Gary Burton: Jazz Improvisation


Authored by Gary Burton


Course Code: OPERF-312

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 3

Level 3

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


Although it's not uncommon for musicians to develop their improvisational chops by simply listening to recordings and imitating what they hear or playing with other aspiring improvisers in ensembles, once a musician has achieved a modest level of fluency, a more detailed understanding of the process is necessary to improve further and truly master the art of improvisation. There are few musicians more qualified than Gary Burton to provide this guided path for an aspiring improviser.

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Winner of six Grammy Awards (and 15 nominations), Gary Burton is recognized as one of the best improvisers in the jazz world and known as an inspiring educator. Burton codifies a sought-after “Berklee approach” that has been at the core of Berklee's jazz improvisation curriculum for decades.

Gary Burton: Jazz Improvisation begins with an overview of the mental processes that take place in improvisation and goes on to provide an explanation and understanding of harmony and melodic construction that is unique to improvising as compared to the performance of written music. You'll learn how to shape solos, use dynamics effectively, and employ reharmonization techniques, in addition to how to analyze and interpret songs, make effective performance decisions, and work successfully with an ensemble. The course explores different types and styles of compositions from the perspective of the improviser, and takes an in-depth look at how music learning experiences contribute to the instinctive skills that the improviser puts to use when taking a solo. The course features compositions from the standard repertoire by established composers such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, along with more contemporary composers such as Chick Corea, Michael Gibbs, Carla Bley, and Steve Swallow. You will learn a set of skills specifically tailored to the art of improvisation, all intended to make it possible for you to make the necessary musical decisions required for improvising in real time. You will also gain a full understanding of the musical and mental processes that are unique to improvisation, and learn about it all from one of the living legends in the jazz genre.

By the end of the course, students will have a solid background in:

  • Interpreting harmonies and composition structure in real time while improvising
  • Demonstrating a variety of improvisation techniques, including use of chromaticism, voice leading, and theme development
  • Effectively practicing the art of comping
  • Analyzing compositions from the perspective of the improviser
  • Understanding the mental processes required for successful improvisation
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: What Is Improvisation?

  • The Relationship between Improvisation and Spoken Language
  • Solo Analysis
  • Discussion of Musical Vocabulary
  • Improvisation Assessment

Lesson 2: Chord Outlines and Scales

  • Different Approaches for Dealing with Changes and Scales
  • Ten Most Frequently Used Scales
  • How to Use the Modes
  • How the Improviser Practices Scales

Lesson 3: Identifying Chord Scales

  • Analysis of Chord Scales and Techniques
  • The Mental Process of Scale Identification while Playing in Real Time
  • Process of Elimination in Determining Scales Choices
  • Chord Scale Identification Based on Written Notes
  • Chord Scale Identification Based on Preceding Harmonies

Lesson 4: Harmony for the Improviser

  • Identifying Guide Tones and Voice Leading
  • How to Use Voice Leading in Improvised Solos
  • Using Guide Lines to Navigate Harmonic Progressions
  • Analyze Chord Progressions and Songs to Identify Guide Tones and Harmony Resolutions

Lesson 5: Melodic Development 

  • Theme and Development
  • The Characteristics of Melodic Form
  • Playing Over "Green Dolphin Street"
  • Duration of a Theme

Lesson 6: Playing on the Blues 

  • The Blues Form
  • Approaching the Blues
  • Minor Blues
  • Blues Variations

Lesson 7: Song Analysis

  • Dynamic Variety
  • Optimizing the Dynamic Range of Your Instrument
  • Creating Excitement
  • Dynamics in Practice

Lesson 8: Song Analysis (Part 2)

  • Song Characteristics
  • Knowing the Forms
  • Understanding the Composer's Intent
  • Demonstrating the Composition

Lesson 9: Song Analysis (Part 3)

  • Song Structure
  • Applying Compositional Elements
  • Highlighting Extracted Material

Lesson 10: Advice on Soloing

  • Approaching the Solo
  • Conversational Soloing
  • Length and Pacing of a Solo
  • Dynamics
  • Chromaticism
  • Diminished Harmony
  • Advice on Ballads

Lesson 11: Comping

  • The Role of Comping
  • Straight Eighth-Note Comping
  • Contrast
  • General Comping Tips
  • Comping Approaches

Lesson 12: Communicating with the Unconscious

  • The Art of Improvisation
  • Learning and Unlearning
  • Evolution of the Learning Process
  • Understanding the Unconscious Mind
  • Role of Unconscious Mind
  • Role of Conscious Thought
  • Putting it All Together
  • The Importance of Recording Your Improvisations
  • Demystifying the Process


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Basic Improvisation or equivalent knowledge and experience is required. You should have some experience with improvisation on familiar standards (i.e., improvising on the blues form and simply constructed standard songs). You should have some familiarity with chord symbols and the common chord scales.


  • No textbooks required


  • Students are required to record video while performing with a backing track for their assignments. Options for recording video include:
    • Smartphone
    • Digital camera
    • Webcam (using either video recording software, or the video recording tool that is built into the learning environment)


  • Students are required to create notation and submit it in PDF format. Options include:
    • Notation software (recommended option), such as Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore (free), etc.
    • Handwritten notation captured by a digital camera or a scanner can be used in lieu of notation software.


