Jazz Piano Lesson #1: Begin to improvise here!


Jazz piano

You want to play jazz at the piano. Or, jazz piano, as it’s usually called. In so doing you’ll be moving from the written page to complete guidance from the ear. So where to start? How to begin?

Well, the place to begin is at the gateway. In which case: Where’s gateway? Who’s the gatekeeper?

The idea of gateway and gatekeeper is a resource or someone to whom we can go to for answers as needed. For example, do we have access to a great teacher?

Do we leave in a city with places to hear jazz live and in person? Do we inhabit piano forums and look to see what books, texts and otherwise, everyone’s using?

Are we still in school, perhaps even in a music program? Do we have access to a huge collection of recordings? Do we personally know a fabulous, talented, jazz musician? Do we have a friend following the jazz path?

Again, the point of the gateway is to have a source to which we can go for help. As we learn to improvise, we need someone or something—a resource—to which we can turn to for guidance and inspiration.

Jazz Piano: A listening gateway

Jazz piano
Billy Holiday

One way to begin is to go through a listening gateway. For example, listen to Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Lester Young, and Teddy Wilson. That means: Get the general sound of their styles in our heads.

That, in turn, means listen to them a lot—to the point where their sound swirls as something we hear even when we’re not directly listening to one of their recordings. Or, instead of Billy Holiday, Shirley Horn, Lester Young, and Teddy Wilson, focus on Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane.

Or there’s Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Freddie Hubbard. Or Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gil Evans, and Thad Jones & Mel Lewis?

The point is, we want to hear what we want to improvise. One of the best ways to acquire the sound of what we want to play is to listen to others who improvise. From there, we can find the improvisers with whom we identify.

Formal information: Standard tunes and their structure

Once we have some sounds in our heads and if we’ve already played an instrument in some other style, we might ask: What’s unique about a phrase in jazz?

To find an answer to that question is one reason to listen to Billy Holiday, Shirley Horne, Lester Young, and Teddy Wilson. They mostly played jazz standards which more or less consist of tunes composed for films or Broadway shows, more or less between 1920 and 1970. About standards: they’re not always but mostly thirty-two measures long. For jazz pianists they’re central to the repertoire of jazz.

Perhaps most importantly, there are ways of phrasing while playing standards and you can hear it in classic jazz recordings. It’s not that easy to articulate. Really, it comes down to what’s a phrase? What’s a phrase in jazz? How do we improvise a phrase?

Meanwhile, those thirty two measures in standard tunes usually break down into one of two patterns, either A A B A or A B A C where each of the letters represents eight measures.

Specifically, A A B A means the same 8 measures twice followed by a different set of 8 measures followed then by the same 8 measures with which the song began. A B A C means the two A sections will be the same. Each will be followed by a different eight measures.

For someone who’s learning to play jazz piano, it’s a question of getting to know standard forms and then filling in details as needed. Therefore, hearing and seeing the patterns that underlie the standard tune repertoire in jazz can streamline the learning process.

Jazz piano and lead sheets


Jazz piano

If you have a jazz fake book which is a collection of lead sheets—a lead sheet shows only the melody and chords for a tune— you’ll see these two patterns over and over again. It’s worth reading through a fake book of standard tunes—every single tune—just to get a sense of what A A B A and A B A C forms sound and feel like.

But, as we’ve already said, not every tune fits to the A A B A or A B A C pattern. Autumn Leaves, as shown here in the leadsheet has an A A B C pattern.

At the same time, it’s usually better for someone learn to play jazz piano to know a few tunes well rather than many tunes superficially. So even as we read through a million tunes in a fakebook it’s good to focus at the same time on one or two starter tunes. A starter tune might be something that we like to which we can apply everything that we learn. It can also be a tune that we learn in several or all keys.

To put things into historical focus, previous generations of jazz pianists didn’t use lead sheets. In those older days, learning tunes was done simply by ear. Of course that’s a wonderful practice but since we now have the resources of lead sheets we can use them creatively. Not necessarily exclusively.

