As aspiring jazz musicians, we find ourselves mostly focused on the art of Improvisation, a paramount skill for playing jazz. Another less discussed but equally important skill is Composition.

  • Composition is essentially the same as Improvisation, except instead of creating music spontaneously in the moment, one is creating music in a slower, more controlled process.

Throughout history, the best composers have been some of the best improvisers.

  • Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, all the way to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and more!

The act of composing can do wonders to help solidify your voice within the jazz idiom, crystallize your ideas, and bring others together!

Here are 3 easy ways to start composing jazz now!

  1. The Art of the “Contrafact”
    • What is a Contrafact?
      • A tune with a new melody written over a preexisting set of chord changes
    • Take your favorite tunes and write your own melody!

Jazz greats have been doing this for ages!

Here are some examples;

“Did You Call Her Today” – Ben Webster

  • (On the chord changes of “In a Mellow Tone”)

“Marshmallow” – Warne Marsh

  • (On the chord changes of ‘Cherokee”)

“Half Nelson” – Charlie Parker

  •  (On the chord changes of “Lady Bird”)

“Under Manhattan Medicinal Groupon” – Gerald Clayton

  •  (On the Chord Changes of “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”)

2. Start with Familiar Forms

  • Having a set of familiar boundaries can be a good way to get started
    • Blues
    • Rhythm Changes
  • Once you get going, you may see some twists and turns that can take you in another direction
    • E.g. different harmonies/chord changes
      • Isotope – Joe Henderson
      • Eternal Triangle – Sonny Stitt

Look for blues and rhythm changes written by your favorite players!

3. Create a Composition “In the Style”

  • Study tunes from your favorite jazz composers, and write a tune in the style of _________!
  • Thelonious Monk
    • “Straight, No Chaser” “Epistrophy” and “Well, You Needn’t”
  • What aspects of their sound/style will you emulate?
  • Use similar forms/melodic/harmonic approach


It can be hard to get motivated to compose, but with these 3 entry methods you can come up with your own compositions quickly. Who knows what will happen next!

Take your favorite tunes and write your own melody! (The Art of the Contrafact)

  • Have You Called Her Today
  • Half Nelson
  • Lennie’s Pennies
  • UMMG Gerald Clayton

Start with Familiar Forms

  • Blues
  • Rhythm Changes
  • Change the Chord Changes
    • Isotope
    • Eternal Triangle

Compose “in the style”

  • AABA tune in the style of Thelonious Monk
    • Look at characteristic compositions of that composer
    • “Straight, No Chaser,” “Epistrophy,” “Well, You Needn’t”
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Sterling Cozza

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