How To Learn Jazz Piano As An Adult

Jazz piano – it’s something many musicians aspire to, but few take the time to learn. With enough effort and dedication, you can entertain yourself and others with jazz music, and the best part is that one of the most important steps to learning jazz is to simply listen to more music. If you have any questions about how we can help you improve your playing with piano lessons in London, please send us an email or give us a call. You also have the option of learning jazz piano online through various resources, so you have no excuse not to get started!

Immerse Yourself In Jazz

You might be doing this already as an aspiring jazz pianist, but make no mistake, you must immerse yourself in jazz if you want to be a good musician in the genre. Listen to all kinds of jazz music:

  1. List to the blues – it’s an early predecessor of Jazz. Start with Howlin’ Wolf, perhaps the greatest blues musician of all time, and progress through the decades to Stevie Ray Vaughan and anything else you can get your hands on.
  2. Listen to Dixieland and other early forms of improvisatory jazz – Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong would be great examples here.
  3. Learn voicing by listening to swing and big band jazz – Duke Ellington and Count Basie would be the pillars of this era. 
  4. Bop era jazz gave us many of the genre’s greatest soloists, like Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.
  5. Jazz took a more rhythmic turn when Miles Davis came along, and your jazz playing will benefit from listening to So What, Freddie Freeloader, Bitch’s Brew, and almost anything from this jazz great.
  6. Modern free jazz and fusion — don’t forget to mix some Chick Corea into your listening, and avant garde free jazz will show you what you can do after you master the fundamentals.
  7. Of course, don’t overlook the standards! Listen to singers like Kurt Elling, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James sing tunes by Gershwin, Cole Porter, and others. Their ability to improvise and color lines with their voices will inform your piano playing. Also, take some time to listen to current jazz vocalists (Kurt Elling is also in this category) – Norah Jones’ music is a great place to start!

Can You Sing The Lines?

When you listen to jazz, try to internalize the melodies and improvisations, pause the music, and then sing back what you hear. Try this with the melody, the internal lines, and the bass. After you’ve practised vocalizing the music, transfer those tunes and flourishes onto the piano! All great jazz piano playing starts with a good ear, after all.

How Is Your Music Theory?

Jazz can be harmonically complex, and you have to know your chords to succeed. Are you familiar with major seventh chords, modal mixture, stacked fourths, diminished sevenths, and more? You’ll want to pick up a book on beginner jazz theory (it will make your life much easier), and you’ll want to practise listening for these different components in your favorite jazz. If you can recognize patterns and harmonies by ear, you’ll be able to translate that knowledge to the piano.

Learn The Building Blocks – Pentatonic and Blues Scales

In jazz, the “pentatonic scale” does not necessarily refer to the traditional 5-note scale (often used in Eastern music). It refers to the Major Pentatonic Scale, or a series of stacked fifths: C, G, D, A, E. These notes can then be sequentially arranged to make a scale — the C pentatonic scale would be C, D, E, G, A. Practice incorporating this classic jazz feature into your own improvisations.

The Blues Scale is perhaps more important than the pentatonic scale structure, and its most popular variant is the Hexatonic Blues Scale. For example, here is the C minor hexatonic blues scale: C, E♭, F, F♯/G♭, G, B♭, C.

Practice playing these scales in different keys — they are often the foundational element of jazz improvisation.

Understand the Structure of Jazz Tunes

Start by familiarising yourself with 12-bar blues — it’s the building block of traditional blues/jazz tunes. Here is the basic structure:

  • 4 bars on the I chord, or tonic
  • 2 bars on the IV chord, or sub-dominant
  • 2 bars back on tonic
  • 1 bar of the V chord, or dominant
  • 1 bar of the IV (sub-dominant)
  • Back to the tonic

Once you’ve studied and practiced various standard jazz progressions enough, you’ll be able to accompany musicians or improvise along with new tunes even if you haven’t heard them before. As mentioned above, a beginner jazz theory book is highly recommended!

Learn Bass Progressions first

Once you’ve studied the various jazz progressions and scales, you’ll be well on your way to playing your own walking bass lines. Internalizing walking bass lines will allow you focus on treble lines and improvisations in your right hand while your left hand functions on auto-pilot (more or less).

A good way to practice walking bass lines is to listen to your favorite jazz tunes, focusing on the bass line. Then sit down at the piano and try to play along — you’ll be amazed at how many patterns and scales you can internalise when using this method.

Here’s one particularly valuable resource for learning walking bass lines: http://www.thejazzpianosite.com/jazz-piano-lessons/jazz-chord-voicings/walking-bass-lines/

Do you have any questions about how to learn or improve at jazz piano playing? Please get in touch. There’s lots that you can learn on your own, but a skilled teacher can always help you reach your goals faster.