Recipe for a jazz piano lesson: Gather questions, formulate answers, expose underlying philosophy of said questions, leave space for more questions, and allow room for natural growth processes. Perhaps that’s a recipe for any kind of learning process?
Related to gathering question and formulating answers—a common request I receive Is to recommend books, resources, and such that are helpful to jazz improvisers. Sometimes requests comes from pianists interested primarily in jazz. Sometimes they’re from pianists who want to improvise freely without associating to a specific style.
But, prior to the 20th century when jazz as a style or a genre didn’t exist, it wasn’t uncommon for pianists and others to improvise and to do so publicly in concerts. Go back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and even further for that matter, and improvisation was a common and often expected skill for musicians. At least that was so for keyboard players.
Jmp ahead into the 20th century and things became such that pianists mostly played in the western art music tradition or in jazz.
- If in western art music tradition no improvisation.
- If in jazz much improvisation.
About Those Resources
However that all came to be, there’s the question of resources to use when learning how to play jazz which come to
- which ones to use?
- which one are canonical?
- which ones are good or even great but not quite canonical?
So, which books and resources are helpful? But even as we ask that question, yes books, scores, recordings, and all such things are handy and helpful. Not to mention in these times of now we have more books than eve before about how to improvise.
However, the best way to improvise may just be: improvise. Improvise, whether singly or, better, in a group. It’s advice that works well for sightreading, too. Yes?
Between The Lines: A Jazz Piano Lesson
Behind every list there’s a story? That’s because a list isn’t just a list despite the fact that Gioachino Antonio Rossini famously said or so it’s thought he said:
Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.
The story behind my list—jump ahead if you want to skip the story—jump ahead a lot if you only want the list! In any case, many years ago I read Margins of Philosophy by Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher. For sure I didn’t know way back when that one day I’d be writing a blog post about resources for learners of improvisation in relation to Jacques Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy.
One of Jacques Derrida’s key points is what’s not said in a text is as important as what is said. We could simplify to what’s present versus what’s absent. Or we could talk about philosophy as we find it in the margins of a text, where nothing is written.
That way of explaining—in the margins and therefore marginalised—was more or less how Jacques Derrida said it. Depending on your tolerance levels and interests, his writing can be fascinating or totally and completely frustrating—exactly because of things like the presence of presence, the presence of absence, the absence of absence and the presence of absence.
In any case, Derrida crafted his argument based on texts by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the major writers and philosophers during the period we know as The Enlightenment. More recently, in Philosophy Between the Lines Arthur Melzer discussses the tradition of Enlightenment writing in which ideas left unsaid between the lines, so to speak, are essential.
The Jazz Piano Lesson And The List
So the story of the jazz piano lesson behind the list—it’s also a story of what lies between the lines. It comes down to what’s present and what’s absent. If I read my jazz piano lesson list with remembrances of Jacques Derrida then I know to:
- listen curiously
- consult primary source materials
- leap over and around the fences of style and genre
- think critically and liberally about learning outcomes
- formulate goals and visualise steps to reach them.
- don’t stop! Keep going!
Going past the story and onto the list:. Well, actually, here comes a jazz piano list with annotations. The jazz piano lesson list with no annotations is at the end of the post—in case you want just the list and only the list.
The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu. It’s one-of-a-kind, it’s meditative, and it’s not really something to read cover-to-cover. Rather, it’s a resource to dip into as and when you wish. That may be in part because everything in it suggests time and reflecting on whatever it is that W.A. Mathieu’s written about.
His is an approach to music making based first and foremost on exploring how we listen—rather than what we hear. As a secondary focus, he discusses how we learn about music even where we’re not focusing on it. Everyone to whom I’ve recommended it has said “wow, what a book!” The thing is, it’s a book of processes. It’s not a book of facts.
Ran Blake And Pauline Oliveros
Primacy of the Ear by Ran Blake and Deep Listening, by Pauline Oliveros. Both are about things we can learn from whatever it is to which we’ve been listening. With Ran Blake, listening can lead to to scripted improvisation with an arc and a narrative much like a film script. For Pauline Oliveros and the practice of deep listening, best to visit the main site to get a flavour of the practice.
Then there’s Miles, The Autobiography (with Quincy Troupe). It’s a fascinating look at jazz from about 1940 on.
