A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Duke Ellington had such a long career, lasting into the 1970’s, that I’m often surprised to learn how early some of his songs were composed. “Solitude,” also sometimes called “In My Solitude,” was written in 1934!!!

It’s a great tune to play, and should be on your “short list” of ballads to learn, after “Misty” and Ellington’s own “In A Sentimental Mood.”

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 Orchestra

The original 1934 recording

Duke Ellington: Masterpieces By Ellington

An amazing, extended arrangement

Duke Ellington

An early solo performance by Ellington

Ben Webster: Big Ben Time

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Solitude” provides a wonderful musical contrast between the ‘A’ Sections and the bridge. The ‘A’ Sections feature a plaintive melody over a simple chord progression that was later used by Elllington’s musical collaborator Billy Strayhorn on “Take The ‘A’ Train. The progression is the same, except for the vi chord in m. 2 of “Solitude.” The standard song “Exactly Like You” uses it as well.

The harmonies sound great as they appear in The Real Book, but if you want to sound more “Ellingtonian,” play the following chords under the melody in measures 5-6:

Ab/Bb for 1 beat, Gb/Bb for 3 beats
Gb/Bb for 1 beat, E/Bb for 2 beats, EbMaj7/Bb for 1 beat

Then resolve to the EbMaj7 chord in m.7. Duke loved to use these types of triads to harmonize his melodies in parallel motion and it adds a nice flavor as the chords move farther and farther away from the key of Eb before ultimately resolving home again.

The tune’s bridge uses a standard bluesy chord progression, starting on the IV chord, that was very popular during the Swing Era. The standard “Stormy Weather” uses a similar progression during its bridge, and it can be fun to get a little bluesy during the bridge to “Solitude” before returning to the plaintiveness of the final ‘A’ Section.

For a real treat, be sure to listen to the extended arrangement on the album “Masterpieces By Ellington,” which I’ve linked to above.

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

Further links and resources:
The Development Of Duke Ellington’s Compositional Style
A detailed and informative study by Eric Scott Strother. Includes numerous transcribed musical examples of Ellington’s piano playing and orchestrations.

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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