Learning Jazz Piano: Then and Now

There are many ironies in this wide world, and the world of jazz piano is no exception. For one thing, we want to play like all the great jazz pianists of the past played, but we learn to play jazz in a way that’s almost completely opposite of how they learned.

“Back in the day,” there was little or no jazz piano instruction. Many legendary jazz pianists, such as Duke Ellington, learned their first jazz arrangements by slowing down the mechanism on a player piano to see which keys went down to correspond with the sounds it produced. But at the same time, they heard all the standard tunes on the radio and in live performances. The music was all around them and they absorbed it. They knew how the songs went and how jazz was supposed to sound. They could walk into any restaurant or club and watch the pianists’ hands glide over the keys. They may not have had much formal jazz instruction, if any, but they could ask questions and pick up “a bit here and a bit there.” Some took lessons from older musicians, but by and large these pianists learned by trial and error, and lots of practicing and jamming.

Today, the situation is reversed. A beginning jazz pianist is sometimes overloaded with chord theory and modes before they even know how any melodies sound. The repertoire isn’t in today’s culture, so today’s aspiring jazz pianist has to seek the material out. Look for it.

It’s backwards, isn’t it?

They knew how the music sounded, but didm’t have much instruction.

Today’s beginning jazz pianists have the instruction, but don’t yet know the material.

In a way, this isn’t “good” or “bad.” It’s just how the situation is.

The problem arises when we expect to learn how to play like, say, Bud Powell, without recognizing how we need to go about it.

Yes, keep the instruction. It’s good, and many of yesterday’s greats may have jumped at the chance to get quality, step-by-step instruction in the basics of jazz piano.

But at the same time, we need to immerse ourselves the best we can in the musical culture that produced the jazz greats.

What can we do?

We can listen to recordings of the tunes we’re learning. And not just the jazz versions; we need to go back farther and hear the popular recordings that shaped how Bud Powell and the others learned the songs in the first place. We can also read interviews with many of these greats, and we can also learn what other, more experienced musicians have to say about how to play these songs. General advice, not just theory and technical instruction.

To help you emulate this environment for yourself, I’ve created a free resource called The Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book. For every tune in The Real Book, you can get a quick bit of the tune’s history and an overview, just as I was leafing through the book with you in person and relating something verbally about the tune. There are also links to recording and videos, so you can get a good sense of how the tune sounds and hear some of its various interpretations. I’ve also given you some musical ideas and practice tips, as well as links for further study.

You can find the Table of Contents here:
Table of Contents: The Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book

This is the resource I wish I had when I was first learning jazz piano. Good luck, and have fun!

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