Welcome to the Piano World Piano Forums Over 2 million posts about pianos, digital pianos, and all types of keyboard instruments
Join the World's Largest Community of Piano Lovers
It's Fun to Play the Piano ... Please Pass It On!
Loc: Monterey County, CA
Hello all, I'm normally a choral accompanist, so this is my first time posting on this side of the forums, Pardon me if anyone else has already asked a similar question.
I'm a pretty classically trained pianist and I can read music fine and all, but I'd really like to get into jazz too. I particularly like the style of the stuff by like Eddie Higgins' trio or even a lot of the (perhaps cliche) Vince Guaraldi stuff from the Peanuts cartoons that you always hear around Christmas (if that helps give you an idea of the kind of sound I want). Specifically I'd also really like to do that sort of style of improvisation. How does one learn to do that?
I know there's more to jazz than just playing the notes written on the page though, so I'm not sure how to really learn how to play it well and stylistically. Are there actually method books for jazz piano? I've watched some videos on youtube that taught me some basic stuff, but I feel like I basically sound like someone who knows music, but has no idea what they're doing on the keyboard. Of course the key is always to practice, I'm just not sure where to begin or WHAT to actually practice.
Loc: Leicester, UK
Eddie HIggins! One key to his style is to listen to the Ahmad Jamal Trio from the '50s and '60. And he had more than a little Oscar Peterson in his style. I used to have Eddie Higginss; Soulero on vinyl It's a great piano trio recording ... it captures a particular style and elegance that's not heard so much today.
About where to start: You get a book on jazz improvisation. There are any number of them out there. You could get a book of jazz transcriptions by the pianist(s) of your choice (I'm pretty sure Hal Leonard has a book of Vince Guaraldi transcriptions (and he in turn took a lot from Red Garland).. You could search out some the online sites that offer jazz instruction through subscriptions.
But as a teacher what I'm winding up to is he idea that the best and fastest way to acquire skills in jazz, short of playing gigs 6 nights a week, a scenario which doesn't really exist anymore, is find a jazz teacher with whom you click. A teacher who knows how to build on the skill set and technique you already have. You'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration with a great teacher AND you'll be working with someone onstensibly tuned to your particular needs rather than the more generic approach in books. That question of what to practice next will simply go away and even if it doesn't you'll have an experienced mentor with whom to discuss it.
Don't get me wrong: books and other materials and videos are a great resource and many on this forum, me included, have learned A LOT from these things. But working directly with a teacher and also finding other like-minded musicians with whom you can begin to play jazz with ... that can take far you ahead and quickly. Because there's a social element to jazz that's as important if not more important than the "notes." A teacher can help you with that and playing with other musicians can really help you with that. Books, while interesting and informative can't help you with that.
But, going back to Eddie Higgins, you might find a book of Oscar Peterson transcriptions because it'll be full of the blues licks Eddie Higgins used to play. You could get the great app Drumgenius (for iOS and Android) and play the OP transcriptions along with the drum beats of your choice. In particular, there's a beat called "Conga Beat No. 1 on it that more or less comes from an Oscar Peterson trio recording but it's also in exactly the same kind style in which Eddie Higgins used to play. There are other play-along resources as well ... tons of them out there!
You could get the Charlie Parker Omnibook (in C) which has about 150 pages of CP's transcribed solos. Learn them all! Play them slow, play them fast, play them out of tempo, play them in a few different keys.
Get the recordings of them and load them into an app like Anytune Pro. Then with the app slow down the recordings which won't change the pitch. And then, and play along with the slowed-down recordings. Duplicate ervery aspect of Charlie Parker's phrasing and articulations and feel as closely as you can. Playing along with Charlie Parker at 1/2 speed is a lesson in of itself.
But, having said all above, find yourself a great teacher ... there are probably several in your area and there are a bunch on Skype. Again, work with a teacher to build a personalised, sequenced learning path that can change, adapt, and shape to your needs as you learn more and more. That's a path that'll probably include all the basics of scales and arpeggios and chords and voicings and then more advanced stuff–including a conceptual, thoughtful side and knowledge of styles. So you can figure out how to tie together what interests you. But that'll all take time ... And as a chorale accompanist, the greatest source of harmony you can learn from for jazz may be the 371 harmonised Bach Chorales. Fred Hersch (one of the great jazz pianists) calls them the "bible of jazz voice leading," which is a pretty strong recommendation from an excellent source!
