A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Lush Life’ is one of the greatest songs ever written. It’s was composed by Billy Strayhorn, who will be forever known as Duke Ellington’s “right hand man,” when Strayhorn was still a teenager. Besides being a huge musical accomplishment for someone so young, it’s notable because at this age, Strayhorn hadn’t yet experienced the emotions described in his lyric!

“Lush Life” was a very personal song for Strayhorn, and he preferred to sing it himself as he played piano, rather than have other artists record it. So it was a “mixed blessing” when Nat King Cole made the song an instant hit with his 1958 versions. For one thing, Strayhorn didn’t like the changes that Cole made to his very personal song!

This is one of few leadsheets in The Real Book that includes the introductory verse. Play the verse out-of-tempo (“ad lib”), and then go into a steady ballad tempo for the song 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.)

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

Duke Ellington Orchestra: Live at Carnegie Hall, 1948

The first documented recording, with vocalist Kay Davis and composer Strayhorn at the piano.

John Coltrane: Lush Life

Chick Corea: Expressions

Esperanza Spaulding

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“To solo or not to solo? That is the question.”

Shakespeare references aside, there’s a big question about whether one should take an improvised solo on “Lush Life,” or simply play the melody once straight through and end at that.

Jazz musicians are divided into two camps about this: Some feel strongly that the song as written is complete unto itself and that adding anything will detract from it as a composition. Other musicians feel that jazz is an improvisatory art and it’s the jazz musician’s job to add something of their own to the tunes they play.

I think it comes down to this: the song itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s complete unto itself, like a Shakespeare sonnet or a great short story (do you like how I tied that together with the Shakespeare reference above?). The ending has a feeling of resolution about it, as if the plot has come to a conclusion and the main characters have gone home.

So ask yourself this: do you have something to add to this? Can you make the dramatic arc go higher? Or is your solo merely watering everything down and dragging it out. Is the piece more satisfying to the listener because of your solo, or less satisfying? Do you really have something important to say on this piece, or are you soloing just because you do it on every other tune.

If you honestly answer “yes” to these questions, then by all means, “go for it.” But if not, then I’d say to enjoy playing this musical masterpiece as Strayhorn composed it, and humbly accept all the applause you’ll get when it’s finished. After all, “Lush Life” is a treasure for both you and your audience!

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

Further links and resources:
In Ellington’s Shadow: The Life Of Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn In Five Songs: A Blog Supreme: NPR

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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