Creatively is the key word. That means, for example, that lead sheets can help us to learn tunes. But, ultimately, we want to leave the leadsheet and rely on our ears as soon and as quickly as possible.


We might say this is a top-down way to build up a jazz piano improvisation practice. That’s because we begin with the overall sound of jazz. Then we go from sound alone to something deeper, more detailed and formal, which are the two common structures—A A B A and A B A C forms—that sit underneath many standard tunes. From there we can continue and fill in details.


As we move through our top-to-bottom process, a next step is sing and play the melodies of tunes we’re learning or would like to learn. We sing and play melodies because that embeds them into ears, our inner hearing, and it puts us in contact with with what we’re playing.

Singing melodies of standard tunes is also good practice because we can improvise directly from the melody, with no knowledge of chords or scales. Just listen and add notes that you like. The criteria for which tones to add is simple: It’s what sounds good.

What it comes down to is experiment. See what sounds good, what sounds possible, what might work, and go forward. Just as one example, take a well-known common melody, like the folk-tune Danny Boy or the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and add a few extra notes to the melody. Look to see where and how those tunes can hold a few extra notes.

Again, it’s a question of what we think sounds good and what we think works. There is no one right way and the ear definitely can lead the way. That is, if we let it lead.

What leading often profits from, as in when we let the ear lead, is do leave music theory our of the equation. Or as Stanley Clarke said in an online a master class with Chick Corea

Don’t think too much!


As we acquire fluency, first playing melodies for standard tunes and, second, then ornamenting those same melodies, we’ll eventually want to do more. This is where chords can enter into the picture. In fact, if you’ve been learning melodies from lead sheets then the question of what to do with the chords is probably front and centre.

Four-note chords

For simplicity, let’s begin with chords that contain four notes and less than that when possible. Mostly, with a four-note chord model, we’ll use roots, 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths.

So, if we’re mostly using four-note chords, we’ll have

  1. four notes in the left hand.
  2. one note in the left hand and three in the right hand.
  3. two notes in the left hand and two in the right hand.
  4. three notes in the left hand and one in the right hand (sometimes).
  5. four notes in the right hand.

As for the chords we’ll be using, in the beginning there are five or six that appear frequently. In the key of C major they’ll be

  1. C major7 or sometimes C major 6—the I chord
  2. D minor7—the ii chord
  3. D minor7 flat5—the ii chord with a flat 5th
  4. G7—the V chord, the dominant
  5. B fully diminished 7—B, D, F, Ab. Notice that Ab isn’t actually in the key of C.

Jazz piano

In C minor they’ll be

  1. C minor major 7 or sometimes C minor 6 or vice versa—the I chord
  2. D minor 7—the ii chord
  3. D minor7 flat5—the ii chord
  4. G7—the V chord
  5. B fully diminished 7—B, D, F, Ab.

Jazz piano

One thing to notice in referring to them as I chords or as V chords is we’re using shorthand and assuming the 7th or 6th is included. So for complete accuracy, our I chord really is a I with added 6th or perhaps it’s a I with an added 7th.

Notice, too, that all of the chords are in root position. As we gain fluency we the basic chords, we can use inversions as we wish. That means we can use inversions as we think they sound good. Butfor now, staying with root positions chords may make our first steps a little easier.

Four-note chords in either or both hands

A good exercise is to play all chords in the previous example clockwise through the circles of 4ths and counterclockwise (anti-clockwise) through the circle of 5ths.

Jazz piano


Another good exercise, something Jaki Byard, one of my former teachers had all of his students do, is play chords around the circle of 4ths such that the left hand plays one chord and the right hand plays the same chord except transposed up a whole step. For example:

Jazz piano


These are good exercises because in playing chords in this way, we hear, how they sound to the ear and feel in the hands. Matching our two senses, hearing and touch, and allowing them to work together is what we seek.

But, we need to be realistic: playing chords around the circles of 4ths and 5ths itself won’t teach us by itself how to improvise. The paths around the circles are ways to learn the chords, to hear and touch them, to experience them and to learn them in of themselves. After that, we have to figure out how to use them.

