A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“How High The Moon” was THE jam session tune of the 1940s and 50s. It was popular among swing era musicians as well as beboppers. In fact, Charlie Parker based his composition “Ornithology” on its chord progression. It’s a great tune to play on and is still considered a “must know” Real Book tune.

Like many popular songs of the time, “How High The Moon” was originally written for the Broadway stage. Morgan Lewis wrote the music and Nancy Hamilton composed it for the musical Two For The Show in 1940. Jazz musicians and pop singers quickly began performing their own versions and the song became an instant classic.

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.)

Ella Fitzgerald

Stan Kenton And His Orchestra

Jazz At The Philharmonic

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“How High The Moon” is a good tune to learn when you’re at the stage where you can already play some of the easier Real Book tunes like “Footprints” and “So What” and are ready for something a little more complex.

The chord progression moves through three tonal centers: G major, F major, and Eb major, using ii/V/I patterns to establish each key. There’s also a slight harmonic “surprise” in m.11, when we go to G minor instead of the expected G major.

For me the hardest part of soloing on “How High The Moon” was keeping track of where I was in the form, which can be a little “circular.” And, the two halves of the song are almost-but-not-quite the same. But I practiced it a lot and eventually became comfortable improvising on this classic chord progression, which you can do too!

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

Further links and resources:
How High The Moon: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

How High The Moon: Wikipedia

A transcription of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” sax solo
This uses the same chords as “How High The Moon”

How High The Moon: Journey Through The Real Book #153

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