A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
If you want to get your audience roused up, play “Night Train.” It’s a 12-bar blues such a catchy rhythm in the melody that any type of audience, even those more accustomed to rock and pop, will find themselves clapping or snapping along!

“Night Train” is a riff-based tune that is credited to Jimmy Forrest, Oscar Washington, and Lewis C. Simpkins in 1941. But the main riff had been around earlier, and was played by the Duke Ellington band when Forrest was a member of that group. My guess is that the tune evolved out of the “common language” that many Swing Era musicians were using in their blues solos, and that Forrest and his collaborators organized these riffs into the classic tune as we now know it.

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.)

Jimmy Forrest

The original recorded version

Oscar Peterson

Gene Harris: Jazzfestival Bern, 1985 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Night Train” is a blues in the key of Bb, and it sounds really exciting when played with a slight backbeat (a drum accent on beats 2 & 4). As such, it was the kind of swing tune that led to the development of rock and roll. Take a riff-based swing tune like “Night Train,” substitute electric guitars for horns, bring the drums up a notch and viola´: You have early rock and roll!

If you’re playing “Night Train” as a piano solo or in any group without a bassist, try playing various boogie-woogie patterns in your left hand. This will bring your interpretation into that exciting “sweet spot” where jazz, blues, and rock and roll meet. It’s fun to play and your audience may even get up and start dancing!

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

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

Night Train: Wikipedia

List of jazz blues musicians: Wikipedia

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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