Learning Jazz Piano: The Process

What skills are required to play jazz piano? What should you expect to learn from a jazz piano teacher?

Improvisation: The element that defines jazz, improvisation is in large part about self-confidence, risk-taking, and the will to explore and experiment. But jazz piano improvisation also involves tools that can be studied both theoretically and practically: a knowledge of harmony (chords), melody (scales), jazz rhythms and phrasing, and the general vocabulary of the jazz language.

Comping, short for “accompanying,” is what a jazz pianist does when another instrumentalist or vocalist is playing or singing the melody. Comping is improvised, and involves all of the basic elements of improvisation; but it relies more heavily on a knowledge of harmony — and more specifically, chord voicing. The more options you have for voicing a C7 chord, for instance, the more creative and supportive your comping can be.

Playing in a group and playing solo piano: A jazz pianist must know how to do both. The first concern when playing in a jazz ensemble is a pianist’s left hand — it must not clash with the bass player; it performs different, non-bass-like functions. Ensemble playing also involves close interaction between all players. When others are improvising, the pianist has to be a keen listener, able to react in the moment.

Knowing the jazz standard repertoire: Performing with musicians you have never met, let alone rehearsed with, is a fact of life in the jazz world. Jazz musicians do this easily when they are familiar with the standard repertoire. Because jazz musicians know the same tunes, they can use this knowledge as a starting point and go on to improvise from there.

Solo jazz piano is a special challenge, because you have to emulate the rhythmic intensity of a jazz ensemble without the support of bass and drums. The jazz piano soloist must provide the bass notes, harmony, melody, and groove — essentially the job of three or four instruments.

Creative interpretations: Knowing the tunes is not enough. Jazz is a creative art, and the essence of jazz lies in experimenting. If you want to create your own jazz piano arrangement of Autumn Leaves, you will have to be comfortable with the basic elements of music — harmony, melody, rhythm, and form — and able to make choices: combining different sounds in different ways, and deciding how far to alter any of these elements from how they have been done before.

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