How I teach jazz piano

In 1967 I turned professional as a keyboard player and piano teacher and now that I’m nearly 75 and still teaching, perhaps it’s time to reflect on how I teach jazz piano.

I passed all my exams at secondary school except for music, probably because by this time I was already playing in bands and felt that my musical education at school had no relevance to my practical experience. In retrospect I was just being a difficult teenager, refusing to believe that analysing bars 1 to 4 of a Bach prelude had no connection or relevance to the new Beatles tune my band was learning. Had I taken more notice of that Bach Prelude, I would have learned that it actually contained a chord sequence.

Here’s a simplified version of those four bars with my chord symbols.

How I teach jazz piano by analysing a Bach Prelude

This is a I-II-V-I chord sequence in C major that you’ll find in many pop tunes. I hope it goes without saying that I’m not comparing Bach to even the most accomplished ‘pop’ composer but am merely pointing out that my pig-headedness was missing a fundamental point.

Although I never became a fluent sight reader, my musical ear was fast improving. All the bands I played with would work out chords by listening to the record. Likewise, when accompanying a singer, even if I didn’t know the song, I could usually work out the chord sequence while they were singing by guessing where the chord sequence was going.

I still take on private students, and how I teach jazz piano to them will depend on their experience. However, even some students that know all about modes, rootless voicings etc often have little understanding of basic harmony. And when I say basic, I mean hearing and then playing the chord sequence of a simple melody. Here are the first 8 bars of Amazing Grace.

 Just hearing how the G chord (‘I’ or tonic) moves up to the C chord (‘IV’ or subdominant) or down to the E minor chord (‘IV’: the relative minor) is the first step to recognising chord patterns.

There are thousands of tunes that use the pattern I–VI–I-V. Here are the first 4 bars of the pop song ‘Dream’ in F major.

Comparing jazz tunes with pop tunes.

When teaching jazz this chord sequence usually becomes I-VI-II-V.

For example, a I-VI-II-V sequence in G major is G, Emin7, Amin7, D7. This is often referred to as a turnaround.

Hearing and recognising turnarounds will open the door to so many tunes.

Likewise, the II-V-I sequence features everywhere in jazz standards. For example, II-V-I in Bb major is Cmin7- F7 – Bbmaj7. You will notice that I’m now using 4-note chords, known as sevenths.

Here are the first 3 bars of Autumn Leaves in Bb major.

How I teach jazz piano using Autumn Leaves.

And very often you will see a II-V sequence that doesn’t resolve to its tonic (its ‘I’).

So here are some basic patterns to watch out for…

  • The ‘I’ chord moving to its ‘V’. (The first two chords of Happy Birthday to You and Let it Be).
  • The ‘I’ chord moving down to its ‘VI’. In the key of G major the ‘I’ chord moving down to ‘IV’ would be G to E minor.
  • The ‘I’ chord moving up to its ‘IV’.
  • I – VI – IV – V. In the key of G this is G – E minor – C – D. See above, but the entire song ‘Stand by Me’ consists only of these four chords.
  • I – VI – II – V. Both this and the variation above are known as turnarounds.
  • II – V. This sequence ‘wants’ to resolve to its tonic (the ‘I’) but may go elsewhere.

And you may recognise the following example. This I – IV – V is the heart of songs such as Twist and Shout, La Bamba, Summer Nights (from Grease).

How I teach jazz piano by starting with just three chords.

And finally, for now, these three chords, I, IV and V are all you need for just about any 12 bar Rock & Roll song.

These days, besides my private students, I also run a ‘Learn Jazz Piano Online’ video course. But hopefully this gives you some insight as to how I teach jazz piano.

And, as you may have guessed, I put a great emphasis on recognising groups of chords. Although the understanding of harmony has a real benefit for any musician, it is of particular importance to us keyboard players who often have the job of feeding the harmony to other players when they are soloing etc.

So, my simple message is this: before you delve into advanced concepts like tritone substitution, rootless voicings etc explore and learn to recognise simple chord sequences that are a part of so many songs.

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