A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
One of the great old ballads, “Thanks For The Memory” was the comedian Bob Hope’s theme song, meaning the band would play a bit of the song whenever Hope came out on stage. Since Hope was regularly seen on early TV shows, this meant that the general public heard this melody a lot. It’s not heard much anymore, however, and not many listeners will recognize the once-familiar melody. (I used to work with Hope’s music director, who remembered conducting the Ellington Band playing “Thanks For The Memory” once as Hope walked onstage to MC a concert. Even though the music only lasted a minute or so, my friend said it was an unforgettable experience conducting that orchestra!)

It’s still a beautiful tune, however, and it’s note-worthy that even as progressive a musician as Wayne Shorter played the song as a solo feature during his days with the jazz fusion group Weather Report in the 1970s.

The song was composed by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger in 1937, at the height of the Swing Era.

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.)

Bob Hope

Benny Goodman

Sarah Vaughan: Live at The London House, 1958

Erroll Garner: Live in Sweden, 1964 (video)

Weather Report: 8:30

A solo tenor sax version by Wayne Shorter

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Many beginning jazz pianists take Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett as their starting point for playing jazz ballads. This is natural, because Evans or Jarrett may have been the reason the pianist loves jazz ballads in the first place. And yes, it’s good to be influenced by our musical idols and even imitate them at first. We ride our inspiration.

With Swing Era ballads, however, we’ll benefit from going back further. At some point we’ll need to check out recordings from the period when the songs were actually composed. That’s why I included links to the Bob Hope and Benny Goodman recordings in the section above. Even if you ultimately want to play in a more modern style of jazz, go back and listen to these recordings. Enjoy the beauty of how Hope and Goodman sang the melody. Listen to the background instrumental arrangements and hear the countermelodies and variety of instrumentation in the orchestration. Feel the groove and imagine a crowd of people dancing to it. As much as is possible, get into the feeling of the time period. After all, these are the recordings that Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett grew up hearing and this style of music is in their own playing, along with the more modern elements they brought to it as well.

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

Further links and resources:
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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