How can a kid teach herself jazz piano?
February 22, 2006 12:47 AM   Subscribe

A kid (12) knows classical piano and has a good teacher for that, but she also wants to learn jazz. Do you have suggestions?

I'm not really looking for "Listen to lots of jazz" or "Improvise, baby, improvise!" Also, "Find a good jazz piano teacher" or "Join a jazz band" won't be all that easy for her to do here, not yet.

For now, I'm hoping for a more concrete self-teaching method. For instance, do you know some great songbooks for learning basic jazz piano techniques? Or a fantastic jazz piano text book? Anywhere we can download free jazz arrangements for piano? If you're a jazz pianist, how did you learn and what learning techniques and tricks can you recommend? (Also, she has just started drums, so maybe a little about jazz percussion, too, but secondarily.)
posted by pracowity to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, playing the drums will be of endless help to her piano playing, as will the piano playing be helpful to the drumming. I know you're not looking for CD reccomendations, but drummer Jack Dejohnette has recorded at least one solo piano CD. May be worth checking out.

The Jamey Aebersold series is excellent. There is a beginning level book called "How To Play Jazz And Improvise" -- it's volume 1 of something like 110 books of tunes with playalong CDs. It has a CD with stereo separation, so she can effectively turn the piano off so that she can play with the record.

As far as piano playing itself goes, Mark Levine's jazz piano book is good, but that's speaking as a trombonist who doesn't have classical training in piano. I think that it would still be worth getting and checking out. All this and more can be found at

Oh, and listen to more jazz. :) Seriously, though, the most beneficial thing would be to buy her a copy of Miles Davis' album "Kind Of Blue" and have her learn Miles' solos on all the tracks.
posted by rossination at 12:53 AM on February 22, 2006

When I was a kid playing classical piano I devoured pop music books (anthologies by decade) from the public library. The arrangements are usually simple and leave room for your own embellishment or interpretation. Many tunes from the 40s and 50s were jazz/pop standards, and the structures are similar. Beware of the 60s and 70s: said kid may begin idolizing Burt Bacharach (I do).

Later I picked up John Mehegan's Piano Improvisation Vol I, which is a pretty decent introduction into improv from a theory perspective. Mehegan gets into details of chord progressions, and there are transcription of solos by Art Tatum and Miles Davis and others. Mehegan talks alot about melody and space while improvising. Books II-IV are more hardcore, almost academic; I got the most bang out of Book I.

Nothing beats jamming with others though, and until you find other cats to jam with, Jamey Aebersold's records may fit the bill. His discs (now CDs) are recordings of standards by pros, and the balance is set up so that you can control the combo you're jamming with. For example, a disc might have piano on left channel, bass on right, and drums on both, so if you're a piano player, turn the balance to the right so that you play with the drums and bass. If you're a horn player you just play on top of the combo. The tunes are in many different keys and styles. Aebersold's discs come with books that have their own instruction, but I don't have much good or bad to say about them.

I also really like Andy Laverne's Handbook of Chord Substitutions. This is a collection of standards re-harmonized into big fat lush piano chords. Some of the subs are surprising and give a nice idea of what's possible.

It's also good to sit at the piano and just play random stuff and listen to it. Classical piano really encumbers you with structure and it's hard to let go and allow yourself to play "wrong" intervals and harmonies.
posted by ldenneau at 1:16 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

I had a similar experience and the best way into jazz is to find a jazz pianist who is really interested in teaching -- there seem to be many around. Check for your area.
posted by AJ at 2:10 AM on February 22, 2006

Depending on how advanced a classical player is, she could also start learning 20th century classical music which influenced jazz, like Debussy and Satie...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:20 AM on February 22, 2006

I'm a classical pianist who has spent many frustrating hours trying to learn jazz. I second the choice of Mark Levine's jazz piano book, it really is amazing. Don't get the jazz theory book though, it has to be the piano one. I can't praise it highly enough. I spent most of my life looking for a decent jazz piano book that would start me on my way and I never really found it until Levine's.
When I was a kid, I tried John Mehegan's Piano Improvisation Vol I... it didn't hit the spot. There are some nice solos in it, and it kind of pushed me in the right direction but it wasn't a big enough push.
IMO Debussy and Satie won't help (for the most part, they were influenced by jazz, not the other way around). They need to be played with a classical feel which may further confuse the feel needed for jazz.
See if you can get them set up with a young big band, there's nothing like being thrown in at the deep end. It did wonders for my jazz playing.
Listening to pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea will really help as well... let her find out who her favourite jazz pianists are and get as many recordings as you can. I know you're dismissive of the suggestion of listening to jazz, but it's one of the most important approaches. It is mostly an aural based tradition as opposed to classical music.
posted by BobsterLobster at 2:44 AM on February 22, 2006

Not that I'm particularly good, but I learned from a book called Jazz, Blues, Boogie & Swing For Piano. It has a good variety of stuff. Fats Waller might be a good place to start. Much of it is pretty easy to learn, relatively. There are a few techniques to learn, but nothing too hard.

