A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Topsy” is one of those standards that was composed especially for jazz musicians, as opposed to being a vocal song first. It was written by Edgar Battle and Eddie Durham in 1938 and was first recorded by clarinetist Benny Goodman with his big band. Since the Swing Era was a time when jazz and pop music came together stylistically, the Goodman recording of Topsy rose up the pop charts to become a big hit.

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.)

Benny Goodman: The Complete Benny Goodman

The Count Basie Orchestra

The Modern Jazz Quartet: This One’s For Basie

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Topsy” is a great example of a riff-oriented Swing-Era tune. We can see this in the opening phrase, in measures 1-4. Play this phrase a few times with your right hand alone. Then add the chords underneath. Do you hear how bluesy it is?

Bluesy, riff-like phrases like this can sound great in your jazz solos. Study how the tune’s composers took this riff through the various harmonies, and use this technique as a model for your own improvisations. It will certainly sound better than stringing together endless groups of 8th notes, as many jazz students tend to do.

Think clearly, play phrases that have a beginning and an end, and leave some space in between. It worked for Teddy Wilson, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and it will work for you too!

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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