7 Steps to Learning Jazz Standards on Piano

I’ve always been frustrated by the “artificiality” of much jazz piano instruction. None of this “play the 3rd and 7th of each chord” stuff seemed to fit in with how my own piano teacher, Billy Taylor, had himself learned. When he was starting out, he heard all the great standard songs on the radio, listened to jazz piano recordings, and dove right in by jamming with his friends. By contrast, the textbooks and much of the instruction being offered nowadays seemed too dry and often resulted in rhythmically stiff playing.

Well, it’s taken me 30 years to finally solve the problem, but as they say, “better late than never!”

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks creating a series of 7 lessons for my students which I call “7 Steps to Standards,” and I thought I’d share the basic steps here. You can use them to learn any jazz standard, and best of all, they emulate not only the way the jazz greats have traditionally learned, but the historical development of jazz itself.

These 7 steps will get you playing any jazz standard in a way that’s fun, sounds great, and has a high degree of rhythmic flexibility which is the most important aspect of sounding more professional and advanced. After this, you’ll be able to easily incorporate rootless voicings, walking bass lines, and modal concepts.

1. Melody
Yes, start with just the melody, with your right hand only. No bass line and no chords. Pretend you’re a horn player and listen to the intervals and the flow of the melody. I’m always amazed at what I learn when I play a melody alone and listen to it with fresh ears.

2. Melody and Bass
Begin this step by simply playing the chord roots and listening to them like you’re a bass player. By doing so, you’ll be training your fingers to find those notes on their own and also developing your ear in a good way. (After all, it isn’t coincidental that bass players can “hear” root movement better than most other musicians. It’s because they practice like this.) Then, play the melody over the roots. And after that, play the bass notes in various rhythms to develop hand independence. (This is another important step that’s usually overlooked, and it will make learning walking bass lines easier for you down the road.)

3. Melody and Chords
Now, do the same thing as we did with the bass notes in Step 2, but with root position 7th chords. By staying with root position chords for a while, you’ll be creating a sense-memory for the 5th finger of your left hand to automatically find the chord roots when you later use more advanced techniques like walking bass and stride piano. Also, when you eventually learn rootless voicings, you’ll be better able to understand those voicings as they relate to the basic 7th chords and also when you’re creating your own voicings ad lib.

4. Phrasing the melody like a vocalist
The jazz greats like Lester Young, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans were able to effortlessly phrase melodies like a vocalist because they heard the vocal renditions on the radio all the time. Even the general public was intimately familiar with the vocal phrasings of Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat “King” Cole. So it naturally translated to their instrumental concept. Nowadays, we can still learn how to play like this, but we have to do it intentionally. For my lesson on vocal phrasing, I actually transcribed the vocal phrasing of Dean Martin and Julie London singing the same tune, and then compared it to how Miles Davis played it on trumpet. I was surprised to see that although Miles is completely free in his rhythmic phrasing, he stayed so close to the melody that you could put the actual lyrics to his phrasing and only have a few “extra” notes left over! Spend some “quality time” listening to vocalists and then practice phrasing like them.

5. Embellishing and varying the melody
After you can phrase like a vocalist would, you can further improvise on the melody by embellishing and varying it. This step, which is very possible to do right in the beginning stages, will take you very far towards sounding intermediate/advanced in your rhythmic concept and melodic fluidity. (Don’t wait until you learn rootless voicings because that will slow you down.)

6. Soloing with chord tones
When Louis Armstrong first popularized the instrumental jazz solo on recordings, he began by simply using chord tones in his improvisations. Today, it’s still the best way to go about it and will show you how each chord’s basic notes are the “anchors,” even on advanced bebop or when using scales and modes.

7. LH voicings with inversions
By this point, you’ve come to a level of playing where you’re playing the melody and improvising with a high degree of rhythmic variety and flexibility. Now’s the time to learn some LH inversions so you can play the chords with smooth voice-leading. You can also experiment with rhythmic “comping” as well.

The best thing about these 7 Steps to Standards is that by going through them in this order, you’ll get “up and running” on jazz standards without becoming bogged down with too much theory.

After all, jazz is meant to be fun and the whole point is to play and improvise. Then, after you can do this and sound great on jazz tunes, you’ll be in a much better position to apply the more advanced techniques such as rootless voicings, walking bass lines, and modal improvisation.

If you’d like to learn these concepts using my video course, you can get started here. (Look for Lessons 15-21 in the Intro To Jazz course.)
Or, just reply to this email to study jazz piano with me via Skype and we’ll cover these steps in depth.

Have fun, and “let the music flow!”

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