Creating jazz piano interpretations of Billie Holiday’s God Bless The Child

One of the joys of playing jazz piano is that we can bring so many “flavors” to a tune. Whether we’re improvising on something from The Great American Songbook or an original composition, the material is so versatile that we can play it with a blues flavor one day, a lyrical sweetness the next, and with a harmonic richness the day after that. We can also blend these flavors together in a myriad of combinations, often within a single interpretation.

Billie Holiday’s iconic standard “God Bless The Child” is a prime example of this versatility. Over the years I’ve played it with a gospel feel in church, as a bebop tune in jazz clubs, and as a tender lullaby with lyrical singers. I’ve reharmonized it and added a backbeat when performing it in R&B nightclubs, and used straight 8ths when playing it a la Keith Jarrett.

We can also enjoy bringing in these flavors in a more subtle way during the course of a single performance. We may begin tenderly and then get deeper into the groove during the bridge or at the beginning of a new chorus. And we can alter the harmonies or melodic phrasing to correspond fully to the emotional tone we’re seeking at this moment. Taking this further, we can “let the music guide us” and go along for the ride, instead of trying to predetermine or control what happens during the tune.

The key is to know all of the musical possibilities and know enough about the history of the music to have all this at our fingertips, so it can be expressed in a natural and musical way.

I’ve made this video to show you some pianistic possibilities for this wonderful song:

God Bless The Child: Journey Through The Real Book #136

Enjoy watching and listening to what I’ve done here, and then I hope you take the time to sit down at your own piano and explore the musical possibilities that a great tune like this gives us.

With music, the sky’s the limit. Enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”


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