A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Sophisticated Lady” is one of the great Ellington ballads, and it shows us just how complex his harmonies were for 1933, when it was composed. At this time, only pianist Art Tatum and perhaps a few others, such as Clarence Profit, had an equally advanced harmonic concept. It’s to Ellington’s credit that he could compose such a catchy and memorable melody with such chromaticism, and make it sound so palatable to the general public!

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


Duke Ellington: Masterpieces By Ellington

An interesting, extended arrangement of the tune

Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington

Christian McBride Quintet: Festival de Jazz San Javier 2009 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Sometimes it’s fun to take a song like “Sophisticated Lady” and see which other jazz musicians it might have influenced. In this case, I’m thinking of the pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. Monk developed a singular style of playing that was firmly rooted in the Ellington tradition. In fact, at one point he recorded an entire album of Ellington’s music and Duke himself pointed out how much Monk must have been influenced by him!

One thing Duke did in this tune was to use 4 chromatically-descending harmonies in the same measure (m. 2). Now, turn the pages in your Real Book to “Reflections,” a tune in which Monk did the very same thing in m. 1. (Monk used a whole step and then it’s chromatic.) Very similar, right? Now, name me another jazz standard from the same era in which this happens. It’s in “Body And Soul,” but in that case it’s used as the turnaround at the end of the bridge, which was a more common place for that type of thing. But to use it right at the beginning? And base the melody on it? Very few composers of popular music or jazz would have done something like this, especially on a ballad. But Duke Ellington did, and then her was followed by Thelonious Monk, who was also influenced by Duke’s rhythmic concept and pianistic touch.

Monk was also highly influenced by how Ellington structured his melodies around melodic motifs. The melody to “Sophisticated Lady” is entirely constructed using a few short melodic ideas, and Monk did exactly the same thing in his composing.

It’s fun to see these connections between two of jazz’s biggest giants. It help us understand how the music has evolved over time and it gives us ideas on how to go forward with our own music. Have you ever composed a song using motifs in this way? How about improvising over a tune like “Sophisticated Lady” or “Reflections” by stating and then varying some motifs? Let yourself be inspired by Ellington and Monk and give it a try. It may take your music to just the place you’ve been looking for.

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.

Reflections: from The Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book
See above discussion for the similarities between “Sophisticated Lady” and Reflections.”

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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