How to Play Jazz Piano (Part 1: Immersion Through Listening)

Pianists of all levels of experience are always asking me, “How do I learn to play jazz piano?” In fact, an accomplished opera conductor recently asked me this question at a party. I was playing Chick Corea’s tune “Armando’s Rhumba” and the guy actually sat down next to me on the piano bench to get a good look at my hands! This just shows me how much jazz has to offer musically. Most of these musicians either play classical music and see the jazz tradition as a way to express themselves through improvisation, or else they already play pop or rock and want to learn the more complex harmonic language of jazz.

With this in mind, here is the first of 10 ideas to get you started learning jazz piano:

Part 1.Immersion Through Listening

Back in the 1920s-1950s, jazz was part of American popular culture. An aspiring pianist would absorb the music almost through osmosis, because the music was ‘in the air’ (literally!). Every bar and restaurant had live music and jazz was heard everywhere, from low-down ‘juke joints’ to elegant ballrooms where couples danced to big bands like those led by Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Also, during this time many pop songs used the ‘swing’ rhythmic feel of jazz. Even Christmas songs of the time, like “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” were played with an underlying rhythm consisting of swing 8th-notes.

Nowadays, we have to work a little harder to get the ‘feel’ of jazz. It can be done, however, by frequent listening to jazz recordings. Immerse yourself in the music through your favorite jazz recordings. Listen both casually. such as in the car, and intensely, like when you’re alone at home. And, of course, by listening to live musicians whenever you have the chance. Let the music wash over you without thinking too much. Over time, it will begin to sink in and stay with you. Gradually, your piano playing will begin to improve and you will begin to express yourself more naturally through the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language of jazz.

Have a wonderful time immersing yourself in jazz recordings, and check out Part 2 of this series: How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 2: Analytical Listening)

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