A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Woodchoppers Ball” is a big band classic, from 1939. It was bandleader Woody Herman’s signature tune, and was very much a dance floor favorite of the late Swing Era and beyond.

Although you won’t find the tune called at many bebop and post-bop jam sessions, it’s a wonderful piece of music and will teach you a lot about how to play riffs and Swing tradition rhythms, which influenced everything that came afterwards. It’s essential to develop and good foundation in the older styles of jazz in order to play bebop and more recent styles with depth and jazz feeling.

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.)

Woody Herman

Duke Ellington Orchestra: The Reprise Studio Recordings

Glenn Miller: Glenn Miller Gold

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The first thing to do in order to learn “Woodchoppers Ball” is to listen to Woody Herman’s recording (linked to above) in order to hear how the chordal anticipations are played. Then enjoy learning how to play a blues in the key of Db!

Since “Woodchoppers Ball” is a swing-style tune, don’t feel any pressure to play complex bebop licks in the key of Db. Although bebop will sound great on the tune, you can begin with simpler, more riff-oriented licks that repeat and are slightly altered by the chord changes. In other words, get “up and running” by establishing a flow first and then adding complexity later. You’ll feel more confident if you can play something that sounds great yet comes easily to you. Then you can work on new stuff to add on to this. I call this “Minimum Viable Piano,” where you start with the simplest way to sound great and have fun while playing a tune. After you learn this, you can practice playing in more complex ways. This approach is especially helpful when playing in keys that may be unfamiliar at first.

Good luck, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Jazz Profiles: Woody Herman

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Woody Herman: Wikipedia

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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