A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby)” is a fun, bluesy song that’s usually performed by vocalists, not as an instrumental. It was written by singer Louis Jordan and Billy Austin in 1944 and would have been considered “R&B” at the time. As such, it uses a “swing” beat in the jazz tradition but is also a forerunner of early rock and roll, with the snare drum playing a strong “backbeat” on beats 2 and 4.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(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 Jordan: The Best Of Louis Jordan

Dinah Washington: Dinah ‘62

Diana Krall

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
When you’re playing a song like this that’s on the border of jazz and R&B/blues, you have a choice to make: Are you going to use all your advanced “jazz stuff” or are you going to stay a little more basic, in the style of the genre? Both approaches are valid, and which way you go depends on your personal preference and also on who you’re playing with.

A pianist like Herbie Hancock would probably bring his advanced harmonic sensibility to a tune like this. Just like he did on his blues tunes “Watermelon Man “ and Cantaloupe Island.” And you can do the same, using 13th chords, altered harmonies, and post-bebop improvised lines.

Or, you can play rhythms that are “in the pocket,” stay with 7th and 9th chords at the most, and play walking bass lines that emphasize the chord roots, like F F Eb Eb Db Db C C in measures 1-2. That sounds great too, and you can play all your favorite blues licks and riffs over the tune as much as you like. Your audience will probably love it!

Try both approaches and see which you prefer. The important thing is that you know all the possibilities on a bluesy jazz tune like this, and then you can fly!

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

Further links and resources:
Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby): Wikipedia

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