A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Satin Doll” is one of those tunes, like “In The Mood” or “Take Five,” that was such a huge hit that it’s come to represent the world of jazz for many of the listening public. Although it’s often played for swing dancing, “Satin Doll” was actually composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn a few years after the Swing Era, in 1953.

Many jazz musicians played “Satin Doll” so many times on professional dance gigs or as background music at parties that they stopped calling it at jam sessions. But it’s a wonderful tune and fun to improvise on, so if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll play it with your friends and musical peers. When I was the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s assistant in 1987-88, I heard Gerry play “Satin Doll” in concert many, many times. Since the majority of Mulligan’s concert repertoire consisted of original compositions that the audience usually didn’t know, he made sure to throw in one or two songs that the listeners would instantly recognize. “Satin Doll” was one of these tunes (“Georgia On My Mind” was another one).

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

The original recording, from 1953.

Duke Ellington (video)

Clark Terry Quartet: Live in Copenhagen, q985 (video)

Gerry Mulligan, Live 1987 (video)

This video as made a few months before I became Mulligan's assistant, and I loved hearing him play like this in each concert (I was often at the soundboard)!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Satin Doll” is one of those tunes that usually sound best when you stay within the style of the original artist. In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

It’s a swing-style, medium tempo dance number and it works very well when played like that. The bass is usually played “in 2” during the ‘A’ Sections. The bridge can be either in 2 or 4 (walking bass), and you can definitely walk a bass line during solos. It also sounds great when played with a stride left hand pattern.

Sometimes it’s fun to emulate the sound of a big band when playing “Satin Doll.” Listen to the Duke Ellington version I’ve linked to above and use some of the sounds of his big band when you play it on piano. RH octaves can sound like trumpets, block chords can sound like a full brass section or, when played fast, a saxophone section. You can even play a “call and response” between the various sections. A brass “call” and be answered by a sax-like “response” if you wish. This kind of thing often goes over well with an audience, by the way!

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

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

Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.

Duke Ellington’s Favorite Song

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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