3 reasons to learn to play jazz piano in new keys

3 reasons to learn to play jazz piano in new keys

How many of you tend to stick to your favourite keys?

There are a number of reasons why us keyboard players should learn to play in various keys. It’s the easy option to default to the keys of C, F or G but this can be very limiting, not only for us, but for the musicians that we play with. So here’s the first reason to branch out into keys that you are less familiar with:

  1. Brass players prefer to play in the flat (b) keys such as Bb and Eb. You may be comfortable playing a 12 bar blues in F, but can you do this same in say, Db? Try it, just a basic 3-blues in Db. 

Start with the blues scale over a Db7 chord. Here are the notes:

Db, E, Gb, G, Ab, B. 

Blues scale in Db

Does that feel awkward? If so, that’s a good thing as it means you’re learning!

2. The second reason why you need to get used to playing in different keys is that a tune may begin in one key but then move through other keys. A good example is the jazz standard ‘All The Things You Are’. 

If the key signature is Ab major we only remain in the key of Ab for 5 bars.

The tune then moves through the keys of C major, Eb major and G major and this is only for the first 16 bars.

3. And here’s a third reason why you should push yourself to play in keys less familiar to you. Sticking to the old favourites (C, F and G) engages muscle memory that tempts you to reach for the old licks and tricks that you’ve been relying on. The phrases that you’ve been churning out have become repetitive and your new solo is similar to all the old ones. However, when you move into unfamiliar keys, your brain no longer allows you to do this because your hands are now moving over a series of more alien notes. This is good news because you are now forced into making new choices. Yes, you may well make more mistakes but this risk-taking makes for more creative solos.

Learn more at Learn Jazz Piano Online!

Creative jazz practice

Creative jazz practice

This is an extract from book 3 of Learn Jazz Piano.

Click here for your link to book 3.

Chapter 12: Creative jazz practice

Keyboard                 The ideal is to practice on an acoustic piano, as the sound and action will always be superior to an electronic keyboard.

However, if you are playing on an electronic keyboard, there are three priorities:

  1. The keyboard should be full-length: i.e. 88 keys.
  1. It should possess one decent piano sound. Don’t be tempted by a host of sounds and functions that you’ll never use.
  1. The action should be weighted. You should feel a ‘give’ when pressing a key.

Optional extras

  • Split keyboard: piano for right hand and bass for left hand.
  • Recording facility: this will enable you to record, say, the song’s bass line, so that you can practice over it.

Order of practice   

I suggest that you begin with drills and exercises. Then move on to tunes.

Drills and exercises 

II – V – I                    Develop the ability to solo and comp through the
II – V – I sequence in all major and minor keys. This is crucial to your progress as a jazz musician.

Resist the temptation to only play in the easy keys, as you will soon be encountering certain standards in ‘difficult’ keys. For example, Body and Soul is usually in Db and ‘Round Midnight is in Eb minor!

II – V                          A II – V sequence doesn’t always resolve to its tonic. Instead, it might move to another II – V.   Use fig 85, below, to practice switching through a series of random II – V’s.

Fig 85

creative jazz practice
I – VI – II – V                        This common turnaround often appears at the end of a tune to lead you back to the start. The VI chord is usually a dominant 7.

Fig 86 illustrates the sequence in seven keys.

Fig 86
creative jazz practice

Practicing tunes

1          Read the music      How’s your sight-reading? Some musicians get by without being able to read a note of music, but I would not have stayed in regular work over the years without this skill. Spend a little time each day reading a new tune. Don’t approximate; both melody and rhythm need to be accurate.

2          Listen to recordings         In my work as a vocal coach I’m often dismayed by singers replicating Sinatra’s version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin, or Eva Cassidy’s interpretation of Over The Rainbow. Some actually assume that the song was written this way!

When researching a song, I suggest you start with a relatively ‘straight’ version rather than an interpretation.

Pay attention to the lyrics. This will give you a sense of the emotion behind the song. Once you’re familiar with the song, sample some jazz instrumental versions.


Song: How Deep Is The Ocean

Straight: Julie London

Jazz: Ben Webster


Song: Secret Love

Straight: Doris Day

Jazz: Brad Mehldau

You can find the rest of this chapter in book 3 of Learn Jazz Piano.

Jazz Practice

Jazz Practice

Jazz Practice

Why practise? The obvious answer has to be that we practise in order to improve. But why does the very word cause many of us to go running for the TV remote? Is it just possible that the thought of practising conjures up the brain numbing activity of running up and down scales and arpeggios? The problem is not the scales themselves but the way we approach them.

