A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Mood Indigo” was Duke Ellington’s first big hit, in a lifetime of hit songs. The original 1930 recording is also proof of Ellington’s early interest in recording technology, decades before rock groups like the Beatles “pioneered” special effects and similar techniques.

As Ellington himself put it, in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress, “When we made “Black And Tan Fantasy” with the growl trombone and growl trumpet, there was that sympathetic vibration or mike tone. That was soon after they had first started electrical recording. ‘Maybe if I spread those notes over a certain distance,’ I said to myself, ‘the mike tone will take a specific place or specific interval in there.’ It came off, and gave that illusion, because ‘Mood Indigo’ – the way it’s done – creates an illusion.”

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.)

Duke Ellington Orchestra

The original recording, from 1930, features innovative linear harmony in the horn voicings

Duke Ellington: Masterpieces By Ellington

An amazing, extended arrangement, by Billy Strayhorn

Thelonious Monk: Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington

Fred Hersch: Chivas Jazz Festival, 2002 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Duke Ellington! Duke Ellington! Duke Ellington!

The most important composer in the history of jazz, Duke Ellington’s career spanned from the 1920s all the way until the 70s. What’s more, he kept his band together for that whole time and as a composer and pianist he continued to experiment and innovate right until the end.

As difficult as it is to believe, Ellington’s piano playing was overshadowed by his composing for many years, although jazz pianists have now rediscovered his pianism. In fact, most of his piano-centered recording were unavailable in the 1980s when I fell in love with his playing. Luckily for me, my piano teacher Billy Taylor made me a bunch of cassette tapes from Duke’s solo and trio albums which Billy had in his collection. Duke’s solo piano sound and concept was highly individual and was a big influence on Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, and, more recently, Jason Moran and others.

The best way to learn “Mood Indigo” is to listen to Duke’s original version, which I’ve linked to above. But don’t make the mistake of just listening to it once or twice. Really absorb it. Listen to it about 5 times per day for an entire month. By doing so, you’ll not only be learning this tune but you’ll be becoming familiar with an entire style of jazz. Listen to the rhythm section, and eventually start playing something similar with your left hand. Whether it’s the steady “chuck-chuck-chuck” of the drums, or a slow stride pattern, you can play this as accompaniment under the horn parts in your right hand. Feel the beauty of the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet sounds and play the melody with the same care and feeling. This is how all the greats learned jazz and how you can do it too.

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Mood Indigo: Wikipedia

Arranging Ellington: The Ellington Effect
An excellent and informative discussion of Ellington’s linear writing in “Mood Indigo,” by Darcy James Argue. Includes a short transcription.

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