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Chuck Loeb's Journey to Jazz Improvisation

chuck loeb jazz improvisation

My trajectory towards jazz improvisation began roughly when I was about fifteen years old.

Before then I was steeped in the world of rock, blues, pop and folk music. I would teach myself guitar by listening and copying songs and licks from my favorite artists. I ruined my fair share of vinyl records this way - dragging the needle over the same spot until I got a particular phrase or chord progression under my fingers. I also took an occasional guitar lesson from local teachers, and annoyed my older sister's guitar playing friends until they would show me their licks.

But then one day I heard some music playing in the local record store. The music had the sound of a rock band, but with these other-worldly rhythms, and an amazing array of new notes!

"What is this?!?" I asked the owner of the shop. He told me it was a new record, Inner Mounting Flame by a group called The Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by the amazing guitarist John McLaughlin. I went home with a copy under my arm. 

inner mounting flame - mahavishnu orchestra

I started to learn some of the songs and John's licks but realized almost immediately, that unlike the rock stuff I learned on my own, this kind of music would require more formal and in-depth guitar lessons with a teacher.

Quite soon after that, I found myself at a friend of my parents' house who was happened to be professional pianist and arranger.  He said, "I hear you are interested in jazz improvisation.... I think you should check this out," and he handed me a copy of Wes Montgomery's Smokin' at the Half Note.

wes montgomery wynton kelly trio smokin at the half note

I took it home and must have listened to it twenty times in a row, and - I think the phrase would be "the rest is history." I was bit by the jazz guitar bug, and am still under its spell some forty plus years later.

kenny burrell soul callFrom that moment, I was on a mission. I searched out as many jazz guitar records as I could: Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Barney Kessell, Gabor Szabo, plus so many more…

In addition to these great jazz guitarists, I also discovered the amazing world of jazz improvisation on other instruments which inspired me to study their lines and progressions: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea - the list is endless.

Living in the New York metropolitan area, there were many great teachers for me to tap into, and I was very fortunate to have studied with some great ones: Richie Hart, Joe Puma, Hy White, and I even traveled to Philadelphia once a week for a while to study with the legendary Dennis Sandole (who claimed Pat Martino and John Coltrane as former students!)

jim hall jazz guitarAs much as I was loving taking guitar lessons with Dennis, after several months the trip to Philly proved a little daunting, so I asked him to recommend a teacher closer to home in NYC.

I'll never forget when he said "Give Jim Hall a call." I had known of this amazing guitarist, but never suspected that Jim would take a newbie like me on as a student... But he did, and for the next year or so I was extremely fortunate to study with him before I went off to the The Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Those lessons with Dennis Sandole and later Jim Hall were seminal in my development as a jazz guitarist and I still refer back to them quite often, even now.

I remember the early days of trying to crack the code of jazz improvisation and the hours I spent playing through standard songs and progressions for hours and hours on end. Even with the advent of the great jazz guitar teachers I was studying with, sometimes it seemed like I'd never find my own voice in the idiom.

Looking back at it now, I realize that all those intense practice sessions in my teenage years - hammering away at it hour after hour, day after day - were what it took to break through.

I remember being in the hallway of my parents' house one day playing the song "Perdido" when all of a sudden I had a breakthrough... I was playing lines that evoked that sound! I was playing through the chord changes and it was... Jazz!

I called my guitar player friend Billy Greenberg and said "I got it, man! I can do it!" He was laughing and said he'd be right over to check it out. It was a great feeling...

In retrospect, that was just the tip of the iceberg, and I spent the next several years practicing and playing gigs, jam sessions and transcribing solos until I developed a fluid comfortable playing style of my own. And of course I still practice everyday and am trying to develop more ideas all the time.

That's the beauty of jazz improvisation (and any other art form I would imagine) - it is a lifelong pursuit that always presents challenges and offers gratifying rewards.

Over the years I think my goals have changed a bit, and I think that now the most important aspect that I look for in my playing is melodicism - trying to get the melodies I hear in my mind out on the guitar, and ultimately to reach the heart of the listener in an honest and heartfelt way.

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But I still like to run off some fast licks now and then!

To this day, if I walk into a store or restaurant, or hop in a cab and hear the sound of jazz guitar playing on the sound system, it grabs my ear and rings my bell like that first time I heard Wes. Jazz improvisation, I just love it!   

Learn more about jazz improvisation at the links below, and fill out the form to get free sample jazz guitar lessons from the Online Jazz Guitar School with Chuck Loeb!

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chuck loeb jazz guitar improvisation

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