How to Play Jazz on the Piano
If you are keen to learn how to play jazz piano, then there are a few things that you should know first – Playing jazz piano can be quite complicated, at least at first.
If you are keen to know how to play jazz piano, you have to first know how this type of music functions. You have to be able to identify and understand the components that are used to produce the distinctive jazz sound.
Beginners need to start by learning the basics. Once you have mastered those you will be able to move on, and achieve your ultimate goal of playing jazz music on the piano.
Use your ear:
With classical piano pieces it is possible to learn to play them proficiently, simply by following the sheet music. Naturally your initial rendition will not sound anywhere near as good as it does when a concert pianist plays it, but the piece will be at least recognisable to those who hear it.
Whereas learning Jazz on the piano is almost like learning another language – but once you have mastered the basics (simple words) you can use them to form jazz pieces (sentences).
With jazz piano simply following the notes is just not enough. This type of music has to be played with feeling, rhythm and the right cadence.
Jazz music is far more about feeling and emotion than most people realise. The best jazz musicians literally pour their heart and soul into their music when they play. You will need to learn to do the same.
Getting your ear in:
Exposing yourself to as much jazz music as possible is a great way of getting your ear in. Your mind will naturally pick up the basic rhythms, notes and chords and start to learn the language of jazz.
The best way to start is to listen to popular pieces of jazz music. Pieces that you like and know that you want to learn to play. While doing so you need to try to hear and feel the rhythm, and start to pick out the chords being used. With this kind of listening you are trying to understand how the music is played rather than just hear, and appreciate, the overall sound of the tune.
Becoming a good jazz pianist requires a level of observation that we rarely practice in our everyday life. You need to deconstruct the piece and break it down into its component pieces. If you are unable to do so you will not be able to truly replicate it, and play it as well as the original pianist does.
Read on, and I will explain in more detail how you do this.
How to deconstruct the pieces:
The first step to being able to learn how to replicate, and play your favourite pieces of jazz music is to learn the various components that make up most of the classic jazz tunes. Once you recognise individual chords and licks you will be able to deconstruct any piece of jazz music and easily recreate it, in your own style.
Learn some jazz standards:
If you are going to learn a new language you start by learning the most commonly used words. With jazz that means learning the most commonly used chords, licks and scales.
You can do this the boring way by sitting down and going through a “dry as a bone” jazz piano tutorial following the fingering of your video tutor, or do it the fun way. My recommendation is, as always, the fun way. If you enjoy it you are far more likely to stick at it.
Sit down and learn how to play the following:
Autumn Leaves by Joseph Kosma
Fly me to the Moon by Bart Howard
Summertime by George Gershwin
Each of these three pieces teach you a different jazz piano technique, as well as range of keys and rhythms. They are great fun to play and the fact that they are so popular means you are probably already fairly familiar with them, which makes them far easier to learn.
Other songs that are great for jazz piano beginners are:
Satin Doll by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Blue Bossa by Kenny Dorham
Misty by Erroll Garner
All the Things You Are by Jerome Kern
If you find that you struggle to replicate the chords. Watch a few jazz piano lessons on YouTube. There are some great ones there that show you how to replicate the basic sounds and chords of pretty much any jazz tune.
Make the connection between the sounds and finger placement:
Play these songs every day, several times a day if you can. Once you get reasonably proficient start to watch your fingers on the keys and observe how they are placed.
Doing this will help your brain to learn the necessary placement for each sound, and part of the melody. If you need to play the songs at a slower tempo, do so.
Use visualisation to reinforce what you learn:
The next stage is to sit somewhere quiet and close your eyes. Put your hands out as if you are playing and see your hands move over the keys in your minds eye, and imagine the music.
Identify, any parts that you cannot easily visualise playing with your eyes closed. Go back to the actual piano and practice these parts again.
If you find that you cannot visualise in this way don’t worry. Instead, just sit at the piano and play with your eyes closed. It is not quite as effective as visualisation, because the piece is not going to sound perfect when you play like this.
Try to not let this put you off, or dishearten you. It is hard to play with your eyes closed. Remember that the aim of this exercise is to train your brain to recognise and be able to replicate the most common jazz piano chords, licks and scales. Playing the song perfectly comes later. For now you are tapping into a different way of learning and cementing what you learn into place in your brain.
Testing your jazz recognition skills:
Now that you have learnt the basics of recognising what is being played it is time to put those new found skills to the test.
You can do this by sitting down and listening to a new piece of jazz music, and seeing if you can work out the chords and notes that are used to play it. After you have listened to the piece a few times sit down and try to replicate the piece, and actually play it yourself.
Do it section by section, and try to do it in a relaxed style. The last thing you need to do is to put too much pressure on yourself. You will be delighted by how much of the tune you are immediately able to recognise, and replicate.
Go at your own pace. Figuring out just 2 or 3 bars is a big step in the right direction. You will get better and better the more you practice.
Slow the music down if you need to:
If you find that you are struggling to translate what you hear do not give up. In all likelihood all you need to do is to slow the music down a bit, so you can take in what you are hearing and translate it properly.
The free online programme Online Tone Generator is great for this. However, it is also worth considering investing in a paid version of Transcribe. This paid for software has better functionality, so is easier to use.
Getting the beat and rhythm right
Each jazz style has a unique beat, and every piece has its own cadence. You need to work on learning and playing the distinctive rhythms in the bass line.
The best way to do this is to play along with the piece. As you do so you will automatically learn to change your playing tempo and to switch rhythm and beat at the right points. The more you do this the more second nature this jazz piano skill will become.
Practice different jazz styles:
Once you have learnt to play your favourite jazz tunes it is important not to stop there. Rather you should move on and learn to play a different style of jazz.
Doing so will stretch you as a musician and will allow you to further improve your listening skills. It will round you out no end as a piano player.
The various styles of jazz music are very different from each other. Something you will only truly appreciate if you learn to play all styles of jazz piano.
In the key of C, the harmonies would be C (I), F (IV), and G (V). You ought to start on the C and move between the C and F for different bars, including a G harmony until you get an example with twelve bars.
Whereas for swing jazz the fundamental movement is completely different. To perform this you will need to learn to play uneven eight notes. Inside those you will have to play the first note longer than the second to create the necessary beat, and sound. You will learn to follow the rhythm of the song, while varying the beat of the notes. A skill that will stretch you, but make you a far better piano player overall, and really hone your musical ear.
It really is worth the effort:
As you can see figuring out how to play jazz piano, takes both time and dedication. However, doing it is actually a lot of fun, and it is surprisingly relaxing.
Once you become a proficient jazz pianist you will be in a great position to expand your repertoire and start to learn to play more complicated, and interesting, pieces. If you want to become a proficient piano player there really is no better way of doing it than learning how to play the jazz piano.