Jazz is an art form that has developed its own language, much of it mystifying to the general listener. Often deliberately mystifying to preserve jazz’s hard won outsider status.  Jazz has always been positioned outside the cultural and musical mainstream. This is part of its enduring fascination, at least it is to me.

My friend Anthony has been in touch to suggest that I write a piece that explains jazz terminology for non-insiders. This is it. It does not claim to be comprehensive but hopefully it provides a useful introduction.


Many jazz tunes, particularly those drawn from the great American song book follow an A-A-B-A pattern. A theme often running for 8 bars repeated three times, twice at the beginning, once at the end with a complementary theme often in a different key as the meat in the melodic sandwich. This is the bridge. If you listen hard to a jazz improvisation over a jazz standard like the ballad Good Morning Heartache or the standard, Have You Met Miss Jones you should be able to hear the improviser modulating between the opening theme and the bridge

The Changes

Jazz parlance for the chordal, harmonic underpinnings to any melody. One of the most basic challenges for any jazz player is to negotiate the changes confidently. The changes provide the essential context to an improvisation.  More advanced players invent their own changes, but that’s another story. To top players “playing the changes” can have a derogatory meaning, but it is an essential dues-paying process.


Any piece of music that is written down. More colloquially known as known as Dots.

Image by William Claxton


Being in shape to play and improvise. Normally but not exclusively associated with wind instruments. A trumpeter’s chops will get out of shape if they have been skipping too many practise sessions.


The complete form of any tune be it a 12 bar blues or a 64 bar original composition. Players need to know precisely where they are in the form and often subtly mark the transition from one chorus to the next. In live performances John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were renowned for playing choruses that could run for 30 minutes or more. Legendary saxophonists of an earlier generation such as Lester Young or Johnny Hodges were more likely to play solos running for 2 or 3 choruses. In many studio recordings the leader may indicate to soloists how many choruses they should take.


Providing a tasteful harmonic accompaniment to a soloist, normally the role of a pianist or guitarist. Pianists and guitarists are rated both for their comping and improvisational prowess when their turn comes to step up and improvise. All great pianists are as renowned for their comping as improvisational chops.

Double Time

A doubling of tempo in the melody while the accompanying instruments remain at the slower tempo; or all the instruments doubling the tempo together. This is a common rhythm device in ballad playing.

Fours / Eights

The period in a performance where soloists and the drummer trade improvisational ideas over either four or eight bars. Listen out for ideas being traded between the players. Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano are two trading masters. Fours and Eights often lead back into a recapitulation of the tune.


To play freely without any reference to a melody or its associated harmony. Very often an improviser may play the changes for a few choruses before launching into a passage of free improvisation, hopefully returning effortlessly to the form at the conclusion. This is often described as “playing outside”.

Image by William Claxton

Groove / Swing

When asked to define swing Louis Armstrong responded, “If you’ve got to ask you don’t know”, which gives me a get out of jail card on this quintessential jazz term. Establishing a distinctive groove, ensuring that the band are swinging together on the band stand (not a pre-requisite in Free Jazz) represent some of the founding pillars of jazz. On the odd occasion where you hear a live performance that doesn’t swing, or a piece being played without a distinctive groove, that’s when you know what swing and groove are! Jazz musicians can be forgiven for a lot but never an incapacity to swing. As an amateur player myself the question that I am always asking, or being asked in the rehearsal room or on the bandstand is, “Is it swinging?”, or “What’s the groove?”.

Another analogous term is “playing in the pocket” which is more often associated with drummers.


Jazz parlance for the tune. A tap of the head on the bandstand indicates a return to the tune.

Head Arrangement

A tune made up on the spot, not scored.

Jam session

Ever since the dawn of jazz jam sessions have formed a cornerstone of the music. Informal sessions, often after hours – early A.M- and in out-of-the way venues where a house piano trio would be joined by any number of instrumentalists. Tunes are “called” without notice, scores or preparation and players are expected to master both the melody and harmonies and turn in distinctive solos.

Jazz literature and folklore is replete with stories about jam sessions- whether the legendary mid-30’s session that turned into a cutting contest between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, a teenage Charlie Parker sitting in with Count Basie in his hometown of Kansas City and being thrown off the bandstand by drummer Jo Jones ( Bird’s response was to practice for 12 hours a day), or the nightly jam sessions at Minton’s in Harlem in the early 40’s which provided the crucible for the revolution in jazz named bebop.

In Being Prez Dave Gelly’s brilliant biography of Lester Young, he describes jam sessions in the 1930’s as follows;

“A jam session was a mixture of social event, competitive examination, and educational experience, and it was strictly for insiders. There was no audience, everyone present, even the occasional non-player was a participant. An audience can be impressed by tricks, or dazzled by fame or seduced by charm, but these counted for nothing at a jam session. The only thing that mattered was what you could do and how well you could do it”.

Jam sessions remain part of the DNA of contemporary jazz It’s where you learn the craft of the jazz improviser.

Killing It

A solo that really does the business.


Most jazz players have a store or ready-prepared improvisational motifs in all keys that they can utilize on the bandstand. These are licks. An average player will do nothing more than run through their licks. Good or great players will use their licks more sparingly.

Image by William Claxton

Paying your dues

Within the context of jazz this is an obligation to study and learn from previous generations of jazz players. Interviews with the current generation of young lions are replete with references to standing on the shoulders of jazz elders. In other words, paying your dues.


A close cousin to Licks.

Riffs are one of the building blocks of jazz. They are everywhere—as background figures, parts of jazz solos, and even entire riff tunes. A riff is a short melody—just a few notes—repeated over and over in a rhythmic manner.

Sitting in

It is still customary for musicians to show up at a gig and ask the leader to join the band for a number or two. Sitting in without lodging a request is definitely non de rigeur.


A technical term for what to do in the last two bars before returning to the tune/head, or similarly from the bridge to the main melody. Jazz is replete with harmonic options for those two bars. Closely associated with both building and releasing tension musically.


The fabled woodshed is where you put in the necessary hours to pay your dues. Woodshed has spawned the verb woodshedding or shedding.

The Playlist

Given today’s subject I don’t think that my usual approach, illustrating the theme of each blog with related tracks would work so this playlist is a selection of music that I have been listening to recently. It opens and closes with two songs marking the passing of jazz icon Wayne Shorter.

Finally, I can’t resist putting in Tonight at Noon. Not technically a jazz term, more a phrase that represents the jazz life, and a great tune by Charles Mingus.

In the immortal words of Bud Freeman- “I didn’t know there were two ten o’clocks in the same day”!

In the words of Duke Ellington, I hope you do enjoy…