C Jam Blues: Melody

Building on yesterday’s post, I want to discuss practicing the melody to “C Jam Blues.” Even though it only has two notes (G and C), there are still a lot of things you can do to add variety.

First, figure out the structure and function of the melody. “C Jam Blues” is a simple 4-bar phrase repeated three times. The two notes are the fifth (5) and root (R) of C dominant (which uses a Bb or b7, unlike C major, which uses B or 7). See the notation and keyboard diagram in the opening graphic.

Then, write out the melody in the clef and transposition of your choice (vocalists may need to change the key as well to accommodate their range). Here, the melody is written out for C/treble clef, bass clef, Bb transposition, and Eb transposition.

C Jam Melody Clefs.png

Note that drums can voice the rhythms of the melody on the snare or a low and high voice – such as low and high toms.

After that, practice playing two times through the melody (see yesterday’s post for a backing track). For “C Jam Blues,” this means playing the melodic phrase six times. To add variety, play each time at a different dynamic level from pianissimo (pp) to fortissimo (ff), diagramed here:

C Jam Melody Dynamics.png

Finally, write out and practice improvising variations on the melody, such as different articulations. Below, capped accents are represented by “daht,” tenuto marks by “du,” and accents by “dah.”

C Jam Articulations.png

In addition, you can choose different octaves, rhythms, and dynamics.

Note that when I launch the Patreon page, these exercises will be available as PDFs for supporters to unlock.

C Jam Blues: Background and Chords

Practicing jazz often feels overwhelming because there’s so much vocabulary to learn. Instead of trying to learn everything at once, it’s better to use level-appropriate repertoire to learn small bits at a time. For absolute beginners (and their instructors), Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is a great starting point.

For background and suggested recordings, see the tune’s Wikipedia page. One of my favorite recordings is by Oscar Peterson trio – although the tempo is a bit intimidating for most beginners.

Tomorrow, I’ll go over the melody – which only uses two notes (G and C). For today, I want to talk about the chord progression. Like many jazz standards, “C Jam Blues” uses variations on a 12-bar blues (Wikipedia).  For beginners, it’s best to start with a simple progression like this:

In the Byte-Sized Guide to Musicianship, I recommended identifying the function of each chord using Roman Numerals. Basic blues use I (“one”), IV (“four”), and V (“five”) chords, marked here on a keyboard diagram.

C Jam Blues Keyboard

Note the chord positions in the 12-bars form. The first four-bar phrase uses the I chord, the second moves briefly to the IV chord, and the third uses a “turnaround” with the V chord moving back to the I.

C Jam Blues Chords

You may hear people talk about the I chord being the “tonic,” the V chord being the “dominant,” and the IV chord being the “subdominant.” While that will eventually make more sense, I’ve found it easier to think of chord function in terms of the circle-of-fourths.

C Jam Blues Circle of Fourths.png

Note that the tonic is the center of activity – which is easy to see in the key of ‘C.’ The dominant is one fourth down from the tonic, while the subdominant is one fourth up.

Check back tomorrow for more about the melody of “C Jam Blues.”

Byte-Sized Guide to Musicianship

I’m relaunching this site as Nanoversity of Jazz – a digital platform combining the solopreneur approach of nanobreweries with the structured curriculum of universities. In the next few days, I’ll create a page on Patreon where you can support the project and unlock rewards such as practice exercises. I’ll also be launching the “Nano Jazz” videocast soon, in which I’ll perform and discuss jazz with musicians of various instruments, styles, and backgrounds. In the meantime, here’s my “byte-sized” guide to musicianship, which will serve as the basis for future blog content.


Step 1: Select one or more tunes for practice

  • Find leadsheet(s) for each tune (or transcribe melody and chords)
  • Listen to as many recordings of each tune as possible (preferably in multiple styles)
  • Identify each tune’s key elements (style, form, etc.)

Step 2: Study each tune’s harmony

  • Identify the function of each chord (in Roman Numerals, noting modulations)
  • Write out the arpeggio of each chord (up to the ninth)
  • Identify and write out the corresponding scale(s) of each chord

Step 3: Write parts for each tune

  • Transpose the melody to the clef and key of your choice (if needed)
  • Compose 1-2 chorus’ worth of timekeeping (basslines, comping, etc.)
  • Compose 1-2 chorus’ worth of solo (using transcription material if desired)


Step 4: Take time before each session to prepare

  • Gather all necessary materials (including journal to set goals and note trouble-spots)
  • Use a full-length mirror to stretch and check your stance (whether sitting or standing)
  • Tune your instrument (if applicable)

Step 5: Take time at the beginning of each session to warmup

  • Play technical exercises for your instrument
  • Learn chord arpeggios from each tune
  • Learn chord scales from each tune

Step 6: Conclude each session by learning parts

  • Play parts (melody, timekeeping, and solos) at a comfortable tempo
  • Troubleshoot material by slowing down, isolating, and looping passages
  • Practice improvising variations (notes, rhythms, etc.) for each part


Step 7: Sync timekeeping roles

  • Play 1-2 choruses of basslines and drum patterns
  • Add chordal instrument(s) on comping for and additional 1-2 choruses, making sure they balance duties (when applicable)
  • Add melodic instruments on backgrounds, making sure they’re able to keep their place in the form

Step 8: Construct each tune’s arrangement

  • Have each musician play through the melody (including drums), troubleshooting and repeating as needed
  • Have each musician improvise a solo, then troubleshoot and repeat
  • Determine the arrangement (intro, melody, ending, etc.) and solo order, then run through the entire tune

Step 9: Prepare arrangements for performance

  • Determine a set list, keeping in mind time restrictions, variety, and pacing
  • Rehearse the entire set in concert formation, if possible, troubleshooting as needed
  • Determine contingencies – such as what to do if musicians get lost


Step 10: Take time before each performance to prepare

  • Visit or research the venue and find out about gig attire
  • Make sure you’ve organized your music and packed all necessary gear
  • Allow extra travel time and have a contact for emergencies

Step 11: Take time during performance to focus

  • Set up in and maintain a good stance and mic position (if applicable)
  • When playing, pay attention to your bandmates parts and be ready to reset if anyone gets lost
  • When not playing, stay focused on (and out of the way of) soloists and take some deep breaths to relax

Step 12: Take time after performance to address logistics

  • Pack up your gear quickly and discreetly, asking for help if needed
  • Make sure you’ve taken care of payment and any other issues
  • When possible, debrief with the other musicians about what did and didn’t work, as well as how to improve future performances