A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Yesterdays” is a great Jerome Kern song from 1933. Otto Hardbach wrote the lyrics. The tune was probably much more popular among jazz musicians back in the 1940s and 50s, but it’s a wonderful classic that’s well worth learning and playing today.

“Yesterdays” has a special place in the jazz piano world because, astoundingly enough, it is the only video we have of the great Art Tatum playing a full tune. (There’s also a short clip of him playing with his trio in the movie The Fabulous Dorseys, but that’s only for a few seconds.)

Think about this for a moment. Just one video from perhaps the most astounding jazz pianist of all time! This is it… the only one.

My piano teacher, Billy Taylor, used to tell me stories about how he would stand around the piano and watch Tatum play, for hours at a time. And I’ve read that John Lewis, of The Modern Jazz Quartet, once spent a full week hearing Tatum play at a club, every night.

And we have only one video!

In an age when everything’s on and we tend to take it for granted, this is a big deal. Watch the clip of Art Tatum playing “Yesterdays.” And watch it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. After all, it’s the only chance we have to see the he pianist who had the most outstanding technical, textural, and harmonic imagination the jazz world has ever seen. Let’s not take this for granted. Watch the clip!

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.)

Art Tatum: TV show (video)

This is, to my knowledge, the ONLY video of Tatum playing a full song. Do yourself a favor and watch it about 100 times!

The Jazz Messengers: At The Café Bohemia, Vol. 2

Coleman Hawkins: Essen Jazz Festival All Stars

Lennie Tristano

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Yesterday’s” is only 16 bars long and it’s fascinating how the harmonies in each 4-measure phrase are so different from one another.

The first phrase (measures 1-4) basically “tonicizes” the I chord, Dm. It begins with the tonic and then circles around it with a couple of iim7(b5)/V7 sequences.

The second phrase takes a different approach. It starts out again with the Dm tonic chord, but stays on it for a full two measures while the bass line descends chromatically. Composer Jerome Kern does a very subtle thing when the bass note gets down to the ‘B’ in m.7. At first, it sounds like a D minor triad with a ‘B’ in the bass, but it actually functions as a Bm7(b5) chord which as it turns out is part of a iim7(b5)/V7, resolving up to E7.

The third phrase (measures 13-17) continues this movement around the circle of fourths, with all dominant 7th chords.

The final phrase picks up the harmonic tempo a bit, with a resolution into the key of Bb major before setting up the opening Dm tonal center again.

The effect of all this is remarkable, with the unique harmonic implications of each 4-measure phrase developing into the use of chords in the next phrase. We often hear the term “melodic development,” which Kern also uses in the melody of “Yesterdays.” And as we have seen, he’s also composed the tune using what we could call “chordal development,” in a way that’s extraordinary.

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

Further links and resources:
Yesterdays: 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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