Learning Jazz Piano

By Lou Walinsky 
Philadelphia, PA

Do you love listening to those incredible Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum runs?  Have you marveled at the hip sounds of Chick Corea, the authenticity of Thelonius Monk, the lush harmonic splendor of Bill Evans, or the unique sounds of Keith Jarrett?  Have you ever thought that you would love to play jazz piano, except that it seemed like such an impossible feat to attain?  That it was more like a talent people were born with rather than a skill that can be learned?  Actually, you too can learn to play jazz piano, even if you’ve never played piano before or if you have never played anything except what was written on the printed page.

Before we talk about creating jazz, if you are a classically trained pianist and a good music reader, there are many fully scored jazz piano arrangements of tunes that you would be able to play immediately.  While playing these arrangements does not formally teach you about improvising or jazz harmony, there is something quite enjoyable about being able to reproduce jazz sounds in this manner.

As far as creating the music yourself:  For jazz piano beginners – whether or not you actually know how to play the instrument – there are several easy access methods that introduce students to improvisation.  One is the pentatonic scale, which is represented most visually on the piano by the black keys.  Due to the intervallic make-up of this scale, beginners can easily experiment with basic improvisational ideas.  See if you can find notes on the black keys to engage in a “musical conversation” between yourself and another player or just between your hands.  Any and all notes in the pentatonic scale work!  Try to make it interesting by varying the dynamics (volume level), the tempo (speed), the rhythmic patterns you play, the texture (number of notes you are playing at a time), the touch (smooth or disconnected), and the range of notes you are playing on the piano.

Another easy access method is learning to play the blues scale, along with three basic chords.   The C blues scale is C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb-C and the chords that would be played with the scale are C7 (C-E-G-Bb),  F7 (F-A-C-Eb), and G7 (G-B-D-F).   The blues scale sounds authentic with those three chords; whatever dissonance that is created fits in well with the bittersweet nature of the blues sound.  You can try your hand at improvising by picking any combination of notes from the blues scale along with the chords.  Try to find a pattern that you like and repeat it as you play each of the chords.

After experimenting with these introductory ideas, there is, of course, much to learn about the actual nuts and bolts of playing jazz piano.  This includes an extensive body of knowledge about forming and utilizing chords and scales, learning the multiple techniques of improvisation, and being able to apply this knowledge to songs or original pieces.  For piano novices, it also involves learning to play the instrument itself competently and learning to at least read the notes in the treble clef for the right hand.

There are many books and CDs available on the market for learning jazz piano.  These include, just to mention a few:  The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine, Jazz Improvisation for Keyboard Players by Dan Haerle, Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil DeGreg, Harmonic Foundations for Jazz and Pop Music by Jimmy Amadie, Jazz Piano by Christian Klikovits, and Handbook of Chord Substitutions by Andy Laverne.  Some students are able to travel quite a distance on their own with resources like these.  But at some point – since playing jazz piano in fact a complex skill to do well –  most people  find it necessary to find a teacher, preferably someone who is able to both play well and explain the concepts of jazz piano clearly.