The solution is to approach scales and arpeggios musically and in a manner appropriate to jazz. You can make a start by playing scales in swing 8s, but here are a couple of suggestions that combine technique with your jazz practice.

Play the scale of Eb major in swing 8s with left-hand voicings of your choosing.

jazz practice

Now, play the same major scale, but starting on the ‘and’ of 1.

jazz practice

This rhythmic shift reflects what you might play in a solo. Now try starting the scale on the ‘and’ of 2, 3 and 4.

Next, play these broken chords, also with a swing feel. In this example you are practicing arpeggios, but over a I – VI – II – V turnaround.

jazz practice

You can invent patterns containing your own rhythmic and melodic variations. As well as strengthening your technique, you are also developing your own licks, rather than copying from others.

Drills and exercises

The greatest temptation when practicing is to breeze through a few tunes that you know. This may be pleasurable but will not improve your playing. Repertoire should be a part of your routine and I’ll address that below. But I advise that you begin a practice session with a few drills.

There are three chord patterns that come up frequently: the II – V – I sequence, the II – V sequence and the I – VI – II – V turnaround.

II – V – I                    Develop the ability to solo and comp through the II – V – I sequence in all major and minor keys. This is crucial to your progress as a jazz musician.

Resist the temptation to only play in the easy keys, as you will soon be encountering certain standards in ‘difficult’ keys. For example, Body and Soul is usually in Db and ‘Round Midnight is in Eb minor!

II – V              The II – V sequence doesn’t always resolve to its tonic.  Instead, it might move to another II – V,  in songs such as Stella By Starlight and Satin Doll.

I – VI – II – V             This common turnaround often appears at the end of a tune to lead you back to the start. The VI chord is usually a dominant 7.

All these sequences need to be practiced in all keys and in varying combinations. For example, the turnaround sequence could be practiced as follows:

jazz practice

How you approach these sequences depend on the areas in your playing that need strengthening: rootless voicings, soloing, comping etc.

Read the music

How’s your sight-reading? Some musicians get by without being able to read a note of music, but I would not have stayed in regular work over the years without this skill. Spend a little time each day reading a new tune. Don’t approximate; both melody and rhythm need to be accurate.

Learn a new tune

How many tunes can you play without music? You should be building up a basic repertoire of standards, blues, ballads and Latin tunes. But just focus on one tune per session: identify its key, song structure (AABA etc.) and map. Where are the II – V – I’s, turnarounds etc?

Revisit your old tunes

  Pick up a tune already in your repertoire and isolate one section that might be giving you trouble. For example, the bridge of Have You Met Miss Jones is far trickier than its A section. Then try transposing it. You may be able to breeze through Autumn Leaves in Bb but what if the singer asks you to play it in B?

Playing along to backing tracks

Before backing tracks were available, we all played along to the original album track; in fact I still enjoy comping behind my favorite players, and recommend that you do the same. Then along came playalong CDs: collections of recorded backing tracks bundled with the sheet music. Apart from being able to tune out the piano track, these playalongs are less flexible than apps (see below), in that each track is in a fixed key and tempo. However, if you wish to try this method of practice, I’d suggest the excellent Jamey Aebersold series.

A third option is to play along to an app such as iReal Pro or Tempo SlowMo. These apps display the chord chart (not the melody) and provide a rhythm track for hundreds of standards. Not only can you turn instruments off, you can also change the key, tempo and style of each song.

A fourth option is to create your own backing tracks. If your keyboard records, then lay down a simple bass line. If you want to get more creative, use a sequencer such as Garage Band or Logic to build up your own track.

I would only suggest practising to a metronome if your playing needs tightening up or if your tempos are slowing down.


Don’t always opt for the easy option of a steady 120bpm. Start building up your speed in readiness for when the bandleader counts in at 200bpm!


In short, rather than mindlessly running up and down scales and churning out tunes that you know, structure your practice session so that it is both productive and enjoyable.

For further reading click here for Learn Jazz Piano, book 3, chapter 12.






Working with jazz singers

Working with jazz singers

Working with jazz singers

Understandably, most of my jazz piano students want to improvise; their prime aim is to solo creatively. However, my 40 years as a pro keyboard player has taught me that being given the opportunity to solo comes as a bonus. A more realistic expectation for a pianist is that we will spend most of our working lives accompanying soloists and singers, in other words, comping. Therefore, unless a student has no ambition or desire to play with other musicians or jazz singers, comping is an art that has to be learnt.

In some respects comping is the same whether behind an instrumentalist or a singer. However, in other respects it is totally different. Let’s start with the similarities.

