A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is a great example of a song that’s “bluesy” isn’t technically a “blues.” This is because while the tune uses a lot of dominant 7th I, IV, and V chords, it doesn’t follow the same basic chord progression as the standard 12-bar blues.

In fact, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is 16-measures long and consists of 4 melodic phrases. The song was written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 and as such is one of the older tunes in The Real Book. It’s a true classic and has been recorded by everyone from the pioneer blues singer Bessie Smith to the rock musician Eric Clapton (see links below).

Since so many jazz vocalists include the song in their repertoire, spend the time you need to memorize it in a few different keys, like C and Eb, in addition to the written key of F. This way you’ll be prepared when the singer turns to you on the bandstand and requests a key that’s a little lower than the original!

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.)

Bessie Smith

Nobody sings the blues like Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues!”

Nina Simone: Pastel Blues

Eric Clapton: Live, 12/12/12 (video)

Luca Sestak: Live at Bluesfestival Baden (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There are two, opposite ends of the musical spectrum that you can go to when you’re playing a bluesy tune like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” on piano.

At one end, you can play a slow or medium-slow relaxed stride pattern in your left hand while your right hand plays every blues lick you know. This can sound great and is a lot of fun to do.

To go to the opposite end of the musical spectrum, you can treat the song as an introspective ballad, and play it with a beautiful quietness and tenderness. This can also sound very special.

It can be a lifelong study to see how our interpretation of a song like this changes over time, starting out one way and then going in the other direction. You’ll also find it fascinating to be right in the middle of these two approaches, ebbing and flowing between “outwardly bluesy” and “with a lyrical introspection” which yes, can include the blues as well.

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

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

Bessie Smith: 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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