Once I started getting the hang of improvisation, I improved my skills a bit by fooling around with improvising on simple classical stuff that I already knew very well by J.S. Bach. Lots of fun. But learning to improvise takes longer than you think. At least, it is in my case. Also, I found one of those "learn to play the blues" video instruction VHS tapes useful, though I can't remember the name. Coming from classical, jazz and blues piano techniques seem to have a lot in common. Also, playing along with the radio, even if you can't do it very well, is good practice.

And yeah, listen to lots of jazz.
posted by sfenders at 4:58 AM on February 22, 2006

I can't comment on the best book for learning theory, but for learning styles and standard tunes, you won't get far without a Real Book and some audio recordings of the pieces you're playing.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:51 AM on February 22, 2006

Has this twelve year old heard much jazz? Jazz is quite different than classical or most pop and it will require developing an ear for it. Listening is good, but I really think you are going to need a jazz teacher. I would bet that your present teacher would be able to get her started on the basics, if the teacher is willing. Music is far easier to learn with a teacher than with a book, especially if you are trying to learn a new and perhaps somewhat foreign type of music.
posted by caddis at 7:18 AM on February 22, 2006

Does the school have even a half-decent music program? If so, does it have a jazz band of any sort? Have her get involved in that. That'll give her first-hand exposure to the music and the aesthetic (at least in a small way), force her to practice, and put her within reach of someone (the band director) who may at least be able to recommend good teachers, resources, etc.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:22 AM on February 22, 2006

Good luck. As Idenneau said, jazz piano is a difficult concept to "feel" for a classical pianist -- I just couldn't seem to do it. Though I have a great grasp and appreciation for it otherwise (vocally, etc.), it just refused to come out of fingers that had been whipped into submission by Beethoven and Bach.

That being said, I never had a jazz teacher, only classical. I think there is true benefit to an organic being showing you, personally, how it's done, how it feels. Warning, though: her classical teacher might not and probably won't like it much ("it will make her sloppy!"), so I suggest not asking her current teacher about it. When I was a kid my dad asked the same question of my very prim and proper longtime teacher, who became enraged and said if I wanted to learn jazz I could teach myself.

I think that instruction in both methods will maximize the refinement of technique of each, without necessarily compromising the other.
posted by penchant at 8:06 AM on February 22, 2006

Debussy and Satie won't help (for the most part, they were influenced by jazz, not the other way around)

Debussy: 1862-1918
Satie: 1866-1925

That's not to say that they weren't influenced by jazz, too, but the vast majority of jazz as you commonly hear it today couldn't possibly have influenced either of them.

Also, I started around that age by my parents finding a teacher for me, and getting copies of the new real book (and the real book, if you can find it). Start listening to jazz. As for playing with others, that's important, but in a way it's less important for a piano than for most instruments.
posted by advil at 8:56 AM on February 22, 2006

Been said already, bears repeating:
Mark Levine
Jamey Aebersold (linked above)
Jam (Even tho you excluded the latter two in your question, they are important elements of the answer to your queston and therefore worth thrusting upon you)
posted by Eothele at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2006

I found these books very effective - How to Improvise and How To Comp, both by Hal Crook. Both come with cds, very clear examples, and suggested practice routines.

Listen lots! Piano players - Monk, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock - and horn players - Miles, Sonny Rollins, and by all means, Charlie Parker.

And be clear that Jazz is an idiom, there are specific elements to it - rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, etc. While it may be gratifying to just sit and "make it up", it may not have anything to do with Jazz. (And that's totally cool - in fact, maybe it's better than wanting to learn a specific idiom. I'm just sayin', Jazz is something pretty specific, I think.)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2006

Here's a really good website (the name says it all):

There are a lot of threads asking variations of your questions, plus a lot more.
posted by Bearman at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2006

Also, a beginner might have better luck learning some blues first - it ties in well with jazz, especially for the swing feel in most jazz tunes.

A good site with lots of educational dvds is:

Learn to play Blues Piano is a good start.
posted by Bearman at 11:33 AM on February 22, 2006

At the risk of taking this off-topic re Debussy, Satie and jazz, the first link I Googled gave me this:
I did study this stuff up to Master's level (that doesn't necessarily mean I'm right, but I have spent some time researching this), and have a particular interest in turn-of-the-century Franch music.
posted by BobsterLobster at 1:43 PM on February 22, 2006

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