A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Lady Sings The Blues” is a slow “torch song” from 1956 that’s mostly associated with the vocalist Billie Holiday. In fact, Holiday herself composed the song in conjunction with Herbie Nichols, who was a jazz pianist who played in the same general style as Thelonious Monk.

It’s somewhat ironic that Billie Holiday is generally thought of as being a “blues singer,” because she rarely sang 12-bar blues songs. The reason so many people associate her with the blues is because the blues feeling permeates many of her performances. “Lady Sings The Blues” is a good example of this. While it’s not a blues in its musical form, the general sound of the song is definitely “bluesy.”

You’ll probably play “Lady Sings The Blues” mostly, if not exclusively, with vocalists. I can’t actually recall ever hearing it played as an instrumental, although I have enjoyed playing it as a piano solo while learning it.

The title “Lady Sings The Blues” later became the name of the film biography of Billie Holiday, which starred Diana Ross.

Recommended recording:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to the recording on music streaming services, etc.)

Billie Holiday: Lady Sings The Blues

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Lady Sings The Blues” isn’t performed much, and I suspect that most vocalists shy away from it because it seems like such an autobiographical song by Billie Holiday. It’s like she’s speaking to us in such an intimate and personally deep way, that it would be presumptuous for someone else to sing her words and feeling.

In away, though, that frees us up as instrumentalists to play the tune ourselves. After all, we’re not going to sing the words! Rather, we can convey the feeling of the lyric though the piano.

The chords are beautiful, and the harmonies in measures 1-4 imply an ascending chromatic inner voice: C, Db, D, and Eb. The sound of this is very poignant, and the song sounds great as a piano solo. You can bring some blues elements into your interpretation, or stay with a more tender, reflective approach. Either way, don’t pass by this wonderful song just because you think it must be sung to be effective!

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

Further links and resources:
Lady Sings The Blues (song): Wikipedia

Billie Holiday: Lady Sings The Blues
A radio program about Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday Interview (audio)

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