Pianist Sweet Emma Barrett and trumpeter Mark Braud appear in this free lesson plan on the iconic New Orleans jazz song "Bill Bailey" – Preservation Hall Lessons

Bill Bailey Improvisation in F

GRADE: 9-12
GENRE: Traditional Jazz
TOPIC: Improvisation
DISCIPLINE: Harmonizing Instruments


In this lesson, students will learn the form of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” (commonly called “Bill Bailey”) (32 bars) and the chord progression in F. They will learn to improvise with the starting points of scales, arpeggios, and small motifs. Students will also learn that the “Bill Bailey” chord progression is used in many other songs.



  • Improvise over the “Bill Bailey” chord progression in F.
  • Identify songs that share the same chords as “Bill Bailey”.
  • Play through 32 bars of roots and arpeggios. 
  • Improvise 1-2 choruses over “Bill Bailey” chords.



National Core Arts Standards

Harmonizing Instruments Standard 1 Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
Harmonizing Instruments Standard 2 Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Harmonizing Instruments Standard 3 Refine and complete artistic work.

Common Core State Standards

ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social-Emotional Growth Skills

  • Students will build relationship skills including communication, active listening and cooperation as they work together to improvise over “Bill Bailey.”
  • Note SEAL Soundbites where these social-emotional growth skills are worthy of a small conversation or reflection.



Teachers should familiarize themselves with the course materials prior to launching the lesson. Teachers should differentiate the “Application” steps based on student experience with improvisation.





  1. Play a recording of “Bill Bailey” from the options below. Ask: What do you notice about the form or chords? Tell students “Bill Bailey” has a 32-bar form and is generally performed in F major.


  1. Distribute the Bass Clef, Bb Instruments, C Instruments, Eb Instruments lead sheets and replay the recording, asking students to visually follow the lead sheet as they listen to the recording again. *SEAL Soundbite: This is a great opportunity to draw students’ attention to the relationship skills they are building as they actively listen.  Doing this, they are learning where and how they can work within the structure of the song and add their own contribution to the overall piece. This is similar to how we have good conversations with others.



  1. Distribute the Scale and Arpeggio Sheets with chord symbols. Play through the scales and arpeggios as a class so students can internalize the sound of the “Bill Bailey” chord progression. Also tell students that the “Bill Bailey” chords are either identical or nearly indistinguishably close to the chords of several other songs.


  1. Now have students use these notes as a framework for improvisation. Students can use both arpeggios and scales to explore the chord progression. At this point, they can either freely improvise (as comfortable) or create patterns with the scales and arpeggios; teachers should make modifications or adaptations to the student experience level.


  1. Tell students that strong improvisation comes from theme development. Play through one of the sample student handouts. *SEAL Soundbite: This is a great place to pause and emphasize how strong improvisation also comes from strong relationship skills with your fellow musicians as you actively listen and figure out where and how to add your notes.
    Possible Reflection Questions:
    How do you know what to improvise? (By listening and understanding what is going on in the song before adding my notes.)
    How does this mirror relationships? (You have to listen to others and understand them in order to communicate your ideas effectively.)


  1. Show students an example of “Bill Bailey” Improvisation. Once students have played through the sample solo, have them improvise with their own “small motif” based solos. *SEAL Soundbite: Pause and ask students to reflect on their “small motif” solos.
    Possible Reflection Questions:
    How does it feel to add your own “small motif”? (like you’re interrupting or like you’re contributing)
    How can you improve your improvisation/improvisation skills?


  1. After the class has practiced improvising with small motifs, allow them to improvise with all parameters removed.



  1. Have students play through 32 bars of roots and arpeggios, then improvise 1-2 choruses over “Bill Bailey” chords. Evaluation is based on following the form and freely utilizing notes from the arpeggios and scales.


  1. Have students name three songs with the same chord progression as “Bill Bailey”.


  1. Have students describe how improvisation is like communicating with others. What relationship skills among musicians are important for improvisation?



Used with permission. Portions of this work are based on the National Core Arts Standards Copyright © 2015 National Coalition for Core Arts Standards/All Rights Reserved – Rights Administered by SEADAE.

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

Meghan Swartz, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
Mark Braud, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
JoDee Scissors, Content Producer
Elizabeth Peterson, Social and Emotional Artistic Learning (SEAL) Consultant




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