Comparing classical and jazz piano

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The history of the piano begins long before the history of jazz. However, the jazz piano represented a real revolution, greatly expanding the limits of the instrument and bringing new impetus and new styles. Therefore, I have tried to discuss the relationship between classical piano and jazz piano. At the end of the article, I will also suggest two alternative study plans for classical piano and jazz piano.

The forefather of jazz piano: ragtime

At the origins of piano jazz there is definitely ragtime. However, this music is not yet properly jazz as it is music written in its entirety, without improvisation. Scott Joplin was the best-known ragtime composer, a musician who became famous for pieces such as The Entertainer or Maple Leaf Rag, but who composed much more elaborate music, even a full-scale opera, which he never managed to have performed while he was alive.

Scott Joplin is the most important ragtime author

If we compare the ragtime repertoire with classical piano literature, the greatest similarities are certainly with the romantic repertoire, in particular the music of Chopin, Listz and Brahms.

In Chopin’s music, especially in nocturnes, waltzes and mazurkas, very often the left hand jumps from the lower register, where it plays an octave, to the middle of the keyboard to play chords. It is evident that ragtime is inspired by and uses this type of technique, albeit in a simplified way because in ragtime the left hand tends to repeat much more schematic patterns.

The first form of piano jazz: stride piano

The ragtime technique was transferred almost unchanged to stride piano, the first true form of jazz piano. The stride piano had to fulfil a specific requirement: to play at a medium-high volume. Pianists performed in noisy venues, or had to hold their own against instruments that were much louder than the piano: horn instruments.

In the stride piano, octaves and whole chords abound, the left hand plays the bass in the lower register on the first and third movement of the measure, while on the second and fourth movement it jumps to the middle of the keyboard where it plays whole chords. Here is a typical example of left hand movement from a Count Basie performance.

Stride piano un esempio della mano sinistra - Count Basie
Stride piano, an example of the left hand (Count Basie)

Instead, the right hand plays the melody in octaves, or fast arpeggios and various embellishments. Here is an example of right hand piano stride, a phrase played by Teddy Wilson, embroidered on the F9 chord.

Some of the champions of the stride piano, who often competed in real contests, were James P. Johnson, his pupil Fats Waller and Willie the Lion Smith. The most virtuoso jazz pianist by far, however, was Art Tatum. All these pianists had a solid background of classical studies, on which they grafted the stylistic elements typical of jazz: swing rhythm, improvisation, blues.

Stride piano - Willie the Lion Smith
Willie the Lion Smith was one of the most important stride piano specialists

From a certain point of view, stride piano is not too different from certain piano music by Listz or Brahms, which make similar use of chords and octaves. Of course, there are many differences, especially the piano stride tends to be much more repetitive, and while it is very demanding, it is on average simpler than the piano repertoire of the 19th century.

Art Tatum nevertheless reaches heights of difficulty that are unmatched by the European piano literature from which he drew inspiration. What is most astonishing about Tatum is not so much his impressive piano technique, but his ability to improvise phrasing between internal voices, moving the chords of the left hand totally independently of what the right hand does.

art tatum
Art Tatum, one of the greatest virtuosos of jazz piano

The piano and the orchestra

With the advent of big bands, the piano changed its function radically. Unable to cope with a section of numerous wind instruments, the piano often plays introductions and endings, perhaps performing solos when the woodwinds fall silent, accompanied only by bass and drums.

For example, Duke Ellington often got up from the piano to conduct the orchestra after playing the introduction. Count Basie, on the other hand, played short counterpoints to the woodwind riffs in the upper register of the instrument, in order to be able to get ‘through’ and be heard through the powerful sound of the big band.

Although he was a good stride pianist, Basie therefore invented his own, minimalist style, somewhat overturning the concept of ‘piano and orchestra’. In classical concerts, the piano is often the absolute protagonist and makes itself heard in all its possible registers. In Count Basie’s big band, on the other hand, it is the orchestra with its riffs that is at the centre of the musical discourse, the piano propelling it with short but very effective interventions.

If we therefore compare the role of the piano in relation to the orchestra, the differences between classical and jazz repertoire certainly outweigh the similarities. In the classical orchestra, the piano, when it is there, is the absolute protagonist. If it is not central, the piano is not there at all (or almost). In jazz, on the other hand, the piano is part of the rhythm section, it is always present but mainly in an accompanying role.

