A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Lady Bird” is an essential jazz tune to know. Luckily, it’s one of the easier jazz standards to learn since it’s in the key of C (yaay!) and is only 16 measures long!

It was composed in 1947 by Tadd Dameron, who is some ways is one of the “unsung heroes” of the bebop era. Although he played piano, Dameron wasn’t a flashy techo-wizard like Bud Powell, Al Haig, and many of the other beboppers. Rather, he focused on composing and arranging and let his piano style fit into his overall musical concept in a beautiful but non-flashy way. He was definitely a big part of the New York City bebop scene and was a big influence on his contemporaries.

Miles Davis based his tune “Half Nelson” on the chords to “Lady Bird,” so once you learn it, move on to “Half Nelson” and compare the two songs!

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.)

Tadd Dameron Sextet: The Complete Blue Note and Capital Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron

The Jazz Messengers: At The Café Bohemia, Volume 1

Chet Baker: In Milan

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Lady Bird” is pretty straightforward to learn, as far a bebop tunes go. It starts with a CMaj7 tonic chord for 2 measures, which is followed by Fm7 and Bb7. We’ll learn a lot about the bebop era if we study this closely. In the earlier Swing Era, the next chord would be EbMaj7, because Fm7 and Bb7 are ii-V in the key of Eb.

But even though the resolution EbMaj7 would be very logical, Tadd Dameron didn’t go there. Instead, he immediately takes us back the tonic chord, CMaj7. This discontinuity brings a sense of harmonic interruption, or randomness to the chord progression. This is intentional, and was developed much further by John Coltrane and other jazz composers about 10 years later. Some tunes consist of strings of ii-V’s that usually don’t resolve to “I.” They jump around from one key to another, and require the composer to use melodic motifs or rhythmic means to achieve a satisfying and balanced musical form.

So, coming back to “Lady Bird,” Dameron begins the second phrase with the CMaj7 tonic chord and then puts in another ii-V, this time in the key of Ab (Bbm7 – Eb7). Unlike before, the chords this time do indeed resolve to the new tonic (AbMaj7). He stays on this new I chord for 2 measures, which parallels the use of the tonic harmony in the first half of the tune. Dameron then uses a series of ii-Vs to bring us home to the original key of C major once again.

Them astonishingly, Dameron uses a turnaround that’s notable for its use of substitute chord. Instead of the standard C – Am – Dm – G7 progression that everyone had been using since the 1920s, he goes to the “flat side” of C major, using Eb7and then moving up by 4ths to AbMaj7 and DbMaj7, which evoke the flat keys he visited earlier in the progression.

It’s quite a harmonic journey to pack all this into a brief 8 measures!

Incidentally, this 2-measure turnaround, which has become known as the “Ladybird” turnaround, should be practiced slowly, over and over again, until you start to feel it naturally. It kind of takes us away from the tonic at just the point where we expect to stay “grounded” for 2 measures and it temporarily disorients us, as listeners. Practice it in isolation until you know it well, and then put it back in the tune. And once you know it, you can use it in other tunes as well, and in different keys. Have fun with this great, great jazz tune!

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

Further links and resources:
Improvising on “Ladybird” changes
A harmonic analysis, from Madison Jazz Jam

Tadd Dameron: Wikipedia

Some underappreciated moments in jazz and creative music
Ladybird is #5 on this excellent list

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

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