If you want to play jazz piano like your idols, you need to create a listening environment that emulates theirs.
Jelly Roll Morton, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea all grew up during a time when jazz music was “in the air.” Popular music of the time often had a swing beat and featured songs that were used as vehicles for jazz musicians to improvise upon. Neighbors played jazz and sounds of trumpets and pianos could be heard coming from houses and apartment buildings. My own piano teacher, Billy Taylor, told me that jazz could be heard on the pop radio stations even into the early 1960s. In addition, live jazz could be commonly heard in local clubs and restaurants.
Jazz was in the air, and it was easier for aspiring jazz musicians to absorb the sounds of the music and bring it into their own playing.
Now, we have to create this kind of environment for ourselves. Recent jazz pianists like Brad Mehldau have done this, whether through immersing themselves in recordings or by finding an academic environment like high school or college where this is possible.
The great news is that we can do this anytime we choose. Absorb as much jazz as you can. Listen to a live recording and pretend you’re in a club, listening to the music as it unfolds. Get together with your musical peers for jam sessions. Play along with classic recordings.
Listen to as much jazz as you can, and your playing will benefit from it. And most of all, enjoy the journey to becoming a fluent jazz pianist!
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