How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 8: Study with a good teacher)

The first 7 installments of this series dealt with the importance of immersing oneself in the sounds of jazz, learning the basic elements of the style, and then actually playing the music with other musicians. At some point, though, it is essential to seek guidance from a good, experienced teacher; someone who’s mastered the craft and is patient enough to pass it along to you.

The musical world of jazz is vast, and we can’t do it all by ourselves. Since there isn’t any vibrant jazz cultural scene anymore, an experienced teacher will provide not just information, but personal guidance and motivation as well. Also, an attentive teacher will notice things about your playing that you yourself will have missed, and provide you with insights that are based on the way you actually play. This type of personal, one-to-one instruction goes way beyond what you can learn from books or even videos alone.

The magic lies in the teacher/student relationship. We hear the teacher play and begin emulate the great sounds we hear. And seeing it done ‘in the moment’ gives us an excitement and sense of “yes, I can do this!” that comes from the personal connection that’s established.

I myself have been fortunate to have studied with some wonderful jazz piano teachers. While at The University of Connecticut, I discovered a musical and personal goldmine in the person of Hale Smith, a masterful composer who had played jazz in New York City in the 1950’s. His playing and indeed his very presence at the piano was steeped in a pre-bebop style that needs to be absorbed from someone who ‘lives’ it. Hale was good friends with Dizzy Gillespie and Eric Dolphy. At one point, he actually taught Dolphy out of Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians!

During school vacations, I would drive down to NYC to take occasional lessons with Harold Danko, who had played with Chet Baker and Thad Jones and was teaching at The Manhattan School of Music. As I discovered years later, Harold treated me a little differently than he did his students at the Manhattan school. He didn’t give me much technical info. In fact, he once refused my request for him to show me some chord voicings, saying, “You need to figure them out for yourself.” We improvised a lot of duets and he instilled a sense of the music’s spirit into me . Even now, I’ll be playing piano and suddenly remember him trying to convey the ‘crackling energy’ of bebop to me!

And for 4 summers I went to a jazz program in Massachusetts to study with jazz legend Billy Taylor. Billy was extremely generous with his time and once let me watch him practice for an hour. He would make me tapes of out-of-print Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn recordings and passed along to us students what he had learned from Art Tatum and the other early jazz masters.

Finally, here’s one important piece of advice to remember when working with a teacher: Very often the more interest you show in learning, and the harder you practice, the more you’ll get from the teacher. Teachers are human beings too, and they get motivated by interested and enthusiastic students. If you give some of that, you might get much more in return to help you on your way!

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