And, again, find musicians with whom you can play.
Hope some of the above helps and THANKS for mentioning Eddie Higgins, a personal favourite whom I heard several times, the last being in a restaurant in Cape Cod with a trio (bass and drums). He played fabulously everytime I saw him ...
Wow, Eddie Higgins ! A name I haven't heard more than 40 years! The pianist of my youth,from which I wrote transcriptions, being sure that he is African American (at the time were only recording on the tape of the radio programs of Willis Conover). An excellent example of a very melodic improvisation, reminiscent of the concept of Errol Garner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAXjTnKQi8w
I was lost a very long time how to get into jazz improvising. But these vids helped me a lot with practice. I actually hate to study so called "licks" (to be honest I never practice and play licks, I do not like the idea of consciously playing exact certain pre-known phrases over certain chord sequences - this will maybe change in future), these easy accessible beginner methods are based on following your inner ear and knowledge of scales/harmony.. so you are always creating even on beginner level
But well, that's my amateur-beginner view on it hah!
Big eye-opener for me was:
I think this should be viewed by every beginner. - I.e. Be satisfied by playing or work simply with the framework and honestly and real and play something simple where you can build on. Biggest risk for beginner/amateur is comparing yourself with and trying to play like jazz greats.
Justice: I'm someone classically trained who switched to jazz. I don't have specific books or web sites (I used a live teacher), but I thought I'd suggest what the big picture looks like.
Jazz is a completely different mental approach to playing. Classical is all about notes on a page. Jazz is about rhythm and harmony. Rhythmically, you'll learn to swing. Harmonically, you'll learn about chord progressions, how to feel them, how to voice them (left hand or comping) and how to play notes that fit them. I can't emphasize enough the difference in the mental approach that you'll slowly be learning. Jazz is not just a different style; it's a different approach to creating music.
This may make it sound a bit daunting, but it could turn out, like for me, to be the most exciting musical journey you'll ever take.
Loc: Mountain Time, USA
You've received superb replies above so I've got little to add. But here's one additional thought:
Given your training you may find the 3-book series by David Baker entitled "How to Play Bebop" to be of considerable help in getting that classic jazz bebop sound under your fingers.
By focusing methodically on his material, with ample time to practice and absorb each section, I quickly shot light years beyond where I'd been stuck for years previously.
Along with the solid suggestions above, Baker's series might be a valuable way to help you internalize some useful structure - which is often what someone with your background needs as an entry point to improvising - particularly in the styles of jazz you've described as your primary interest.
I learnt to play piano on classical, always wanted to play jazz but for a very long time could not figure it out, I couldn't get on with any of the tutor books I got hold of. But now I think I have figured out how to teach myself jazz. So I'm no expert, I still have a huge amount to learn!
I think the first thing is understanding music theory in general, (not necessarily specifically study jazz or a specific type of jazz) then you're 80% of the way there. i.e. chord progressions, scales, chord voicings, rhythms, bass lines. I don't think that's as hard as it might seem at first; just follow the steps below. The difficult bit is learning to do it well enough you can do it sight reading, which is down to lots of practice, but again using the steps below that practice shouldn't feel like too much of a chore. As you get familiar with the theory you should then be able to pick up the basics of any new music style fairly quickly - at least enough that you can then start to teach yourself how to play that style. I think early classical music was often improvisational, you might for example find that after this first step you see, say the piano part for a Schubert song in a different light, quickly learn what's going on and could then, given a melody line and chords make up your own Schubert style accompaniment or improvisation at sight accompanying a singer. And find yourself playing classical with a new found understanding, ease and confidence.
