How to Start Learning Jazz Piano

 

So you’re starting to learn about jazz piano, but there are too many options...So many notes, so little time.

Everyone will approach it differently, but there are classic foundational stepping stones which will make things connect and make sense. Jazz is a long, strung out history of elaboration on some of the same key rhythms and ideas, with variation.

The most important exposure to this art is listening to many jazz recordings. Compare them in your mind. Listen to two different artists and ask “what sounds different?” “How much does he swing?”

There is also the theory. When I was starting jazz piano, I read Mark Levine's The Jazz Piano Book. Theory is theory, and music is music. They don’t always go together, but music theory is a guide written by school teachers and composers.

And what to practice at the piano? My percussion teacher at the time taught me the importance of laying the ground work-- being able to play 2-5-1's. In all keys (eventually). Learning the nomenclature of jazz will help you a bit if you already read music.

Jamey Aebersold’s Nomenclature PDF

I focused on 4 or 5 things when starting to learn jazz: listening, transcribing, theory, etudes/sheet music based around jazz, and piano technique.

Mind you, improvisation should never be limited to sheet music, but some sheet music almost reaches the heights of improvisation. Almost.

I wish I had focused more on: lines, licks, playing with other people. But it was hard to find a jazz community at first. And once you understand harmony, you can write your own licks down and practice them, verbatim.

But you must have a good ear to transcribe lines and licks in the first place!

How do we get to that point?

First, exposure by listening.

I recommend starting with a decade you are familiar with, like 70’s jazz of Vince Guaraldi, and then going backwards in time. This way, things tend to start with what is familiar, but you will see things deconstructed piece by piece, the layers stripped away, going back to the fundamentals in the 1910’s and 20’s.

Here are some classic albums to get started, followed by a chronological timeline, based on my favorite artists in the history of jazz! Give yourself 6 mo. to a year to listen to a few albums from each decade.

Classic albums

Listen to the most famous jazz piano records from the 1950's

  1. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
  2. A Portrait in Jazz by Bill Evans
  3. Take Five - Dave Brubeck Quartet
  4. Sunday at the Village Vanguard - Bill Evans
  5. "Everybody Digs Bill Evans"

Listen to things to understand chronologically how jazz evolved

The 1910’s 20’s

Ragtime - based rhythms of marches
Dixieland – entire band solos at once,
Charleston – famous rhythmic figure

  • Scott Joplin - Ragtime

  • Jelly Roll Morton - Ragtime / jazz
  • Louis Armstrong - Dixieland
  • King Oliver- Dixieland
  • Wynton Marsalis - contempo rary artist, but plays much traditional jazz

The 1930’s – Big Band Era, where one person is a soloist

  • Duke Ellington
  • Benny Goodman band – Clarinetist, first to integrate black and white musicians in a band. watch “Sing sing sing” on Youtube.
  • Glenn Miller band – I heard their charts were always fully written out. Even solos were written out I think.
  • Count Basie – what we would call “minimalist” today
  • Teddy Wilson

The 1940’s - The Development of Bebop

  • Cannonball Adderley
  • Art Tatum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZL-CVV616nI

1950’s straight ahead and cool jazz, bossa nova

  • Pianists
  • Bill Evans
  • Red Garland
  • Errol Garner
  • George Shearing
  • Dave Brubeck
  • Vocalists:
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Billie Holiday
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Saxaphonists
  • Charlie Parker
  • George Shearing
  • Django Reinhardt
  • Other
  • Clifford Brown - trumpet
  • Miles Davis – trumpet
  • John Coltrane
  • Ornette Coleman

1960’s – hard bop

Pianists

Saxaphonists

  • Wayne Shorter
  • Jackie McLean
  • Bossa Nova / Latin Jazz
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim – guitarist, composer
  • Eddie Palmieri

1970’s

  • Keith Jarrett
  • Vince Guaraldi
  • Pat Metheny – guitarist

1980’s

  • Johnny Costa – played for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, met and learned from legendary Art Tatum
  • Harry Connick Jr. – New Orleans jazz pianist
  • Ahmad Jamal
  • Gary Burton - vibraphonist
  • Makoto Ozone

1990’s and 2000’s

  • Eldar Djangirov - a powerhouse of technique
  • Bill Charlap – blazing fast linear lines player. Check out “Chorinho
  • Claire Fischer – mixes cool Latin rhythms with dissonant harmonies
  • Monty Alexander – hot and cool
  • Keith Jarrett - just crazy

 

Doing this will help you construct a timeline in your head. Then, when you want to investigate a certain sub-style of jazz to find more licks for example, you will know which artists to refer to again.

More importantly, this will start to improve your ears. Listening is foundational to improvisation in jazz because you must hear or feel a little bit beyond the moment in which you are playing.

At some point, pick a very easy slow line or chord in a record and try to play it on the keys. This is the basic first step in transcribing, and will help you develop relative pitch.

Remember—you’re just starting out so this will be the hardest it will ever be – it only gets easier from here!

Download the printable PDF, "Listening Homework" here.

If this has helped you, consider signing up for the JP jazz piano newsletter.

I will be sending the beginning jazz pianist etudes, licks, and advice, based on my 10 years of jazz piano experience, and which will help you shortcut the wasted time I went through without a teacher.

Let me know what your favorite artist is in the comments, and why.