A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“When You Wish Upon A Star” is one of those beautiful ballads that was originally sung by an animated character in a movie. In this case, it was the Disney movie “Pinocchio.” I’ve played with some jazz musicians who look down upon playing anything as beloved by children as this song, but I enjoy playing it myself, especially when I want the audience to recognize the song I’m performing. Remember… during the 1930s-1950s, the audience would have recognized a large percentage of the tunes in a jazz set. There’s nothing “too commercial” about playing songs that people recognize!

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.)

Dave Brubeck

Ahmad Jamal: Night Song

Jamal plays sparkly jazz piano over a smooth jazz beat.

Keith Jarrett Trio (video)

Louis Armstrong

Study how Armstrong phrases the melody, in this recording from 1968.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Here’s a practice tip that you probably won’t get anywhere else:

Sing the melody and lyrics to “When You Wish Upon A Star” as if you were a jazz vocalist.

Yes, that’s right. Pretend you’re a vocalist and learn the song. Spend some time memorizing the lyrics. Pick the key that best suits your vocal range. Learn to sing it with the correct notes and rhythms. Listen to recordings of famous (and not-so-famous) vocalists sing it, and study their interpretations. Experiment with phrasing the melody differently, holding out some notes longer than their written and singing other phrases in more of a speech pacing. In other words, become a vocalist for a while.

You’ll learn a lot by doing this. For one thing, it will make you a better accompanist. Not only will you have the experience of “standing in the vocalist’s shoes,” but you’ll know exactly what a vocalist need from a pianist in order to sing their best. Most jazz pianists don’t accompany very well, and even the great Herbie Hancock admits that he spent most of his career ignoring the lyrics while he accompanied singers. Now, he accompanies better than he did before.

Your piano playing will improve as well, since you’ll be able to phrase melodies like the great jazz musicians do. They’ve all been influenced by singers and value the importance of phrasing in a vocal way. In fact, Keith Jarrett has stated that he created his Standards Trio with the intention to “sing” the songs they played, through their instruments.

Learning to sing a great ballad like “When You Wish Upon A Star” can do wonders for your jazz piano playing.

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

Further links and resources:
When You Wish Upon A Star (song): Wikipedia

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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