I also think some sort of electronic midi keyboard and multitimbral and sequencing capabilities can be an extremely useful learning tool. E.g. create your own backing tracks and practice by looping round and round the AABA form of a tune practicing various aspects. This way you should learn more about bass lines, accompaniment, drums and possibly guitar ('Freddie Green' comping), and be able to practice these elements in the correct context. E,g, it's difficult and no fun trying a right hand improvisation without the bass and accompaniment. Even if the intention is only to play solo it would be useful to learn all the elements required, that way, whether playing in a bigband or solo or anywhere in between you understand what you need to achieve to fit in or replace the missing musicians. Although I also appreciate if you're not already into electronics getting set up this way might be too much work, and most people probably learn without this.
I think get one or more of the Real books (basically lead sheets with the melody line and chords only). The advantage of the Real books is the chords are structured as a jazz musician would think of them. Pick some tunes and analyse what is going on. Autumn leaves would be a good one to start.
The most common jazz chord sequence is IIm-V7-I, (e.g. in C that would be Dm-G7-C)the I chord would normally be a I6 or Imajor7th. That would mean you could just improvise using any notes in the root scale across the whole of that II-V-I phrase. Or I-VIm- IIm-V7-I similarly. The minor equivalent could be IImb5-V7b9-Im, at first glance that might look like complicated chords but it is just the chords you get in the minor scale with a II-V-I (but you need to remember the harmonic or melodic minors) so I don't think of it as, say a II minor chord with flattened 5th, I think of it as the II chord in the minor scale (minor scale of the I chord).
Autumn Leaves, for example is mostly the II-V-I in the major and relative minor key.
Play through, or analyse lots of pieces in the Real book and start to see common patterns in chord progressions emerging, mostly the II-V-I. So Cm-F7-Cm-F7-Dm-G7-Dm-G7 is IIm-V7 in 2 different keys meaning you can improvise using the scale of Bb for first 4 chords, then C for the second 4. Think how you can simplify a tune it into common chord progressions and therefore what scale you could use across that set of chords; e.g. can you reduce a piece to just a scale in C major, say for lots of bars, then A major, then the relative minor of C major (A minor) and if in the minor key study the chords and melody to decide if and when you need to use the harmonic or melodic minor.
Learn different types of chord voicings. Depending on the circumstances A, B, or C below may work best. I think of 3 main types: A) The "obvious" e.g. the root, 3rd fifth, (but often this type can sound very un jazzy) or 6, 7th, 13th etc if that is the written chord, these could be in inversions, close or opened out. B) The minimalist, i.e. just the 2 notes (omitting root and 5th) that define the chord, so G7 would be F(to define dominant 7th) and B (to define G major). C) My favourite, I call contemporary jazz voicings (not sure if that's the correct term?)and I think classical composers like Chopin, not jazz musicians developed these - so a I chord I think of as 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th or the inversion of that (6, 9, 3, 5). The IIm chord as 3, 5, 7, 9 or inversion and the dominant 7th as 3, 6, 7 (dominant 7th), 9 or inversion. The last group (C) can take a while to learn to play sightreading, but I find them the most useful and jazzy sounding.
Pick a simple real book tune, use the multitimbral keyboard and sequencer to record and play a simple 2 or 4 crotchet per bar bass line (e.g. on root and 5th, arpegiating or walking bass - googling that should help if needed) , then add a simple ride cymbal (simple if you're not good at bass and drums yet, hopefully as you learn more you can improve on these parts), add a simple 4 crotchet chords accompaniment on an acoustic guitar using type A chord voicing above (no extensions; i.e. root, 3rd, 5th only) and a soft and sustained beat one and 3, louder and staccato on beats 2 and 4. Loop round the AABA form and play along on the piano, first play tune in right hand (and practice the swing feel; every note must be exactly on the beat or off the beat by the right amount and with the right expression - listening to recordings should help with this) then add chords in left hand using one of the voicing styles above (A, B, or C). Then start to improvise.
For improvisation notes you can take inspiration from the tune or notes of the scale based on the chord progression, or notes of the chord voicings. Simple!? I think, particularly when you're learning, improvisation comes easier the better the rhythm section and the tonal quality of your instrument. If playing solo piano, then your left hand is probably the rhythm section. Pick a tune, study it for a bit then go online and listen to different versions of it. Record you own efforts to hear how good or bad you are.