Ralph Bowen’s Approach to Learning Jazz Improvisation: Practice, Patterns, and Pedagogy


Sean Packard: How did you first learn to improvise? By ear, theory, learning tunes?

Ralph Bowen: Although I grew up on a farm in a rural area, our household was very musical. My parents loved jazz and loved dancing to all the big bands that came to town – they knew all of the jazz standards; my grandfather, among many things played C-melody sax and led his own dance band; my oldest brother played tenor in cover band horn sections; my grandmother sang opera, and so on. I had picked up the piano by four or five and with so much music in the house I started just playing by ear before learning jazz seriously.

I started on clarinet and played in the town concert band before I picked up the saxophone. I remember first playing Strangers in the Night by ear – my father loved Frank Sinatra. I also remember playing along with other records – Chicago, the Beatles, etc. My father bought me a King Curtis record and I learned all the tunes by ear. Next, he bought me a Stan Getz record which I also learned by ear. So, it would seem that my first experiences involved learning songs by ear that my family knew and off of records. I had no fake books – I’m not even sure if the “real book” had been published yet.

SP: Sounds like you were constantly surrounded by a lot of different styles of music growing up.

RB: I was also able to go to a school in the neighboring city that had a jazz program because my father had a business office there. It was a very small jazz program in comparison to some of the ones I see now, but they had a combo with a really good teacher. I went to some great jazz camps between the ages of 14-16 in the Toronto area and at Banff, Alberta. It was at this time that my learning really began to take more shape. I began studying with Pat LaBarbera, (whom I studied with for 8 years) and doing a lot of transcribing.

When I was in my early teens, I was asked to join a local big band which was a great learning experience for me. We played dance halls and events and such and played a lot of great charts. I actually joined the local union and needed a note from them to play in these places that had alcohol.

SP: These were all unionized gigs you were playing as high school student?

RB: Yes, they were all union gigs and we had to file contracts with the union. I was maybe 16 at the time and the band was a combination of high school guys and college age players.


SP: How did you ‘find your voice’ as an improviser? Did all these different genres you grew up with help to shape it?

RB: I went to an Elvin Jones clinic in Toronto years ago and understandably, someone asked him this very question as he has such a distinctive style. He said that he hadn’t really set out to develop his own style per se, but that he simply had strived to be a great musician and drummer and that whatever “style” he had developed happened along the way.

I think there is a great deal of truth to that. It was enlightening to hear Elvin say he didn’t strive to find his own voice; rather he strived to hone his craft and become a better instrumentalist. Hopefully through the process we all go through things eventually improve and come together into what may be described as a personal style.

Elvin’s answer inspired me to think perhaps, is there a way to practice that might help to speed up the process a bit? I think for Elvin, this probably happened naturally. All the effort in the end helps to define who you are and that’s what makes your playing distinctive and different from anyone else.

 Ralph Bowen

Ralph Bowen

SP: What advice do you have for aspiring saxophonists who are searching for their own original voice?

RB: I don’t know that I can say that I personally have a unique style or voice per se…but what I have tried to do is find a way to practice that encourages or fosters the ideas that come from within. In addition to transcribing other people, I find it very helpful to essentially transcribe oneself – that is, to very slowly, play a solo on a tune, phrase by phrase, memorizing it until you have a chorus, play it over and over, and then start the entire process again. This exercise is essentially “self-transcribing” as opposed to transcribing someone else. I never write these down I just learn it (in all 12 keys), throw it back, and start the next one.

I find that these routines really help me to get to know myself and the tendencies that I have when I go to play – as opposed to only looking outwards as we do when we transcribe someone else. This exercise strengthens and familiarizes myself with what it is I do, and through the process you tend to find things you do more often than you like. So the next time you come across a familiar passage, you’re able to recognize it and then you can take it a different direction and try something new – however extreme or mild the modification of the idea may be.

It’s a lot of fun and a great memorization and concentration exercise too. If I have a student that’s having difficulty memorizing we’ll work through this for that purpose. Playing a tune at 40 bpm can be a real excruciating test of patience as well. If you try and play Confirmation at 40 bpm all of a sudden your fingers can’t do the walking and you’ll really have to hear it and visualize the melody – and then do it in 12 keys!

SP: Musicians spend a lot of time practicing licks, arpeggios, and harmonic devices in the hopes of using it during an improvised solo. How would you recommend working these into your improvisation so they flow organically?

RB: I came to the conclusion years ago I was never very good at memorizing patterns. At the time I was practicing patterns in 12 keys in the practice room and I’d go to a gig and none of that stuff would come out on the bandstand. Often times there’s a complete disconnect between what you’ve been practicing and the reality of live performance.

You practice all this stuff and then you pack it in a suitcase and you bring it to the gig with you. A month later you bring two suitcases of stuff, and a year goes by and you have to fill up the whole van with the stuff you’ve practiced and back it up to the bandstand… So sooner or later you have too much stuff and you just can’t carry all the stuff you’ve practiced to the bandstand, so at some point you have to sort of wing it. I realized I was missing the middle ground in my practicing and I make the comparison to hockey with the four levels of development:

1. Skills – All stop and go; much repetition; no strategy and completely disconnected

(play ii-V-I pattern over and over to just get it under your fingers)

2. Drills – Skills put in time, drills designed for specific purpose with very little unknown

(playing phrases in time, up and down with a specific sequence, a little more practical application)

3. Scrimmage – Opportunity to put skills and drills into real time – in time but also developing strategy; play stops from time to time for analysis (playing patterns in the context of a tune)

4. Game – whatever happens, happens; can’t control the environment or other players. Can’t stop to fix anything, you have to perform. (live performance)

What I was finding is that steps 2 and 3 are often times not even part of the practice equation. We just go through step 1 and without any practical application we jump all the way to step 4, live on the bandstand and can’t execute the stuff we’ve been practicing.

