A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Billy Strayhorn’s classic ballad “The Star-Crossed Lovers “ is from Such Sweet Thunder,” the 1957 suite he composed with Duke Ellington based on Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Star-Crossed Lovers” is one of the most beautiful jazz ballads ever written, and it actually began life earlier, with the name “Pretty Girl.” To include the tune in Such Sweet Thunder, Strayhorn just changed the title, re-purposing the tune much as the classical composer J.S. Bach often did with his own compositions.

Listen to how lyrically alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges plays the melody on the original recording, which I’ve linked to below. If classical pianists learn to play lyrically by listening to opera singers, we jazz pianists can emulate a great melodic woodwind player like Hodges, who was sometimes called “the Lily Pons of the alto,” after the great opera singer of yesteryear.

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: Such Sweet Thunder

Tommy Flanagan Trio: Montreux ‘77

Fred Hersch

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One of the great things about improvising is that once you learn how to play a certain style, you can easily play new tunes in that same style.

“The Star-Crossed Lovers” is a good example of this. Even though it’s in the key of Gb major, which may be unfamiliar to you at this point, it’s still just a jazz ballad. So if you’ve played some other, easier jazz ballads like “Misty” or “In A Sentimental Mood,” you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” as they say. You can simply use the same pianistic textures that you already know on this new tune.

If you can play a slow stride, feel free to use that. If you prefer to hold down the left hand chords on ballads, that technique will sound great on “The Star-Crossed Lovers” too. Enjoy learning the chord progression and becoming comfortable playing in Gb major. (Yes, it does get easier over time!)

And enjoy the D natural in the melody in the 5th measure of the bridge. This is Billy Strayhorn at his best!

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

Further links and resources:
Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder: Shakespeare and jazz
A very insightful history and analysis of the musical suite

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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