'Winging it' on jazz violin: Leo KItajima's path to becoming a jazz violinist

November 19, 2006, 12:54 AM · Violinist Leo Kitajima knew he wanted to play jazz, maybe even that he had to play jazz, the minute he heard "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," Charles Mingus's homage to Lester Young.

Kitajima was in seventh grade, and the music moved him, nearly to tears.

But he was dismayed by the fact that he did not play a typical jazz instrument, like saxophone, drums, clarinet, trumpet bass or keyboard. No, he played the violin.

"I never thought I could make this instrument speak in a different style," Kitajima said, holding his violin in his hands in front of him.

"But I started experimenting and realized, it can sound the same," he said. "Music can be played on different instruments but played the same way."

On Saturday, Kitajima gave an improvisation class to a group of about a dozen advanced Suzuki students from Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena (STEP). Kitajima teaches violin at the Pasadena Conservatory.


Kitajima started as a Suzuki student himself, but as a music student at the University of Southern California, he chose a unique path for a violinist: he enrolled in the jazz studies program.

"I didn't have a jazz violin teacher," Kitajima said. Instead, he had a trumpet teacher and an alto sax teacher.

"They treated me like one of their students," said Kitajima, who graduated in 2004. "They'd say, 'That inflection isn't correct,' or 'That hard-hat accent isn't hard enough.'"

As a result, Kitajima has cultivated skills like those of an expert translator: he speaks fluent jazz on the violin.

"Improvisation can be used in any form of music," Kitajima said. "You're not just doing anything crazy, you have a form."

Kitajima talked about various music styles that use improvisation: jazz, folk, country, salsa, rock and more. He showed the students (and teachers) how to play a blues scale, then taught a song he wrote just for the occasion, "STEP into the Blues." We learned three parts, including a pizzicato bass that we plunked out while giving everyone in the room a chance to improvise.

This caused some shyness. As a classically trained violinist and Suzuki teaching, I'm not used to "winging it" on the violin. Nor are students who typically hear a piece many times and spend months working on it!

For me, improvising felt really contrived for the first few measures, and I worried about straying off the best-sounding notes. But I could see that one has to cultivate a kind of playfulness, the ability to start with a few notes that sound right and then weave them into something.

After we went around the room and all tried improvising, Kitajima pointed out that "for each solo there's always one nice idea." One person tried doing some tremolo, for example. Another stuck to low notes on the G string. It's like composing a little theme and variations on the spot.

Learning to improvise can only improve one's violin playing, Kitajima said.

"It makes you more curious about your instrument," he said. "The more you experiment on your instrument, the more you know about your instrument."

Even within classical music, there is improvisation. Changing a phrase in the Bruch concerto, for example, "That's improvisation, too," Kitajima said. "It's not always about ornamenting or making up your own notes."

The best way to improve your improv is by listening, he said. Here is Leo Kitajima's listening list for cultivating improvisation style; some specifically use violin, some are simply classics:

Leo's Listening List

  • Stephane Grappelli "Afternoon in Paris"
  • Turtle Island String Quartet "Metropolis"
  • Stuff Smith "Stuff Smith with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson"
  • Regina Carter "Motor City Moments"
  • Clifford Brown "Clifford Brown with Strings"
  • Miles Davis "Kind of Blue"
  • Charles Mingus "Ah Um"
  • Orquestra Aragon "Quien Sabe Sabe"
  • Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer "Appalachia Waltz"


    November 19, 2006 at 12:27 PM · i feel the same way and come from the complete opposite direction: that is to say i started music on a more improvised free-form platform and only realized the structure and theory/note reading later. i think that both worlds shouldn't be as segregated as they are. i think that improv can really help us discover little special spaces about ourselves as musicians/individuals. sometimes it can be surprising and euphoric; sometimes you notice yourself in audience to your own music making. these are some of the special and unique qualities of the language of music that i have a love affair with almost everyday:)

    after all, when we blog or communicate orally in our everyday lives...what are we doing?


    November 20, 2006 at 01:52 AM · Thank you so much for this! I started off with the Suzuki method back when I was about 5 years old. Being classically trained, I have branched off into the realms of Celtic and Bluegrass music. I had tried jazz a couple times but never could get my violin/viola playing to sound like it belonged in a jazz style. It's nice to see that someone is succeeding.


    November 20, 2006 at 04:28 PM · im trying to do something very similar: bill evans on guitar and coltrane on violin

    November 21, 2006 at 07:41 PM · One of the great things about learning jazz is that as long as you have decent technique, any jazz musician can teach you jazz. Jazz is mostly theory. Learning how to improvise is not as much a technical skill in the sense of how to bow or finger as one based on knowing scales, chords, and the like.

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