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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.

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.

How to solo

How to solo

How to Solo

My learn jazz piano video course is now around half way through the series ‘How to solo.’  There now follows a summary of these lessons so far with a link to each lesson.

Lesson 21:  Connecting hands
In this lesson I take you through techniques to incorporate your left hand. These include the following:

Walking bass lines
Shearing block chords
Drop 2 and left hand voicings

Click here for link to lesson 21


Lesson 22: Choosing the right scale
This lesson guides you through the best scales and modes to use over your chords and focuses on the following topics:

Using the Lydian mode over major chords
Choosing Dorian or Aolian over minor chords
The use of Lydian Dominant, altered scale etc over 7th chords
Choosing Locrian or Locrian 2 over diminished chords

Click here for lesson 22


Lesson 23: putting scales to work
This lesson guides you through many soloing options

Bebop scales
Effective use of passing notes
How to encircle notes
Soloing over Satin Doll

Click here for lesson 23



Learn Jazz Piano by Listening

Learn Jazz Piano by Listening

Learn Jazz Piano by Listening – part 2

This is part 2 of my list of essential recordings that I think you should be listening to. You can find the complete list in chapter 10 of  Learn Jazz Piano book 3.

Alongside playing and studying, listening to the masters of improvisation will improve your playing without you even knowing that it’s happening. Of course you can study the solos and even transcribe them.  There are apps for slowing the tracks down and changing the key like Tempo SloMo and Transcribe. But nothing replaces just listening to the music without trying to analyse it. I guarantee that it will sink in subconsciously and become a backbone of your own developing style.

In part one we looked at the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker,  Bud Powell, Coleman  Hawkins and Duke Ellington. I pointed out that it is important that you listen to other soloists besides pianists. Also, by listening to a recording of, say, Lester Young, you will also be hearing the great piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

In part 2 of my list we are now in the 50’s and 60’s.

Artist: Hampton Hawes

Instrument: Piano

Title: The Hampton Hawes trio

Date: 1955


Artist: Sonny Rollins

Instrument: tenor sax

Title: Tenor Madness

Date: 1956

Piano: Red Garland.


Artist: John Coltrane

Instrument: sax

Title: Blue Trane

Date: 1957

Piano: Kenny Drew


Artist: John Coltrane

Instrument: sax

Title: Crescent

Date: 1964

Piano: McCoy Tyner


Artist: Art Pepper

Instrument: alto sax

Title: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section

Date: 1957

Piano: Red Garland


Artist: Cannonball Adderley

Instrument: alto sax

Title: Somethin’ Else

Date: 1958

Piano: Hank Jones


Artist: Miles Davis

Instrument: trumpet

Title: Kind Of Blue

Date: 1959

Piano: Bill Evans


Artist: Bill Evans

Instrument: piano

Title: Portrait In Jazz

Date: 1959

We have now reached Bill Evans, perhaps the father of modern jazz piano.

Learn Jazz Piano
Bill Evans

Here’s the link to  my learn jazz piano video course

To be continued…

Study jazz piano: Suggested listening part 1

Study jazz piano: Suggested listening part 1

Three ways to study jazz piano

Three ways to study jazz piano are playing,  studying and listening.

Playing: I can only continue to encourage you to seek out other musicians. One of the  best ways to  study jazz piano is by playing with other people, whether with friends, with your teacher, at an evening class or summer school etc etc. Whatever gets you beyond just sitting at home and playing to backing tracks, the interaction and communication with other musicians is essential.

Studying: Hopefully, my learn jazz piano course and eBooks are helping you, but there is an ever growing number of resources now on the internet. Studying, of course, includes practice, and this doesn’t  just mean strolling through your favourite tunes and licks!

Listening: This brings us to today’s blog. How much jazz are you listening to? In a way, this is the easiest way to learn jazz piano, as you don’t need to be doing anything consciously. Just letting the music in without trying to analyse it will really inform your playing. Before I give you my recommendations, here are two pieces of advice:

Firstly, don’t just listen to the music you like. For years, I steered clear of 20’s and 30’s jazz, considering it old fashioned. Big mistake! You can learn just as much listening to Lois Armstrong as John Coltrane.

Secondly, don’t just listen to jazz pianists because that’s your instrument. Listen to how, for example,  great sax improvisers fashion their phrases.

So here’s the first in a series of recommendations. You’ll find the full list in book 3 of my Learn Jazz Piano eBook. Here’s the link to my books:


For each album, I’ve given you the pianist on the session, when the leader is other than a pianist.

Artist: Louis Armstrong

Instrument: trumpet

Title: Hot 5’s and 7’s.

Date: 1926 – 1930

Piano: Earl Hines


Artist: Louis Armstrong

Instrument: trumpet

Title: Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.

