How to Write Like Jazz

I found myself sitting in a chapel full of jazz musicians, listening to professionals wail away on stage, feeling inadequate and out of place.

I play flute, but this year my schedule cut out the wind ensemble’s rehearsal hour; in a bid to keep playing something, I learned saxophone over the summer and since then, I’ve muddled along with reeds and odd fingerings and jazz rhythms I never imagined before, and somehow nobody’s figured out that I’m really not good enough for a university jazz band.

This weekend the group attended the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. As I listened to musicians answering questions and handing out jazz advice, I realised, Wow. Jazz is just like writing. You start with an idea and you get going, and when you’re done, the result might sound nothing like the original, but you never lose the heart of it. It takes all kinds of timbres and rhythms to make music, and it also takes silence. It takes courage and inspiration and hours upon hours of hard work.

So today, let me tell you how to write like jazz.

charlie parker

Don’t count the hours–but remember that part-time work earns part-time pay.
People will tell you formulas for becoming better. Write 1,000 words a day. Write an hour a day. Write. Just write. Whether it’s a hundred words a day or a hundred thousand, just write. Stop fixating on the number, on the amount, on the total. Focus on the words. Focus on what you have to say, and just write. At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. A hundred well-written words a day may serve you better in the long run than a thousand haphazard cliches.

Decide what’s wealth to you.
Everything in life pays, but not everything pays in dollars and cents. Writing probably won’t make you a millionaire, but it pays back in other ways, and let’s be honest–which of us started writing because we honestly thought it would make us rich? We all know the broke-and-living-on-Ramen-in-an-attic stereotype.  But writing gives you intangible wealth. It makes you part of a history as old as humanity, forces you to explore yourself and the world around you, teaches you to find beauty in the mundane and intricacy in the simple. And as one musician pointed out, work hard enough and long enough at an art, and the chance to meet someone you admire–to interact on equal ground–is wealth.

Everyone has a gig, and nobody’s gig is certain.
Musicians get a gig here, a gig there; some pay well, some don’t. Writing is the same; we publish here and there, and sometimes we get paid, and sometimes we get unpaid exposure, and sometimes all we get is experience. But the most prestigious job in the world is just another gig, and no matter how well it pays, it ends at some point–sometimes sooner than expected. Put your best into each one. Relax, quit worrying, and take life one gig at a time.


In jazz, you’re usually not playing the same note as anyone else. You might not even be playing the same rhythm–but the whole thing has to come together. All those individual notes and rhythms, all the varied thoughts, all of it has to blend into a unified piece of music. You have to think about how you fit in with the other people playing and the people listening. Writing’s the same. Your words are unique, but if you want anyone to read them, you have to both stand out and blend in; you have to know where your writing fits in with other writers’ work and how it relates to your readers.

Don’t give up if you don’t sound like the masters.
The masters sound like the masters because they spent hours upon hours upon years upon years practising. Guess what? They didn’t sound like the masters, either, to start with. You have to sound like you, and then you practise and practise, and once you finish practising, you probably still won’t sound like the masters. You’ll still sound like you–but a better you. The world would be boring if you sounded like them anyway. Imagine if the whole world tried to write like Dickens, or Hemmingway, or Vonnegut.


Appreciate what you do.
Sometimes we get so bogged down in “I need to practise” that we forget that what we do is pretty amazing. One of the musicians at the festival said, “How many other people in the world can pick this thing up and make music on it consistently, on command, at nine in the morning?” Who but writers can spin entire worlds out of nothing, create characters so real we fall in love with them, or tease at emotions so universal and subtle that we hardly realise we have them? Ella Fitzgerald said, “God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.” We get to write, guys. We get to do something that most people only dream of. If working at it starts to suck the joy out of the process, stop. Take a break. Breathe. Read something beautiful and remember why you write what you write. And then remember: it’s a privilege.

Fear is okay.
Everyone’s afraid. I’m afraid.You’re afraid. Our parents are afraid. Professionals are afraid. Being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, but letting fear keep you back–that’s a different story. Everything worthwhile is hard, and everything you are about is scary. Admit that, accept that, then get off your tush and get at it.

Something else I learned about jazz and writing this weekend: the reason we make music is the same reason we write. It’s a love affair with a medium that moves us so deeply we can’t understand it, can’t overcome it, can’t walk away from it. It’s not about perfection or success; it’s about feeling.


**A note: most of the things I learned here were said or implied by Ralph Lalama, Sean Jones, or Dennis Mackrel; I regret to say I did not take notes on who specifically said what.


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