong instrument – you need to take up an instrument that some of the great jazz musicians like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker have actually used.
To give you an idea of where to start, let’s check out five instruments that are frequently associated with the world of jazz, as well as some of the top jazz musicians of all time.
Famous jazz players: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington
The piano has been around for centuries, but its sound got an update during the 20th Century with the rise of famous jazz artists like Thelonious Monk. These artists make playing the piano look like they’re magically twiddling their fingers and making music come out.
Jazz piano is very unique from classical piano in that it emphasizes a different scale (think the blues scale) and is much more heavily syncopated than in the works of Mozart and Beethoven. To see what can happen on the piano, check out Weekly Piano and view their different improvisations.
Famous jazz player: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong
The sound of “cool jazz” is the sound of Miles Davis and his trumpet, a laid-back rhythm that sounds like the blueprint for all good jazz. The trumpet has a brassy and cutting sound that makes it an easy star of any jazz quartet, but it can also function as part of a brass section in a larger group. Many people are amazed to see what kind of sounds come out of a three-keyed instrument like the trumpet, and it’s almost as if you’re playing an advanced kazoo with a smoother, cooler sound.
Famous jazz player: Charlie Parker
The saxophone is an instrument that gained popularity in the 20th Century, just like jazz, and as such is frequently associated with the genre. Charlie Parker stretched the boundaries of saxophone sounds earlier in the century, and the saxophone has since gained a vaunted status in just about any large band orchestration, including high school bands.
Famous jazz players: Buddy Rich
No band is complete without drums these days, and jazz is no exception. Jazz drums are interesting, however, in that they can both help guide the rhythm and define a rhythm of their own in the form of a solo. Solid jazz drummers are able to go off on their own tangents while keeping a steady track of time in their head – not always an easy feat.
In some cases, a competent jazz player can at least keep a solid beat going through a song, giving the other players ample opportunity to break away from the standard rhythms and syncopate to the beat and tempo established.
Instrument: Double bass
Famous jazz player: Jimmy Blanton
Though not as popular as bass guitars are today, the double bass or upright bass can have a familiar, bold sound that is strongly associated with jazz. Having a deep, strong bass can be essential for drawing contrast with the rest of the instruments while it can complement the rhythm of the drum set.
You may not want to take up the double bass as a jazz musician, but you can tackle an instrument like piano or drums for the versatility in styles they offer – including the ability to play in jazz style.