The joy of playing Jazz Ballads in a slow stride style

A few weeks ago I lightheartedly titled one of my improvisations “This is the kind of blues that you don’t hear much anymore.” As I was re-watching my latest Journey Through The Real Book video, I smiled and thought it could be called something in a similar vein: “This is the kind of jazz ballad playing you don’t hear anymore.”

In jazz, we tend to hear recordings that are “modern” at any given point in time, and forget that they don’t necessarily reflect the what listeners heard in nightclubs every evening. A good example of involves solo piano jazz ballad playing.

If we walked into a restaurant, lounge, or nightclub at any time during the 1930s or 40s, we might expect to hear the popular songs of the day. Played in a jazz style with a stride left hand pattern. It’s what everyone did back then and yes, it’s reflective of the ragtime-influenced piano playing of big stars such as Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington.

And if we go by the recordings alone, we’d be forgiven for thinking that decades later, every pianist was playing the bop and post-bop styles of Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and McCoy Tyner. After all, that’s what we read in the history books.

But in reality, night after night in nightclub after nightclub, jazz pianists and listeners enjoyed the sounds of classic songs played in a slow, relaxed stride manner. It’s just that the record companies weren’t interested in promoting this beautiful music anymore after the mid-1950s.

But listeners still loved it, as did jazz pianists. In fact, I remember this style still being played when I was a kid in the 1970s.

Over time, though, this beautiful slow stride style of playing the Great American Songbook has all but died out.

The study of mainstream jazz now starts with bebop, and the pianists who are interested in older styles of jazz trend to play faster stride. This is all great and I love it all, but at the same time, most jazz pianists are missing out on something wonderful which, ironically, is easy to learn that the styles mentioned above.

So here is it, “the kind of jazz ballad playing you don’t hear anymore.”

It’s influenced by Fats Waller, Count Basie, Jess Stacy, and Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker’s phrasing when playing with strings, Ellis Larkins, and entire generations of pianists who loved playing this way. Night after night after night after night.

Start by watching what I play here, on the classic ballad “For All We Know,” and then begin learning a few tunes in this style too. It’s a complete joy once you get over the initial learning curve!

Ron Drotos: For All We Know

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


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