A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Half Nelson” is a bebop classic. The tune was composed by trumpeter Miles Davis in 1947, at the time when he was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet. Davis based “Half Nelson” on the chords to pianist Tadd Dameron’s tune “Ladybird.” Writing a new melody over the chords to another song was common practice at the time (think about how many blues tunes there are, or tunes that use “Rhythm Changes”).

The melody to “Half Nelson” features long bebop phrases that weave through the chord changes in a seemingly improvisatory way. But at the same time, it’s very “catchy” and you just might find yourself humming the melody to yourself as you’re walking down the street, as I have. It’s not one of the first 10 Real Book tunes you’ll learn, but it may be one of the first bebop tunes you play. (It’s simpler than the better-known “Confirmation,” for example.

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.)

Miles Davis’ All Stars

With John Lewis on piano

Miles Davis: Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Here’s a very effective way to get more bebop into your improvised solos:

Play alternating choruses of “Half Nelson,” playing the melody exactly as written the first time and improvising the next chorus. Then keep repeating this pattern over and over for about 20 minutes or so. Gradually, the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic features of the Miles Davis melody will begin seeping into your improvisations and you’ll sound more “bebop.” Do this with various bebop tunes for a month or so and watch what happens!

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Piano Tip #29: Half Nelson

Taking a cue from Miles Davis to learn how to play better bebop!

Half Nelson playalong track

Jazz Contrafacts and Reharmonization
A good discussion of melodies that use the chord progressions of earlier tunes, such as Half Nelson

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

Transcription of Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson” trumpet solo by Jamie Breiwick

Half Nelson: Journey Through The Real Book #145

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