As someone who has been playing jazz piano for many years, I admit that it’s hard to articulate how to start learning jazz piano. Hopefully this post will take some of the mystery out of the process.
Listen, Listen More, and Then Listen Some More
The key to how to start learning to play jazz piano is to listen to jazz…extensively! Listen to everything you can get your hands onto and absorb at all. Even if you don’t quite understand or “get” what you’re hearing, just listen and get the feel and sound of it into your system. From here, you’ll absorb the feel, the rhythms, the group interaction, and even some of the vocabulary. Even you’re not yet able to play all of the things you’re hearing, you’ll be absorbing it.
Remember, learning jazz piano is like learning a new language. You need to surround yourself with it constantly. Eventually, you’ll begin to recognize melodic phrases, song forms, and even harmonies.
Get The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine
The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine is a classic text on how to learn jazz. This book will take you from A to Z on how to start learning jazz piano and will give you all of the basic building blocks of the style. In this book, Levine teaches basic jazz harmonies, melodic phrases, form, and how to function as a solo pianist vs in an ensemble.
Throughout the book, Levine also recommends recordings to check out, offers fully realized versions of solo piano examples and analysis. In short, this book gives the reader everything needed to begin learning jazz piano and it provides enough information for the reader to continue to design their own course of study beyond the book.
Find Other Musicians to Play With
The key to learning jazz piano is playing with other musicians constantly. Even if you think you’re terrible, visit local jam sessions and sit in with the musicians and find other musicians in your area who are interested in learning how to play jazz. Even better if you’re the worst musician there! You’ll get so much more out of the experience. If you keep an open mind and listen to your peers, most folks will be very receptive to having you there and will be very glad to help you on your journey.
Transcribe Solos and Practice With Recordings
Transcribing solos is a time honored and tested way to learn jazz piano. Once you’ve learned some of the basic vocabulary of playing jazz, you’ll be able to take simple solos and figure out how to play them by listening to the recordings. I’d advise notating the solos on paper, though it’s still helpful if you learn them by rote and memorize them.
These days, there are many solos which can be purchased as part of collections that others have already transcribed, though I’d recommend using these sparingly. You’ll benefit much more from doing your own transcribing than learning solos that others have figured out. Remember, it’s about the process.
Once you’ve transcribed your solo(s) of choices and learned how to play them, find the recording it’s from and practice playing along with it. You’ll learn a ton from how well you can groove with the rhythm section and from seeing how well you can match the original player.
Learn As Many Songs As You Can
You should learn as many songs as possible and whenever possible learn them in every key. Transposing those songs will give you tremendous insight into the melodies and harmonies as well as helping you to remember the songs themselves. And when you accompany singers, they’ll appreciate the ease with which you’re able to support them by playing their repertoire in whichever key they need.
Embarking on the path to learn jazz piano can seem daunting at first, but that’s mainly because improvisation can seem like a mysterious art. It’s important to remember that improvising is something we’ve all done every single day since we learned how to speak. The only difference with learning jazz piano is that our language is the language of jazz. If you break things down and learn little bits at a time and then try to use those bits and pieces as much as you can, before long you’ll be able to form words, sentences, paragraphs, and eventually converse fluently in the language of jazz piano.
I recommend picking up The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine to get started. It’s a wonderful book and I still refer back to my copy after owning it for many years.
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