A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Form the very beginnings of jazz, composers have been writing new melodies to pre-existing chord progressions. Whether the new tune was based on the 12-bar blues or a popular song, this practice was a way for jazz musicians to play melodies in the “current” style while improvising on a chord progression they already knew well and were comfortable with. (You may be surprised to know that even a standard as famous as “Take The ‘A’ Train” was composed this way, being based on the chords to the song “Exactly Like You.”)

Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Ornithology” is one of these tunes. Parker took the chords to “How High The Moon,” which was a huge jam session favorite at the time, and wrote his own bebop melody over them. (Besides being a creative updating of an older tune, this also gave him the royalty payments for the recording.)

“Ornithology” is a rare instance of a piece being changed after it was released to the public. Indeed, there are two versions of the melody. The first one is very “bebop” at the beginning, but then has a series of triplets that to my ears sounds a little old-fashioned for Parker’s bebop style. My guess is that Parker felt this too and at some point decided to update the sound of the entire melody to make it all sound as bebop as possible. Listen to the second recording I’ve linked to below to hear his band mistakenly play both versions during the same live performance.

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.)

Charlie Parker: One Night In Birdland

Charlie Parker: Radio broadcast from The Royal Roost – Dec. 11, 1948

There’s a fascinating moment here at 0.19. As I’ve discussed above, Parker changed the melody to “Ornithology” at around this time. On this live recording, you’ll hear trumpeter Miles Davis begin to play the old version, until Parker’s alto sax cuts him off with the new melody. This apparently jarred Davis’ memory and he plays the correct version later in the tune. This is jazz history “in action!”

Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell

Billy Taylor and Tommy Flanagan: Billy Taylor’s Jazz Counterpoint (video)

Kenny Garrett & Brad Mehldau

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Definitely learn “How High The Moon” before learning “Ornithology.” This will show you where Parker’s tune came from and, since the melody to “How High The Moon” is simpler and more typical of the Swing Era, you’ll really appreciate the specific ways in which the beboppers changed the musical landscape in the early 1940s.

When you do learn the melody to “Ornithology,” use it as a chance to learn the bebop language. My piano teacher, Billy Taylor, once suggested that I use bebop melodies as a model for improvisation, since they contained all the musical elements that you can use while soloing. For instance, you can absorb the rhythmic language of bebop by soloing with the same rhythms as the melody, but with notes of your own choosing.

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

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

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

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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