Defining the Jazz Pianist

Today’s jazz pianist delivers a musical art form which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. African American communities in the Southern United States combined the sounds of African and European traditions and produced a musical style that emphasizes the use of blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation, and the swing note.

Then, as now, the jazz pianist is an integral part of the jazz idiom, both in solo and ensemble performances.

Originally, the acoustic piano was the artist’s only option, but that has changed over the years with the advent of the electric piano and its eventual evolvement into an instrument that rivals the “grand piano” sound.

The jazz pianist also plays an important instrument since it is the basis for the understanding of jazz theory and arranging—elements that require the combination of melody and harmony to sustain the medium. Like the jazz guitar and Hammond organ, the piano is one of the few instruments in a jazz combo that can play chords—something not possible with the sax or trumpet.

Let’s consider technique for a moment. The jazz pianist makes use of all the same chords that are found in Western art music—the major, minor, augmented, seventh, diminished, diminished seventh, minor seventh, major seventh, and so forth. Equally as important is learning how to play with a swing rhythm. Now, add to this a dose of improvisation…just making something up on the spot, and as well-known jazz pianist Greg Tivis says, “Improvisation is a true skill set. You really have to know your way around the piano, and that comes from playing a lot of pubs and bars.”

The jazz pianist must know his instrument. With the extended range of the piano, a huge number of choices is available to the arranger and musician. The bass register can be used to play an ostinato patter, much as that found in a boogie-woogie, or a melodic counterline mimicking the walking of an upright bass. In “Stride’ piano, the jazz pianist uses the left hand in alternate positions, rapidly producing notes from the bass register and chords in the tenor register.

George Shearing often used a technique called “Lock Hand” voicing. In this case, the right hand played melodic lines (but could play harmonic content as well), in chord fashion or in octaves, in lockstep with the left hand.

Of greatest importance for the jazz pianist is keeping the beat. The artist must know the tune so well that playing it becomes second nature. His three basic objectives are: (1) providing a clear, swinging pulse, (2) establishing the harmony or "guide tones" of the chord changes, and (3) playing the melody or melodic solo material with the right hand.

The role of the jazz pianist in ensemble accompaniment has gradually been changing from a time–keeping role to something more flexible where the artist chooses to interact with the soloist by playing both chordal and melodic riffs. This interaction is known as comping and was popularized to a large degree by Duke Ellington.

At the beginning, the black jazz pianist played ragtime on the piano. As the jazz genre evolved, the jazz pianist became featured in the rhythm section of a musical group, or combo, which was often made up of piano, guitar, bass, and drums.

Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Herbie Hancock, Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Peterson…many of these greats have passed on, but their music remains. The next time you go to a supperclub or lounge and the piano you hear is rich in swing and improvisation, then you’ve found a jazz pianist.

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