A few years ago, I took private jazz piano lessons for about 9 months. I had two goals. First, I wanted to learn to play from “fake books,” which provide only a song’s melody line and chord symbols. It’s up to the pianist to “fake” his or her own arrangement. My second goal in taking jazz lessons was to be able to improvise an occasional short solo when I played with the band I was then part of.
I’m a competent pianist, yet those jazz piano lessons made me feel like a beginner. As a child, I was taught to play the piano by reading the notes in front of me, a process more about my eyes than my ears. My piano teachers emphasized getting those notes right, not thinking of ways to change them or elaborate on them.
The jazz approach is the opposite: view the notes on the page as suggestions, and let your imagination fly. Jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley explains why she uses jazz musicians in her band this way: “If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up.”
In my jazz piano lessons, I learned about dominant 7th chords, rootless voicings, and chord progressions. I practiced new kinds of scales, with names like Dorian, Locrian, and Mixolydian. I was introduced to the “boom-chick” left-hand rhythm and the walking bass.
And I learned to interpret fake book chord symbols. But I’m slow. There’s so much lag time between when I see the chord name and when I form the chord with my fingers that it’s still not a practical way for me to play the piano.
And what about my second goal, learning to improvise? So far, I have been unable to free myself from the printed music page. I did compose a few short solos for band performances, but I had to write them out ahead of time. No on-the-spot improvising for me.
Here’s a Slim Gaillard improvisation that I enjoyed. He’s the composer of the 1938 jive classic “Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy.” About 30 seconds in, Gaillard plays the melody from Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” with his hands upside down! He does this again around minute 2. Halfway through, he switches from piano to guitar and eventually takes off into his 1946 jazz novelty number, “Cement Mixer.”
All without the benefit of written music, of course. As Gaillard says when he begins, “It’s a special arrangement. I’m going to arrange it now.”
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.