The total revolution: bebop piano

Bebop represents a revolution for jazz music in general and the piano is no exception. The approach of bebop pianists is radically different from that of their predecessors: the classical roots of the instrument are apparently forgotten.

Indeed, some frontline bebop pianists had a solid classical background (this is the case with Bud Powell), but pianists who had grown up in the sole tradition of piano jazz also entered the scene. This is the case of Thelonious Monk, Hampton Hawes and Erroll Garner, mainly self-taught pianists with little or no classical background.

Bud Powell Tempus Fugue-it
The bebop pianist Bud Powell

Whether classically trained or not, bebop pianists inaugurated a new use of the instrument: the piano plays dense single-note melodic lines, imitating wind instruments. The left hand often plays simple bichords, with a primarily rhythmic function.

Piano bebop un esempio - Bud Powell
Bebop piano, an example (Bud Powell)

In the example above, we see that the left hand plays incomplete chords: root and seventh, root and third (or tenth). The harmony is, however, well delineated by the incessant movement of the right hand, so it is not difficult to work out which chord a bebop pianist is thinking of, even if he does not play it in full. Bebop musicians often play thinking about the chords, so the harmony is usually quite clear.

With bebop, jazz piano achieves its full maturity and autonomy, not only because of its absolutely innovative style, but also and above all because the piano imitates the instruments that are proper to jazz music: the saxophone, the electric guitar, the vibraphone, the drums, the plucked double bass.

Jazz piano after bebop

After bebop, the two piano traditions, the older European one and the recent jazz one, reconciled and often coexisted in important musicians. Great performers such as Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and many others have seriously and thoroughly studied both worlds, in fact crossing their boundaries and blurring them.

Bill Evans in particular introduced the more typical sounds of the classical piano of the early 20th century to the world of jazz piano. Bill Evans was a great lover of the European impressionists, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel above all. His music represents an unsurpassed point of contact between these two worlds.

Bill Evans
Bill Evans

The present of jazz piano

The jazz piano tradition is now about a hundred years old, so there are numerous styles of jazz piano that we can define as ‘classical’. Delving into each of them requires years of commitment and sacrifice, just like studying the European classical repertoire. To specialise in the music of Bach or Art Tatum, to study Bud Powell or Chopin, are for today’s pianist different but not necessarily incompatible possibilities.

No prejudice has ever existed among great performers. If anything, it was the critics and music teachers who set useless boundaries, trying to establish supposed and sterile superiorities in one or the other field.

Those who love the piano and music in general can only be happy to have such a wide choice, regardless of their personal taste. We can enjoy a Chopin Nocturne as well as a solo by Thelonious Monk, and be amazed that a single instrument, the piano, can produce such diverse music.

Jazz piano has become part of the piano tradition, offering pianists of today and the future even greater and more exciting possibilities of choice and study. Let us therefore take a look at two alternative study paths to start learning about these two wonderful worlds.

Two alternative study paths for classical piano and jazz piano

On the piano, we can play a Bach fugue, a Chopin nocturne, as well as a blues or jazz improvisation. To achieve these different goals, the study path is not the same. Here, then, are two alternative study plans for studying classical piano or jazz piano.

The first year of study

Regardless of the music you want to play, the first year of study will not be much different. To play the piano, it is essential to learn how to read music sheets.

I am often asked why it is so important to learn to read sheet music, even to play songs or jazz music. The answer is very simple: without reading sheet music, it is virtually impossible to improve hand independence.

To play jazz music, for example, a great deal of hand independence is required. To achieve this independence, reading is a fundamental tool.

So, for the first few months of study, it is essential to choose a good exercise book that allows you to improve in reading the double staff. The method I suggest to my students is Beyer op.101, a complete and very effective book.

If the first steps are the same, whether to play songs or to study classical piano, towards the end of the first year the two paths begin to separate. Let’s see how.

Second year of study: classical piano

In your second year of study, if your goal is to play classical music, you will need to continue to improve your reading, start working more seriously on technique and begin to explore the repertoire itself.

For technique and reading, I recommend studying Duvernoy’s Opus 176, or the first volume of Mikromosmos. It can also be useful to start working on Hanon, a great classic for exercising the fingers.

