A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Django” is perhaps the most famous composition by John Lewis, the pianist and composer who led The Modern Jazz Quartet. He recorded “Django” many times, beginning in 1956, finding new layers of emotion and musical ideas each time.

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.)

The Modern Jazz Quartet In London

John Lewis: Improvised Meditations & Excursions

Gunther Schuller, “Third Stream”

John Lewis: Montreux, 2000 (video)

This is an astonishing performance! Lewis was 80 years old at the time, and this performance shows us what’s possible when a musician keeps revisiting and reimagining a tune over the course of decades. In turns playful and introspective, this version incorporates classical influences, old-time stride piano, and more; all in 4 minutes and 29 seconds!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Composer/pianist John Lewis spent much of his career bringing his love of classical music and jazz together in many ways. He sometimes did this by creating jazz arrangements of Bach. At other times he wrote original pieces, such as “Concorde,” that utilized Bach-like contrapuntal techniques. Sometimes he approached playing jazz standards as if they were classical pieces, focusing on conveying a deep emotion with classical-style chords and inner voice motion rather than using a primarily jazz harmonic vocabulary or rhythmic feel.

“Django” is very tightly constructed, using just one primary motif, much the same way that Bach, Chopin, or, for that matter, a motivic-oriented jazz composer like Wayne Shorter would. John Lewis was one of the pioneers of this approach, and “Django” shows us how the use and transformation of a short melodic phrase can be highly expressive instead of limiting. As you play through the ballad, listen to how the 2-bar phrase sounds fresh each time, and how our perception of it is colored by the harmony that accompanies it at every turn.

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

Further links and resources:

Django: Journey Through The Real Book #93

John Lewis on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio show
Interview, solo piano performances, and duets with McPartland

“Inside information” from jazz piano legend John Lewis

How To Learn Jazz Piano
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.

Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
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