I Learned to Play Jazz Piano and You Can Too

Article excerpt

When I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s, I had been fired from a lucrative musical theater accompanist job because I did not now how to improvise. I was in shock. Me? I was a hot-shot classical pianist, I could play Rachmaninoff concertos, I could sight read anything. I was a top music student with a master's degree in piano performance. What was wrong with the commercial music world? Didn't they recognize my extraordinary talent?

One day, I saw a sign on a bulletin board: "Will trade jazz piano lessons for classical piano lessons." I decided that perhaps jazz would be a practical skill to learn. Plus, I had some vague idea of playing sultry blues on a rainy Saturday night in a bar somewhere. Thus began a long 40-year odyssey, filled with both rewards and frustrations. I began to study with a private teacher. I listened to jazz solos and wrote out transcriptions. I played with jazz ensembles. I played with country, rock and polka bands. I provided workshops and classes in jazz piano. I completed a Ph.D. program and wrote a dissertation about teaching jazz piano to classical pianists. Eventually, I got to the point I could play with a trio or as a soloist with confidence. Some of my most important discoveries:

* Jazz improvisation can be learned, even if you can't play "by ear."

* Learning jazz is similar to learning a foreign language: it takes many years, and fluency requires dedication and tenacity.

* Playing jazz is the most challenging, interesting and enjoyable way to connect theory and performance at any level.

After many years of teaching piano, I firmly believe that any classical pianist can learn to play jazz. People are not born with innate jazz-playing abilities. Many famous jazz pianists have started out as classical pianists. Through my teaching experience, I have determined that if you can play Bach Inventions or Clementi Sonatinas, and if you know all 12 major and 12 natural minor scales, and all 12 major and minor triads, you are probably ready to begin jazz study. The more theory you have studied and the more advanced you are as a pianist, the more quickly you can learn to play jazz.

What is Jazz?

Jazz is a complex and highly sophisticated type of music that originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and includes musical elements derived from both European and African music. There are many styles of jazz, including New Orleans or Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool, and free. Blues is considered a separate category, but blues and jazz are closely related and have many common characteristics. Of course, improvisation is an essential aspect of both jazz and blues. Traditional jazz is improvisation based on a literature of popular songs composed from 1920-1940. Blues involves improvisation on a strict 12-measure harmonic pattern.

Improvisation was commonly used by keyboardists in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. For example, pianists often improvised concerto cadenzas in the classical era. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, memorization, performance and sight-reading skills became more important, and improvisation was seldom taught in piano studios. Today, there appears to be an increasing resurgence of interest in keyboard improvisation, and many pianists have discovered that improvisation is necessary to survive professionally in nonacademic environments.


Unfortunately, improvisation is a word that often terrifies many perfectly competent and even many highly artistic pianists. This is a great tragedy because improvisation can be learned without much effort. The most difficult task classical pianists have when learning jazz is overcoming their "notation dependency." Reading music provides security, and if you have been reading music for 10, 20, 30 or more years, the more difficult it is to tear your eyes away from the printed page and begin to rely more on your mind, ears and fingers. …