However, if you study mostly self-taught, I would advise against playing Hanon, because you risk doing it wrong and thus consolidating flaws instead of improving.

If you want to play classical repertoire, I generally recommend that you get a music teacher to follow you, because working alone means wasting a lot of time and acquiring posture flaws.

During your second year of study, you can start playing pieces by the great classical composers: easy pieces by Bach, pieces from Schumann’s Youth album and much more. In this too, your teacher will be able to advise you.

Second year of study: modern/ jazz piano

If your goal is to play modern music, by the second year you should start studying chords and the first simple songs. The study of chords must be done in an orderly and precise manner; if you learn just two or three chords and start playing with them, you will probably stop there and not make any further progress.

First study major and minor triad chords, chord inversions, scale harmonisation and cadences. On this site there is a harmony course dedicated to these topics.

In modern piano, the score is less important, yet knowledge of harmony is needed to replace it. To play a few simple pieces, it is not necessary to know more advanced harmony. You do, however, need to know at least the basic concepts of functional harmony, and learn how to use chords.

I advise you not to abandon the more traditional studies altogether, but to work further on technique and reading. Duvernoy’s Opus 176 can be a good compromise because it contains technical exercises but also simple pieces, it is a fairly complete method.

Third year and beyond

Whatever your ultimate goal, I advise you to open up your studies even to subjects that interest you less. That is, even if you love classical music, studying a little harmony will help you better understand what you are studying. At the same time, even if you want to play the modern repertoire, learning a few pages of Bach and Mozart will help you develop technique and reading.

However, I continue with the purpose of this article: to indicate two alternative study paths, also for the third year of study. Let’s start with classical piano.

Third year – classical piano

In the third year of study you can play a lot of fascinating music. For example, Clementi’s sonatinas, simple Tchaikovsky pieces, more complex Bach pieces such as two-voice inventions.

As far as technique is concerned, as soon as you have finished Duvernoy op.176, you can start Czerny’s Opus 299, a book of very fun and challenging technical studies. You will have to work carefully on scale technique, and also start studying arpeggios.

Whatever repertoire you prefer, I advise you not to neglect these three aspects:

  • Technique (using study books, such as Czerny op.299 and Hanon)
  • The music of Bach. Whether you like it or not, it is the music that makes you grow the most in the field of hand independence, because Bach conceives of each hand as a separate instrument
  • The repertoire. Here you can follow your own inclinations and tastes: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and many other composers, there is plenty of music to choose from

Classical piano – study plan

1st year

Reading the score, elementary technique, hand independence:
Beyer op.101 or a similar course

2nd year

Op. 176 by Duvernoy
Mikrokosmos vol.1
Youth Albums by Schumann
Easy Pieces by Bach or other composers

3rd year

Czerny op.299
Bach’s two-voice inventions
Pieces by Mozart, Clementi or other composers

Third year – jazz piano

If you have mastered triad chords and how they are used, the third year is the right time to learn seventh chords and the first elementary jazz piano techniques, e.g. melody harmonisation.

If you want to learn to improvise, as well as accompany a few songs, do not neglect to improve your technique. You should also work a lot on your musical ear, which is fundamental for learning to improvise.

In order to study modern music, you still need to improve in your technical and reading skills, but also to deepen your understanding of harmony, in particular to learn seventh chords well.

Remember also that studying and playing are not exactly the same thing. Playing the same songs every day will not make you grow, so you should try to set up a serious and orderly study plan in order to keep improving.

Want help to improve faster? Find out how my private jazz piano lessons on skype work.

Jazz piano – study plan

1st year

Reading the score, elementary technique, hand independence:
Beyer op.101 or a similar course

2nd year

Learn triad chords
Play first simple songs
Continue to improve technique and reading

3rd year

Learn seventh chords
Improve your musical ear
Continue to improve technique and reading

Conclusion: choosing is not mandatory

If you want to get the most pleasure out of studying piano, choosing between classical piano and jazz piano is not mandatory, at least during the first few years. Try to improve on several grounds, reading and technique first and foremost, but also to learn at least triad chords and to cultivate your musical ear.

In this way, playing will be an even greater pleasure and you will be able to delve into different musical genres and authors as you go along. If you need help setting up an effective study path, write to me anytime. I will be happy to give you some advice and suggest how to continue your studies. Good luck!

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