Jazz School: Hip Jazz Lingo

Part of the fun of learning jazz is tuning in to the cool terminology…


A Section. The first section of a piece, usually eight bars in length. Sometimes part of a larger piece that has other contrasting sections as well: B Section, C Section, and so on.

Axe. Your instrument.


B Section. The second part of a multi-part piece of music. Synonymous with Bridge when part of an AABA song form.

Bag: An area of interest or skill. Example: “Bobby really digs mainstream Jazz, but hard Bop is really not his bag.” Also, to “put something in your bag” is to master, study, practice an area of music in order to add it to your play list or skill set.

Break: a transitional passage, usually two or four bars in length, during which a soloist plays unaccompanied.

Bridge. The B section of an AABA song form. The Bridge is usually different than, but complementary to, the A section melodically and harmonically.


Call & Response. A succession of two distinct musical phrases usually played (or sung) by different musicians in a group setting. The first phrase (usually two or four bar long) makes a musical point and the second phrases (usually of the same length as the first) answers the first or makes a counterpoint. Think of it like a musical dialogue.

Chops. The technical ability to play your particular instrument.

Chord. Two or more notes sounding at the same time. Chords are sometimes built by stacking notes at different intervals.

Chord Substitution. The notion of using an alternate chord in a chord progression. The substitute chord normally has a different root, but still retains most or all of the voices of teh original chord, thus retaining much of the harmonic drive. Usually the operative idea is that the root of the chord is changed, while the other voices are common to both chords. Typical examples—bII 7 for V7, and III for I.

Chorus. One complete cycle of a tune through the entire form from the top to the bottom.

Chromatic. Adjective referring to the use of altered notes of a scale. (also see Diatonic)

Coda. A special, sometimes extended ending of a tune, used only at the very end, as compared to endings or turnaround that lead back to the top.

Comping. Accompanying a soloist. Also think of it as complementing and complimenting the soloist.


Fake Book. A collection of jazz charts (lead sheets).


Gig. A particular live performance. For example: “That Kansas City wedding gig was insane!” Also used as a verb to describe the general state of performing live: “After six months of rehearsal and auditions, we are finally gigging!”

Groove. The hard-to-define, but easy-to-feel notion that the rhythm is right. It can be funky, swinging, rocking, laid back, tight, pushed, in the pocket. Can you think of some more?


Head. The composed melody and chord changes of a jazz standard, usually played as the first chorus and the last chorus, with some number of of improvised solo choruses in between.


Monster. An exceptionally accomplished player.

Montuno. A repeated harmonic and rhythmic pattern played by the piano player in Latin Jazz settings. It is usually a highly syncopated, two-fisted pattern, two or four bars long, that outlines the chord changes in a rhythmically interesting way.




Riff. A simple, catchy phrase that is played repeatedly over the chord changes.

Side-Slipping. To play a melodic line or chord a minor second up or down from its usual and expected place, creating a momentary dissonance while preserving the shape of the line or chord. This is a common way to play “outside”.

[Jazz] Standard. A composition that is very widely performed, and recorded by jazz musicians as a “standard” part of the jazz repertoire.

Swing. That mysterious, inexplicable quality in music that makes you want to tap your tone and sway to the music.

Syncopation. A displacement of accent away from a normally strong beat to a weak beat. This shifted accent can be achieved rhythmically, melodically, or harmonically.


Top. Usually referred to as “the top”.  A common usage: “Let’s take it from the top” means to start at the very beginning of a piece.

Turnaround. A sequence of chords at the end of a chorus that logically and harmonically leads the ear back to the top of the next chorus.


Up. at a fast tempo. Usage: ” I think we should play this more up.”


Vamp. A vamp is a repeating musical figure, usually two or four bar in length that is meant to build anticipation, act as an introduction, keep time moving, or to provide a background for improvisation. A vamp usually consists of a well-defined, two-fisted rhythmic pattern that is based on just one or chords.


Walking Bass. A style of bass playing consisting of a continuous stream of quarter notes (one note per beat) with several musical goals in mind: to keep the time moving, to outline the harmony, to provide flowing, melodic interest. Of course, in the absence of a bass player, the piano player can walk with their left hand.

Woodshed. To effectively lock yourself away in a virtual woodshed with your musical instrument in order to study and practice a particular skill or piece of music.