A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
African Flower (full title: The African Flower)was composed by Duke Ellington for his 1962 album Money Jungle, which is a “must-hear” jazz trio recording. The album was a chance for Ellington to record with two musicians of the younger generation: bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington recounts how Mingus, who had a volatile personality, abruptly walked out of the recording session, complaining that “I can’t…… Ellington chased him down onto the street and somehow convinced him to come back and finish the session. It’s a good thing he did! (Ellington’s whole book is wonderful in how richly he brings to life the musical environment he lived and worked in.)

I got the chance to meet and study with Max Roach at a few summer jazz workshops during the 1980s. I vividly recall him describing how Ellington came to this recording session without any printed music, but instead preferred to describe the tunes using picturesque images. In describing The African Flower, Ellington told Roach and Mingus to imagine a beautiful flower in the middle of the jungle. It’s the most beautiful flower in the world, but no person has ever seen it. The trio painted this picture with their music!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(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.)

Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach: Money Jungle

Duke Ellington video: solo piano

This video opens with a good closeup of Ellington’s left hand, so you can see the pattern he’s playing.

James Newton: The African Flower

This is the title track from flutist James Newton’s 1985 album of Duke Ellington’s music, which uses a wonderful combination of flute, violin, and vibes. Check out how Newton begins his flute solo!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The African Flower is a great piece to play on solo piano, as Ellington did in the video above. Since it uses straight 8th notes and has a left hand pattern that’s a little different than the “usual,” it can provide a nice contrast to the more straight-ahead jazz pieces on a concert program.

Try different left hand patterns and see which ones come naturally to you. You'll get ideas from Ellington's video and the I made, both linked to below. Then try playing the melody and improvising over them with your right hand. It's OK to vary the LH pattern a little; don't feel like you have to play the same pattern in every single measure. For instance, if you play something very complex with your right hand, then you can simplify that LH part in that measure. The overall effect will still sound great.

Enjoy yourself at every step of the way, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.

African Flower: Journey Through The Real Book #1

Listen to how the left hand vamp establishes itself and continues underneath the melody and improvisation.

African Flower playalong track

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

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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