A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Even though George Gershwin was one of the most famous songwiters in history, “Somebody Loves Me” is the only song of his in The Real Book. In fact, it wasn’t even in the original Real Book, and I think this is because the Berklee College of Music students who initially assembled the book purposefully left out most Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and some of the other “biggies” who were very mainstream. (Even “Summertime” didn’t make it in!) They did include some Cole Porter, whose tunes were famously recorded by Sonny Rollins and other jazz greats.

I’m really glad that “Somebody Loves Me” is in The Real Book now, though. It’s a lovely tune, mostly performed by vocalists, and gives us a glimpse into the “tin pan alley” tradition that gave us so much great material to play!

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.)

Ella Fitzgerald

Orchestral arrangement by the masterful Nelson Riddle

George Gershwin

A piano roll made by the composer himself

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Do yourself a favor: Listen to the recording (linked to above) of Nelson Riddle and his orchestra accompanying Ella Fitzgerald on “Somebody Loves Me.” Listen to it about a hundred million times. Absorb everything about his orchestration and the way the musicians play it: the time feel, the melodic fills, the overall style and the jazzy rhythms. Get such a good feel for the overall sound of this arrangement that it will begin to come out in your own jazz piano playing for years to come.

Do this, and a few things will happen: One, you’ll become a better jazz pianist. Two, you’ll develop a natural way of playing standards from The Great American Songbook era that not many jazz players have anymore. And three, jazz vocalists will enjoy playing with you more and even seek you out to be their accompanist.

This is a huge thing, and I highly suggest that you spend a lot of time listening to Nelson Riddle in this way. Even if you eventually choose to play more in a different style of jazz like bebop or post-bop, being strongly rooted in the earlier Swing Era feel, especially with use of a medium-swing style stride left hand feel, will make you play any type of jazz much better. There’s a relaxation and joy in this music that will positively influence anything you play. The future is rooted in the past.

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

Further links and resources:
Profile of George Gershwin

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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