How can I learn jazz piano?
My immediate response to this question after a 50 year pro career as a keyboard player and teacher is “I’m still learning”.
And if Sonny Rollins, at the age of 80 said that he was still working it, then us lesser mortals can take note.
You may wish to skip the following biographical details. But I can only answer the question “How can I learn jazz piano?” for myself by tracing how I came to jazz and trying to make sense of it.
I had a couple of piano playing uncles who could bash out tunes. Also a sax playing cousin that played on the cruises and earned his living as musician. So it may have been in my genes or perhaps I was exposed to real live musicians from an early age.
After some very tedious piano teachers that only gave me children’s tunes and scales I started seeing a teacher that played in the pubs. He gave me ‘pop tunes’ that I was hearing on the radio and that I could identify with. It’s worth saying here that I was now already able to read music reasonably well, and this has been really helped getting work over the years.
So here’s the first part of my answer to ‘How can I learn jazz piano?’ I strongly advise that you learn to read the treble clef. This is because most tunes that are in ‘real books‘, previously known as ‘fake books’ just contain the tune (treble clef) and chords. But we’ll get to later. You don’t need to learn the bass clef!
When I was a young teenager I would meet up with a clarinet player and drummer and we would practice ‘dance tunes’ at my youth club. I doubt if we ever actually did a gig but … and here’s the second part of my answer to “How can I learn jazz piano?”.
Make every effort to play with other people, no matter what instrument they play or even the style of music. I’ve learned more from playing with other people that any teacher!
By my mid teens I was listening to a lot of music, not jazz (whatever that was) but usually black American singer/performers like James Brown, Ray Charles and Fats Domino. Now I say it wasn’t jazz, but Ray Charles was playing some great piano and working alongside ‘proper’ jazz musicians like Milt Jackson. I loved soulful Hammond organ players like Brother Jack McDuff. But that meant that I was also hearing his guitarist George Benson. And whatever Fats Domino was doing on the piano I just knew that I loved it.
In my late teens I was going to the 100 club in Oxford Street (London) to see my favourite band: the Graham Bond Organisation.
Never heard of him? He was the singer and hammond player of a band comprising of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and, later on, John Mclaughlin on guitar. Jazz? No idea, but the most exciting band I’ve ever seen or heard. And so, the next answer to ‘How can I learn to play jazz piano? …
Listen to as much music as you can, either on record or live. Don’t concern yourself as to whether or not it’s ‘jazz’. Listen to whatever moves you. And what’s more you don’t have to understand it. Just get inspired.
I joined my first ever band around 1965 after advertising myself in the music paper of the time as ‘a blues pianist’. What a nerve! Anyway, I turned up for an audition and was presented with a Vox Continental organ to play. The band were playing what was then described as R&B: the kind of repertoire that bands like Georgie Fame, Zoot Money and the Spencer Davis Group were playing.
But the songs were just scribbled on paper in the shape of chords. Now, by this time I must have had some notion of chords. But this, I soon found out, in the various semi-pro bands I joined during this period, was how the group learned a song. And how did they learn the songs? By listening to the records and trying to work out the chord sequence. And so to my next answer to ‘how can I learn to play jazz piano?.
Start become acquainted with chords. Start with triads (3-note chords) and hear how they link up. Just four: C, Aminor, F and G, all in the key of C, will get you started. Arrange them in different orders and hear how they combine to form innumerable songs. Then try them in different keys. The guitarist may want to play in the key of E, the sax player may prefer Bb.
Then move on to 4-note chords. C7 = C+E+G+Bb. F7 = F+A+C+Eb. G7 = G+B+D+F.
These three ‘7th’ chords will get you through a thousand versions of a 12-bar blues.
To be continued!
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