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Every great jazz musician has, at one time or another, transcribed jazz solos from recordings.  Since jazz is an art from that is aural in nature, it makes complete sense that listening and copying the improvisations of earlier jazz masters helps one become a more consistent and skilled jazz improviser.

Transcribing a jazz solo involves the repetitive listening and notation of a recorded jazz solo.  To get maximum benefit from the process, the person studying the solo through transcription should memorize and internalize every note and every inflection played by the improviser.  “Transcribing” refers to the activity of notating on paper the exact notes and rhythms played by the improviser.

Evolving Technologies of Transcribing Jazz Solos

Charlie Parker could arguably be called the most influential jazz artist of the 20th century. His inventive jazz improvisations changed the face of jazz and ushered in one of the most exciting eras of jazz: the bebop era.

Charlie Parker was born with a huge amount of natural talent, but that does not mean Charlie never worked hard at his honing his craft.  History reveals that Charlie spent almost a year early on in his music career memorizing – note by note – the jazz solos of Lester Young from 78 RPM recordings.

Before jazz became widely available on 78 RPM recordings, musicians relied on listening and learning in “real time”.  The only way to learn jazz improvisation in the early days of jazz was to listen to live musicians and pick up what you could from what they played.  Once played however, the music was gone forever. 

During the 1920s, artists such Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and many others began recording their music and jazz improvisations onto 78 RPM acetone discs.  This leap in technology opened the door for future musicians to “study” the improvisations of their jazz predecessors.

The 1950s saw the introduction of reel to reel tape machines and ultimately cassette tape recordings. Magnetic tape made it possible for jazz musicians to forward and rewind the tape to exact locations of solos and specific passages of a solo.  No longer did musicians have to “drop the needle” on worn out discs to learn a solo or tune.  Some cassette tape players were made specifically for musicians, allowing them to slow down parts or all of a recording at half or quarter speed.  This proved to be helpful, but slowing down analog tape created problems with pitch and fidelity that was annoying to say the least.

In recent years, computers have assisted jazz musicians transcribe recordings in ways that were once considered impossible.  Inexpensive or free computer programs have made it possible to slow down fast passages without changing fidelity or pitch.  Other advantages of computer assisted transcription include the ability to change key, precise looping of passages for ease in learning, and even help with notating pitches that are played.

Transcribing and studying great jazz solos can be one of the smartest and beneficial activities any jazz musician can undertake to help hone his or her craft.  Even with the marvels of modern technology, the process still takes time and effort however.  Don’t forget to use the knowledge and skills you acquire from transcribing jazz solos to performing with live musicians.  Nothing will replace the experience of playing jazz with others!

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