A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Big Nick” is a very catchy tune by John Coltrane, composed in 1962. While he did initially record it with his own group, the more famous version is on his landmark album Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. The tune may have been inspired by a classical piano piece by Poulenc.

The whole album is wonderful, and represents a coming together of the “old and the new,” with the elder statesman Ellington collaborating with the younger Coltrane. The stylistic blend works well, since Ellington always had a hint of avant garde in his playing and Coltrane could play a melody as well and anyone. Also, Coltrane was thoroughly familiar with Ellington’s repertoire because one of his earliest musical idols was Ellington’s long-time alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

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.)

John Coltrane: Coltrane

With McCoy Tyner on piano

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The chord progression that Coltrane used in “Big Nick” is basically the ‘A’ Section to “Rhythm Changes” without the bridge. The only thing slightly challenging about it is that it’s in G major, which we don’t tend to improvise in as much as, say, Bb major. Let this be your chance to get to know the key of G better! Make a resolution to play “Big Nick” for 15 minutes every day for a month and see how much more comfortable it gets.

Better yet, play in public as much as you can. I did this myself when I was the Associate Conductora and pianist for the Broadway musical “Swinging On A Star.” Each performance ended with the band jamming on the title song as the actors took their bows onstage. On the days when I conducted from the piano, I had to take a jazz solo on thr tune, in the key of G major! It felt a little strange at first, but the energy I got from having to play it for the audience every night helped me feel comfortable with it very quickly. I soon sounded as good in G as I did in Bb, F, and the other usual “jazz keys.” (And, if you think that G is hard, remember that Coltrane had to play it in the key of A major, since the tenor sax transposes up a whole step!)

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

Further links and resources:
Big Nick playalong track

A transcription of Coltrane’s “Big Nick” solo from the “Coltrane” album, with commentary

Big Nick: Journey Through The Real Book #30

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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