SP: That’s a great way to gradually get comfortable with new ideas.

RB: I believe that patterns and licks are very important. Practicing many different patterns on scales for instance, fosters the ability to negotiate different sounds from that scale because a certain level of comfort and familiarity is achieved through this practice. “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That is, if we are to play what we hear but we hear nothing, then what will we play? It’s a chicken and egg scenario. Perhaps playing a particular pattern at first seems artificial but that’s only the case because the level of familiarity is very low – either technically or aurally or both. Repetition breeds familiarity. A new pattern can help the ear to hear things it previously did not simply because it had never heard them before. Is the ear to manufacture musical ideas out of nothingness? So, I do believe in the practice of patterns, just not necessarily taking them verbatim to the bandstand.

The thing is though, sometimes we put these patterns up on mantel and can only implement them from the one vantage point that was practiced; which is very limiting, not very useful, and feels awkward in a performance situation. Applying numerous tools to a particular pattern helps to breed flexibility and diminish the pattern’s specificity.

David Baker taught me improvisation through composition. Taking a pattern, playing it in 12 keys, displacing it by 8th notes, converting it to triplets and then doing the same, using augmentation, diminution, octave containment, octave displacement, inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, and so on. By the time you finish doing all these things to a simple ii-V-I pattern, you have a lot to work with. Now once you get up on the bandstand that pattern is more of pattern and variations from your experience with it.

All this being said, practicing a specific pattern in time in a real harmonic setting is very helpful-over a tune or over a harmonic sequence.

Skill – play one pattern out of context over and over

Drill – play that same pattern in a sequence of some sort in time -still in a very controlled environment- such as in 4/4 around cycle of 4ths. At some point, include variation/modification tools such as displacement, inversion etc.

SP: You always seem so comfortable when you’re performing, is there anything you attribute this to?

RB: There are so many great players that are role models for particular aspects of what we try to do as saxophonists. I try to find certain players that personally epitomize a specific aspect of what I’m trying to achieve in my playing.

As far as being relaxed and using little extraneous motion – the person that comes to mind for me is Charlie Parker who always makes it seem so effortless from the video footage we have of him. That’s sort of my go-to as far as an image of being relaxed and efficient.

It’s interesting to see it in action – Chick Corea is another example of total relaxation. I remember seeing him live in concert and I didn’t even realize there was someone sitting at the piano. It just seemed like there wasn’t even a physical engagement taking place between him and the piano, yet there is all this incredible music coming out of it.

When I think about a long steady flow of air and forward motion I think of John Coltrane. When I think of manipulating air flow, accents, and dynamics I think about Cannonball Adderley because he had so much dynamic range, and a different but similar way, Michael Brecker. Stan Getz for me is the ability to play with unbelievable fluidity and relaxation at mezzo piano with a light airy quality.

SP: That practice must provide a lot of versatility in your own style and performance.

RB: What I call it is wearing hats. I was really a Bebopper when I was back in Toronto and I didn’t get called for a couple commercial gigs because I wasn’t really hearing that style. So I thought how was I going to start playing through styles that really felt foreign and uncomfortable to me? So I thought about ‘wearing a hat’ and approaching it like an actor approaches a role; fully expecting that I wasn’t going to be completely comfortable as myself in that role, so I’d wear a hat.

I remember the first time I had to play a Calypso it didn’t really feel comfortable to me as a saxophone player, but after hearing it on trumpet it made a lot of sense. So every time I’d play a Calypso I’d imagine myself as trumpet player because that’s what I hear in that style.

What I found after a while was I began feeling more comfortable in these different styles because I went through this right of passage and felt comfortable enough to where I could ‘put it on my resume.’ I can imagine it’s the same if you’re an actor doing Shakespeare for the first time, but as you do it more and more you grow more comfortable with it.

SP: What’s a normal Ralph Bowen practice routine? Any exercises or warm-ups you play every time you pick up the horn?

RB: I look at it from two standpoints, instrumentalism and musicianship, and of course there’s crossover between the two. The first things I do focus on instrumentalism; I want to feel comfortable on the saxophone. Scales, harmonic structures, articulation, etc., I take care of the technical things. After that I jump into whatever musical pursuit I want or need to work on.

I like to play a lot of things in 12 keys; I probably play a blues, minor blues, or rhythm changes in 12 keys every day and I’ll change the meter and tempo up as well. The first time I played rhythm changes in twelve keys wasn’t a very nice experience so that is something I’ve always had on the to-do list. There are certain ideas I hear in certain keys and I’m able to achieve them but other keys are not quite there yet, so that’s something I’m always working on.

SP: Are there certain exercises or transcriptions you have your college level students work on? Or is everyone ‘prescribed’ something a little different?

RB: At Rutgers, we have a very extensive outline for students. Transcription is fundamentally important as far as developing musicianship, ears, and style, and the students study different players every semester. There’s always room for flexibility – if for instance a student has already seriously studied a player on the list, we’ll make a substitution. Outside of the curriculum, each student is unique as to his/her own needs.

SP: What are you working on now? Any new projects or upcoming performances?

RB: I have a recording with my own group coming up in the fall – it might be my usual quartet (Donald Edwards, drums; Kenny Davis, bass; Jim Little, Piano), maybe some extra guests as well, we’ll see. I have few gigs and recording in Virginia with a trumpeter Jae Sinnett, I’ll be in Montreal in September doing a recording with drummer/pianist Andre White, and several gigs around New York City between now and then.


Sean Packard