Jazz piano

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Thelonious Monk (1947)
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

The term jazz piano describes the role of the piano in jazz , especially the specific playing and composition techniques that have emerged in the course of jazz history.


James Price Johnson (about 1921)

The piano has played an important role in the history of jazz from the very beginning. One of the roots of jazz, ragtime , is predominantly piano music; one of the others, the blues , found its way into the history of jazz as piano music , via the detour of the barrelhouse piano (which later led to the boogie-woogie ).

At the beginning of jazz history, the piano appeared more as a solo instrument - the marching bands naturally got by without a piano - over the course of time, it developed more and more as an accompanying and ensemble instrument . In New Orleans jazz , the piano was not integrated into jazz bands until the 1910s; the first pianist there was probably Buddy Christian .

As a component of the jazz band, the piano in traditional jazz was mainly used to generate rhythm and harmonious differentiation: With its help, the beat of the double bass (tuba) and guitar / banjo was doubled. From the swing on, the pianists left the beat and bass more and more to the drummer and bassist. Although a member of the rhythm section, the pianist in a larger band ideally limited himself to inserting individual off-beat chords like Count Basie and suggesting the chord progressions rather than playing them out. At the same time, however, the pianists emerged more and more as equal soloists within the ensemble, and as a result playing the piano more closely resembled the melody of the wind instruments.

After the swing era, many pianists in modern jazz returned to a more “percussive style of playing” and made “their instrument sound clear, transparent and hard.” On the other hand, since Chick Corea, pianists have come back to approaching a romantic ideal tone, for example to rely more on pedal sound .

As early as the 1940s, the mechanical piano in jazz was partially replaced by electro-mechanical instruments. Back then, Earl Hines was playing and recording on a storytone electric piano. At the end of the 1950s, musicians like Ray Charles and Sun Ra followed and prepared the ground for the use of the electric piano : Joe Zawinul experimented with the timbres of different keyboard instruments: for " Mercy, Mercy, Mercy " he used a Wurlitzer piano , while he " Country Preacher ”recorded on the Fender Rhodes , on which it produced a more percussive sound. Subsequently, electric pianos, synthesizers and other keyboards expanded the soundscape, especially in Fusion Jazz ; today the piano is one of many keyboard instruments in jazz.

Every jazz style that has emerged in the last 100 years and every real innovation in the jazz piano is characterized by the fact that it is also used more or less in later developments. This makes the jazz piano stylistically as diverse as jazz itself.


Jazz pianists often assign different roles to the hands. In solo play , the left hand knows a variety of ways to design the bass lines and the chord progressions , while the right hand takes on the melody lines in an equally diverse way . Playing jazz piano in an ensemble requires an appropriate and, if necessary, economical selection from these options.

Traditional elements of the jazz piano are in detail:

Art Tatum, circa May 1946.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .
  • So-called single bass notes , i.e. the unanimous guidance of the bass. As in the corresponding double bass playing , the root note of the respective chord is preferred; The fifth or another harmony-specific tone can take its place . Single bass notes that are simple in tone but cleverly placed in rhythm are characteristic of Oscar Peterson, for example . A special case is the walking bass , the "walking" bass, typically in four-four time and in medium swing tempo . One tone sounds per beat; between harmony-specific tones pass through notes ; characteristic is a legato articulation that is not too dense .
  • Alternating bass notes and chords, the so-called stride style (“striding” style). In four-four time, the bass tones usually fall on beats 1 and 3, the chords on beats 2 and 4. This form of playing is in the tradition of romantic piano music and, as there, is performed by the left hand, but in jazz typically without a pedal. The stride piano Art Tatums is famous .
  • So-called tenths , i.e. decimals (two tones at a very wide distance of an octave plus a third ). Individual decimals can replace individual bass notes; Unbroken and broken sequences of decimals, so-called walking tenths and rolling tenths (“walking” and “rolling” decimals), are based on the walking bass and are often mixed in the stride style , they break up the bass chord accompaniment and loosen it up . Here, too, the master's name is Art Tatum.
  • Evenly repeated or irregularly spread voicings (chord fingerings typical for the respective pianist or style, e.g. Bud Powell voicings or Bill Evans voicings). In numerous piano movements, Erroll Garner's left hand largely concentrates on metrically pulsating chord fingerings. The word comping (from to accompany - "to accompany") usually refers to an irregular, often percussive scattering of the chord fingerings, as developed by the bebop , regardless of whether the left hand accompanies the right or the pianist accompanies the soloist. In the context of a band that has a bass player, the voicings are usually played "rootless". This prevents the fundamental from doubling and the pianist can use his voicings e.g. B. expand by option tones .
  • Ostinate , thus retained accompanying figures ( vamps , riffs ) . A well-known example is Keith Jarrett's “ Cologne Concert ”.
  • Unison melody lines in the so-called single note style or trumpet style ( trumpet style ).
  • Melody lines in octaves. These are often used as a change from the "single note style" or to emphasize certain phrases.
  • Melodies harmonized sparingly to full-grip - five-part sounds in the right hand are not uncommon. The two-handed locked hands style , as popularized by George Shearing, is one of the harmonized melodies .
  • Characteristic, often virtuoso solo turns ( licks ) , while the accompaniment is silent ( breaks ) .

