A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“We’ll You Needn’t” was composed by the great pianist/composer Thelonious Monk in 1944. The was during the very early days of bebop and the existence of the tune shows how much Monk contributed to the development of the genre, during his tenure as “house pianist” at Minton’s and through his musical style in general.

The tune is very challenging to improvise on, mainly because the chords move by half-steps. When you begin practicing soloing on a difficult tune such as this, it may help to keep the “long view” in mind. Say to yourself, “It usually takes people a few years to become fluent improvising on this tune, so I’m going to start now and enjoy the whole process. And then, in a few years, I’ll know it. But if I don’t start now, I won’t know it in 3 years.” This line of reasoning can keep us focused and help prevent frustration. After all, would you rather know the tune on 3 years, or not know it? Start now, and in 3 years you’ll be playing it like you’ve known it all your life!

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.)

Thelonious Monk Quartet, Live 1965 (video)

Herbie Hancock Quartet

Astonishing musical interplay with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The first thing you’ll encounter when improvising over “Well You Needn’t” is the challenge of improvising over the highly chromatic chord progression. F7 is pretty common to solo over, but Gb7 isn’t. And going back and forth between the two is really hard at first. The real challenge, of course, is actually “hear” melodic lines that move through these two harmonies. That will take some time to get used to doing. In a sense it’s similar to Monk’s “Epistrophy,” except that here the chords are held out for a full measure instead of for just two beats each.

One nice thing about the recent editions of The Real Book is that they now have the correct version of the bridge. Thelonious Monk had to suffer through people changing his tunes all the time, and his friend and colleague Miles Davis was one of the biggest “culprits!” Miles changed the bridge so that it started on G7 and this was the version included in the original Real Book. The result and several generations of jazz musicians who learned the tune wrong. Monk knew what he was doing and his Db7 bridge has a subtlety that’s lacking in Miles’ version.

Practice improvising over the chord progression at a very slow tempo for a long time and notice how it gradually begins to feel more natural to you. Here’s a hint: you can treat the Gb7 chord in the ‘A’ sections as an altered C7 chord, which we’re already more accustomed to playing than Gb7. So you can play lines like: E G# C high Eb Db C Bb Ab in eighth notes over the Gb& chord before resolving to the F7 chord with, say, an A in the melody. Try it and see for yourself!

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Piano Tip #17: Well, You Needn’t

Your (bebop) roots are showing, Mr. Thelonious Monk!!!

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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