A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“A Night In Tunisia” is one of the all-time great jazz standards, and one you’ll need to learn if you want to jam with other jazz musicians. It was composed by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1940s, at the very beginning of the bebop period.

The tune is notable for several things. For one, it opens with a “too cool for words” bass line that would still feel at home on a hip hop or funk recording. Secondly, like some of Dizzy’s other early music, the tune has a built-in arrangement that’s derived from big band music. In other words, it’s more than just an AABA “head arrangement.” There’s the bass intro, the AABA tune itself which moves from Latin to swing for the bridge, and a “coda” that leads into the solos after a 4-bar solo break.

The solo break is when the rhythm section stops playing for 4 measures while the soloist improvises at the start of their solo. This is a throwback to the early days of jazz when solo breaks, also known as “stop time,” were an integral part of the music. In fact, many early jazz pioneers considered solo breaks to be part of the definition of jazz. (If it didn’t have solo breaks, it wasn’t jazz.)

The solo break in “A Night In Tunisia” is particularly famous because of Charlie Parker. During the recording session, Parker played a breathtaking 4-bar break at the beginning of his alto sax solo. The rest of the “take,” unfortunately, wasn’t usable so the band had to play the tune again. Parker famously remarked that he would never again be able to play the break as good as he had just played it! Full discussion of Parker’s “A Night In Tunisia” solo breaks, see the link I’ve provided below in the “Further links and resources” section. This is an important part of jazz folklore and history.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: A Night In Tunisia

Joshua Redman Quartet (video)

Jonathan Russell: Live in NYC (video)

This is from a concert I played with jazz violinist Jonathan Russell, who was only 15 years old at the time. Check out his cadenza near the end!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One of the fun things to discover in “A Night In Tunisia” is how the opening melodic gesture outlines the arpeggio. The chord is an Eb7(#11), and the ascending notes A-Bb-Db-F-C are the upper part of the voicing. (play Eb and G with your left hand, and all the RH notes at the same time and you’ll have a very “bebop-sounding” voicing!)

For soloing, one of the main challenges is taking 2 chords that are a half-step apart, like Eb7(#11) and Dm7 and connecting them melodically. One way to do this is through the use of common tones. Find some notes that sound good with both chords and base your melody around them. For scales, you can use Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C-Db for the Eb7(#11) chord, and either D Dorian or D Natural Minor for the Dm7 chord. Figure out for yourself which notes are contained in both scales and feature them prominently in your improvisations.

Also, “A Night In Tunisia” is a great tune on which to study how to play solo breaks, mainly because Charlie Parker played such a famous one (see link below.) Because Parker’s breaks were so virtuosic, most players try to cram about a million notes into their own solo breaks. Sometimes this is successful, and sometimes it’s not.

Yes, learn how to do this like Parker did, but also try other approaches. For instance, maybe you stay with 8th notes, instead of 16ths, and just “keep it swinging.” It’ll sound great! Or, go for a more minimalist approach and leave some rests in there. This can sound very effective too, since it plays against the audience’s expectations and keeps them alert. Keith Jarrett does some interesting things on his solo breaks, too, like “turning the beat around.” Try all of these approaches and use them on different tunes, so you’re not playing the same break all the time.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
A Night In Tunisia: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

A Night In Tunisia: Wikipedia

A Night In Tunisia (from NPR’s All Things Considered)
Included brief audio interviews with Dizzy Gillespie, John Faddis, and George Russell

Dizzy Gillespie: Interview (video)

50 Great Moments In Jazz: Charlie Parker Teams Up With Ross Russell
A overview of their recording sessions, including the “Tunisia” recording

Transcription of Charlie Parker’s 4-bar breaks on A Night In Tunisia
They’re in the alto sax key, but well worth playing through a few times!

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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