In addition to the compositional techniques, the tone is characteristic of the jazz piano. In comparison to classical piano playing, the following special features stand out:

  • Significantly fewer pedals are used in jazz piano. While the stride style works almost without a pedal, careful use of the pedals is typical for playing ballads .
  • The folding -articulation is not as pronounced, the connections between the tones are rather loosely (loose) .
  • Many tone sequences seem broken-up . Individual notes can stand out, especially rhythmically displaced beginning and end notes. The keywords are phrasing and timing .
  • Other tones, on the other hand, hardly sound at all and act more as sound gaps: so-called ghost notes .

In the sixties and seventies, the jazz piano emancipated itself from the aforementioned traditional composition techniques and joined the musical avant-garde in many ways . Phrasing and timing, however, remained largely recognizable.

The role of some important pianists

The following jazz pianists turned out to be style-shaping:

  • Jelly Roll Morton , the "professor" of the New Orleans piano . His style is ragtime in many ways.
  • James P. Johnson was Harlem's first major stride pianist . His blues accompaniments for Bessie Smith were unsurpassable . The piece Carolina Shout was a benchmark piece for all swing pianists to test their skills, his Charleston was a hit.
  • Fats Waller was the next master of the " stride piano " and all styles of the 1930s.
  • "Father" Earl Hines made the piano with its octave runs a congenial partner of the trumpeter Louis Armstrong . He severed the swing piano from the early rag and stride forms and thus enabled a renewal of the jazz piano after swing.
  • Count Basie is considered to be one of the “thriftiest” pianists in jazz history, “because of the way in which he knew how to create tension between the individual notes, which were often widely drawn apart.” Before that, Basie played more and faster and was based on the boogie pianist Pete Johnson from Kansas . Basie felt more like an entertainer and was technically not the best pianist.
  • Duke Ellington conducted “dialogues” with his swing orchestra from the piano and created numerous “classical” jazz compositions for this instrument. For him, the piano was part of the overall "instrument" orchestra. He received compositional support from Billy Strayhorn , with whom he played in a piano duo, for example Tonk .
  • Teddy Wilson influenced combo jazz of the 1930s with his elegant style. He remained an advocate of the traditional swing piano of the 1930s until his death.
  • Art Tatum is the unrivaled virtuoso of the swing style of the 1930s (based on the older Stride by JP Johnson, Willie Smith and T. Waller), who opened up new possibilities for the arrangement of swing.
  • Thelonious Monk , with his rhythmic shifts and their irregular structures, like Herbie Nichols, is one of the most original pianists in jazz. His unusual new harmonies are the basis of many of his compositions.
  • Bud Powell transferred Charlie Parker's saxophone runs to the piano in the 1940s and shaped the rhythmic accompaniment in bebop (the "comping"). He was one of the bop's best-trained pianists, whose career was severely affected by a head injury early (1947).
  • Horace Silver develops the Powell legacy further into a fun and soul-oriented, strongly rhythmic way of playing in a quintet.
  • Lennie Tristano anticipated certain harmonic freedoms of free jazz in an idiosyncratic way by around ten years.
  • Bill Evans is the "romantic" of jazz who brought a European-classical sense of harmony and form. He revolutionized the genre of the piano trio. His style is characterized by strong changes in tone colors on the piano, as well as a deep interlocking of the instruments involved in the trio.
  • Keith Jarrett has developed Bill Evans' lyrical style of playing and taken the fully improvised solo concert to new heights.
  • Cecil Taylor has set standards for free group energetic improvisation.
  • McCoy Tyner became the "epitome of jazz" (Berendt) "in the most powerful, swinging sense of the word". Tyner represents the Coltrane legacy and influenced Kenny Barron , JoAnne Brackeen , John Hicks , George Cables , Kirk Lightsey and many other pianists through his playing . Tyner has a well-thought-out well-organized game and is inventive in improvising.