When comping, the spotlight is on the soloist, and it is our job as accompanist to both support them and make them sound good. The first assessment that needs to be made is their level of experience. At one end of the spectrum, if the soloist has limited experience, they may require plenty of rhythmic and melodic help. For example, they may need to hear the first beat of every bar. If they are playing or singing a melody, then the melody, or at least its outline, may need to be stated clearly.

In the two following examples I’m comping bars 1 – 4 of Out Of Nowhere.

In the first illustration my comp is on beats 1 and 3.

working with singers

Although this provides a clear indication of downbeats, it provides no melodic or rhythmic support to the melody.

The next illustration meets both these requirements by placing the melody note at the top of chords and tracing its rhythmic pattern.

working with jazz singers

Of course, one can be far freer and more interactive with the soloist, but this is relative to how much or little support they require.

Comping behind a jazz singer

I have to confess that there was a time when I sometimes had issues with the phrase ‘jazz singer.’ This was because I often found myself accompanying singers who were more cabaret than jazz, but performed standards in a ‘jazzy’ fashion simply by dragging the beat. I have since come to work with some wonderful singers that are every bit as skillful as any jazz instrumentalist.

So this article is not a disguised tirade against singers but rather an indication of how I help learning jazz pianists to work with them.

In an ideal world the singer possesses a sound knowledge of music, has equal status with other band members and is considered to be a musician whose instrument happens to be the voice.

The reality is that some vocalists have a minimal grasp of music for practical purposes but are expected to act as the bandleader: stating the keys, tempo and arrangement to band members. This situation often stems from the singer being required to front the band as a focal point.

Over the years I have advised vocalists as to their role and duties within a band situation. Nowadays, because my main focus is working with pianists, I advise my students as follows.

Here are the issues that are certain to come up:

Choice of key

Do not assume that the key in your songbook will be a suitable vocal key. The singer must be able to hit the top note of the song without strain.

I recommend the following process:

  1. Find a section of the song that contains the highest note.
  1. Test this section with your singer by transposing the section down until the vocalist feels comfortable.
  1. Double-check this new key by locating the section with the lowest note and ensuring the song is still in a singable range.

Many female singers choose to stay within their lower range when singing jazz, but I always encourage vocalists to explore the upper register. Listen to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald for inspiration.

Starting the song

            Here are five options.

  1. Count in.
  1. The pianist plays the starting note (known as the bell note). The singer and band then start simultaneously, without any need for a count-in.
  1. The pianist provides a broken chord (arpeggio). This should be the dominant 7, possibly containing a raised 5th. If the song is in G major, this augmented chord would be D7(#5).
  1. The last 4 bars of the A or B section can be played as an intro. This will usually contain a I – VI – II – V turnaround. However, if the song is up-tempo, 8 bars might be preferable.
  1. Many standards, particularly ballads, begin with a verse or introduction. This is often played out of tempo (colla voce). Your role, therefore, is to follow the singer until the song falls into tempo (or falls apart!) on beat 1 of the chorus. Once again, it should be the singer’s responsibility to ‘bring the band in,’ but the leader or drummer can help out here.
  • Seek out Tony Bennett’s version of All The Things You Are to hear its verse. Incidentally, if you have any doubts about Bennett’s credentials as a jazz singer, listen to the two albums he made with Bill Evans.

Ending the song

This is the outro. Whether the song comes to a dead stop or slows down, it is again the singer’s responsibility to convey their intention to the band. To indicate an approaching tag (extended ending), the singer might revolve a finger clockwise.


A typical arrangement might be as follows:

  1. Verse – sung.
  2. Head – sung.
  3. Solos
  4. Swap 4s.
  5. Head – sung.

The singer may choose to return to the final head at section B. This should be conveyed to the band towards the end of the final solo.

The singer may also wish to take a solo in the form of a scat vocal. 

Back to the head

The final soloist (particularly the drummer) should hand over to the singer with precision, rather than with a wild flurry of notes (or beats).


In the end it is the combination of preparation and effective communication that makes for a good musical relationship between the pianist and singer. Once this is in place, we have enabled the singer to perform with ease and confidence.


Teaching the blues

Teaching the blues

A moment after writing the title of this article, up popped an image of John Lee Hooker smiling and shaking his head. “Nobody can teach you the blues. Blues is a feeling, something you have to live.” I tried explaining that I’m a jazz piano teacher and that teaching the blues is part of my job but the image faded.

So where do we start? If you’ve read my previous articles or are one of my students, the following message will come as no surprise: no matter how many books you read or the amount of teachers you learn from, nothing will replace two activities: playing with other musicians and listening to the jazz and blues masters. So, onwards!

In my last article I bypassed the fruitless attempt to define jazz and will do likewise with the blues, but we can still amuse ourselves by googling it. Here’s the first quote I came up with:

Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence.

