A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Peggy’s Blue Skylight” is one of Charles Mingus’ medium swing tunes. He first recorded it on his 1962 album “Oh Yeah” and continued to play it live with his ensembles. The melody is catchy and the chord progression, while not exactly “standard,” is based on a lot of ii-V’s which make it fairly easy to learn and memorize.

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: Oh Yeah

(Mingus plays piano instead of his usual bass on this one!)

Charles Mingus: Live in Paris, 1964 (video)

Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy: Communiqué

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Charles Mingus was a genius. The entire 16-bar ‘A’ Section of “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” is a complex way to get from the initial Gm7(b5) to the home key of Db major. This movement has been used in many other tunes in its more basic form, with chromatically descending chords that go down from G to Db. But Mingus expands this by visiting many other chords along the way. He put in several ii-V-I progressions in various keys and generally keeps us guessing where we’ll end up, until he ultimately leads us in a very traditional way to Db. But the immediately after than, in the 1st ending, he throws in a sudden melodic flourish and a D7 chord. Much of Mingus’ music is like this: solidly rooted in the jazz and popular music tradition with a big dose of surprise and unpredictability thrown in as well.

The bridge is fairly straight ahead and then Mingus shortens the last ‘A’ Section by starting it halfway through, so it’s only 8 bars long instead of 16 like the first two ‘A’ Sections were.

All of the chords used in “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” are ones you’ve seen before. Learning the tune is simply a process of playing it enough so you begin to know what’s coming next and where it’s going. Bring it to your next jam session and play it with your colleagues. It can be a lot of fun to explore unfamiliar tunes together, and it’s a great chance to enter into the musical universe of Charles Mingus. He was one of the true giants of jazz and his music has much to offer us.

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

Further links and resources:
Oh Yeah (album): Wikipedia

What is a jazz composer?
An essay written by Mingus

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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