See also: List of Jazz Pianists


Style development
  • Joachim-Ernst Berendt : The Jazz Book. Development and importance of jazz music (= Fischer 48 books of knowledge ). Fischer, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1953 ( The great jazz book. From New Orleans to Jazz Rock (= Fischer-Taschenbücher 2980). With detailed discography. 5th, completely revised and updated edition, 535. – 538. Thousand. Fischer-Taschenbuch- Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 3-596-22980-4 ).
  • Billy Taylor : Jazz piano. A jazz history. Brown Publishers, Dubucque IA 1983, ISBN 0-697-09959-8 (English).
  • Franz Krieger : Jazz solo piano. On the change in style using the example of selected "Body and Soul" recordings from 1939–1992. In: Jazzforschung = jazz research. Vol. 27, 1995, ISSN  0075-3572 , pp. 293-346.
  • Benedikt Vécsei: The jazz piano. Practice-oriented instrument studies for jazz pianists. Vienna 2000 (Vienna, University of Music and Performing Arts, Dipl.-Arb.).
Jazz pianists
  • Leonard S. Lyons: The Great Jazz Pianists. Speaking of Their Lives and Music. Da Capo Print, New York NY 1989, ISBN 0-306-80343-7 (English).
  • Carsten Dürer (Ed.): Conversations with jazz pianists. 54 interviews and portraits. Staccato-Verlag, Düsseldorf 2003, ISBN 3-932976-21-5 .
  • Klaus Ignatzek : The Jazz Method for Piano. Volume 1: Voicings - Chords - Accompaniment. Schott Musik International, Mainz 1995, ISBN 3-7957-5140-3 .
  • Mark Levine : The Jazz Piano Book. Sher Music Co., Petaluma CA 1989, ISBN 0-9614701-5-1 (English).
  • Philipp Moehrke: Jazz Piano - Improvisation Concepts. Important improvisation patterns and exercises based on them. AMA-Verlag, Brühl 2004, ISBN 3-89922-024-2 (English).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Floyd Levin: Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians . University of California Press 2002; P. 50.
  2. ^ Andre Asriel : Jazz; Aspects and Analysis . Berlin 1984 (4th ed.), P. 398.
  3. ^ Andre Asriel: Jazz , p. 399.
  4. See Henry R. Martin, Keith Waters: Jazz. The First 100 Years . Cengage Learning 2005, p. 349.
  5. cf. Billy Taylor : Jazz piano . Dubucque 1983.
  6. “The piano should be able to fill all band positions. On the one hand, the right hand is primarily a melody instrument and soloist, while the left hand takes on the bass or chord accompaniment, and on the other hand, both hands take over the chord accompaniment in 'one' hand. "(Herbert Wiedemann: Piano. Improvisation. Sound . Gustav Bosse Verlag, Regensburg 1992, p. 183.)
  7. ^ "Stride piano should be played with little or no pedal." (Dominic Alldis: A Classical Approach to Jazz Piano Improvisation . Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee 2003, ISBN 0-634-05829-0 , p. 129.)
  8. "10ths became the foundation of popularized piano blues in the 1920's and also had successful jazz applications." (Eric Kriss: Barrelhouse & Boogie Piano . Oak Publications, New York 1974, p. 108.)
  9. The "pronounced tone formation" is one of the "constant elements" of jazz. (Arrigo Polillo: Jazz. History and Personalities . Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, Munich 1981, p. 15.)
  10. "Use the sustain pedal judiciously, especially when playing ballads." (Dominic Alldis: A Classical Approach to Jazz Piano Improvisation . Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee 2003, ISBN 0-634-05829-0 , p. 155.), cf. also Andre Asriel Jazz , p. 398f.
  11. cit. after Berendt 1994, 353
  12. Berendt sees his masterpiece as "the art of accompaniment, the art of adapting to and stimulating a soloist and giving him the basis on which he can build". Quoted from Berendt / Huesmann, p. 354.
  13. Berendt
  14. Basie found imitators in Johnny Guarnieri or John Lewis . quoted after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 356.
  15. Marian McPartland transferred Wilson's style into modern times. quoted after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 358.
  16. His successors include pianists like Randy Weston and Mal Waldron . See Berendt / Huesmann, p. 364.
  17. cit. after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 364.
  18. cit. after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 362.
  19. The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian was the first trio in which any instrument could take on the leading role. LaFaro also played lines that he phrased melodically and rhythmically independently of his supporting function. quoted after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 365.
  20. cit. after Berendt / Huesmann, p. 375.