A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” is perhaps the quintessential ballad of the bebop period. (It’s certainly the most widely-played ballad by a bebop composer.)

The past giants of jazz sometimes get mythologized, and a live recording of “Round Midnight” reminds me that Monk and his contemporaries were real people. I’m thinking of a live broadcast of Charlie Parker playing the tune at a New York City nightclub in the 1940s. The announcer, Symphony Sid, is introducing the tune and spots the vocalist Billie Holiday in the audience. He says this into the mic and mentions that she once told him that she’d like to sing “Round Midnight.” Sid wistfully says something like, “Someday I hope she will.” Well, Holiday never did record the tune and I’ve never heard of her singing it at all. What a shame! But yes, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and radio DJ Symphony Sid were part of a living, vibrant musical scene during the 1940s and 50s that we now know as he golden age of bebop. Long live jazz!!!

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.)

Thelonious Monk

Miles Davis: ‘Round About Midnight

This arrangement, by an uncredited Gil Evans, is a model of how to arrange for small jazz groups. It’s not too complex, but is just enough to provide some structure, contrast and excitement.

Herbie Hancock: The Other Side Of Round Midnight

Clare Fischer: Just Me

Richie Beirach: Leipzig Session

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The chords to “Round Midnight” in the current edition of The Real Book are closer to Monk’s original intention that the ones in the “old” Real Book. (There is probably no single “definitive” version, however, since Monk used different chords when playing the tune at different times. The Miles Davis harmonization has also been hugely influential.)

Typically with Monk, the chords don’t always go where we think they should go, and this can take a while to get used to. This is where we can benefit from repetition. Play through the tune 3 times a day for a month or so and notice how it starts to feel more comfortable and familiar over time. Monk had a truly unique outlook on music and it can take a while to enter his world. The effort is well worth it, though, since his music is highly logical, well-organized, and expressive. It just takes a while to “make it your own.”

To practice improvising over a unique chord progression like “Round Midnight,” practice all the improv exercises you may know. Improvise through the whole tune using just quarter notes. Then 8ths. Outline each harmony as an arpeggio, then create melodic lines using only chord tones. Then abandon it all and only play short step-wise phrases, leaving plenty of space in between each to give yourself enough time to mentally “hear” the next notes before you play them. This kind of intense melodic work can go a long way towards helping you navigate through Monk’s chord progression. After a while it gets easier, I promise!!!

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

Further links and resources:
‘Round Midnight: Wikipedia

A transcription of a Thelonious Monk solo piano recording of the tune

A transcription of Bud Powell’s amazing piano solo on ‘Round Midnight

Here's why Thelonious Monk's music is so hard to play

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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