Clark Terry’s 3 Steps to Learning Improvisation


Improvisation is a necessity in life. We are all continually bombarded with new and unexpected obstacles and are required to make choices about things that we didn’t necessarily plan on. It’s interesting that many people don’t consider this a vital or fun part of our daily lives. It’s even more interesting – or unfortunate – that jazz improvisation isn’t considered a useful topic or required course for middle and high school students in order to learn these important life skills. It seems to me that simply getting comfortable with making quick choices when presented with an unexpected challenge seems like a skill worth learning. Jazz improvisation does just that. And it’s fun!

I noticed a Facebook post just yesterday asking what the best book is to learn jazz improvisation. My first thought and reply to that question would be “a book is not the answer, but rather listen to a great jazz solo and figure it out by ear”. Then perhaps I’d suggest “once you have the lick, phrase or solo thoroughly learned by memory, you should write it down, analyze it along with the chords so that you can understand how to play it – and variations of it – in other situations and scenarios”. However, this question also made me immediately think about Clark Terry. Not only because of his recent passing, but because of his well-known simple three word answer to this common question:

“How do I learn to improvise?”

“Imitiation – Assimilation – Innovation”

(Yes I know…Clark Terry plays trumpet and flugelhorn – not trombone – but we can all learn a great deal from the masters and apply it to our own situation.)


Imitation: Listening. Learning lines by ear. Transcribing solos. Absorbing a player’s feel, articulation, and time.
This is where it all begins.


Assimilation means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you’ve transcribed into your musical conception. Not just mentally understanding them on the surface level, but truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in.


Creating a fresh and personal approach to the music. Many young musicians want to skip to this step as soon as they start learning how to improvise. They want to have their own harmonic concept and a unique sound on their instrument right from the get-go. Without a model or in-depth conception of harmony and melody though, it will be much more difficult to create a truly unique approach.

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