Blues and jazz piano ballads on “Black Coffee”

Have you ever played the tune “Black Coffee?” It’s in The Real Book, vol. 1, but long before that it was performed by just about every jazz singer from the late 40s onwards. If you want to hear the definitive version, listen to Sarah Vaughan sing it:

This is Sarah at her best, and we jazz pianists can learn a lot from her approach. First of all, she’s into the lyric. Now… any jazz pianist from “back in the day” would have known at least some of the lyrics to the song, because they would have heard it on the radio and in the countless clubs, bars, and restaurants that featured jazz vocalists. Up until the mid-60s or even the 70s you’d hear this stuff everywhere.

Unfortunately, many jazz pianists nowadays don’t get past the leadsheet in their Real Book, which doesn’t have the lyrics. But don’t fall into this trap yourself; you’d be missing out on so much! Listen to Sarah sing “I’m feeling mighty lonesome, haven’t slept a wink..” Now, see how that influences your interpretation at the keyboard. The lyrics fit the melody like a glove and once you’re “hip” to this, you’ll play the tune with much more feeling and depth. In fact, I can’t even imagine not knowing the lyrics to this song! They’re that important!!!

One thing the lyrics bring to us here is a multi-layered approach to the music. The lyrics are a plea, sung by someone who’s really tired. Emotionally, it alternates between outward expressiveness and inward resignation. On the piano, this can be translated as “bluesy” and “ballady.”

The chords to “Black Coffee” are a 12-bar blues for the ‘A’ sections, and a more standard-like progression during the bridge. So both the blues and a more lyrical ballad-like style are implied by the musical form itself, in addition to the lyrics. This type of ballad is often called a “torch song.”

Here’s how to use both blues and a lyrical ballad approach when playing the tune as a jazz piano solo. Try it yourself, and see how your playing evolves over time. Enjoy!

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