A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“So What” was written by Miles Davis for his groundbreaking 1959 album Kind Of Blue. This was the recording that really started jazz musicians playing “modally,” that it, improvising using scales rather than weaving in and out of a chord progression.

Modal playing was around in the jazz world earlier, although it didn’t become mainstream until Kind Of Blue. When I attended jazz workshops at The University Of Massachussetts in the 1980s, the great drummer Max Roach told us that in his opinion, modal jazz got its start in the 1930s when clarinetist Benny Goodman improvised on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Later, the arranger Gil Evans asked Miles Davis to simply use a scale while soloing on Evans’ arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy.” Both of these events led up to the wider use of modes on the Kind Of Blue recording.

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.)

Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue

Miles Davis Quintet: TV appearance (video)

Miles Davis: Live At The Plugged Nickel

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
In one sense, “So What” may be the easiest Real Book tune to solo on. Only two chords and two scales. It’s in a traditional AABA standard 32-bar song form, but each ‘A’ Section consists of only a Dm7 chord and the bridge just goes up a half step to Ebm7. To get started improvising use the D Dorian mode for the ‘A’ Sections (D, E, F, G, A, B, C) and the Eb Dorian mode during the bridge (Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db). It’s a good tune for beginners because each chord is held out for a long time (16 measures of Dm, 8m of Ebm, and then 8m of Dm again). Easy. The only challenging thing at first is to keep track of how many measures you’ve played in each section! (See my Jazz Piano Tip #19 below for help with keeping your place in the tune while soloing.)

Historically, “So What” represented a turn away from improvising over the complex chord progressions of the bebop era. Miles Davis’ friend, the arranger Gil Evans, had introduced Miles to using modes in his arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy,” in which he simply gave Davis a mode to improvise with, instead of writing out a set of chord changes. Davis embraced this approach as a way to return to creating pure melodies during his solos, without the harmonic restrictions imposed by a chord progression. The bebop approach of using challenging series of chords was beginning to seem stale to Miles and some of his contemporaries. Improvising with modes over less chords was a way of keeping the music fresh for them. They considered it a challenge to keep coming up with interesting melodic ideas that weren’t “fed” to them by weaving in and out of chordal structures.

“So What” is also one of the few tunes in The Real Book with a fully written-out arrangement during the “head,” or melody. The bass line is rhythmic and catchy and doesn’t use a walking bass (until the solos). This bass line has become very famous over the decades and has influenced innumerable rock, pop, R&B and hip hop musicians.

One thing that beginning jazz pianists often miss is that you can use a modal approach while playing chords as well as using them melodically. To experience this for yourself, start by playing the 2nd chord in the arrangement to “So What.” From the bottom up, it’s D, G, C, F, A. Now, play it up a step, staying on the white notes (D Dorian mode). Now, move up yet another step, all the while staying on the white notes. You can “comp” behind a soloist using this approach. By the way, it’s easy while you’re in D Dorian, but it will take some serious practice to take a voicing like this through the Eb Dorian mode during the bridge. But practice this in the spirit of fun and you’ll stay with it longer. Listen to the voicing carefully as you step up and down the mode and become fascinated with how it sounds in each position. After a while, your hands will begin to naturally go to each voicing and you can use them while you jam on “So What” with other musicians. Herbie Hancock, among others, uses this method in much of his chordal playing.

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

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

So What: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

Jazz Piano Tip #19: Here’s a way to keep your place while playing “So What”

Kind Of Blue and the economy of modal jazz
Includes a brief analysis of “So What”

Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
The definitive book on how the Kind of Blue album was made.

Kind Of Blue Documentary (parts 1-3):

Transcription of Miles Davis’ “So What” trumpet solo by Jamie Breiwick

Kind of Blue: Transcribed score

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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