What is jazz ?
From the musical forms of blues and ragtime, this genre of music called ‘jazz’ emerged in the late 19th century in the South of the United States, and from it arose a number of other derivatives of music that are enjoyed the world over. It is generally recognised as a free flowing form in which musicians create riffs and sequences, in the moment, based on a given progression.
How is jazz performed ?
Because of the different cultural influences of the performers, this genre of music can be played on horns, rhythm guitar, drums, piano, organ, and double bass. For variety and entertainment, it is usually delivered by a group of instrumentalists who play together, and who take turns doing thier own individual solo expressions to delight their audiences. Jazz has also been made popular by vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack and more recently Norah Jones. As you would observe from these performances there is a bluesy vibe going through which identifies the genre.
The role of the piano
Of all the instruments, piano/organ can produce the greatest variety in styles, expression and arrangements because piano/organ are played with the permutaions and combinations using ten fingers. A pianist can play jazz by himself and embody rhythm, melody, harmony, and even a bass line. The piano is the whole orchestra.
What does the pianist play ?
Jazz is not confined to named songs. It is more of a style and a form which can be applied to everyday popular songs and labelled as jazz. Listen to this jazz pianist turn a simple, well- known song like “Happy birthday” into jazz by changing the progressions, altering the chords and introducing different grooves. What is interesting to note is that while he is playing the different styles, we are hearing the melody of the song within the arrangement. How does he do this?
He plays the basic chord progressions but in between these basic chords, he uses ‘passing chords’ to add interest. He chooses to add one chord or several chords, as long as he stays within the rhythm and keeps the form of the song.
Usually, jazz is recognised by the sound of the chords. Whereas in regular songs the chords are based on the first third and fifth notes (basic triad), in jazz other notes of the scale ( 6th, seventh, even flat 5th or flat 9th) are added to provide a degree of dissonance and a little suspension to make the chords sound more bluesy. To some, this might sound involved, but it is a skill that can be learned and developed over time and it really does enrich the music.
The melody is the ‘tune’. In a simple song the right hand plays the melody and together with some lower notes in the right hand, the left hand plays accompaniment. In jazz the melody is played to identify the song but later the pianist may play scales and riffs and licks while the chords are heard. The important thing is that he just does not play anything. He has to play these scales and licks in harmony, based on musical patterns, and in rhythm with what is going on.
Jazz may seem involved , and it can be but learning jazz piano can make your keyboard experience and your depth of expression even more profound and enjoyable. You can start with very simple songs, add a few notes, change styles and later develop those same songs even more. The best tool to encourage your jazz skills is that of listening. Spend time listening to various vocal and instrumental artists and you will get familiar with the additions they provide to make songs that much more entertaining. Are you ready to enrol in a jazz program ? It might be the best give you give yourself this year !
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