A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Duke Ellington composed so many hit songs that many of his wonderful lesser-known compositions are often overlooked. “Ring Dem Bells” is one of these. It’s from Ellington’s early days and is characteristic of the band’s pre- “Take The ‘A’ Train” sound. (“Ring Dem Bells” is from 1930.)

Duke was an innovative orchestrator and liked to incorporate unusual sounds into his arrangements. On “Ring Dem Bells” he used….you guessed it… bells! Listen to his recording (linked to below) to hear how wonderfully he frames the melody with the chime-like bells played in the rests. True to the old jazz (and gospel) tradition, he’s set up a “call and response” between these very different types of sound. The bells “calling a response from the brass and wind sections of his orchestra.

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.)

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

Claude Bolling Big Band: A Tone Parallel To Harlem

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Lets have some fun with “Ring Dem Bells” and play it in two very different styles:

First, listen to Ellington’s recording a few times, and then begin to mimic the sound of his band in your own playing. Harmonize each melody note with a big, brassy chord. Then improvise with similar block chords, imitating the trumpet and trombone sections.

Then, forget about all of that and improvise as if it were a bebop tune. Play all your Charlie Parker licks and pretend that the tune was composed in the mid-1940s.

Very different, right? Well, both approaches are valid and both sound great.

Do you prefer one over the other? Or do you enjoy both ways?

Doing an exercise like this shows us many more possibilities than if we stick with just one way to play a given tune. You can mix them up, too. Start out with your bebop lines and then bring in some block chords at some point, maybe at the start of a new chorus. (Oscar Peterson does this type of thing all the time!)

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

Further links and resources:
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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