I’d argue that it’s not necessarily melancholic and we’ll discuss the form later in this article. But I now want to address the subject of this article: teaching the blues.

When a potential student asks to be taught to play blues piano I have to admit to a rather grouchy response. “I teach jazz and, for me, blues is a part of jazz and jazz is a part of the blues.” Actually, I’m not convinced that this is strictly true. But for teaching purposes I find it unhelpful to separate them into two distinct compartments. If we have to take a stab at separating them, it could be said that, say, Muddy Waters is in the blues camp. But as soon as we try attaching a ‘jazz only’ label to jazz musicians it becomes nigh impossible to assert that their music has no connection with the blues. There is, perhaps, less of a blues influence in the playing of Bill Evans than, say, Oscar Peterson. It could also be said that some European jazz has evolved through influences other than the blues.

I see my job as preparing students for a variety of blues tunes that they are likely to encounter at a gig. As this is an article rather than a book, I’ll just be focusing on varying blues structures rather than chord choices, scales, licks etc.

Blues structures

A blues sequence can take on a number of guises, varying in time signature, length and chord structure. Here are some examples.

A basic blues

A basic blues contains 12 bars and 3 chords: I, IV and V. These chords are unusual in that they are non-functioning dominant 7s. In other words, rather than pointing to their tonics (1) these dominant 7s stand in their own right.

teaching the blues

The next example is a more ‘jazz’ version of this sequence, where, at bars 9 and 10, the V and IV chords are replaced with II – V. This is the sequence for Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues:

teaching the blues

Minor blues

But a blues isn’t always in a major key. Here’s the sequence for Coltrane’s Mr P.C.

(At bar 9 the chord Ab7 could be replaced with its tritone substitute D7(b5).)

teaching the blues

I should point out that when I describe the above sequences as ‘basic’ I’m referring to the amount of chords rather than suggesting that they are in any way inferior or easier to perform. Take a listen to Coltrane’s version of Mr P.C. as a case in point.

Blues in 6/8

So far my examples have been in 4/4 time but All Blues by Miles Davis is in 6/8. Here’s the piano accompaniment to his melody:

teaching the blues

Once again, notice the subtle harmonic twist in bars 9 and 10.

A blues sequence can be in a variety of time signatures, including 3/4, 5/4 and 12/8.

Bebop blues

In C Jam Blues (above) a II – V sequence was introduced in bars 9 and 10. In the 40’s the Bebop players took this to its logical conclusion, giving the sequence a complete makeover. Firstly, chord 1, the dominant 7, was replaced with a straight major chord. This was then followed with a series of descending II – Vs.

Here is one variation of this more complex sequence:

teaching the blues

This sequence works with many bebop blues sequences. One example is Charlie Parker’s Blues For Alice.

8-bar blues

All the examples so far have been 12 bar sequences, but this length can vary. Here is an 8-bar blues that would work with Ain’t Nobody’s Business.

teaching the blues

This is by no means an exhaustive list of blues variations but, hopefully, demonstrates that there is more to the blues than 12 bars and 3 chords.

Stop playing jazzy. Start playing jazz!

Stop playing jazzy. Start playing jazz!

Here is the third in my series of articles for the website ‘All About Jazz’

I concluded my last article in this series with a piece of advice handed to me by one of my old jazz piano teachers: ‘Don’t try to play jazzy.’ I’d now like to explore this statement and demonstrate how it affects my own teaching.

In the 70’s I played keyboards in what was known as a ‘jazz rock band’ and people often described my playing style on Hammond organ as ‘jazzy.’ In hindsight I would say that my band had little to do with jazz or that my playing was little more than ‘jazz tinged.’ This is no reflection, good or bad, on the band or my playing. But in retrospect, I now feel that what we were doing had little connection with what I now think of as jazz. In those days I was listening to lots of great organ players like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, but I suspect that I was just trying to mimic them rather than striving for something that expressed my own creativity. Of course we all have to start somewhere and, hopefully, their influence gradually rubbed off, leading me away from just making jazzy sounds.

At this point, the temptation to make a stab at defining jazz is not a subject I wish to pursue, as our historic concept of jazz has now morphed into so many other types of music (which is surely a good thing) that the original meaning of the word has become blurred. I suppose one could list various attributes to a traditional concept of jazz and say that it involves improvisation, it swings (see my take on this in previous article), is often instrumental and usually has a structure and chord sequence.

