A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“In A Mellow Tone” is a swinging tune by Duke Ellington, who wrote it for his big band in 1939. In composing it, Ellington based it on the chord changes to an earlier song “Rose Room.” His new melody, however, made it into something altogether different, and the orchestration is considered to be one of Ellington’s all-time classics.

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

This is Duke’s original 1939 recording of the tune, with Ben Webster’s famous tenor sax solo.

Duke Ellington: Blues In Orbit

Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Duke Ellington was one of those pianists who would “pick and choose” his spots when playing with his big band. (Count Basie was another one.) Duke started out before pianos were commonly amplified in live performances and therefore knew that he often wouldn’t even be heard when the full band was playing. And since he was the bandleader, it made sense for him to stand up and conduct those full ensemble passages as well.

So he developed a style of playing piano during intros, interludes, and behind soloists. “In A Mellow Tone” features one of his most famous piano intros. In fact, it’s perhaps his second-most recognized intro, only behind “Take The ‘A’ Train.” My piano teacher Billy Taylor told me that he liked the chord voicings that Duke used in his intro to “In A Mellow Tone” so much that he developed a whole pianistic style based on it. Taylor would often play 4-note rootless voicings with his left hand while his right hand played octaves and 5ths in imitation of a sax and trumpet section playing together. He would use this both during his piano solos and while comping behind other musicians’ solos. Duke’s intro had that much influence!

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

Further links and resources:
Duke Ellington’s Finest Year
An in-depth article about Ellington’s works from 1940, including “In A Mellow Tone”

Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

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
Personal guidance from an expert, caring teacher. Beginning through Advanced.

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

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