How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 10: Study music from all eras of jazz)

In Parts 1-9 of this series on How To Learn Jazz Piano, we explored a wide range of approaches to learning jazz. All were geared toward learning jazz as one would learn a language; by immersing oneself in the sounds of jazz while practicing the musical elements of jazz on the piano and applying them in playing situations, both formal and informal.

In short, if you take the time and study in the manner I suggested in those posts, you will gradually learn to play better and better and have a great time listening and absorbing a lot of great music! It’s like climbing a mountain from several angles at once. You’ll also find that the listening inspires your playing and vice versa.

My final piece of advice is to delve into all styles of jazz. Or at least most of them. Too many jazz musicians only learn bebop, for instance. While this might satisfy them on some level, their playing might lack the depth that comes from learning the roots of bebop, or older styles.

So I encourage you to listen to and learn both older and newer jazz styles, from the New Orleans style of Jelly Roll Morton through today’s cutting-edge musicians. And not just pianists, but all jazz instrumentalists.

Here are some specific questions to get you started with your exploration:

1. Pianist Keith Jarrett has stated that he was more influenced by saxophonists than by pianists during his formative years. Specifically, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in the way their phrasing was ‘free,’ and the way they would play groups of 5 or 7 notes in the space that a pianist would usually play 4 or 8. Can you find examples in Jarrett’s playing that demonstrate this. (You’ll need to listen to Rollins and Coleman too in order to understand this.)

2. Thelonious Monk was one of the founders of bebop. But once, when he was listening to a playback of a solo piano piece he’d just recorded, he quipped: “I sound just like James P. Johnson!” Listen to Monk’s version of “Dinah” and Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” and explain what he was referring to.

3. When saxophonist Charlie Parker was a teenager, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins were the most famous saxophonists in the world. Most players emulated Hawkins, but Parker chose to base his style on that of Young. What aspect of Young’s playing influenced him. Listen to the both saxophonists play on “Lady Be Good” (from “Jazz at the Philharmonic”) and see what you hear.

4. I’ve recently heard pianist Earl Hines referred to as a “true improviser.” Why was Earl Hines singled out in this way? What is it about his playing that would lead to a comment such as this?

These are just a few places to get you started. The main thing is to become interested in all styles of jazz, both by listening to recordings and by learning to play music from all eras. The more connections you make, the more you’ll experience and understand jazz as a whole.

Learning jazz, like any music, is a lifelong process. Bon voyage!

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