Jazz pianist and ABRSM examiner Tim Richards shares his experience of introducing jazz to a new audience.
In my activities as a jazz educator I meet many pianists who are striving to widen their approach and incorporate elements of jazz into their playing. Interest has often been sparked by the fully notated ‘jazzy’ pieces which are now routinely included in the ABRSM C List at most piano grades. But for me, improvisation is at the heart of jazz, and it used to be common in classical performance too. Perhaps there is a resurgence on the cards? In recent years I’ve been running short courses for classical piano teachers wishing to explore the ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus. Many of them already have a love of jazz and wish to understand it better, but there are also those who like the idea of playing jazz but haven’t had a background of listening to it. Indeed, the huge variety of styles, from blues and ‘bebop’ to modal and ‘funk’, can be bewildering to the uninitiated. It can’t be stressed too strongly that listening to recordings is essential to develop your feel for the difference between, say Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, or Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk, to name some of the most important pianists of the 20th century. We mustn’t forget that the origins of jazz are in dance music, and the concept of ‘groove’ is still all-important – as hinted at in the title of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing. Consequently jazz often has a metronomic approach to the pulse, rather different to the way much classical music breathes. Knowing where the beat is and being able to play around it, or syncopate, without losing the ‘one’, is an important skill for any jazz musician.
Most jazz players enjoy fooling around or ‘noodling’ on their instrument – that is how they developed improvisational ability as young musicians, by not being afraid to experiment. Many good improvisers are also composers – these two disciplines are often considered two sides of the same coin. Jazz gives you the opportunity to express yourself by having some creative input into the piece you’re playing. This aspect has been given full reign in the ABRSM Jazz syllabus, in which pieces can initially be played as given, but you are expected to introduce variations or embellishments on the recap. As stated at the front of the Jazz Piano pieces books: ‘Exact repetition should be avoided … the candidate may expand upon the given material, using other pitches, voicings and configurations’. Does this sound scary? Or liberating? An important skill to develop is the ability to play what you hear, and in this context aural tests can become a key part of the lesson/exam experience. The final (and most fun) part of a jazz exam involves playing a duet with the examiner, swapping two-bar phrases in call and response over an underlying groove. I strongly encourage all teachers to incorporate such games into every lesson! You can even make scales and arpeggios fun, by putting them into a harmonic and rhythmic context. This kind of activity lays the foundation for acquiring key jazz skills and developing a more flexible approach to music. Tim’s next course on the ABRSM Jazz Piano Syllabus is being run by Benslow Music in Hertfordshire, UK from 4 to 6 August 2017. You can read about his jazz and blues piano books here. Discover the ABRSM Jazz syllabus