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!



Overjoyed: Playing the Piano as an Orchestral Instrument

When making a solo piano arrangement you must do 4 things with 2 hands: Provide the Melody, Harmony, Bass Line, Rhythm. How you divide up these elements between 2 hands can vary. I used 3 different registers on the piano while playing this lovely tune to add variety. Remember, the piano is an orchestral instrument – sometimes the voicings or treatments must differ when exploring certain ranges on the piano! One thing I love about this ‘WONDERful’ composition – Stevie wrote in some surprisingly unexpected chords now & then – The Intro starts in Db, main body of the tune is in Eb, but at climax moves up to key of F, goes up a half step and slides back down (F#, F, E, Bb7) to end back in it’s main key of Eb! That’s the genius of Stevie Wonder.

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”

Aeolian King – Unlock Piano Improvisation

Peace Prayer by Debbie Denke


I’d like to share my most popular composition Aeolian King with you: It was created in about 20 minutes while waiting for a new piano student to arrive at my house, and is a very easy tune designed to free up improvisation for pianists. The trick is, you really can’t hit a bad sounding note if you just stay on the white keys, because the whole tune is based on the A natural minor (Aeolian) scale. Continue reading “Aeolian King – Unlock Piano Improvisation”

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!”

Do You Hand Out Bad Charts?

Deb's blond hair

Okay, I will be first to admit it: I occasionally dash off very bad charts to fling at my trusted musical partners the night of the gig when I am in a big hurry. I am a jazz & church pianist, vocal accompanist, and sometimes sing a few numbers on my gigs too – yet, even when I know better, now and then I fall short and exhibit CSS symptoms. Although this article resembles ‘preaching to the choir’ (including myself in that group) – it is a more detailed exploration into writing music extracted from my blog, Do You Suffer Chick Singer Syndrome?)

I’d like to share a few examples ranging from pitiful to pretty good charts (both lyric and lead sheets), that I have either personally penned or have been instructed to “Just read the chart and listen to the YouTube link and figure it out.”

The following levels apply to charts written by today’s jazz and church musicians, vocalists, accompanists and band members. Remember, men and women can suffer Chick Singer Syndrome – even superbly talented ones!  So with a touch of humor, kindly read on. Continue reading “Do You Hand Out Bad Charts?”

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!”