I include it with the previous titles because something in the background of Miles’ autobiography, a theme of sorts, is Miles Davis was a listener. Watch this video and look, in particular for the moment at 1:19 to see a visual demonstration of his exhortation to listen. It’s an exhortation that goes by quickly.
As a bonus jazz piano lesson, Herbie Hancock is the pianist in the video. Really, anything he plays, even one note is a lesson. Was Miles Davis telling him, even as Herbie Hancock, in effect, was gtiving a jazz piano lesson, to listen?
If we only acquired one jazz resource, perhaps a how-to book on the A through Z of improvising, then that’s the Charlie Parker Omnibook (in C). It has 150 pages or of transcribed solos by Charlie Parker.
Everything and anything in jazz, past, present, and future, is in one way or another in those transcriptions. Or, we might say, as per Jacques Derrida and Arthur Melzer that in the Omnibook, past, present, and future, and more: it’s all there there explicitly in the lines and implicitly in between the lines.
Knowledge and understanding are the rewards that comes from the effort we put into decoding Charlie Parker’s style. That’s because the decoding process, as it were, often leads to other sources that, in turn, lead still elsewhere.
Are Transcriptions Actually And Really Helpful?
Many jazz practitioners believe the process of transcribing itself is a much better way to learn than the process of getting and playing a transcription from a book. And, for completeness, many believe transcription in any form isn’t the right way to go about learning how to play jazz or to impnrovise. In that regard, some see transcribing as others see metronomes. As the song goes: All Or Nothing At All.
Alternaterly, we could find the recording for each and every solo we play and study in the Omnibook. Then we could learn to play the solo as we’d like to play it—our own individual interpretation, so to speak. And we can play the solos exactly as did Charlie Parker on the recording. In that case, let’s capturez and imitate—yes, imitate—every nuance of his phrasing. In addition we can improvise along with the recording.
Fast And Faster And Slow Down When Possible
Charlie Parker tended to play at fast and then extremely fast tempos. To cope with that there’s plenty of software that’ll slow down recordings without changing pitch. That means it’s possible and recommended to play along with Charlie Parker at, say, 70% of actual speed.
A great advantage to doing that is we will hear exactly how he articulates and phrases his improvisations. Actually, it’s worth listening to Glenn Gould, or anyone, at a slower speed. It comes to using the technology we have to find nuances that exist.
A frequent question is which book to get for jazz theory? That question often grows out of if not directly from a related question, which is which scale goes over which chord?
Any answer to the question can easily have jazz piano and theory books by Mark Levine right in the centre of the picture. He’s pragmatically and systematically covered a lot of material in his books. Subsequently, many teachers and practitioners recommend them above all others. They are, indeed, excellent.
But, popular opinion notwithstanding, my alternative answer to which book actually isn’t a book. Rather, it’s a set of four DVDs: The Barry Harris Workshop Videos, Vol. 1—the set come with a short booklet that explains key points in the DVDs. To be sure the booklet isn’t a standalone resource and the DVDs benefit hugely from explanations and examples in the booklet.
He Was There
Key to the Workshop Videos is they were produced and created by a someone who was there, a someone who knew and heard pianists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and, actually and even, a someone who is himself one of the great jazz pianists. So, in the Workshop Videos, Barry Harris doesn’t just say which scale goes with which chord. That’s what most books do and then they leave things there.
Rather, in the videos Barry Harris explains an approach that’s much more fundamental than which chord goes with which scale. The concept is: Which chords are important and which chords are less important.
A different way to say that is describes which chords have structural significance and which chords don’t. Or, in the form of a question: How do we recognise passing chords?
ii – V – I
A very common structure that Barry Harris discusses in the DVDs is ii – V – I chord progressions. They’re central and basic to jazz improvisation. What Barry Harris says is: there is no ii chord, there’s only a V chord! There’s no ii chord because it already exists within the V chord! That means if we play a ii chord we’re actually and really playing a piece or a part of a V chord.
We can see that if we look at a V7 chord with upper extensions. In the key of C, starting from the lowest note and going up to the top we have
G B D F A C E
In other words, a V7 chord with a 9th, an 11th, and 13th.
About the ii chord and where to find it in the V7 chord, Barry Harris uses the nomenclature important minor to refer to it. So there it sits within the V7 chord, the important minor—the notes D F A.
If we want to add a seventh to the important minor triad then we add C. In other words, D F A C lies within G B D F A C E. Reasons to look at ii – V – I like this are
- the ii chord—the important minor—is something we’ll see all the time in jazz. Therefore it’s a pattern to watch for.
