A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Not to be confused with songs of the same name by pop singer John Legend and pianist Jon Schmidt of The Piano Guys, the jazz standard “All Of Me” started out as a popular song way back in 1931. It’s one of the most popular jam session tunes and therefore one of the first Real Book songs you should learn.

Here are some 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.)

Billie Holiday (1941)

Billie is the singer most identified with the song. This recording also features her musical “soul mate,” tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Holiday altered the melody, both for expressive purposes and because she had a limited vocal range. (I had the opportunity to ask one of her friends, the vocalist Joyce Bryant, about this. I specifically mentioned “All Of Me” and Joyce replied, “Oh yes, and Billie was terrified that anyone would find out” about her limited vocal range.

Lester Young and Teddy Wilson

Here’s a swing-era style recording of Lester Young playing the tune with pianist Teddy Wilson.

Charlie Parker: Jam session with Lennie Tristano and Kenny Clarke (1951)

This informal recording gives us a good chance to hear Parker “stretch out” longer than he could have on the short recordings of the time. It’s also fascinating to hear him play with pianist Lennie Tristano, who was so forward-looking harmonically. Although the two of them didn’t record together much, Parker was a big supporter of Tristano and his musical concepts.

Lennie Tristano: Line Up

“Line Up” is one of the most influential recordings in jazz piano history. Tristano based this on the chord changes to “All Of Me,” but without any melody. Lennie used most advanced technology of the time to overdub his piano solo on top of a prerecorded rhythm track. He also used alter tape-speed. (My sense is that he recorded it slowly and then speeded it up to what we now hear. That’s why the phrasing sounds a little stiff and mechanical. You can hear a similar effect during the piano solo in the Beatles’ “In My Life,” which producer George Martin played at half-speed.)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One interesting thing about “All Of Me” is that nobody plays the last phrase the way it was originally written. In measure 29, the original melody went to an Ab, not the A natural which is usually played (in the key of C major). The chord would be Dm7(b5) to accommodate the chromaticism. Nobody plays it like that, but it’s notable how even great jazz musicians can sometimes make a song less interesting by homogenizing a something in this way. The original melody and harmony brought a moment of poignancy just before the end, which is now missing.

“All Of Me” gives us pianists a good workout in improvising on dominant 7th chords moving around the circle of 4ths. Try adding the natural 9th, raised 9th, or lowered 9th to each of the dominant 7th chords and decide which you prefer. (Hint: If you’re moving towards a minor chord that’s a 5th lower, the raised or flatted 9th usually fits best. In other words, if the chords are A7/Dm, play either A7(b9) or A7(#9), not A9.)

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Piano Tip #35: All of Me

Here's how to sound better by loosening up your phrasing

All Of Me: Journey Through The Real Book #10

All Of Me: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

All Of Me: Wikipedia

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