A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“A String Of Pearls” was composed by Jerry Gray and Eddie DeLange in 1941. The song was a huge hit for The Glenn Miller Orchestra and their recording is a great starting point for learning the tune’s musical feel.

The sound or Glenn Miller’s recording is typical of how beautiful Swing Era music can be. This is partly due to the orchestration as well as to the piece itself. With historical hindsight, it’s fun to listen to Glenn Miller’s recording of “A String Of Pearls” and imagine the young Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk developing the bebop style at the same time. What a contrast! The continuity between the two styles can be clearly heard, however, when Charlie Parker played ballads such as Embraceable You or April In Paris (with strings). The beboppers could play as lyrically as their Swing Era predecessors when they chose to do so!

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.)

Glenn Miller and his Orchestra

Beegie Adair: Sentimental Journey

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Although “A String Of Pearls” is more of a big band tune than a vehicle for small group improvisation, it works surprisingly well on piano. Be sure to listen to the Glenn Miller recording I’ve linked to above so you can get a good feel for how it goes. The recording will especially help you in playing the intro, which is a little sketchy on the printed page.

Look at the chords in measures 5-6. While at first glance all those chord changes may look imposing, it’s really just a C chord with a moving chromatic line to provide some inner voice motion. Play a C chord, and then add a B, then a Bb, then an A, then a G#, and finally a G. This is what the chord symbols are indicating by C, CMaj7, C7, C6, C+, and C. Once you get this pattern under your fingers, the rest of the tune will come easily to you.

The solo section is a blues in the key of Ab. Moving from the key of C to Ab like this is a great way to provide harmonic contrast and interest. You can do this too, even with tunes that aren’t written this way.

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

Further links and resources:
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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