A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“I Can’t Get Started” is one of the great medium tempo/ballads from the Swing Era. Written in 1936 by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin (George’s brother), it works equally well as a vocal or instrumental number. Songs like this were frequently played at dances, and it’s interesting to see how the tempo of jazz ballads has changed over the years. In the 1930’s, dancers like their ballads “slow but not too slow.” There had to be enough movement to dance to. As jazz became less “dance oriented” over the decades, ballad tempos gradually slowed down to achieve a sense of “stillness” that is very effective in concert or club performances, but wouldn’t have worked in dance halls. It’s good to be able to play ballads at both of these tempos.

To get to know “I Can’t Get Started,” start by listening to the Billie Holiday version below. Holiday’s vocal interpretation captures the song’s musical feel and lyrical sense perfectly.

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.)

Bunny Berigan

Billie Holiday

Holiday’s soulmate, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, plays wonderfully on this classic recording.

Lennie Tristano

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“I Can’t Get Started” is what’s considered a “swing ballad.” Even if the tempo got up to the “slow swing” range, the dancers would treat this as a ballad. During the swing era, ballads were often played faster than they are now because they musicians were playing for dancers. (During concerts, the tempos were mostly the same as dance tempos.) This practice, incidentally continued into the bebop period as musicians played dance music to sometimes augment their income when they weren’t booked at jazz clubs. (Listen to Charlie Parker’s recording of “Embraceable You” to hear a tempo that may be faster than it’s played in jazz contexts today.)

“I Can’t Get Started” sounds great with a left hand stride pattern. Although these days we often associate the stride style with fast, energetic tempos, many slower songs were commonly played with a stride feel as well. With a full left hand accompaniment such as stride, your right hand is free to play single note lines, block chords, and syncopate the rhythm in any way you like. You can be a whole band!

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

Further links and resources:
I Can’t Get Started: Wikipedia

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