Jazz Piano Lessons from Jelly Roll Morton


The great pianist/composer/arranger Jelly Roll Morton was right there at the beginning of jazz. Here are 5 jazz piano lessons he can teach us.

Lesson 1: Embrace all styles

The New Orleans of the early 20th century that Morton lived in consisted of a wide variety of musical cultures. They ranged from blues, folk music and hymns to opera, marches and Latin American music such as the tango. Jelly Roll embraced them all and put them into his music. You can too.

Lesson 2: Become a 2-handed pianist

Too many jazz pianists these days are content to merely play chords with their left hand. Morton is a good example of a pianist whose left hand was as active as his right. His left hand played bass lines, stride patterns, octaves and melodic fills. But don’t think this is only a characteristic of early jazz. McCoy Tyner based his energetic left hand concept on stride, but made it sound very “1960s.” More recently, pianists such as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have shown us that the left hand can play a very active role in contemporary jazz piano. You can play walking bass, counterpoint, inner-voice movement, arpeggiated patterns and a whole lot more with your left hand. This all stems from the 2-handed concept of the early jazz masters such as Morton.

Lesson 3: Learn to arrange and orchestrate

Jelly Roll Morton was jazz music’s first great arranger. Learning to arrange and orchestrate will teach you a lot about melody, harmony, musical texture and how they relate to each other. It’s a wonderful creative outlet and it forces you to problem-solve in ways you can’t avoid, since you have to make decisions and write down the notes. After you’ve done a few arrangements, call up some musicians to play through your charts. Everyone’s looking for playing opportunities and you’ll become very popular with your music peers if you host some jam sessions!

Lesson 4: Have confidence in what you can do

Sure, Jelly Roll could go over-the-top with his bragging at times, but there’s no doubt that his self-confidence contributed to his musical and professional success. Be confident in what you can do and practice hard to learn what you can’t yet do.

Lesson 4: Have fun!

How many jazz groups these days look like they’re having fun? Some do, but many don’t. Enjoy yourself while you play and your audiences will be more likely to enjoy your music as well. And, at times, don’t overlook the sheer entertainment value that music can provide. Listen to how much fun Morton and the Red Hot Peppers had with their recording of Sidewalk Blues!


There you have it: 5 jazz piano lessons we can learn from Jelly Roll Morton. Each one will take you far. Taken together, they’ll bring your jazz piano playing to a whole new level; one that’s thoroughly in the jazz tradition yet contemporary at the same time. Good luck and remember to enjoy every step of the journey!

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