Jazz exams

There are four sections to an ABRSM jazz exam, giving candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their skills through prepared work and musicianship tests.

A blues, a standard and a contemporary tune. All include improvisation.

The tunes cover a wide range of styles – from New Orleans and swing through to modal, jazz-rock and Latin jazz. Each arrangement contains a fully notated Head and at least one section for improvisation, with a simple chord sequence and set of guideline pitches.

There are three lists, in each list there are five tunes per instrument, per grade.

  • Blues & Roots - draws from all periods of jazz and contains tunes based on the 12-bar blues or blues of other lengths. The list also includes African-American spirituals, other musics of New Orleans, and roots tunes from other continents.
  • Standards - contains core repertoire of the jazz tradition. This includes familiar Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes, arranged in the rhythmic and harmonic styles of jazz, and more recent standards from swing, bebop, hard bop and other established styles. Some arrangements reproduce important past performances, while others give new perspectives on familiar tunes.
  • Contemporary Jazz - represents the vibrancy, eclecticism and even the fragmentation of jazz since the early 1970s. There are fusion pieces and overlaps with related styles, including rock and folk musics from around the world, plus contemporary tunes from South Africa, Europe and the American continent. Some tunes from these lists were specially commissioned for the syllabus.

Common patterns found in jazz.

Scales have been organised progressively to develop the technical control, flexibility and knowledge of the instrument needed in improvised performance. They'll also familiarise you in a systematic way with the common patterns, roots and key centres found in jazz. You'll play patterns like pentatonic and blues scales and various modes, and over the grades you'll build up a variety of these patterns on common roots. Working through this structure systematically will help you broaden the musical choices you can make as you improvise.

Testing all-round aural awareness and musicianship skills.

Aural and musicianship skills are a fundamental part of jazz performance and improvisation. In solo work jazz musicians must hear in their heads the rhythmic and harmonic context in which they are working. In jazz ensemble playing musicians must make choices about their role within the overall texture and the notes or rhythms that are most appropriate to play. The aural tests are designed to help you to listen to music in this way and to foster working by ear. The aural tests can be extended into exercises for developing improvisation and other jazz skills.

To play either at sight or to reproduce by ear a short phrase and to improvise a response.

Jazz is an aural tradition, and the ability to learn new material quickly and recreate it by ear as well as from notation is vital, as is the ability to improvise. The quick studies help you develop these skills through recreating short phrases and then improvising an 'answer' to them. You should practise doing the quick studies both ways; in the exam however, it will be your choice whether you do the quick study by ear or at sight. You can extend and develop these short tests to make real music.

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