Learning to Play Jazz Piano
I grew up loving and playing classical music on the piano. Twenty years ago, I married a jazz fanatic and started going to lots of live concerts with him and listening to his extensive CD collection. Now I too have become crazy about jazz.
I never thought I could play jazz piano because it sounded so complicated, and I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. But two years ago I said to myself, “Who’s telling me I can’t do this? Maybe I can. I’ll get a teacher and see what happens.” I’ve taken a few jazz piano lessons, bought a few books, joined a few music groups, and just took part as a student in my first week-long jazz festival.
I would eventually like to be the piano player in a combo but until then my goal is to improvise decent – sounding solos, comp better, memorize and study recordings by ear and work up some solo piano pieces.
I feel happy when I play because I feel like I’m getting somewhere. When I began playing jazz, I hated it because it didn’t sound right. But now I’ve learned a few things so it sounds better. I’m glad to be making progress.
If you are interested in playing jazz on any instrument, I would recommend the following:
- Listen. Most importantly, start by listening to some great CDs and as much live jazz as you can. Some of my favorites include: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue,” Ella Fitzgerald “The Jazz Songbooks,” Stan Getz “Girl from Ipanema,” Roy Hargrove “Family,” Bill Evans “The Bill Evans album.” Jazz is different from classical music because it’s not a written music. It’s a listening and playing music, from African – American tradition.
- Imitate. Once you start hearing some things that you like, dive in and try to imitate what you hear. Listen and memorize as many solos as you can. Then when you want to solo, the music’s already inside you and you don’t have to wonder what to play. Try to avoid fake books because when the eyes turn on, the ears turn off. There are only 2 unforgivable things for a jazz musician when you’re playing — not listening and not putting your whole self into it. (A lot of these great ideas came from the jazz workshop I attended.)
- Sing. Sing and copy what you sing on your instrument. This really helps you hear the melody and learn to improvise.
- Read. Learn a little jazz theory. There are a few interesting books like Dominant 7th Workout by Jamey Aebersold and Metaphors for the Musician by Randy Halberstadt that can give you a little more background. There are more complicated ones, but these are a good place to start.
- Lessons. Take some lessons or a free online course like Jazz Improvisation on Coursera from Berklee.
- Practice. They say to spend time with your instrument every day. Now that I’m retired, I’m trying to do that, but it doesn’t always happen. According to this wonderful book I read, “The Practice of Practice”, there are many ways to practice. One of the most powerful to me has been lots of listening to good CDs and trying to figure out why they’re doing.
- Join a group. I joined the big band at the local community college. We listen to each other, get ideas, talk about things that we’re doing to get better, are forced to play changes and do solos that stretch us, and learn from the teachers. This has been one of the most valuable exercises to help me grow as a jazz pianist.
Don’t give up on things that scare you. They can be some of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
In summary: Listen, imitate, sing, read, take lessons, practice and join a group.