A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail” is classic “Rhythm Changes,” that is, the chords are the same as George Gershwin used for his song “I Got Rhythm.” Composed in 1940, it was initially recorded by Ellington’s famous “Blanton-Webster band,” which some listeners consider to be his finest.

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

Ben Webster’s tenor sax solo on this is very famous.

Herbie Hancock: Gershwin's World

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
If playing “Rhythm Changes’ is new for you check out the “What are jazz Rhythm Changes?” video I’ve linked to below. While “Cottontail” has a definite “Swing era” feel, Ellington hints at bebop at times in the melody, with its rhythmic syncopations and bebop-like use of the #11 over the Bb chord in m.5.

The melody to “Cottontail” is fun to play in both hands at the same time, one or two octaves apart, as Herbie Hancock and other pianists have done. You can also practice improvising like this. It’s good exercise for your LH technique and will help you break out of any habitual patterns you may possibly overuse in your soloing.

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

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

Cottontail playalong track

A transcription of Ben Webster's famous tenor sax solo on "Cottontail."

Cottontail: Journey Through The Real Book #73

What are jazz “Rhythm Changes?”

How To Learn Jazz Piano
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Jazz Piano Video Course
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