  • An instrument capable of playing melodies (voice included)


  • Students are required to capture their instrumental performance, as well as monitor audio output. Options include:
    • Input (one required):
      • Instrument connected directly to audio interface (recommended electric option; alternatively, the microphone options below can be used with amplified instruments)
      • XLR microphone and audio interface (recommended acoustic option)
      • USB microphone
      • Built-in computer/mobile device microphone
    • Output (one required):
      • Headphones (recommended option; required if multitracking and/or input monitoring a microphone)
      • Studio monitors and audio interface
      • Built-in or external speakers
  • Note: Depending on your setup, you may also need XLR/instrument cables and a microphone stand.
  • Recommended: Printer, if you would like to print out examples used in the course.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Gary Burton


Born in 1943 and raised in Indiana, Gary Burton taught himself to play the vibraphone and, at the age of 17, made his recording debut in Nashville, Tennessee, with guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. Two years later, Burton left his studies at Berklee College of Music to join George Shearing and subsequently Stan Getz, with whom he worked from 1964-66.

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As a member of Getz's quartet, Burton won Down Beat magazine's Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition award in 1965. By the time he left Getz to form his own quartet in 1967, Burton had also recorded three albums under his name for RCA. Borrowing rhythms and sonorities from rock music, while maintaining jazz's emphasis on improvisation and harmonic complexity, Burton's first quartet attracted large audiences from both sides of the jazz-rock spectrum. Burton's burgeoning popularity was quickly validated by Down Beat magazine, which awarded him its Jazzman of the Year award in 1968, the youngest ever to receive that honor. During a subsequent association with the ECM label (1973-1988), the Burton Quartet expanded to include the young Pat Metheny on guitar, and the band began to explore a repertoire of modern compositions. In the 1970s, Burton also began to focus on more intimate contexts for his music. His 1971 album Alone at Last, a solo vibraphone concert recorded at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, was honored with his first Grammy Award. Burton also turned to the rarely heard duo format, recording with bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist Ralph Towner, and most notably with pianist Chick Corea, thus cementing a long personal and professional relationship that has garnered an additional four Grammy Awards.

Also in the 1970s, Burton began his music education career with Berklee College of Music in Boston. Burton began as a teacher of percussion and improvisation at Berklee in 1971. In 1985 he was named Dean of Curriculum. In 1989, he received an honorary doctorate of music from the college, and in 1996, he was appointed Executive Vice President, responsible for overseeing the daily operation of the college.

After eight years at RCA Victor, five at Atlantic Records, and sixteen at ECM Records (resulting in two more Grammy awards in 1979 and 1981), Burton began recording for GRP Records in 1988. In 1990, he paired up again with his former protege Pat Metheny for Reunion, which landed the number one spot on Billboard magazine's jazz chart. After recording a total of eight CDs for GRP, Burton began his current label affiliation with Concord Records. Departure (Gary Burton & Friends) was released in 1997 as well as Native Sense, another duet collaboration with Chick Corea, which garnered Burton's fourth Grammy Award in 1998. Also in 1997, he recorded his second collection of tango music, Astor Piazzolla Reunion, featuring the top tango musicians of Argentina, followed by Libertango in 2000, another Piazzolla project. His 1998 Concord release, Like Minds, an all-star hit featuring his frequent collaborators Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, and Dave Holland, was also honored with a Grammy win, Burton's fifth. His vibraphone tribute CD, For Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, was released in March 2001 and was honored with a 12th Grammy nomination (to date he has a total of 15 Grammy nominations). His 2002 release was a unique project with Makoto Ozone, Burton's pianist collaborator of the past 20 years. For Virtuosi, the pair explored the improvisational possibilities of classical themes, including works by Brahms, Scarlatti, Ravel, Barber and others. In an unusual move, the Recording Academy nominated Virtuosi in the Grammy's Classical music category, a unique honor for Burton and Ozone.

As Burton announced his retirement from Berklee College of Music in 2003 after 33 years at the college, he formed a new band and began touring regularly. The Generations band featured a line-up of talented young musicians, including then sixteen-year old guitarist Julian Lage and Russian-born pianist Vadim Nevelovskyi. Burton recorded two CDs with the group titled Generation and Next Generation and the band toured steadily from 2003 through mid-2006.

Since then, Burton has focused his recording and performing efforts on collaborations, with old friends and new, including tours and recordings with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Makoto Ozone, Spanish pianist/composer Polo Orti, and French accordionist Richard Galliano. Armistad Suite with Polo Orti and the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra was released in spring 2007. L'hymne a L'amour with Richard Galliano was released on the Camjazz label in August 2007. The double-CD live concert recording with Chick Corea, The New Crystal Silence, came out in 2008, resulting in the sixth Grammy for Gary Burton at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Corea and Burton toured full-time from September 2006 through spring 2008, and continued off and on playing concerts in the USA and Europe in 2009.

Next came collaborative project Quartet Live, reprising the Gary Burton Quartet of the 1970s with Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, and Antonio Sanchez. Having already toured in Japan, USA, and Europe, this group made their third tour with performances in the USA and Canada in June 2009. Plans are already in place to reunite and record and tour again in the near future. Meanwhile, Burton toured again with Chick Corea in 2010-2011.

June 2011 saw the release of Common Ground, Burton's first release on Mack Avenue Records featuring the New Gary Burton Quartet. The new group reunites the vibist with guitar star Julian Lage with the addition of drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Scott Colley. The group will be busy touring throughout 2011.

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What's Next?

When taken for credit, Gary Burton: Jazz Improvisation can be applied towards the completion of these related programs:

Related Degree Major


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