A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“I Got It Bad” is a great ballad by Duke Ellington.  He composed it in 1941, during one of his peak creative periods. Typical of Ellington, the melody features some unusual notes such as #11’s and has some very wide leaps. But Duke has somehow made all this seem very melodic and natural, even for vocalists to sing.

Besides being an excellent song to learn in general, songs like this are good to have in your pianistic repertoire since a lot of singers perform them on their gigs. (Hint: If you want to keep busy in the jazz world, become a good accompanist!)

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.)

Duke Ellington (video)

If you think that music videos started in the 1980s, check out this one from the 1940s!

Duke Ellington: Newport Jazz Festival, 1956

Nobody could caress a melody like alto sax extraordinaire Johnny Hodges could!

Thelonious Monk: Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington

Sarah Vaughan: Duke Ellington Song Book Two

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” is a good ballad to use as a way to study melodic phrasing. To begin, play the melody exactly as it appears in The Real Book. Notice how many straight quarter notes it contains and what it feels like to play them. This is how composers used to notate their songs (“I Could Write A Book” does the same thing, for instance). The songwriters kept it simple and left it up to each performer to phrase the melody in their own, individual way.

After you’ve played it a few times on piano, listen to how the great jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan sings it on the recording above. Follow along on the leadsheet and hear how differently she phrases it. See how she holds out some notes longer than others, puts in pauses, and speeds up other notes. She’s using the lyrics to tell her how to phrase the melody. She’s bringing out the meaning of the words in a very musical way.

When we hear a jazz instrumentalist like Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Keith Jarrett play a melody like this, they’re doing the same thing. It helps that they probably know at least a few of the words, but no, you don’t have to memorize all the lyrics to every song you play. Just learn enough to get a general sense of the song’s meaning and perhaps the opening line and a few important words along the way. This connects us to the song a lot more and enables us to phrase the melody in a natural way. Listening to vocal recordings and playing with vocalists will help us learn songs in this way too.

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

Further links and resources:
How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

I Got It Bad: Journey Through The Real Book #160

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
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