Learning about scales in jazz should be about complementing our own ongoing aural study of improvising. Students of jazz should already be experimenting on their instruments with the sound they hear on recordings and especially what they are hearing in their own heads. When we are first presented with scales (usually after we begin formal training) it should be with the goal of learning how to organize material that we are already working with. Scales aren’t, in other words, a means unto themselves but rather a way of putting names and categories to the sounds that we are already exploring. I believe it is always more useful to let theory coach and inform our development as improvising musicians than it is for it to become “the Source” of our information. Improvising to me is an organic, messy process and it’s really important to learn from what theory has to offer without it becoming a didactic approach that presumes there are “right” and “wrong” notes out there in the universe. That’s not to say that there aren’t “right” and “wrong” notes but that what makes something sound “right” and “wrong” goes way deeper than mere scales. Jazz music is perfectly smitten with wrong notes that bend and grind and are perfectly beautiful. So the goal in learning scales is to increase our overall literacy as musicians and thus our ability to understand at a deeper level what we are playing and, more importantly, what others are playing.
Students should learn the following scales and exercises in all 12 keys and be able to perform them musically (smoothly and without tension). I’ve also made up a few exercises for practicing scales with left hand voicings on the piano. These can be practiced by students who play any instrument as a good way of developing chops on the piano. After working out the basic technical aspects of playing scales it’s really good to take the time to really listen to them. The left hand voicings can help capture the colour and the mood of each scale. The modes especially have a lot of character and feeling to them. Playing the modes starting on the same root note often inspires me to compose. Enjoy!