A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:

Whenever I play a tune by Charles Mingus, I like to use it as an opportunity to listen to some of his music. He really cultivated a unique “sound,” on bass, as a bandleader, and in his compositions and arrangements. He included the entire history of jazz in everything he did.

When you listen to the first recording I’ve linked to below, listen to the unusual bass intro Mingus plays. Mingus recorded this in 1955 and the rhythmic complexity of his bass playing predates Scott LaFaro’s work with Bill Evans by a few years. (LaFaro was a great player, but he wasn’t the only one playing like this!)

When the band comes in, listen to how Mingus takes the bebop nature of his melody and includes a collective improvisation in the manner of an early New Orleans group. Bebop polyphony. Collective improvisation. Call it what you like, it’s a wonderful example of how to combine different styles of jazz into an organic whole.

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 At The Bohemia

Recorded in 1955, with Mal Waldron on piano

Mingus Big Band: Gunslinging Birds

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Musically, “Jump Monk” is a fast piece in F minor. The chords are pretty standard but have a few subtleties courtesy of Mr. Mingus. Like the use of DbMaj7 in the first measure. I don’t have any real statistics on this, but it seems to me that most composers would use a D dominant 7th there instead of the major 7th chord. A small, but colorful change.

And look at the melody itself! Beboppish, but slightly crazy. The bridge starts out with an upward scale, which is like an inversion of the descending line in the A Section. Mingus was thoroughly well-versed in classical compositional techniques and knew the contrapuntal techniques like inversion and retrograde very well. In fact, while I was doing research for this page, I came across a piece he had composed called “Canon,” which uses the classical technique of melodic imitation in a jazz context.

Check out the 3rd measure of the bridge. Who else would write a melody like that? It sounds like Russian composer Stravinsky, whose “Rite Of Spring” Mingus also knew very well.

Take an hour or so to listen to some Charles Mingus. Get into his world a little bit and see how his music represents a specific vision. We can be inspired by his music at the same time as we learn and enjoy his pieces, including “Jump Monk.”

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

Further links and resources:
Charles Mingus: What Is A Jazz Composer?
A “must read” essay by the great musician himself!

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
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