Now, it’s true, there are common patterns and cliches we can learn. Knowing some of them can be a timesaver. But, as we’ll say and emphasise: Experimentation is key … try something … see if it works. Many experienced, accomplished jazz musicians say things they learned on their own are the things that really stuck, tool root, and led to further discoveries.

One note in the left hand and three notes in the right hand

If we want one note in the left hand and three notes in the right hand, then take the root of the chord and play it in the left hand. lay grace notes (crushed notes) into the root note according to taste. There’s no right or wrong to it. In practice, it comes down to what sounds good to you.

Jazz piano

As we’ve said, knowing what sounds good comes from experimenting. Over time, as we try out different combinations, we find the sounds we prefer to hear and play. THAT’s one of the places where the art lives within the art of jazz piano. And, to reiterate, it’s by experimenting that we find the art for ourselves.

Two notes in the left hand and two notes in the right hand

Let’s take our C major7 chord which is C E G and B. Now, we’ll put C and G in the left hand and E and B in the right hand.

So LH is ( C and G ) and the RH is ( E and B ). See how all we did was take the 4 note chord and put notes 1 and 3 in the LH and notes 2 and 4 in the RH?

Jazz piano

Three notes in the left hand and one note in the right hand

This is a configuration that could come up when playing the melody of a tune, or the head, as jazz musicians call it. Or, it’s a configuration to use when improvising a single note in the right hand against three-note chords in the left hand.

How many chords should we play per measure?

The question of how many chords to play per measure is easy to answer. That’s because for now we’ll use a simple answer. It’ll suffice for now but we’ll modify it later.

The answer or an answer is:

  1. If there’s only one chord per measure in the fakebook then play that chord on the downbeat of the measure as a whole note.
  2. If there are two chords per measure then play each chord as a half note. That means the first chord will be on the downbeat of the measure and second chord will be on the third beat of the measure.
  3. Sometime the fake book will show a chord on beat one and another chord on beat four. In that case you’ll be playing a dotted half note chord followed by a quarter note chord (chords on beats one and four).

How to connect the chords?

One place where things begin to get interesting, really interesting is when we figure out how to move from one chord to another. There’s no one uniform way to connect chords but there is a basic principle called voice leading. The main idea is chords change from one to another through pitches that move along the smallest possible paths. In practice, that means hold common tones whenever possible and move only the pitches that aren’t common between chords.

That means, if we can move from one chord to another simply by moving one note by step, then that’s what we’ll do. If we have to move two notes by step, then that’s what we’ll do. From that, we can say the simplest paths are usually the best paths.

Note the emphasis on the word usually … because other choices involving other kinds of movements are sometimes what we need. But, again, how to get from one chord to another is a question our ears can solve.

The last step: chords and melody

Play the chords to the tune on which you’re working. Use the four-note voicings we’ve been discussing and practicing. And sing the melody of the tune on which you’re been working.

Don’t worry at all about the quality of your voice or whether you like the sound of your voice or not. Just sing melodies over the chords.

And remember way back when we discussed Billy Holiday, Shirley Horne, Lester Young, and Teddy Wilson? They’re models of how to phrase the melodies you sing. If you find it’s helpful to imitate them, then do so. Eventually you’ll find your own way. But for now, the idea is just to phrase in some way or another, any waym that sounds like jazz … what exactly that way is your choice.

What’s next

If you have questions or comments or suggestions just write and let me know. I’m thinking a good follow-up post is how to build improvised lines over the chords discussed so far. A starting place for that could be, believe it or not, with tables that show Baroque ornaments. But using ornaments to build on a melody is just one way to build an improvised line.

Although it’s interesting indeed that with appropriate modifications we can think about how to apply Baroque ornaments to jazz without sounding like we’re playing in a Baroque style. I hope this was helpful. Again, your comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. They’re highly welcome!

Continue to Jazz Piano Lesson #2.