A jazzy chord

This brings me to my task of trying to separate playing jazz from just sounding jazzy. When I’m teaching, a student will ask me to show them a lick or chord I’ve just played. If there were a top 10 chart for most requested chord, here is number one:

playing jazz

This is the Jimi Hendrix ‘Purple Haze’ chord, it features in Come Together by the Beatles, and you’ll have also heard it in countless funk tunes. And, indeed, it is pretty funky. Now, I have nothing whatever against this chord. My point is this: I believe that the improviser (or composer/songwriter) needs to be aware of how a chord functions rather than simply using it for its own sake. Unless the entire composition or solo is based solely around one chord, just to play it in isolation purely because of its attractive sound can be a meaningless gesture that has no relevance in the bigger picture. Rather, we need to examine how each chord relates to its neighbour. Only then does jazzy become jazz.

So first of all, what is this chord? Well, it’s a dominant 7 topped with a sharp 9. In most musical instances a dominant 7 has a function: it either leads to or wants to lead to its tonic. But in the two songs mentioned above this is not the case, as in these instances the dominant 7 is acting as a tonic chord. In other words, it’s a non-functioning chord: It can stand in its own right or move to anywhere it chooses. A good example of non-functioning dominant 7 chords occur in a basic 12 bar blues.

Here are bars 1 – 4 of a 12 bar blues comp. (Bar 4 contains the tritone substitute of F7).

playing jazz

For soloing, you could take a horizontal approach (one scale played over a group of chords) and use F blues scale.

If the above illustration is an example of this F7(#9) when doing its duty as a non-functioning dominant 7 (not pointing to its tonic) how does the same chord look when performing its usual duties: i.e. part of a II – V – I sequence?

Here is a II – V – I sequence in Bb major featuring this same chord but now pointing towards its tonic. I’m using basic voicings with shells in the left hand.

playing jazz

In this context, playing the F blues scale no longer works. Our solo is now more likely to be vertical (appropriate note choices over each individual chord). And this time the F7(#9) chord could, for example, support F altered scale:


If all this is beginning to get a little technical for some readers, I hope that the above illustrations demonstrate that one chord has different functions in different contexts and cannot simply be used because of its appealing sound in isolation.

A jazzy scale

And now for the scale that wins top prize for overuse. When I take on a new student we usually start with a basic 12-bar blues. This is not some test to expose weaknesses but rather an easy and usually relaxed meeting point during which a learning jazz pianist can solo while I provide a bass line. In most cases, however, I’m treated to a stream of six notes known as the blues scale.

playing jazz

As with my number 1 ‘jazzy’ chord, I have nothing against this scale other than its constant use. There are blues guitarists (that I won’t name) that have built a career out of endlessly running up and down this scale. This is why I choose to listen to the likes of Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix rather than those six-note wonders.

This time, rather than identifying chord function, here it’s a case of choosing other options. But I’ll start with an example of where you can use the blues scale to good effect other than in a blues: a minor II – V – I sequence.

playing jazz

However, if you are soloing over, say, four bars of one dominant 7 chord, as in a basic blues, there are plenty more options than just running up and down the blues scale. Here are just two examples:

  • The Lydian Dominant: This derives from the melodic minor scale a perfect 4th Or just sharpen the 4th of the Mixolydian mode.

playing jazz

  • The diminished scale: When played over a dominant 7 chord, this scale repeats the alternate pattern of half tone, whole tone intervals.

playing jazz

When soloing over these scales, ensure that you emphasise the chord tones (A and Eb) on strong beats in order to bring out the harmony.

Jazz, not jazzy.

So when my old jazz teacher (Howard Riley) said ‘don’t play jazz’ he was steering me away from ready-made sounds and licks, and towards creative exploration. Though tempting to dip into the jazz chocolate box of instant gratification, it is far more rewarding (and musical) to choose material that is relevant and in context, rather than trying to ‘play jazzy.’

I would suggest that soloing is like setting out on an exploration and being surprised by new discoveries. Mark Rylance, an eminent British actor, when asked about his acting technique, said something like this:

“I hate to see productions where the actors seem to know what is going to happen next. I actually prefer the feeling of slight unease and confusion as I receive the line. I can then work out how to respond in a more truthful manner.”

In other words, rather than mechanically delivering his line, he becomes involved in the process of discovery, just as we do in normal conversation or when we solo. This is what I mean by playing jazz rather than playing jazzy.

So stop playing jazzy. Start playing jazz!

Stop trying to swing

Stop trying to swing

Stop trying to swing

Dave Brubeck tells the story that Miles Davis approached him at the end of a gig and murmured in his ear “You’re the only person in this group that swings.” Had Brubeck replied: “What, exactly, do you mean by swing?” I suspect he would have been given short shrift. But of course both musicians had an implicit understanding of the word without the need for analysis or elucidation.

