What Do Jazz Musicians Think About When Improvising?

 What goes on in your head when you improvise? Are you thinking about something in particular, or just playing “anything” and not really thinking at all? How are you able to improvise with other musicians you’ve never played with before and sound so good together?

The orthopedic surgeon who was vacationing on a recent Jazz & Wine Riverboat Cruise sincerely wanted to know what goes on inside a jazz musician’s brain. Word had gotten around and I was invited to play piano during cocktail hour time as a guest on The Gil Eanes down The Douro River. It was such a pleasure to be joined on many tunes by the ship’s hired bassist from Sweden, drummer from France, and a Cuban sax player. I called tunes in standard keys (we all knew them), and with hardly a spoken word away we played!

The doctor admitted he didn’t know a whole lot about jazz, and was amazed at how, without any rehearsal, we could play tunes together like that. I explained to him what goes on in my own particular brain as a pianist when I improvise with the following ‘medical’ description:

First, after deciding the composition & key, there is a basic Skeleton which jazz musicians understand about the tune: The Melody of the piece,  the bare bones essential Chords, the main Roots to these chords, the desired Tempo & rhythmic Feel –  (perhaps indicated by a tune’s lyrics), all are the starting points for this understood skeleton.

Next, we listen to each other to add Muscles & Connective Tissue: These elements can consist of slight alterations in the melody or the lead improviser’s note choices, various ways the pianist can move from chord to chord or use chord substitutions in conjunction with the bassist, a driving bass line which connects between chord roots to move the music forward, a rhythmic response the drummer either reacts to or initiates, or perhaps a change of feel from latin to swing or into doubletime. This is where it takes close listening and quick reactions from all musicians – it’s also where it gets your blood going as you use dynamics, humor, & passion to connect with your audience while inspiring each other to become stronger players together!

Finally, we dress the body with Skin, Clothes, and Bling! This is all about each person’s individual musical heritage, influenced by such things as their own background culture, listening to the great jazz musicans, teachers, and recordings, perhaps reading articles/studying books on jazz, plus skills achieved playing with others after countless hours of practice on your instrument. Each jazz musician needs to discover their own personal style by finding creative ways to dress up a tune. A flash of musical bling now and then never hurts to impress an audience –  Do you know a flashy run to toss off? Just don’t overdo the bling or it’s too much!

Back to the original question of what do I think about when improvising: During the best music situations I will reach a zone where I am not consciously aware of any of the above written things – Improvisation can be a surreal experience of listening, reacting, and feeling as if suspended in some alternate existence – yet I know on some level I have put in time and laid the groundwork to make it appear (at least to certain others), that it all comes to me so easily! Truth be told, during most music improvisations I think about the skeleton of a tune, and react spontaneously to all the rest!



Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial

The following video demonstrates how I came up with new chords using an old hymn as an example. It involves first stripping away the music to discovering the essential chords which give a tune its basic identity – I call these the skeleton chords – usually they are the I, V and perhaps IV chords of the tune. Continue reading “Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial”

Music for Troubled Times

Peace Prayer by Debbie Denke


It’s normally a lively Christmas Season full of parties, pageants, and performances – including outdoor concert venues for musicians, strolling carolers, and elaborately festive church services, but this December 2017 is different. Santa Barbara along with Montecito, Summerland, Carpenteria, Ojai, Santa Paula, Ventura and other nearby cities are having quite the challenge with fires, smoke, power outages, and evacuations.

We musicians wait till the last hour to hear if a gig is still happening,  we check the air quality, look at maps to see if the location has been evacuated, and no one can say for certain what will happen if the winds stir fire and ash up again. We are all truly playing this season by ear. Continue reading “Music for Troubled Times”

CA Here I Come!


The history behind the story also known as…

Bob Takes The 101:  A Road Trip Musical Story/Game

Last Spring our keyboard & bass duo was invited to play a charity fundraising event held in the lovely gardens of El Mirador Estate, Montecito (pictured above). The 2017 theme was “California Dreaming” – they requested that we play as many CA themed tunes as we could – naturally Robert Kim Collins and I included a fair share of West Coast Jazz too. 😉

Once again I turned to musical friends and posted an inquiry on Facebook asking for tune titles specifically written about places in California. I also gathered ideas from my father Frank Denke’s album made for an insurance company in the 1950’s called, Melodies of California: Continue reading “CA Here I Come!”

It’s All About YOU! Party Game

How To Play the Musical “Guess that YOU-tune” Game:

The host will want a copy of Debbie Denke’s album, It’s All About YOU!*

Additionally the host will want a pencil for each guest, a fun dessert to serve for intermission, a prize for the winner (I suggest something musical like an album or a music book as an award), and have copies of the list of clues for each guest (or a page with blank lines numbered 1-16), plus a copies of the lyrics to #16 It Had To Be You. Clues and lyrics are found in this site under the Downloads tab above. Allow about 90 minutes to play this game.

Continue reading “It’s All About YOU! Party Game”

It’s All About YOU!


It all started with the opportunity to play an intimate concert for about 6 couples in the home of some former jazz piano students of mine. This husband and wife invite close friends over for an hour concert (with a dessert break in the middle) dedicated to the memory of Marty’s great aunt – a piano teacher who willed them her grand piano. It is a sweet gig for me, especially since I get to work up solo piano repertoire and select what I wish to play for a small, very appreciative audience. Continue reading “It’s All About YOU!”

Do you suffer ‘Chick Singer’ Syndrome?

Do you hand out bad charts? Show up late for rehearsals and/or gigs? Assume the other musicians in the band will schlep your gear and bring the P.A.?

YOU, my friend, may indeed suffer Chick Singer Syndrome! (Or at least your bandmates suffer because you have it.) And, not to be sexist here, guys can have CSS too.

Caution: The following article is not meant to be taken too seriously, but if any working musician starts to exhibit the following symptoms you are hereby forwarned.  😉 *   Continue reading “Do you suffer ‘Chick Singer’ Syndrome?”

Extras for The Wedding Pianist: True Tales Part 3

Musicians – here is a post about additional tune requests you may encounter doing that special ceremony!

True Tales from a Wedding Pianist Part 1 discussed the essential tunes a musician  needs to play for a no frills basic wedding, and Part 2 was about a wild encounter I had with a last minute call from the Father of The Bride (scrambling to honor his detailed requests for his daughter’s ‘perfect wedding’). Continue reading “Extras for The Wedding Pianist: True Tales Part 3”

Playing the Organ for Pianists


Playing the organ both fascinates and terrifies me! I must admit knowing a bit about this instrument has gotten me quite a few more church and wedding gigs than I would have had if I just stuck to the piano. Perhaps this is because there are so few musicians who are bold enough to play such a powerful and intimidating instrument?

When I was 15 years old my father quickly taught me poor man’s organ from a pianist’s viewpoint Continue reading “Playing the Organ for Pianists”