A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Even though he was always “modern,” the great bassist/composer Charles Mingus maintained a direct interest in and connection to the whole history of jazz.

It may be a little hard for us to imagine this now, but when Mingus began his professional career in the 1950s, you could literally walk down the street in a lot of major cities and hear different kinds of jazz coming out of each building you passed. You might have heard old-time stride piano in one club, and bebop coming from the restaurant next door. An Afro-Cuban big band might have been playing at a dance hall further on down the street. (In the 1980s, I walked down 52nd Street in New York City with the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and Gerry pointed out to me where each jazz club had been during the bebop era. “The Onyx Club was right there. The Three Deuces was over there…”)

A musician like Mingus, who loved it all, didn’t have to look very far to hear anything he wanted. (He even recorded with one of his idols, Duke Ellington.) And he put it all into his music. He used everything from field shouts and old-time church music to the most modern jazz and classical harmonies. All in his own unique way.

The tune “Jelly Roll” is Mingus’ tribute to the early New Orleans jazz pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton. Listen to the Mingus recordings I’ve lined to below to get the feel for the tune, which isn’t fully apparent from the leadsheet itself.

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.)

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Jelly Roll” is “kind of a blues but not really a blues.” Does that help? (lol)

But it’s true. It’s a little heard to describe this in words, but play it through a few times and you may agree. The first 4 measures are kind of like a tonic Eb7 chord, which then moves to the IV chord, Ab7. But then, instead of going back to the Eb tonic like a blues in Eb would, Mingus goes up another perfect 4th to Db7, and we temporarily lose our sense of key. (“What’s the tonic chord?” “It seems like we’re just going around the circle of 4ths!”)

But then Mingus brings us home with a very traditional I,VI,II,V progression and we realize in retrospect that we’ve been in the key of Ab major all along! He’s faked us out!

Have fun going back to the beginnings of jazz, courtesy of our musical tour guide, Charles Mingus. And while you’re at it, be sure to check out some Jelly Roll Morton along the way.

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

Further links and resources:
Mingus Ah Um (album): Wikipedia

Mingus Ah Um Revisited
And excellent and in-depth discussion of this classic album

Mingus Ah Um
Another good overview4 of the album

Jelly Roll Morton: Wikipedia

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