Maybe you’ve been listening to Herbie Hancock or Dave Brubeck lately, and you’re thinking, I’d love to play like that, but how? Jazz involves improvisation- I can’t make stuff up! Learning to play piano will eventually lead you to choosing a style to learn. Your first pieces may be a mix of classical, folk, and more contemporary tunes, but as you improve and graduate out of the beginners’ books, you’ll need to decide what musical style you want to play piano in. Some time before your first recital, you will start learning techniques that are unique to the musical style you’ve chosen. Many musicians play more than one musical style, but most get their start in one style before moving on to others. And there’s no reason why jazz cannot be the first style you choose when learning to play piano.
When you start learning to play piano with jazz tunes, you may not begin improvising right away. You may just learn the “head” or main body of a tune. This will give you a chance to learn enough about jazz theory so that when you so begin improvising, you will have a strong knowledge of the building blocks of jazz. And since you play piano, the building blocks are beneath your fingertips. You’ll become familiar with jazz chords, which combine consonance with slight elements of dissonance for a rich sound. If folk chords are grape juice, simple and sweet, jazz chords are wine: mature, complex, but still reflective of their earlier sweetness and simplicity. You will learn more about the melodies that are built upon them- you improvise not out of thin air, but create new melodies based on the harmonies of the tune. You’ll learn about the rhythm structure that governs jazz- yes, you will learn to “swing.”
Learning to play piano with jazz tunes will also teach you more about music notation. In your beginners’ books, all the notes you will need to play are written out for you on the grand staff. Sheet music written for jazz, pop music, and many Broadway tunes is written in a style that saves space and allows the pianist greater freedom, but requires you to know more about music theory and the style you are playing. Symbols are written above a five-line staff, and the letters, abbreviations and numbers tell you which tones to play, and approximately when they should be played. But the style of the music and the rhythms played by other instruments will be your only guide to the rhythms you will need to play. You will learn more about music, develop a better ear, and explore the compositions of jazz giants like Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. Learning to play jazz piano is an adventure and a joy.