Billy Taylor’s approach to learning jazz piano

One of the big thrills in my life was studying jazz piano with the great Billy Taylor. I first met him in 1982 at the Jazz In July summer program he developed at The University of Massachusetts, and he taught me a great deal over the course of 4-5 years.

Billy often told me “Improvisation is learned the same way we learn language.”

He didn’t elaborate on this much, but I knew that his remark came from his deep thinking about the subject. I’ve often pondered his statement and it’s gradually shaped my whole approach to teaching jazz, rock, pop, and even classical improvisation.

Here’s one example, which draws from the way Billy Taylor himself learned to play jazz:

We begin learning language by listening to people speak, long before we ourselves begin speaking.

Taylor was born in 1021, at a time when jazz could be heard everywhere in his local Washington D.C. environment. In fact, he would have heard jazz and jazz-related pop music on an almost daily basis, at the same time he was hearing language. So by the time he actually began learning to play jazz piano, he had already internalized the sounds of jazz, just as a toddler has already internalized the sounds of their language by the time they begin to speak fluently.

This is fascinating, because it points out one of the biggest obstacles many aspiring jazz musicians face today: they haven’t heard much jazz by the time they start learning to play it themselves. Jazz isn’t in our popular culture anymore. Back in the 20’s, when Taylor was young child, pop music used the swing feeling of jazz and even many of the same harmonies, which is why so many popular songs like “Bye Bye Blackbird” became jazz standards. But as good as some of today’s popular music is, it isn’t jazz-related, and this holds back aspiring jazz musicians in ways they don’t often realize.

So Taylor’s insight that “Improvisation is learned the same way we learn language” provides us with the answer: To learn jazz, immerse yourself in the sounds of jazz continuously, and for a long period of time.

Whenever I want to understand one of the specifics about learning jazz piano, whether it’s for myself or for one of my students, I ask myself, “How does this relate to learning language?” And the answer always come to me.

You can ask yourself this question too, and we can both thank Billy Taylor for showing us the way!

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