A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“What tune do you want to play next?”
“Hmmm… let’s play ‘Stella.’”

This verbal exchange has taken place thousands if not millions of times at jam sessions and on jazz gigs for decades. “Stella By Starlight” has been one of the biggest jazz standards ever since Miles Davis recorded it with pianist Bill Evans in 1958 (see link to the recording, below).

“Stella” isn’t the easiest jazz standard to play, so if you’re a beginner, start with some more basic tunes like “So What,” “Blue Bossa,” and “Autumn Leaves.” Once you get some experience playing standards, you‘ll be ready to tackle “Stella.” I’ve given you some advice below on how to most easily learn and memorize both the melody and the chord changes. One you’re comfortable with it, you’ll be more than ready when someone turns to you and says, “Hmmm… let’s play ‘Stella!’”

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.)

Frank Sinatra

Recorded in 1947

Charlie Parker with Strings: The Complete Master Takes

Miles Davis

The studio recording from 1958, with pianist Bill Evans

Miles Davis: Live At The Plugged Nickel

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Even though “Stella By Starlight” is a 32-bar song from the 1940s, it doesn’t follow the “usual” AABA format. Instead, it’s more “through-composed” in that the second 8 measures unfolds organically, instead of repeating the first 8 bars like most songs of the era do. The final 8-bar section does signal a return to the opening thematic material, but then it goes in a different direction than the ‘A’ Section did, coming to a sequential conclusion.

All this makes the tune somewhat more difficult to memorize than a typical AABA song, such as “Take The ‘A’ Train. It will help a lot if you begin by memorizing the melody. Play it on the piano a lot and also try singing it, on ‘la’ or another neutral syllable. Singing is a great ear-training device and it will help you internalize the melody much better than simply playing it instrumentally.

After you firmly get the melody in your ear, begin hanging the chords onto it. You’ll notice that a lot of the chords in “Stella” are ii/V’s. So if you remember that the first 2 chords are a ii/V in the key of Dm and the next two chords are a ii/V in the key of Bb. After that, there’s yet another ii/V, this time in the key of Eb.

Grouped together like this, the chord progression is a lot easier to memorize and solo over. What at first glance may have seemed to be a vague meandering of harmonies, now resembled a well-known path through various keys, each containing a few closely-related chords. This way of looking at a chord progression makes it much more manageable to play a jazz tune. It becomes fun, too, to improvise within the various keys in succession. Each tune takes us on a unique journey, both melodically and harmonically, and the more we embrace this, we’ll sound better and also enjoy our own jazz piano playing to the fullest degree.

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

Further links and resources:
Stella By Starlight (song): Wikipedia

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Stella By Starlight: 1-hour improv

Stella By Starlight: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

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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