Practicing Jazz In 12 Keys

In this post, I justified why I practice in 12 keys. As promised, today’s post breaks down my approach.

Jazz By Numbers

To transpose rapidly between keys, you may have to change your way of thinking. When I was a younger player, I learned melodies by pitch names (C, A, Gb…what have you) which does work, but gives little information about a note’s context. You know the note is a “C”, but how does it function? Is it a 3rd, a b9 or a “ruptured 129th”? It also makes moving to another key difficult, since it takes a lot of math to move every note by a fixed interval, one-by-one.

When I first started out, I worked out of Jerry Coker’s Patterns for Jazz – a semi-comprehensive tome of arpeggios, scales and clichés. The book writes out a bunch of patterns, pre-transposed for you, but later only gives the pattern in a single key. You end up having to do a lot of the transposing yourself, which is the secret to the whole system.

After slogging through the 1st set of patterns (the major arpeggios), I noticed that Coker always built the exercises with the same transpositions. Taking a cue from this, I developed a pattern routine:

  1. Analyze the pattern for structure (i.e. “C D E G” is “1 2 3 5” in C∆)
  2. Use the numbers to recreate in new keys (i.e. “1 2 3 5” in Ab∆ is “Ab Bb C Eb”)
  3. Transpose and play full range in 1/2 steps, up and down
  4. Ditto in whole steps
  5. Ditto in minor 3rds
  6. Ditto in major 3rds
  7. …circle of 4ths anyone?
  8. And my own weird custom pattern – up a tritone, down a 1/2 step

Side note: I recently saw a Berklee interview with Michael Brecker (posted on Casa Valdez) where he demonstrates basically the same thing.

As I improved, I began to think numerically – which was more efficient. Instead of trying to shift the whole thing a minor 3rd, note by note, I just recreated the number set in the new key. All I had to do was know the key well enough.

Applying Numbers to Tunes

So how do you leverage this keyless way of thinking when it comes to moving tunes around? It comes down to being able to understand the structure of a tune. A lot of times, this is simple…

Miles Davis’ “So What”:
The Changes to "So What"

A Typical Jazz Blues:
A Typical Blues Progression

But it can also get complex. Let’s look at “All the Things You Are”. This tune has key changes, a wide variety of chord types and an unusual 36 bar form.

Let’s look at one possible breakdown:

1. First, find all the chords in the tune that are clearly in the key of the song (AbΔ in the original key). Here it turns out that the 1st 5 bars are all just chords from diatonic AbΔ. The last 3 bars are a ii-7 V7 IΔ7 progression in CΔ. So turning that into function, we get:
All the Things - The 1st Section

2. The A’ section (or should we call it B?) is identical to the first, but up a 5th.
All the Things - The 2nd Section

3. The bridge is just two ii-7 V7 IΔ7 progressions in two keys (GΔ and EΔ originally), and it ends with a V7b9b13 to take us into the last section. Here’s how I see it:
All the Things - The 3rd Section, The Bridge

4. The last section is an extended variation on A. This time, it stays in one key with some clever passing chords.
All the Things - The 4th Section

Notes on the last section: The bVII7 is often played as a IV-7. I like the bVII7 since it keeps the circle-of-5ths bass line going. Also, the bIII°7 can be seen as a V7/b9 of the V7 chord. Try it out. Cool, right?

The structure is actually pretty clean when you look at it like this – especially given the tune’s sophistication. What we’ve created here is the plan for rebuilding the tune in any key. Just assign a key to the first I chord and the rest will fall in line.

Also, did you notice that seeing the tune this way points out subtle details in the progression? See those VI chords and the III chord? I hear a lot of players treat these as II chords. I bet not all of them do it as a creative exercise. They probably just saw the minor chords and went straight for Dorian.


Ok…so that was a mouthful, but it does spell out the way I practice tunes these days. And like anything, this gets easier as you add “formulas” to your trick bag. For instance, all the ii-7 V7 IΔ7 patterns are just one thing in my mind – a ii-V-I progression. In fact, there are 24 chords in this tune that can be summed up as ii-V-I’s. Out of 36 bars, that’s a pretty good start.

Is this for the young improviser? Probably not. If you’ve only been playing for a few years, this probably seems like a mountain. I assure you it isn’t. But it took years of theory study and countless hours of practice to get to this point. Start small.

  • Get Patterns for Jazz or something like it and start thinking number & function.
  • Make this a part of your daily routine so you absorb it naturally.
  • Read concert charts to get practice transposing (a skill I use all the time). This is a related skill that gets you seeing intervals.
  • Study theory. Try Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book or Randy Halberstadt’s Metaphors for the Musician.

And if you’re a pro, you need these skills. There will be a gig where having this ability makes you look like a superhero – especially in comparison to all the players out there who can’t do it.

Guess who they’ll call the next time they need a horn player!

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8 Responses to Practicing Jazz In 12 Keys

  1. Cool post Adam, I’ve got that book by Jerry Coker too, pulled it out again not too long ago. He taught music here in Monterey not too long ago.

    Going up a tritone and down by a half step is an interesting choice.

    Thanks for writing.


  2. Pingback: Playing Tunes In All 12 Keys? Really? | Adam Roberts Music

  3. Pingback: Thinking in numbers – A minor

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