A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Heebie Jeebies” is famous for being the first recording of “scat singing,” when a vocalist improvises using nonsense syllables. The song was composed by Boyd Atkins and was recorded in 1926 by trumpeter Louis Armstrong and His Hot Fives. The whole Hot Fives series (along with the Hot Sevens) are an unparalleled glimpse into the early days of jazz soloing.

Scat singing was already a popular practice by the time this recording was made. However, it was more commonly used by “street corner” vocal groups than recording artists. Armstrong changed that with this recording, but the reasons remain unclear. Armstrong himself claimed he had dropped his sheet music and therefore had to forgo the song’s lyrics and make up syllables. But the recording itself sounds planned. Have a listen for yourself and see what you think!

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.)

Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five

Chick Webb: 55 Masterpieces

Bobby Hackett: Newport Jazz Festival, 1970 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Musically, “Heebie Jeebies” is a pretty short and straightforward tune. It’s usually played in a lively New Orleans jazz style with the bass in ‘2.’ Stride piano sounds great but a simpler left hand bass part will work too.

I find it interesting how when most of us think about “early jazz,” we form a mental image of it that’s actually quite smaller than the actual musical style itself. We limit it through the telescopic lens of history. The musicians of that time, though, had the opposite perspective. This was a time of exploration and discovery! Even a casual listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives confirms this. Check out the wide variety of orchestrational techniques they used. Even though they only has 5 band members, they used them in every conceivable combination.

Listen to the introduction to “Heebie Jeebies,” for instance. What do you hear? Just guitar. Yes, there’s piano in the group, but Lil Armstrong doesn’t play here, in order to highlight the sound of the guitar and also to make the music sound fresh when the piano does enter. Then a little later for the vocal, it’s just guitar again. This type of orchestrational variety creates interest but has largely disappeared from small group jazz over the years, with some notable exceptions. And if you want to hear how truly radical this music is, check out the ending!

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

Further links and resources:
A thorough history of the song, from The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong

5 ways that jazz pianists can learn from Louis Armstrong

The Beginner’s Guide To Louis Armstrong

Listening To Louis Armstrong

Heebie Jeebies: Journey Through The Real Book #148

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