One of the more challenging aspects of jazz improvisation is playing through a “break,” a section of a tune where a single instrument improvises alone before the rest of the band resumes playing. This can be either in tempo or in a rubato form, like the cadenza one often hears at the end of “A Night in Tunisia.”
While the break was common in early jazz for all instrumentalists, the cadenza became more prominent in later years as a kind of technical feature for star soloists. Breaks though still occur in jazz occasionally, and there are organized, effective ways to study and develop break skills. Since this topic in general does not come up as much as harmony or rhythm, I thought I would explain how to effectively study break improvisation.
The first thing one must remember is that jazz music developed out of a type of 2/4 beat. And since that beat and its variants were syncopated, musicians naturally kept their improvising organized around simple patterns and melodies that utilized the beat. Early clarinet and trumpet breaks especially were not complicated. Rather, they were brief melodic interludes, usually on a dominant chord. And since this music was for dancing, the break had to have a good lilt to it to keep the dancers feeling good. This approach is the easiest and, in my opinion, the best sounding way of doing so, as it guarantees you lose neither the forward motion nor the feel of the tune. It does not have to be flashy; good breaks aren’t. Leave the pyrotechnics for the cadenza fanatics.
Now that we have established a general idea of what a good break is, creating a mix of basic rhythmic values is key to creating both an interesting break, and keeping natural, relaxed time. There must be zero tension in your hands or mind, as that will keep your break from falling apart under pressure. Even if all you can comfortably play is half notes, start there. Don’t think “1, 2, 3, 4” while you are playing, or even tap your foot. Your syncopation, if it is consistent with the pulse, will keep time for you. Once you start using this idea you will begin to feel the syncopations more deeply, and the time will naturally be comfortable, as you are now intuitively rather than intellectually engaging with the break.
It is important to not play breaks beyond one’s technical capacity when performing live. What makes the break good is the feel, not speed or complexity. The break is to add to the value of the music. Never play the break for your own glory; the break is for the song. But that is what makes the break so much fun, and a great place to make music without feeling the need to show off. A rest followed by a couple of big, swinging quarter notes is just fine. So make good breaks until you are ready to make great breaks.
Another way of preparing for the performance of a jazz break is developing a very deep feel for syncopation in your soul from which you can organize the pulse of the song. Thus, listening to masters of syncopation is essential. Clarinetist Johnny Dodds was absolutely brilliant at playing simple, arpeggiated breaks that moaned and bounced with a musical feeling that must have been a total delight to the dancers. Another stellar example are the syncopations used by Chick Webb, Count Basie, and especially, Fletcher Henderson in his arrangements and compositions such as “The Dicty Blues,” which even includes a rather sweet little tubular bell break!
One of the many amazing achievements of African-American jazz musicians was creating new music by adapting syncopated African clave rhythms to European musical forms. Indeed, much of what we think of as American or Latin music has African musical roots, and the clave is a significant part of world musical history. A clave is a guiding pattern for a song, and these patterns are essential to understanding early jazz, as well as being an important part of the study of the various styles of music that followed. Space does not permit a full explanation of claves, so take to the Internet and look up Latin claves (such as the tresillo), as well as any information you can on New Orleans second-line drumming. You will discover many excellent sites and videos that will teach these claves and how they ended up being used in jazz. Also, check out the work of Herlin Riley, John Vidacovich, and the legendary New Orleans group The Meters to hear how jazz, funk, and blues syncopation can be combined in amazing ways.
Even if you never play a solo break in your life, the information you gain from break studies will no doubt be applicable to other musical styles and techniques, and organized study of the jazz break will take your playing to a higher level quickly and enjoyably. Good luck!