A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Upper Manhattan Medical Group” is one of the all-time-great-yet-underappreciated jazz tunes. (It’s appreciated by those who know it, though!) Composer Billy Strayhorn may be better know for “Take The ‘A’ Train,” but UMMG is actually more characteristic of his composing style. (“Take The ‘A’ Train” sounds more like Fletcher Henderson than it does to the main body of Strayhorn’s work.)

The famous recording is by Dizzy Gillespie, and you’ll hear how the pairs of iim7(b5)/V7 chords evoke Dizzy’s earlier “Woody ‘N’ You,” which is also in The Real Book.

The title refers to the group of Harlem physicians who were in Strayhorn’s and Duke Ellington’s social circle.

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: Jazz Party

(Featuring Dizzy Gillespie’s famous trumpet solo)

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

Branford Marsalis: Trio Jeepy

Since there’s no piano on this recording, you can “be the pianist” when you play along with Branford and his trio!

Chick Corea Akoustic Band: Alive 1991 (video)

Fred Hersch Trio: Passion Flower: Fred Hersch Plays Billy Strayhorn

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Even though “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” is by Billy Strayhorn, it is also associated with Dizzy Gillespie, who played a famous trumpet solo on the Duke Ellington recording. In some respects, I can understand why Dizzy could relate to the tune so well, since it begins with the same m11(b5)/dominant 7th(b9) sequence that Gillespie favored so much in his own compositions. The chord progression also features many ii-V progressions in a very “bebop” way.

The musical form is AABA, but somehow Strayhorn’s melody and chords bring a fluidity to the form as a result of how they unfold. Just play the melody and chords along a few times and enjoy how the tune sounds. It’s not predictable in any way!

Perhaps because of Strayhorn’s uniqueness as a composer, it can take a while to become soloing in a way that makes sense. First of all, it’s in Db major, which we don’t find all the time. And beyond that, there are those diminished chords at the end which sort of “color” the major7th chords they resolve into.

Be sure to spend some “quality time” with “Upper Manhattan Medical Group.” It’s well worth the effort!

Above all, 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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