How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 9: Play With Musicians Who Are 10 Times Better Than You Are)

This is the 9th installment in this 10-part series, which explores various facets of getting started with jazz piano and then becoming a well-rounded player. Here’s the beginning of the series, in case you missed it: How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 1: Immersion Through Listening)

Once you’ve learned the fundamentals of jazz piano, and are comfortable jamming with other musicians, you’ll want to become as good as you can in order to play the great music you’re hearing in your head. One challenging but rewarding way to do this is to play with musicians who are 10 times better than you are. By intentionally putting yourself in situations where you’re playing with accomplished musicians, you’ll be doing several things:

1. You’ll experience great jazz ‘at close range’ and absorb it first-hand. The sounds you hear will eventually come out in your own playing.

2. You’ll need to work REALLY hard just to keep up. This can only help your playing.

3. More often than not your playing will rise to the occasion, and you’re overall level will improve, sometimes very quickly.

There are 2 examples of this in jazz history that come to my mind as I write this, both involving the great saxophonist Charlie Parker.

The first concerns the young Miles Davis when played trumpet in Parker’s classic bebop quintet during the late 1940’s. Miles hadn’t yet mastered the bebop musical language, and had particular difficulty in keeping up on fast tunes. As he recalled in his autobiography, Davis felt so inadequate that he tried to quit the group after each performance. Parker, though, refused to accept the young musician’s resignation. The conventional wisdom is that Parker heard Davis’ future potential, and gave him the chance to develop musically, even if he wasn’t the best trumpet player at the time. Davis profited from playing with the great Parker, and eventually became just as great himself.

The second example was recalled by pianist Paul Bley, in an interview where he actually gave this same advice about playing with musicians who are 10 times better than you are. Bley grew up in Montreal, Canada. While still in his teen years, Bley organized a performance in Montreal that would feature the famous Parker, backed up by Bley’s band. Although still a teenager, he basically got on an airplane, flew to New York City, found Parker, brought him back to Canada, did the concert, paid Parker, and put him on an airplane back to NYC. Bley knew that the only way he would get to play with this great jazz musician would be to personally make it all happen, so he did. It paid off, too: Bley became a master jazz pianist and eventually played and recorded with Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and others.

It’s not always easy to put yourself in these situations. For one thing, you need to at least play well enough that the more accomplished musician enjoys playing with you as well. In the case of Miles Davis, he had a unique, sweet trumpet sound that Parker enjoyed and heard potential in. But if you can pull it off, these musical situations can help you improve and realize your own musical potential. Good luck!

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

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