But what does the word ‘swing’ mean in the context of jazz? And can it be taught?

Try googling ‘swing’ and you will encounter an array of words and phrases such as groove and feel, which are of little practical use to a learning musician. But can you actually learn such an elusive art? And if not, does that mean that I, as a jazz piano teacher, am unable to teach it?

I used the word ‘elusive’ but there is, in fact, a science to swing. The theory can be pinned down and explained, but whether or not the theory can be translated into practice is another matter.

For practical purposes swing is about the rhythmic placement of eighth notes (or quavers where I come from). We can then refer to the result as swung eights.

A good place to start is how not to swing.

The following phrase mainly consists of 8 even eighth notes played over a II-V-I sequence in F major.

Stop trying to swing

To convert this to a dotted rhythm is not the way forward as this leads to a stilted and artificial approximation of swing.

stop trying to swing

A more accurate representation is to introduce eighth note triplets that contain a rest midway.

stop trying to swing

This triplet feel could be shown as 12/8 as well as 4/4:


However, the convention is to show the notes as even eights (as shown in the first illustration) based on the assumption that the musician already knows that the piece has a swing feel.

Unfortunately, just to copy this rhythmic pattern will not result in a swing feel. The clue is in the word ‘feel.’ Bill Evans tends to play the eights smoothly; Hampton Hawes pushes them more. But both undoubtedly swing. Monk seems to swing even when he’s playing the melody of a standard. You can find an excellent example of Monk’s unique swing feel on YouTube in his live version of Don’t Blame Me (live in Denmark, 1966). His left hand is mostly playing a strict four to the bar stride, but pay close attention to his right hand phrasing. Although his eighth notes are anything but smooth, Monk never stops swinging.

Clearly, when we listen to the masters playing these so-called swung eights, the rhythmic placement seems to vary not just from player to player, but from bar to bar.

One could say that swing is a superimposition of two time signatures working in tandem: 4/4 and 12/8. And it’s the subtle shifts and use of dynamics that contribute to this swing feel. But we can’t escape the fact that the only real way forward is the combination of listening to the jazz masters and playing with other musicians.

Before I became involved in jazz I was playing rock music for many years. On occasion, when finding myself playing alongside classically trained musicians, I encountered another example of the difference in rhythmic feel: their idea of where the downbeat occurred differed from mine. I placed mine right on the beat whereas they seemed to place it slightly before. Neither is wrong. Nor does it imply that my downbeats coincide with the click of a metronome. Anyone with experience of programming music with the aid of a computer will know the dangers of quantizing: forcing beats into their precise slots dehumanises the music. In other words the human feel has been removed.

So how can swing be taught?

Firstly, we imbibe the swing feel by listening and playing with other musicians. Yes, I’ve said this before but I’ll keep repeating it.

Secondly it’s a question of rhythmic consistency. Some of the best sports men and women have been labelled as boring: Pete Sampras, Steve Davis, and, in the UK, even a football team: Chelsea. I would replace the word boring with consistent. And this consistency is achieved through moment-to-moment accuracy.

Over the years, my main self-criticism as a player has been my lack of consistency with regard to rhythmic accuracy. No amount of creativity will mask a lack of precision when placing notes. Until we are ‘locked in’ with the rhythm section, nothing will swing. And we can all instantly recognise whether or not a band is playing ‘in the pocket.’

A practical path to swing

I therefore encourage my students to sometimes think less about being creative and focus more on rhythmic accuracy. Here’s a good way to start:

  1. Play a constant stream of smooth eighth notes.  At first it doesn’t matter which notes you play, as long as they are even. Don’t try to swing.
  2. Now leave some gaps between your phrases, but still hear and feel the 8s, even though you are not actually playing them. In other words this constant stream of 8s are always there ‘in the ether’ whether you’re actually playing them or not.
  3. Now try this with a simple II-V-I or turnaround sequence in different keys.
  4. Finally, try the above with a familiar jazz standard.

Learning to play a constant string of smooth and even eighth notes, over a bass line or ‘locked in’ rhythm section is the first step to achieving a swing feel.

From a teaching perspective, another essential part of the equation relates to levels of energy. Many of my students arrive for a lesson after a full-on day at work and are still buzzing with high energy. Some may also be stressed after driving through London traffic or as a result of being packed on to a rush hour tube train. While in this hyper or agitated state their playing is likely to be rushed and uneven and it can sometimes take 30 minutes before they settle down. I’m not suggesting that there is an optimum state that one should aim for in order to swing but, for me, I’m at my best when relaxed but alert. I can only describe this as a physically lower energy in the body.

