A jazz improvisation curriculum: Junior high through college

The following is a suggested curriculum for teaching jazz style and improvisation to students from junior high school through college. The materials listed are geared toward the developing saxophonist, but may be substituted or adapted to meet needs of other instrumentalists. The curriculum assumes the student has a basic command of the instrument, and should be used in conjunction with classical study. The layout of the curriculum suggests materials for junior high, high school, and college, but will of course need to be altered to fit each individual student’s needs.

Junior High School


  • Command of basic instrumental technique
  • Able to play all major scales from memory
  • Able to sightread at a basic level
  • Listening to jazz


  • Able to construct and play dorian and mixolydian scales
  • Able to construct and play major, minor, and dominant chords to the 9th
  • Introduced to basic rules of articulation and swing
  • Transcribing heads of simple standard tunes

High School


  • Able to construct and play blues scales, natural and harmonic minor scales
  • Able to use scales, arpeggios, and simple licks to improvise over simplechord progressions (blues, Impressions, etc.)
  • Niehaus Basic Jazz Conception for Saxophone, Vol. I. Able to identify and correct printed articulation errors. Able to play exercises with consistent style
  • Transcribing simple solos from recordings of great jazz musicians


  • Able to construct and play jazz minor and bebop scales
  • Developing vocabulary of digital patterns and II-V-I licks
  • Niehaus Intermediate
  • Improvising over tunes using II-V-I’s (Tune Up, Satin Doll, etc.)
  • Transcribing more advanced solos, able to identify scales, arpeggios, etc. within the solo



  • Able to construct and play whole tone and diminished/half-diminished scales and chords
  • Developing vocabulary for use with altered and minor II-V-I’s
  • Charlie Parker Omnibook using appropriate articulation and style, perhaps at reduced tempi
  • Transcribing solos; learning transcribed licks in all 12 keys
  • Improvising over tunes with diminished/half-diminished chords and/or minor II-V-I’s


  • Able to construct and play altered scales
  • Improvising over blues in all 12 keys
  • Charlie Parker Omnibook
  • Transcribing solos, transposing to all twelve keys
  • Memorizing standard tunes


  • Able to play modes of major and harmonic minor scales
  • I Got Rhythm in all 12 keys
  • Charlie Parker Omnibook
  • Transcribing influential players, able to identify and imitate style and sound characteristics
  • Memorizing tunes

Above and Beyond

  • Cherokee in all 12 keys
  • Tunes in odd meters
  • Tritone substitutions, Coltrane changes, etc.


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