How to Incorporate Jazz in Your Piano Lessons

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By Wynn-Anne Rossi

Revolution is a powerful concept. Humanity has experienced it in many forms, from our fight for freedom to dynamic social and cultural change. When I consider musical revolution, jazz is the first thing that comes to mind. In America, it all began with jazz. Jazz is the foundation, the building block that has opened doors to the modern music heard every day on the radio. Rock, hip-hop, dubstep, and many other musical genres would not exist without these radical beginnings.

Jazzin’ Americana is a four-book piano solo series that celebrates the American jazz revolution from the roots of ragtime and blues to the groundbreaking styles of Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis. Stretching in level from late elementary through late intermediate, students will become familiar with the adventurous sounds of jazz. With the help of interesting musical facts, they will also gain an understanding of its complex history and cultural influence. Improvisation is not the focus of these books. However, teachers and students may find it fun to utilize certain left-hand patterns or chord sequences from the books as springboards for free experimentation.

As most of jazz music was not originally conceived for solo piano, I initially set out to compose original tributes to jazz movements and musicians. This meant research! I spent many hours reading stacks on stacks of jazz books at the library and listening to recording after recording. My aim was to create accessible, playable music without sacrificing the sophisticated melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that define the essence of jazz.

Let’s explore a piece from each book!

Beginning with “Bird in the Bebop” in Book 1, notice that each piece provides enlightening trivia, inspiring curiosity, and personal research.

Interesting facts about “Bird in the Bebop”:

Saxaphone player Charlie Parker (also known as “Yardbird” or “Bird”) was at the forefront of the bebop revolution. Faster tempos, improvisation, and complex harmonies spread like wildfire, and “hot jazz” was born.

Rhythm workshops also precede each piece, encouraging the student to tap and feel prominent rhythms:rhythm-workshopBird in the Bebop
In “Bird in the Bebop,” a single melodic line begins the piece, allowing the student to push the tempo up and feel the energy of this “hot jazz” style. Throughout the piece, chromatic movement also helps define the genre. Staccato vs. legato is crucial. Notice the strong “bop” ending.

Let’s consider “Miles of Mixolydian” in Book 2. Italian Keyboard ComposersThough modes didn’t begin with jazz, leading musicians certainly took advantage of them. Miles Davis offered many examples of modal jazz in his best-selling album, Kind of Blue. Modal jazz tends to be thoughtful, almost hypnotic. Repetitive motifs—both melodic and rhythmic—allow the listener to relax into this unique sound. When teaching this piece, encourage the student to point out patterns and repeats.

Italian Keyboard Composers
Art Tatum was and continues to be the ultimate role model for jazz pianists. Blind from birth, he broke through technical barriers that pianists are still trying to analyze today. In Book 3, “Tribute to Tatum” begins with a driving Dm6 jazz run down the piano and maintains Tatum-like energy until its final run up the piano at the end. 16th note jazz “licks” and color harmonies are sprinkled throughout the piece, accentuated by dynamic changes.

Italian Keyboard Composers
Women have always had a strong voice via jazz, from the blues of Bessie Smith to the unforgettable voice of Ella Fitzgerald. Book 4 highlights the tragic life of Billie Holiday with the soulful piece, “Lady of the Day.” This music honors her compelling life with a strong dose of A minor, supported by complex harmonies and heartfelt movement. Note the descending chromatic bass line. The B section at measure 9 ramps up the emotion with syncopated, driving 16ths.

The jazz revolution will maintain its influence for many decades to come. Modern music trends will draw inspiration from these healthy roots. Composers and educators will continue to discover the power of our rich jazz history, helping us improvise our way into the future of music.

Be cool. Introduce the hot jazz revolution with Jazzin’ Americana!

Wynn-Anne Rossi
Wynn-Anne Rossi is a nationally acclaimed composer and dynamic educator whose works have reached audiences throughout the United States, Europe, Iceland and Australia. Her passion for promoting creativity in young musicians is reflected in her choice of publications with Alfred Music. For more information, visit Wynn-Anne’s website at www.rossi-music.com.


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