The surprising similarity between Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and Elton John


What do Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and Elton John have in common?

Yes, they all play piano, and they all improvise. But what really fascinates me is that there was a brief period in the early 1970s when their styles merged. Even though all 3 of these musicians came from different backgrounds and are famous for playing differently from one another, they all played some remarkably similar music in the early 1970s.

Start by listening to the first few seconds of each of these videos from that time period:

Duke Ellington: The African Flower (starts at 1:10)

Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert (Part iic)

Elton John: Daniel (starts at .55)

(This is a later video of Elton playing the song, but I chose it because he’s playing solo piano and it’s easy to hear the rhythms in his accompaniment.)

Notice how much these performances have in common. For starters, they’re all playing pieces at a moderate tempo with straight 8th notes. (This is despite the fact that Ellington and Jarrett and considered “jazz” pianists, which usually implies “swing” 8th notes.)

Going further, the music is all relaxed, pleasant, and very much related to the folk-like lite rock/pop style that was so popular at that time (think James Taylor). Yes, it’s true that Ellington had composed “The African Flower” earlier, in the 1950s. But he was always well aware of what was happening in pop music and what his audience wanted to hear. If you watch the entire video above you’ll see that a good deal of the music was “non-swing” and some of it was based on pure triads instead of traditional jazz harmony. Ellington stayed with the times, even as he kept developing his own unique musical personality.

There are some very specific rhythmic and harmonic similarities between the 3 pieces, too. For instance, all 3 pieces begin by staying on the tonic chord for about two whole measures, with a similar rhythmic syncopation of 8th-quarter-quarter-quarter-8th. In Ellington’s case, this rhythm is in his left hand ostinato pattern. Jarrett’s melody uses almost the same exact rhythm (except for the 1st beat), and Elton John implies this rhythmic “floating” on the electric piano throughout “Daniel.”

All 3 of these wonderful pianists played a wide diversity of musical styles throughout their whole careers and even while they recorded these 3 songs. But at the same time, it’s more than coincidence that they were all playing this type of music in the early 70s. The Köln Concert was Keith Jarrett’s breakthrough recording, the one that made him a huge star in the jazz world. “Daniel” was one of Elton John’s first big hits, and Ellington was trying to stay popular and commercially relevant when he appeared on the above TV show.

The gentle, straight-8ths “sound” was “in the air” at the time, and very popular among the younger generations. It’s notable that Duke Ellington didn’t go on TV and play “Mood Indigo” and a medley of his classic hits. Indeed, some of his other playing on the video also sounds similar to Jarrett’s improvisations. He played music that was close to his heart at the time, which happened to also have a place in the contemporary popular culture. Jazz and rock/pop music often shared the same stage during this period so in retrospect perhaps it’s not so surprising that these pieces have so much in common.

Now, decades later, we can enjoy this brief moment of musical synchronicity, courtesy of Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and Elton John. Learn these 3 pieces for yourself and you’ll experience their similarities first-hand!

You can learn more about Duke Ellington’s The African Flower HERE.

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4 thoughts on “The surprising similarity between Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and Elton John”

  1. Dear Ron Drotos,
    Perhaps you may remember me and our son, Kent Friedman (12 yrs old at the year you taught him for one year until he quit. Altogether)? – only time he disappointed me . He did not play anything for several years. Then when he was in the middle of his four years at Vassar College,He took up playing the guitar. He also got interested in playing keyboards and creating and making electronic music . This has remained a life long hobby . He is age. 43 now , married and with a beautiful wife and two and a half year old daughter. He does not get enough time for musical fun because he has such a demanding job as head of the Nuclear Medicine Dept at NYU Medical school. Sometimes he dis jockeys his own electronic dance music at New York night spots. He lives at 330 East 38th St. Near First Ave but is selling his place there. Well you can see that after all these years that year of teaching him how to play jazz and pop piano has given him a lifelong interest. Bob and I are still ver y much in touch with Neal Larrabee who married a lovely Polish American women and lives in Kraków Poland half the year. He was near us for a couple of years in Florida but now the y are moving to t he Washington DC area because of family. As for me , I am very much involved with jazz piano and of recent years some improvising.It is my passion above several other interests and obligations. I took part time lessons from Kent Hewitt for many years while living in Storrs. Now we are 7 months in our primary home at 7503 Weeping Willow Drive in Sarasota FL . Then we return to Storrs and a few weeks in New Harbor Maine in the summeR. I am wondering how you are and if you are still with that beautiful brunette girl who was the love of your life during college days at UCt. How great you had the courage to become a full time career musician. I remember how “snowed I was by your playing and the lovely piece you composed called “After the Rain” . No doubt you have a very busy life so please don’t feel any obligation to respond to this email but if you would like to it would be great fun to hear from you. I found you totally by accident on my IPad.
    Sending Warmest Regards always, Win Friedman

    • Hi Win, Of course I remember you! I remember driving down that winding country road to your house for our lessons, and also seeing you in Hale Smith’s jazz improvisation class. It’s wonderful to hear from you and that both you and your son Kent are still involved with music. Yes, that’s really my goal; to foster this type of lifelong passion for music and improvisation. Yes, Megan and I are married and live just outside of Manhattan with our two sons. I drove through Storrs last year and thought of you and also Kay Holt. (BTW I just googled her and am glad to see that her home is now a B&B.) Say ‘hi’ to Bob from me 🙂 Ron


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