A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Nostalgia In Times Square” is one of the more famous compositions by the great Charles Mingus. Mingus, who played bass and piano, developed a musical concept that encompassed all of jazz history, from its roots in the blues, ragtime and field songs, to gospel, rhythm & blues, bebop, and avant garde. The played everything and incorporated it all into his music in a highly personal and individualistic way.

The tune itself is played at a medium swing tempo, and brings us to the question: “Is it a blues or isn’t it a blues?” I’ve discussed this fascinating aspect of the tune in more detail in the “Musical Ideas” section of this page. But start by having a listen to the Mingus recording I’ve linked to below.

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.)

Charles Mingus

Charles McPherson: Live at the Tuscan Jazz Society (video)

Patricia Barber Quartet: Live in Clamart, 2008 (video)

Medeski Martin and Wood: Newport Jazz Festival (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The way I see it, “Nostalgia In Times Square” is a “blues without being a exactly a blues.”

If you already know the tune at all, you may be questioning this statement, saying “Of course the tune isn’t a blues. It doesn’t follow the blues chord progression.”

Well, yes, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I said that it’s a “blues without being a blues.” It doesn’t follow the blues chord progressions and that’s why you couldn’t turn to your fellow musicians, ask them to play a blues, and expect them to play the chords to “Nostalgia In Times Square.” (Although, yes, you could do this with “Blue Monk” and “Straight No Chaser,” which are in fact 12-bar blues tunes.)

What I mean is that “Nostalgia In Times Square” is an abstraction of a blues. Let me explain:

Look at the leadsheet in The Real Book for “Nostalgia In Times Square” and count the number of measures. How many are there? Twelve. Exactly the same number as there are in a standard 12-bar blues. The chords start out on the I dominant 7th chord too, just like on a blues. The fact that each measure has F7 – Eb7 is just a variation. A blues could have that and still be considered a blues.

Now, here’s the difference: In a “real” blues, we would expect to go to the IV chord in m.4, a Bb7 chord. But Mingus goes to an Abm7 – Db7 sequence instead. But look at the melody; it goes to Bb! He’s disguising the blues progression for measures 5 and 6, after which he returns to the expected F7 (tonic) chord at m.7. He then does something similar instead of using the dominant (V7) harmony, by putting in a series of ii-V sequences instead, which brings to mind the chords that Charlie Parker put in his “Parker Blues” tunes.

Playing through “Nostalgia In Times Square” a few times with this in mind will give you a whole new understanding of how a tune can be based on the blues but may not really be a blues itself. The phrase structure, by the way, is exactly what we’d find in a traditional blues. There are three 4-measure melodic phrases, with the first one being repeated as the second. Then the third phrase is different. This even fits into the AAB lyric pattern of traditional blues tunes.

If we need more proof of the tune’s connection with the blues, all we’d need to do would be to substitute a Bb7 chord for the Abm7-Db7 in measures 5-6 and there’d be no doubt that it would be a 12-bar blues in F.

There’s a parallel here with what classical composers did with the harmonies in “sonata allegro form.” The earlier composers who used this form would typically modulate to the key of the dominant for their 2nd theme. But later composers felt free to move to other keys. This is exactly what Charles Mingus did here in respect to the traditional blues. He wrote a blues with his own harmonies, while still giving it a blues feeling and melodic structure.

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

Further links and resources:
Charles Mingus: What Is A Jazz Composer?
A “must read” essay by the great musician himself!

Charles Mingus Played Bass?
Transcriptions and analysis of some Mingus bass solos, by Andrew Williams Stinson

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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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