A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“What Am I Here For?” is one of Duke Ellington’s “jazz meets popular song” pieces. If it never had lyrics, it might be considered to be a swinging instrumental composition. On the other hand, the lyrics fit the swinging melody so well that it sounds like a jazz pop song of the 1940s. I’ve included links to both an instrumental recording by Ellington himself as well as a superb arrangement by the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross. Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross took the concept of the Swing Era vocal groups and updated it for the Bebop Era. Lyricist extraordinaire Jon Hendrix’s specialty was composing lyrics to famous instrumental solos and in many ways the group predated many of today’s a cappella styles in the way they mimicked instrumental arrangements.

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 Orchestra

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross: The Hottest New Group In Jazz

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“What Am I Hear For” is a fun tune to play, with a natural swing built into the melodic phrases. If you want to improve your sense of swing, play this tune a lot!

I usually hear a big band in my head when I play “What Am I Hear For.” I also hear a bit of the lyrics from the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recording I’ve linked to above. Remembering a favorite recording or two can help us get into the groove better when playing a jazz tune, and we can make a choice as to how much to adhere to the previous versions or not.

One effective way to play “What Am I Hear For” is to walk a bass line with your left hand and harmonize the melody with block chords in your right hand. For the block chords, simply play a 4-note voicing with the melody note on top. The voicings themselves don’t have to be too fancy. In fact, this is what holds many players back; they try to make every voicing sophisticated and it’s too much for them to keep the tempo going. The opposite approach is far better: use simple voicings and “go for the flow.” Keep it swinging, and when you’re ready, substitute some fancy chord voicings. But don’t so this until you can play the tune effortlessly at a medium tempo while also keeping the walking bass line going. (You’ll also have a lot more fun this way!)

The great baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan once shared something with me about playing block chords, when I was his assistant. Gerry had been speaking to the pianist George Shearing over the phone earlier that day. Shearing, who was the one who made the block chord style famous, told Mulligan that his “secret” was to gloss over some of the faster melody notes, not harmonizing every single note with a chord. He said that not only way this method a lot easier, but it still sounded the same to most listeners. You can apply this approach to m.3 of “What Am I Here For,” by playing the C on the “and” of beat 3 as a single note, while playing block chords on all the other notes in the measure. By leaving the chord off of the C, you can get your right hand up into position easier to play the following G with a full chord. (And when you do it, take a moment to smile and mentally thank Mr. George Shearing for the tip!)

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.

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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