A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Groovin’ High” is an early bebop classic by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy composed the tune in 1944, basing it on the chords to the 1920 popular song “Whispering” (also in The Real Book). Writing new melodies over existing chord changes was a common practice at that time. Jazz musicians wanted to improvise over familiar chord progressions but record producers didn’t want to play royalties on the older songs, so this was a good solution for all involved. (Charlie Parker’s famous tune “Koko” came about because the producer wouldn’t let the musicians play the melody to “Cherokee” in the recording studio!)

Listen to Gillespie’s original recording, which I’ve linked to below. This is from one of the first bebop recording sessions, and Dizzy’s well-organized approach can be heard in the clean sound of the ensemble, as well as in the carefully-constructed arrangement. Unlike many other small group recordings, there’s an introduction, planned solo breaks, and an written ending. The result is a masterpiece.

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.)

Dizzy Gillespie

Art Pepper: Art Pepper + Eleven

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
You can learn the bebop language by learning and carefully analyzing the melody to “Groovin’ High.” It begins with 2 simple chord tones, in the opening Eb chord. But they’re played quickly, and sound like “be-bop… be-bop!” Then, notice how Dizzy outlines the Am chord with an ascending arpeggio but then gets “chromatic,” touching upon the A-G#-G-F# guide-tone line within the context of the descending figure. It perfectly connects the Am7 to the D7 chord, while providing a bit of bebop-style unpredictability at the same time. Later, there’s some nice outlining of the chords during the first ending that can also serve as a model for improvisation. Studying the relationship between the melody and each chord can take you along way towards understanding and assimilating the bebop language.

I also recommend that you sing the melody, using scat-syllables (just use whatever sounds come naturally for you). This will give you a better feel for the bebop rhythmic feel than any textbook could ever provide. Singing Gillespie’s trumpet solo, along with Charlie Parker’s alto sax improvisation, will also help you learn this style. After all, this is how they themselves learned to play!

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

Further links and resources:
10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

Groovin' High: JourneyThrough The Real Book #141

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