A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Limehouse Blues,” from 1922 is one of the older tunes in The Real Book. It was played by all the early jazz musicians, and was a particular favorite of Art Tatum’s. Be prepared to be awed by his recording, below! (The song’s title, incidentally, comes from an area of London that at one time had a lot of Lime Kilns. It was also the London Chinatown at the time, which explains the “China blues” phrase in the lyrics. The tune’s writers, Douglas Furber and Philip Braham, were English.)

“Limehouse Blues,” like “Lazy River” and others, is one of those songs that the general public used to know is now largely forgotten. There’s a great clip of the actor Marlon Brando being interviewed on The Larry King Show. At one point, Brando asks King to sing a song with him and what does he pick? “Limehouse Blues!” (But King didn’t know it so they ended up singing “I Can’t Get Started” instead.) Nowadays, the tune is mostly played by musicians who specialize in early jazz, but don’t let that stop you from learning it if you’re more “modern.” It’s a timeless song and the changes are great so play in every style, including bebop and post-bop.

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.)

Art Tatum

Fasten your seat belt!

Django Reinhardt

Chu Berry and his Stompy Stevedores

Berry, who was often overshadowed by his Count Basie section-mate Lester Young, was a wonderful tenor saxophonist with a rich, full sound

Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane: Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Limehouse Blues” is a ton of fun to play! The 1920’s–style syncopation in the melody gives a lot of energy and the chords are relatively straight forward. The song as a whole isn’t too difficult, except that it’s fast! And furthermore, it’s one of those fast songs that doesn’t sound very good when slowed down. It loses something when played at moderate or slow tempos.

I had a mental block against playing “Limehouse Blues” for years. The fast tempo and the fact that it begins on a Db7 chord discouraged me from trying it for a long time. It was only when the violinist Jonathan Russell chose it for a duo recording session that I actually sat down and practiced it.

I’m very glad I finally learned it! The chords don’t change too quickly, so once you get familiar with the opening Db7 chord and the harmonic rhythm throughout, the tune kind of plays itself. It works is a variety of styles, too. Not just the traditional stride way, but bebop and other ways as well.

If you too have been avoiding “Limehouse Blues,” make a resolution to learn it now. Sit down and keep practicing it until you know it. It’s not as hard as you may think!

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

Further links and resources:
Limehouse Blues: Wikipedia

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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