Even though I have been playing jazz piano for many years now, I would not profess to be the font of all knowledge when it comes to how to play jazz piano. My reason for this sentiment is that I certainly have my way of playing jazz piano but that is not a definitive method. The more I listened to jazz as a young musician, the more I realised that so many of the ‘rules’ of classical piano playing seemed not to apply when it came to delivering a convincing jazz performance.
Every pianist, from what I could hear, had their unique approach to the songs they played and how they played them. A possible reason for this huge range of style and approach could be that the majority of jazz players, including pianists, were not formally trained. As such each of them forged their own way through the maelstrom of jazz music to find a voice that singled them out from the rest of the crowd. This makes the world of Jazz highly competitive, wonderfully diverse and almost constantly evolving. What it also means is there is not a ‘right’ way to play jazz piano, simply your way.
Since the days of extraordinary pianists like Art Tatum, George Shearing or Jelly Roll Morton, there are now a plethora of courses that you can choose to take that directly instruct you in the formalities of jazz performance. These range from a couple of days with a well-known jazz celebrity through to Masters courses at recognised Universities and Colleges across the world. To my mind, the formalisation of jazz into an academic course does remove some of the mystery of the genre that I find appealing, but the results of some performers who have been through this training are humbling.
How To Play Jazz Piano
One of the first recommendations I would offer to anyone wishing to learn to play jazz piano, or for that matter jazz on any instrument, is to listen to as much jazz as you have time for. When you listen or attend concerts perhaps, try to hear what it is that you want to achieve.
Are there certain ‘riffs’ or ‘licks’ that you want to be able to play. Perhaps there are harmonies that the musician uses that appeal, or just that the improvisatory skill you hear is bewilderingly inspirational. This is not only a useful starting point but also an essential practice for as long as you have an interest in jazz music.
Another point to consider is there are many different styles jazz including, Be-Bop, Swing, Traditional, Acid Jazz, Free-Form Jazz, to name but a few. For me, it was the ‘swing’ style of playing that inspired me both as a clarinetist and pianist, and this is where I began to explore the vast world of Jazz. And it was the ‘swing’ rhythm that became a central part of my practice as I explored jazz.
The essential difference between swing and ‘straight’ quivers of eighth-notes is that quavers are equal in duration or length whereas ‘swung quavers’ are closer to a ration of 2/3rds to 1/3rd. This is an approximate description and you must hear swing before trying to reproduce it on the piano.
Even without any formal training, the jazz pianist needs to be able to find their way around the full range of scales and arpeggios. Complete knowledge of keys and certain chord progressions is also an extremely useful tool when embarking upon learning jazz piano. Like it or not, the scale and arpeggio regime does, if used in the right way, build a technical foundation that is key to becoming a fluent pianist. When I say the right way, what I mean is that in learning and practising scales and arpeggios, variation and imagination are of vital importance.
Playing scales and arpeggios in different rhythmic groupings, including swing, and varying speeds and articulations makes the process more engaging and in the final analysis practical. This is because the music you will play will not only have scalic passages in groups of two or four quavers, it will vary and so should your practice. It will also support a sense of rhythmic ingenuity that you can incorporate into your playing.
There are chord progressions that feature in jazz. One of the first recommended progressions is what is called the ii – V – I or ‘turnaround’. (Note the Roman Numerals are often used to indicate chords used, the lower case ones showing a minor instead of a major chord). An example would be Gm – C(7) – F in the key of F major. The name turnaround comes about as this progression of chords regularly occurs at the end of a phrase in jazz. Learning this progression in every key is a good place to begin.
‘Chord voicing’ is a subject in its own right and there is not space enough here to discuss it in detail but it is a subject dear to many jazz pianist’s hearts. What this means in practical terms is how you play the chord and chord progressions. In jazz just playing a straight C major chord from the left-hand little finger upwards into the right hand is perhaps a little unusual. The ‘voicing’ could be any number of different combinations and often without the ‘root’ note of the chord at the bass end.
Some jazz voicings centre around creating chords that deliberately ‘avoid’ the chord to give a more harmonically ambiguous sound that offers more improvisational possibilities. In some cases, the left-hand will play an outline of the intended chord, say F, B, D for a G7 chord, whilst the right-hand plays the melody. There is a multitude of options and regular listening to different pianists will give you suggestions for what you feel works for you.
Improvisation is a huge and essential element of being a jazz pianist, from ‘realising’ chord progressions from a jazz ‘chart’ or ‘lead sheet’ through to playing a full set of choruses on a jazz standard. What improvisation does not have to mean though is a furiously virtuosic display of flawless technique.
My feeling is that how and what you improvise is certainly assisted by a god technique but that it is an opportunity to express something and explore the musical material you are playing. It is a life-long pursuit and one of the most enjoyable aspects of jazz. With it comes a freedom that gives jazz its appeal to me and also presents the greatest challenge.