Over my years as a student of jazz I have been given two pieces of advice that I always try to pass on. The first pearl of wisdom is the title of this piece: stop trying to swing. Put another way, if you make an active effort to swing the result will be stilted and artificial.

The second piece of advice was “stop trying to sound jazzy.” But that’s another article.

Here’s a link to my online video course.
And here’s a link to my Learn Jazz Piano eBooks.

Playing without the dots

Playing without the dots

Playing without the dots

Why you should memorise tunes

Sheet music is just information, it’s not the music itself. The more you read what’s in front of you the less head room you’ll have for creativity. Playing without the dots opens up your ears!

Which tunes should  I learn?

This, of course, is very much up to you. But I’ve chosen the following 12 songs for the following reasons:

  1. They are easy to learn.
  2. They are popular and likely to come up when playing with other musicians.
  3. Your list should contain well known standards, at least one in 3/4, a blues, a ballad, a Latin tune in straight time and a song form that follows the Rhythm Changes structure.

12 songs to learn

1)  Autumn Leaves

Thi is the first standard I give to my students due to its simple construction.

Usual key: Bb major
Form: AB = 16 bars
Map: Very easy to learn as it just flips between II-V-I major and II-V-I relative minor.

2) C Jam Blues

A very simple blues.

Usual key: the clue’s in the title.
Form: 12 bars
Map: Can either be played with the 3 basic chords or with an added II-V at bars 9 and 10.

3) I Got Rhythm

This chord sequence is known as Rhythm Changes and is based on this song by Gershwin

Usual key: Bb.
Form: AABA = 32 bars.
Map: The A section is mostly a I-VI-II-V turnaround but with a move to the subdominant (IV) at bar 6. The B section consists of 4 dominant 7s that follow the circle of 5ths.

4) Blue Bossa

This simple sequence has a Latin feel.

Usual key: C minor
Form: 16 bars repeated.
Map: Only 2 keys to learn: it’s mostly in C minor but bars 9-12 flip to Db major.

5) All Of Me

A very well known standard, often sung.

Usual key: C major
Form: AB = 16+16
Map: Remains in original key with a foray into the relative minor.

6) Bye Bye Blackbird

A traditional ‘singalong’ but listen to the Keith Jarrett version for inspiration.

Usual key: F major
Form: AB = 16+16
Map: A section remains in the original key. B section contains some II-V’s.

7) Fly Me To The Moon

Often sung, popularised by Sinatra

Usual key: C major
Form: AB = 16+16
Map: III-VI-II-V-I-IV as in ‘All The Things You Are’ but then moves to the relative minor.

8) Satin Doll

An Ellington standard. Ramsey Lewis recorded a very accessible version.

Usual key: C major
Form: AABA = 32 bars.
Map: kicks off with a pair of ascending II-V’s. B section moves to F major.

9) What Is This Thing Called Love

Another popular standard with a conventional AABA structure.

Usual key: C major.
Form: AABA = 32 bars.
Map: Unusual in that the A section starts with a minor II-V-I in F minor.
As usual, the B section moves to a new key, this time Bb major.

10) Yesterdays

A Jerome Kern ballad in a minor key that contains a circle of 5ths

Usual key: D minor.
Form: AB = 16+16
Map: After staying in D minor for a while it moves though the circle of 5ths from bar 9 – 12 before returning to the key signature.

11) Beautiful Love

Another tune in a minor key with an AB structure.

Usual key: D minor.
Form: AB = 16+16
Map: Sets out with a II-V-I in D minor then switches to its relative major.

12) Some Day My Prince Will Come

Here’s your opportunity to play in 3 time. This tune is a Bill Evans special.

Usual key: Bb major.
Form: AB = 16+16
Map:Stays in the same key but throws in some diminished chords.


Learning to play jazz

Learning to play jazz

Play jazz: practice and theory

Have you ever been asked the question “What do you do?” When I used to reply “I’m a singing coach” the usual annoying response was “Do you know anyone famous?” Now that I teach jazz piano, an equally infuriating reaction is “How can you teach improvisation? I thought you just make stuff up.” However I have to admit that they do have a point. I can’t imagine that fifty years ago jazz players had the same access to teachers, courses or even books on the practical aspects of playing jazz. So how did they learn? Perhaps they did just ‘make stuff up’ but they would have also learned by listening to other musicians. More importantly, their musical progress would have evolved through the act of playing alongside fellow musicians.

