Blues-Based Warm Ups for the Jazz Ensemble

Blues-Based Warm Ups for the Jazz Ensemble

Blues represent a great way to warm up any jazz band. In addition to providing the foundation that jazz, rock, and rhythm and blues are built on, the blues progression is simple enough for beginners to explore. Whether you’re finding yourself in front of a jazz band for the first time this year, or are an experienced jazz director, I hope you’ll consider sharing some of the following blues warm up concepts with your students.

The Blues Progression

The blues progression is one of the most common forms found in jazz. It is 12 measures in length and in its simplest form, only deals with 3 to 5 chords, depending on which blues progression you are focusing on. For this post, I will be discussing the progression known as jazz blues. The progression can be found below: 

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Exercises Using The Blues Scale

Typically, when a new semester begins, I try to think of interesting ways to warm up the jazz band while teaching them something that can be useful in their section playing or when improvising. The first warm up I would like to show you involves the blues scale. Commonly, when the blues is first introduced to students, the corresponding scale that is also taught is the blues scale.

This scale has its strengths and weaknesses, but something it does really well is that it allows students to hear a sequence of notes sounding different than ones found in the major scale. Jazz harmonies often sound different than harmonies found in band or orchestra music, and the blues scale can help prepare them for such sounds. Below is the blues scale in C:

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As you can see, I have shown you how to alter the major scale in order to get the correct notes of the blues scale.

Adding Articulation

I suggest writing the blues scale on a whiteboard, or chalkboard in the rehearsal hall so the students are able to see it and better comprehend it. Once they are familiar with the scale, add in these simple articulations to make it sound more like a phrase and less like a scale.

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Jazz often incorporates a series of articulations knows as backbeat or back-accent articulation. Basically, tongue the first downbeat, then the next upbeat, then only the proceeding upbeats. It helps to give the music forward momentum while establishing a swing feel within the music. You can see how it’s used on the first two beats of the blues scale and it will become even clearer in the exercises that follow.

The next step in this exercise is to go up the scale and back down. As you can see, I have added in articulations that make this sound more like a musical phrase instead of an ascending and descending scale.

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I have also written in a precise cut off at the end of the phrase. The “-1” indicates that the sound cuts off right on the downbeat of 1 (-1 ½ would be the and of beat 1, -2 would be beat 2, etc.). Cutting the sound off at the correct time is extremely important in any style of music, but can either make a jazz band sound experienced or like one that needs a little more polishing. When doing this exercise, listen very carefully to make sure everyone is using the correct articulations and using extreme precision on the cutoff. This will help any of the passages found in the music.

More Keys

As the semester progresses, start having the students play the blues scale in just a few keys, then move to all 12 keys as a warm up with the proper articulation, cutoffs and style. I generally move in the circle of 4ths starting on C but you can see what best fits your ensemble. If you warm up correctly, everything will gradually sync into your jazz band charts. This will take some time, but eventually they will be able to complete this exercise.

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Warm Ups Involving Modes

While still utilizing the blues progression, you can warm up the jazz band using modes from the major scale. When learning to improvise you learn that chords have a corresponding scale you can use to create your melodies over any given harmony, or chord. This technique is known as the chord-scale relationship. For this exercise we’ll be using the mixolydian and dorian modes. Mixolydian can be used over the dominant chords and dorian over the minor chord. The exercise is below:

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The exercise uses the backbeat, or back-accent, articulation while moving through the ascending modes that relate to the chords. This can be a lengthy warm-up if you choose to do this in all 12 keys. I would suggest 2-3 keys each day, or week, just to get the students acclimated to the exercise. It will still be very beneficial. The goal is to use the proper articulation throughout the ensemble while learning the scales, or modes, that relate to the chords. I have had a lot of success with it and hope you will too.

These are just a couple of the warm-up exercises that I have found useful when working with different jazz bands on various levels. They help when it comes to the unification of the ensemble, articulation, and phrasing. Obviously, you can modify them in any way to make them fit your jazz band because each group is different. But most importantly, have fun with it and enjoy sharing jazz with your students.

JD Little

Dr. JD Little is an assistant professor of music at Cameron University in Lawton, OK. JD teaches applied lessons on saxophone, flute, and clarinet, directs the Cameron University Jazz Ensemble and the Lawton Community Jazz Ensemble, and also teaches sight-singing III/IV, harmony and structure III, music fundamentals, advanced conducting, secondary instrumental methods, and American popular music.