- the important minor is a subsidiary of the V chord that follows it.
- a scale for the V chord fits just as well over the important minor.
- improvising is easier if, as regards chord changes, we can conceptualise less rather than more—conceptualise in this case referring to thinking about and hearing chords. The idea is to think about bigger rather than smaller spans of time. The way to do that is by seeing which chords fold, so to speak, into other chords.
Oscar Peterson’s Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes, and Pieces is another wonderful resource. It’s full of source ideas presented as exercises and short pieces.
But as with the Charlie Parker Omnibook, the OP exercises require some decoding and some reading in between the lines. What and how we read between the lines: it’s about to us to figure that out. And that’s exactly were the learning happens, in that process of asking and figuring out: Why did OP write something, a particular passage, as he did.
There’s also some irony that comes along with the book. That’s because OP had more technique than most pianists—and that’s a huge understatement—yet everything in the exercise book is spare, economical, and not all difficult technically just in terms of playing the notes.
So, the main point is:
When improvising, use the the notes we need. But use no more than we need.
Play Clare Fischer’s Harmonic Exercises for Piano in twelve keys as he requested. There’s no other resource that combines voice leading and consonance/dissonance exercises in the same way. Period. In this case, experience is better than explanation.
Bach’s Inventions—in two. and three parts: They’re great pieces for improvisers at all levels. They’re short, like Clare Fisher’s exercises and they’re completely packed with essentials that go to keyboard technique, composing, counterpoint, and really just about anything and everything in the world of pianism and music.
Meanwhile, Fred Hersch, who’s easily among the pianists every improvising pianist should know, names the 371 Harmonised Bach Chorales as the Bible Of Jazz Voice Leading.” Fred recommends playing a chorale a day.
Whether or not we work at that pace is immaterial. The larger point is the chorales show the ins and outs of common-practice harmony. They do so in the same complete way that Charlie Parker in the Omnibook shows the ins and out of jazz improvisation.
Bela Bartok’s Mikrikosmos is a fascinating collection of short pieces. Definitely, play them in several keys. Or adapt bits and pieces of them as things with which to start an improvisation. Bartok wrote them for his son Peter and they’re in graded order.
Play them, experiment with them, transpose them, and look at them from a why-did-he-do-it-that-way? point of view. It’s possible, we might somehow find Chick Corearight in the middle of the Mikrikosmos. Perhaps. Poossibly. 👂 😀 🙏.
A short list of recordings? Impossible! That said, here are four to which I often refer in lessons.
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
Open, To Love, Paul Bley
The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould
Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner
Improvisation In Non-Jazz Styles
There are more and more books coming out about improvisation in western art music styles. Particularly so with Galant and Baroque styles. In addition, there are plenty of historical sources, such as Handel’s Figured Bass Exercises, and C.P.E. Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Keyboard Playing. All of them are helpful for improvisers regardless of style.
Finally, The List Please (And Only The List)
The Listening Book, W.A. Mathieu
Primacy Of The Ear, Ran Blake
Deep Listening, Pauline Oliveros
Miles, The Autobiography, Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe,
Omnibook in C, Charlie Parker
Barry Harris Workshop Video, Vol. 1, Barry Harris
Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes, and Pieces, Oscar Peterson
Harmonic Exercises For Piano, Clare Fischer
Two- And Three-Part Inventions, J.S. Bach
371 Harmonised Chorales, J.S. Bach
Mikrokosmos, Bela Bartok
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
Open, To Love, Paul Bley
The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould
Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner
I mentioned it already: learning to improvise an to sightread have something in common, a something that’s also a theme in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. That something is the idea: keep-going!
Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable:
Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.
Luciano Berio set that passage, among others, to music in the 3rd Movement of his very post-modern and wonderous Sinfonia. Here’s a link to a recording conducted by Pierre Boulez.
I hope all above has been helpful. Don’t hesitate to send me your own short list or post an item or two from what might be a short list. Just making the list, regardless of whether it’s a good, great, indifferent, or common list, is an interesting learning experience.
In fact, it’s one way to give yourself a jazz piano lesson. If your list is about jazz, that is. But that brings up a whole ‘nother point:
How can we learn and improve our ability to be our own best teachers?
Is it possible to be our own best teachers?
I say, well, YES, it’s essential!