Nowadays, there is far more access to jazz education, with full-time degree courses, jazz teachers, online tutorials, and books by the cartload. But however much we fill our heads with jazz theory, there is still no substitute for the two activities that jazz musicians have always engaged in: listening and playing together. Understanding tritone substitution and gaining the ability to play
II-V-I’s in every key will is will get you so far, but until you get out there and play with other musicians your progress will eventually hit a brick wall. This also applies to only ever playing along to backing tracks. These tracks will help you with timing and acquainting yourself with a piece, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

Even if you have a personal teacher playing alongside you, there is still a difference between this relatively safe activity and playing in a room with a group of fellow musicians. Taking this to the next level has to be performing live. Even if you are just playing to the barman one can only benefit from this shift up in gear: this is now a gig rather than a practice section or rehearsal. There is no longer the option to stop half way through if something goes wrong but there’s also the added buzz that only comes from performing rather than rehearsing.

So, assuming that you are now playing with other musicians and doing the odd gig, is there really any need to learn theory? Let’s break this down.

Reading the dots

I’m not one of the lucky ones that can carry dozens of tunes around in my head. However, I played classical music in my younger days and can therefore read music. But is it an essential requirement? For me, I know that this skill has enabled me to work as a pro musician for 40 years but, generally speaking, I’d say that you can get by just by reading the treble clef, in other words, the top line or melody of a tune.

Recognising the chord symbols

This has to be an essential requirement, for the simple reason that a lead sheet comprises of the top line (melody) plus chord symbols. Some single line players (sax etc) have been known to get away without knowing their chords, but for us piano players it’s our bread and butter. You must work towards recognising chord symbols for all major, minor and dominant seven chords in every key. There is no escape from this requirement.

Reading the map

Just seeing each chord individually is not enough. You may have your favourite voicings and know scales that work over each chord, but playing a solo by referring to each chord individually will sound unmusical and disjointed. All songs have a map: chords fall into groups and these groups of chords usually belong to a key centre.

Key centres

Most tunes begin in one key but then move through a number of related keys before eventually returning to the original key (the key signature). The chord chart doesn’t inform you explicitly of these key changes. It is for you to decipher them. The big clue is to be found in the dominant 7 chord, which usually ‘points’ towards its tonic, in other words, the key centre. So, for example, if you see the chord A7, it ‘wants’ to resolve to D major or D minor. Once you have identified a group of chords that all belong to one key centre, you can then play through this passage in a way that makes musical sense. The most common sequence in jazz is II –V – I.

Scales and modes

Choose any chord, no matter how complex, and there’s bound to be a scale or mode that can be played over it. The danger here is that just running up and down these scales and modes will produce bad jazz. But, that said, you need to gain some knowledge of these scales and how they relate to chords.

Chord tones

There are certain notes within a chord that identify that chord and need to be targeted. Top of the list is the 3. This is the note that tells us whether a chord is major or minor. Nest in importance comes the 7. The difference, for example, between C7 and C major 7 is whether the note ‘B’ is natural or flattened. These 3s and 7s need to be highlighted in order to illuminate the harmonic line of your solo.


It can always be said that all the above can be learned by just having a good ear. But in the end it’s finding your own balance between studying the theory and just playing the music.






Finding the sweet notes

Finding the sweet notes

In video lesson 24 of Learn Jazz Piano  I focus on how songwriters employ ‘sweet notes’ to add that spine tingling effect to their melody. I then relate this to jazz improvisation and show you how to employ this technique in your solos.

Here’s an extract from chapter 10 of my eBook ‘How To Solo’, where I deal with this essential topic. To purchase the book follow this link.

Chapter 10

Here are two tunes that target sweet notes to great effect.

In  the first eight bars of Victor Young’s Beautiful Love each sweet note occurs on beat 1 and above the chord.


The table below describes the function of each boxed note in relation to its chord.

Note Chord Function
A Em7(b5) 4
F A7(#5) #5
F Dm7 3
C Gm7 4
A C7 6
A Fmaj7 3


Blue In Green, credited to Miles Davis but probably composed by Bill Evans, has a cyclical structure that never seems to resolve. I recommend that you first revisit this tune by listening to track 3 of the Miles Davis album: Kind Of Blue.

In the following example, rather than writing out the complete melody, I’ve illustrated just the target notes, plus a suggested left-hand accompaniment.

blue in green targets+ rootless

  • Table showing sweet notes
Bar Note Chord Function
1 E Gm6 6
2 C A7 #9
3 A Dm7 5
3 G G7 1
4 F Cm7 4
4 D F7 6
5 E Bbmaj7(b5) b5
6 C A7 #9
7 G Dm7 4
8 C E7 #5
9 B Am7 9
10 F Dm7 3


The video for this lesson will be available very soon.

Learn Jazz Piano Online blog with Paul Abrahams | jazz piano video lessons online