A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
Although it was a huge hit in the 1920s and well-known for decades afterwards, “Whispering” is largely known today as the song Dizzy Gillespie used as the basis for his bebop classic “Groovin’ High.” It’s pretty astonishing how Gillespie conceived of something that sounds so completely different over the same harmonies!
It’s a beautiful song that’s worth rediscovering. One good thing about it is that if you already know “Groovin’ High,” it’ll be really easy to learn “Whispering!”
(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.)
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra
Red Nichols and his Five Pennies
Dick Hyman: Live in New York (video)
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Whispering” is one of those songs that we can use to gain insight into the early days of jazzy popular music. Since it was written before the Swing Era, start by listening to the Paul Whiteman recording I’ve linked to above and enjoy hearing the sounds of the “Roaring 20s.” There’s a slightly different rhythmic sensibility at work here than in most of jazz, and it can be a lot of fun to enter into this world. Play “Whispering” with a stride LH accompaniment while your RH states the melody as a violin section would. Then harmonize the melody with block chords and jazz up the phrasing a bit, as a trumpet section would. Then, throw in some jazzy fills in the style of, say, George Gershwin. (Yes, this is an invitation to become familiar with Gershwin’s pianistic style!)
After you’ve spent some time playing “Whispering” as a 1290s pianist would, compare it to “Groovin’ High” to see what Dizzy Gillespie did with it. You’ll experience first-hand how Gillespie’s bebop melody fits over the same harmonies you used for “Whispering.” (Well, almost the same harmonies!). This is an important comparison to make, since you’ll learn how the beboppers based part of their approach on the older tunes they grew up listening to. Like all art, music isn’t produced in a vacuum; it comes from what came before it.
After you’ve spent some time with “Groovin’ High,” go back to “Whispering” and now play it a bebop style. Or perhaps you can play stride in your LH while your RH improvises bebop lines on top. Have fun mixing and matching styles and techniques, and enjoy how much you’ve learned about how jazz changed and evolved from the 1920s through the 1940s.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Whispering (song): Wikipedia
Notes on Groovin’ High and Whispering
From Madison Jazz Jam
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
How To Learn Jazz Piano
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