Learning how to play jazz piano for the first time is exciting yet very intimidating if one starts with the wrong songs. Selecting pieces that are melodically pleasing, rhythmically simple, harmonically easy (as in the chord changes) and all structured within a straightforward form is very important if a beginner jazz pianist is to gain any significant performance result.
Hence, the following pieces all comprise the elements just mentioned above and, in my opinion, are very suitable for any novice jazz player. Interestingly, these pieces will eventually have to be among the standard tunes in any true jazzer’s repertoire.
The five songs are: (listed in alphabetical order)
1. Autumn Leaves: Beautiful melody in simple rhythms; II-V-I chord changes in the key of G major and its relative E minor; 32-bar AABC form. This is a “must know” jazz standard, often played in ballad and/or medium swing style. It is also common to find this song represented in G minor.
2. Blue Bossa: Descending melody line with lightly syncopated latin rhythms; II-V-I in C minor and Db major; 16-bar AB form. This piece is great in two ways: it is a great introduction to bossa nova style and also chord changes in minor key.
3. Fly Me to the Moon: Another beautiful descending melodic line with a rhythm that can be interpreted in swing or latin; mainly diatonic and related chords from C major; another 32-bar ABAC form. An old Sinatra favorite and, of course, repopularized by Michael Buble, this song not only has a catchy melody, but the chord progression also moves beautifully in the cycle of fifths.
4. So What: Simple modal melody in the bass in flowing 8th rhythms; D Dorian modal chords; classic 32-bar AABA, starting with 16 bars of D Dorian, moving up a half step to 8 bars of Eb Dorian and back to the last 8 bars of D Dorian again. Miles Davis’ popular piece is an excellent thesis in modal studies. The beginner will learn the concept of “less is more.”
5. Summertime: A classic Gershwin blues melody in simple rhythms; mainly diatonic and related chords of D minor; 16-bar AB form. Another great minor piece and also a “must know,” with a bluesy tinge. There is an opportunity to learn about line clichés and applying them to chords Imi and IVmi.
For each song, learn the melody and play through its chord progression. Pay attention to the form and structure of the song. If possible, commit all these to memory. It will be well worth the effort and time and you will appreciate knowing the song inside out, especially once you start the improvisational aspect of jazz piano-playing!
I have been teaching piano for more than 20 years. Although classically-trained, I have always loved contemporary music. I grew up in a household filled with all types of music, from classical to jazz, Pavarotti to Sinatra, Goldberg to Grusin, pop, rock, etc. Currently residing in Singapore, I conduct private piano lessons in pop and jazz music to students of all ages, ranging from music enthusiasts, piano teachers to professional musicians. I also write a blog especially for pianists who find themselves rhythmically and harmonically challenged, and also on other interesting music and piano-related stuff.
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