A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Thelonious Monk’s composition “Epistrophy” can give us a musical glimpse of the very beginning of bebop. The tune, which Monk actually co-wrote with drummer Kenny Clarke, was written in 1941, well before any true bebop was recorded. This was an exciting time, though, as Monk, Clarke, and others were developing a new style that brought new sounds and rhythms into the world of jazz.

During this time, Monk was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a Harlem nightclub which became an important gathering place for the young beboppers. The musical transition to bebop is a little murky for us since there was a recording ban during this time that was enforced by the Musician’s Union. No instrumentalists, in any style, were allowed to make recordings from 1942-1944! Because of this, the first bebop recordings show us the fully-formed style of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, et al.

But Monk was indeed one of the style’s originators, and we can hear the very beginning so this new music in a few live recordings of Minton’s performances which have surfaced over the years, and in the Cootie Williams recording I’ve linked to below. Williams took a hiatus from playing in the Duke Ellington Orchestra to lead his own big band for a while. Although he was firmly grounded in the Swing style, he recorded Monk’s “Epistrophy,” under the title “Fly Right,” and also made the first recording of “Round Midnight.”

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.)

Cootie Williams Big Band

(This is the first recording of the tune, which was then called “Fly Right.” It was recorded in 1942 and Ken Kersey plays the piano solo)

Thelonious Monk (Live in Japan, 1963: video)

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall

Eric Dolphy: Live in Holland, 1964

Chris Potter and Kenny Werner: At Maybeck Recital Hall

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The chromaticism in “Epistrophy” makes it extremely challenging to improvise on. The goal is simple: to play natural-sounding melodic lines over two dominant chords that are a half-step apart. Easy in concept, difficult to actually do.

There are many ways to practice improvising over “Epistrophy.” One approach that I’ve done a lot is to alternate between the Eb7 and E7 chords very slowly, in a ballad tempo. Start by playing very simple, legato melodies and make it your goal to establish a clear connection between your musical ear and the sounds on the piano. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t sound like Monk or John Coltrane right away. (Remember: they themselves spent years practicing this stuff!!!) Just keep playing simple improvisations and you’ll gradually find yourself playing more “jazzy.” As a bonus, remember that a good, simple improvisation on a tune like “Epistrophy” will always sound better than another musician’s “fast but flailing” attempt!

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Piano Tip #18: Using common tones on “Epistrophy”

Your (bebop) roots are showing, Mr. Thelonious Monk!!!

Epistrophy playalong track

Epistrophy: Journey Through The Real Book #109

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