Learn to play jazz


OPINIONS FOLLOW … And I’ve addressses this topic before. That said, and relative to opinions, the Mark Levine jazz piano book with it’s notions of so-called “avoid tones” is hopelessly outdated. Yet, when it was first published it was among the best, if not the best, of its kind.

Then there other resources about learning how to play jazz—such as those that are entirely and hopelessly geared to passing exams.Exams, for example, in countries with graded systems that represent a level of skill attained by student musicians .

Of course we all want is to have some understanding of what jazz is and how to play it. But that’s easier said than done. For one thing, the learning process itself is always ongoing and it is a different process for everyone.

That is, we all experience the process of learning differently. And then you have to wonder—there’s something Harold Danko, a great jazz pianist and teacher said—a something that seems essential. That something is:

We improvise to learn. We don’t learn to improvise.

What’s one to do?

Steve Lacy: He published a fantastic book with exercises about how to improvise. But it’s geared to the kind of free improvisation that interested him and not jazz as most think of in terms of scales and chord progressions and standard tunes and such.

However, there’s also a book of collected interviews with Steve Lacy that’s been published and available. It’s amazing in that in total the interviews give insight into how an improviser who was really interested in the process of improvisation thinks. It’s down to earth, easy to read, and profound—all at the same time.

Barry Harris

Barry Harris published the Jazz Workshop Video series. For those who want an A-Z approach by an insider who knew and taught many of the great musicians from days or yore you’ll find that series.

It’s expensive unfortunately. But it is the series that will show you how “this scale is good for that chord” and with some imagination his basic theory extends well bast the genres he based it on (partly because he was so interested in things like Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony)—at least as far as I know.

One thing to know about Barry Harris is if you look him up on Google you’ll find a million videos but most of them are out of context and hard to follow in the sense that any of of them is a “lesson.” So, just to say it with some certainty the JWS is different and totally wonderful and helpful

Ran Blake

Ran Blake wrote The Primacy of the Ear which explains how to develop improvisational skills BY EAR which is really what you do want and been noted by others here. Here are some versions, posted yearly, I think, of Ran Blake playing Silent Night,

A Teacher

Find a great teacher (I always say not just a “good” teacher—no, find a GREAT teacher!!) If there’s no one in your area Skype is a viable resource in the sense of why not a great teacher through the lens of your computer screen rather than a mediocre teacher in the same room?

Please understand, when I say “great teacher,” I don’t actually mean “great jazz musician.” Sometimes those are one and the same. Sometimes they’re not. Just to prime the pump, Dave Frank, in NYC is considered on of the best jazz teachers, online or otherwise (and he’s a great jazz pianist). You can look him up on Google and decide if he’s a fit a for you.


Begin to listen to jazz (maybe you already have) and identify styles you like. Then identify styles of those who influenced the styles of those you like. Jazz is a music, that until recently, has had a very clear lineage in terms of this player or players” influenced those players or players.


As some have noted, transcription is helpful. Although, it has it’s limitations as a practice. In my experience it’s best done with a guide to help lead you through the thicket. 

All of that said, there’s no way to transcribe and NOT develop a better ear. And, in the end, most musicians, at least jazz musicians, will tell you the ear is the weakest part of the chain. 


You may prefer jazz to classical music but you’re still going to need technique, however you acquire it. The Bach Two-Part Inventions are a minimal requirement and target.  

That doesn’t mean if you’re in the beginning stages of playing the piano that they’re the right repertoire for you right now.

More about listening

Meanwhile, who are some of the great jazz pianist to whom you might listen? Andrew Eales published a list on his great PianoDao blog. Or you might just turn to Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett (although those are just four quick names …. there’s nothing pedagogically sound about beginning with that particular quartet).

Actually, the best jazz pianist to listen to is the one who holds you attention the most. 

My opinion: Fred Hersch. BTW, he names the 371 harmonised Bach Chorales as The Bible of jazz voice leading.

Back in olden days, Miles Davis’ opinion was Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans. There was a period when Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock ruled the earth! George Shearing has been mentioned by some as the most influential jazz pianist who’ll never be named as such!

This track by Monty Alexander playing “The Work Song” is a gem … if it’s to you taste, that is …

I have two blogs (one that’s old and one that more or less new) about jazz. Here’s the old one: http://www.polishookstudio.com. Here’s the new one: http://www.polishookpiano/blog.

The blog that many jazz musicians think is the one to keep an eye on is by Ethan Iverson—a great jazz pianist known by many because of his former group The Bad Plus. His blog: https://ethaniverson.com.

And, end of day, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet is a good read for anyone aspiring to acquire skill in any art!

Hope all of the above is helpful.