Date: 1954.

Piano: Billy Kyle


Artist: Lester Young

Instrument: tenor sax

Title: The Lester Young Story

Date: 1936 – 1949

Piano: Teddy Wilson and Count Basie.


Artist: Charlie Parker

Instrument: alto sax

Title: The Complete Savoy Sessions

Date: 1944 – 1947

Piano: Bud Powell.


Artist: Charlie Parker

Instrument: alto sax

Title: Jazz At The Town Hall

Date: 1945

Piano: Al Haig


Artist: Bud Powell

Instrument: piano

Title: The Amazing Bud Powell

Date: 1951


Artist: Coleman Hawkins

Instrument: tenor sax

Title: The Bebop Years

Date: 1939 – 1949

Piano: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Hank Jones.


Artist: Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus

Instrument: Piano and bass.

Title: Money Jungle

Date: 1962

study jazz piano
Duke Ellington

To be continued…

Here’s the link to my video course.

Lesson 20 of Play Jazz Piano Online now available!

Lesson 20 of Play Jazz Piano Online now available!

Lesson 20 of Play Jazz Piano Online is all about
Rhythm Changes.

My Play Jazz Piano Online video course would not be complete without a tutorial about Rhythm changes. Next to a 12-bar blues, this is the most important chord sequence in jazz, and  is one that every jazz musician needs to be familiar with. Rhythm Changes is based on the chord sequence of the song  I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin. Jazz composers have substituted Gershwin’s  tune with their own, but have kept the chord sequence. Actually, there are a few variations of this sequence you need to know, and I take you through the options in this 30-minute video lesson.

Click here to access lesson.

In 1930, George Gershwin wrote a tune called I Got Rhythm. Subsequently, jazz composers took to retaining the chord changes but replacing Gershwin’s tune with their own. This may have had something to do with avoiding copyright charges. More importantly, players were drawn to the chord changes, finding them to be an ideal vehicle for improvisation.

Many composers have turned their hand to Rhythm Changes. I suggest that you listen to some of the following:

  • Lester Leaps In – Lester Young
  • Anthropology – Charlie Parker
  • Cotton Tail – Duke Ellington
  • Rhythm-A-Ning – Thelonious Monk
  • Oleo – Sonny Rollins
  • The Theme – Miles Davis

Here’s a chord chart for the A section:

play jazz piano online
The A section of Rhythm Changes

As always, the video comes with 4 backing tracks, sheet music and a quiz. If you want to play jazz piano online get started now!

Get lesson 20 here!



Next lesson for Jazz Piano Online

Next lesson for Jazz Piano Online

I’m now working on lesson 11 of Jazz Piano Online.

You can already buy lessons 1-10 in a discounted pack.

Lesson 1 – From scales to chords

  • Soloing over the Pentatonic scale
  • Mastering intervals
  • The V – I concept
  • One formula to construct all major scales
  • 7 chords, one family
jazz piano online
7 chords, 1 scale

Lesson 2 – Building a chord sequence

  • Chord sequences
  • The relative minor and its scales
  • The family row of minor triads
  • Soloing in a minor key

Lesson 3 –  Mastering every key

  • The circle of 5ths
  • How to play in any key
  • Preview of the II-V-I sequence
  • Introduction to the turnaround

Lesson 4 – Swing time

  • Learning to swing
  • The construction of 7th chords
  • How to interpret chord symbols
  • Shells – how not to upset the bass player

Lesson 5 – Walking 3s

  • Turnarounds part 2: I – VI – II -V
  • Walking 3s and 7s: the seeds of vertical improvisation.
  • How to use passing notes.
  • Voice leading

Lesson 6 – Extensions

  • Extensions: how to use 9ths, 11ths and 13th.
  • Know which extensions work with which chord.
  • Voicing a chord using extensions.
  • Introduction to Modes.

Lesson 7 – The II-V-I sequence

  • Master the II – V – I sequence in all keys
  • Seven soloing techniques over II – V – I
  • Alterations: know your sharp 11 from your flat 13
  •  Flat 9s and the diminished chord

Lesson 8 – How to comp

  • Comp like a pro
  • Find the best chord voicings
  • Use the right extensions
  • Build up to a five-note comp
  • Explore rhythmic variations

Lesson 9 – Modes

  • Know your Mixodydian from your Dorian
  • Grasp the connection between modes and chords
  • The art of modal soloing and comping
  • How to play ‘So What’

Lesson 10 – Autumn Leaves part 1

  • Playing your first standard
  • Learning the melody
  • The comp
  • The shells
  • The solo

This new lesson of Learn Jazz Piano Online is called Autumn Leaves part 2. It should be ready by late-February.