• Erin Su

A Journey into Jazz

For us classical musicians, the foreign concept of jazz is quite intimidating. As a freshman in my school’s jazz ensemble, my thirteen years of classical piano experience seemed to disappear as I struggled to grasp the unbridled, limitless language of jazz. I was thrown into a new world of indecipherable chords and note-less sheet music, in which the rules of classical music were replaced by improvisation on a whim. No matter how many hours I spent studying the solos of famous jazz pianists, I could not grasp the basic musical freedom I had known all my life, now that all the creative liberty was mine.

At first, I shied away from this exciting new genre, encouraging the other pianist to play as I stared at the clock and wished rehearsal would end. I was terrified that my piano solos would be judged by my peers, who improvised beautiful runs without breaking a sweat. However, as I learned to accept that there was no "right" way to play jazz, I began to relax and let the music speak for itself.

Although I am not yet an expert in jazz, I would like to share a part of what I have learned over the past few years.

1. The Minor Blues Scale (1♭3 4 ♭5 5 ♭7)

As a beginner in jazz, I relied on this exact scale for my solos. At first, it's scary to think that you can play anything you want when you improvise, and I often froze up and didn't play anything at all. I found it much easier to improvise after learning this scale, because you can play any of these notes and it will definitely sound like jazz.

2. Basic Jazz Chords

Jazz music has that signature "jazzy" sound primarily from its frequent use of seventh chords. There are four different types of these chords:

  • Major Seventh: 1 3 5 7

  • Minor Seventh: 1 ♭3 5 ♭7

  • Augmented Seventh: 1 3 #5 7

  • Diminished Seventh: 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭♭7

4. Famous Jazz Pianists

When I first started, I learned a lot about playing jazz by listening to pianists like Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock. It's great for beginners to explore the different periods of jazz so you can find what you like and incorporate that into your playing style. A great way to learn new licks and comping styles is to try playing through a transcription of these famous pianists' solos. I have a jazz playlist on Spotify that will introduce you to some household names in the jazz world. Feel free to check it out here:

Pictured: Pianist Bill Evans.

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