April 16, 2020

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

How to learn jazz piano for the adult beginner

First of all the question comes to mind as to what is Jazz?  What music does this genre include and what are the main characteristics of this style of piano playing?

“Jazz is a broad and complex genre, and so it may seem difficult for those who are first getting into Jazz to know where to start. There are lots of different subgenres, and lots of different concepts, such that Jazz can sound like a foreign language – a Jazz musician could say ‘let’s use the Lydian Dominant mode to play over the secondary dominant chords in section B of Rhythm Changes.’ But Jazz doesn’t need to be complex. You can actually get by with a minimum amount of theory and practice”  (From The Jazz Piano Site – Online)

Today the term Jazz is used very loosely for nearly every style of music which is not classical or contemporary, like rock.  On the whole, talking of Jazz, it will refer to music played from the Real books, well-known songs like Autumn leaves, Take Five etc. The blues are also an intricate part of jazz music. There is a long history around the development of jazz which can mostly be traced to music played in America by the less privileged group and the blues formed part of this period.  Today jazz has become a very sophisticated genre which was looked down on in the past. Jazz pianists or jazz players were often seen as not educated and not professionally trained.  Many a jazz player could not read music, but they had the incredible ability to play by ear, improvise and create music,  having great fun and giving them almost a magical outlet for stress and emotions.

The Real Book

Over the years,  jazz players started to put the most known jazz songs together in a book format, called the Real Books.  Most Jazz piano players know the basic songs from the Real book.  The Real books contain the most well-known jazz songs with their melodies and chords,  giving jazz players a universal book with lead sheets of jazz songs to work from.

Classical piano vs Jazz piano playing:

The difference between Jazz and classical music

“Duke Ellington expressed it best when he wrote the tune, “It Doesn’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Jazz is nothing without the rhythms that create the music. Swing is the entity in jazz that makes you want to tap your feet, or move to the beat.”  Brendon Lowe from The Jazz Piano School

  • The most important ingredient or difference I would say between jazz music and other music is the swing feel and the 7th chord sound used in playing jazz. The swing feel gives the music a lilt or the definite swing feel which is quite unmistakable. This swing is  “rather caught than taught”.  There is a tendency of having the 2nd beat stronger or accented rather than the normal first beat of the bar as in classics.
  • In the classical and pop world, the primary triads or I  IV  V  chords are used.  Chords used are major or minor chords, and also the augmented and diminished chords.  These chords form the basis of classical and pop music. The chords are basically built with major and minor 3rds built or stacked on top of each other.  The chords for the jazz genre is built on 7th chords which will be discussed later.
  • In classical music, the 1st beat of the bar is usually the most important and accented. Timing is straight and exact on the first beat, unlike the swinging feel in jazz. The accent is more felt on the offbeat than on the beat.
  • Note reading in classics is an absolute necessity as you have to play the written music from a score. For the piano player, it means reading for both right hand and left hand.  In the Classical genre, this reading has to be exactly as the composer wrote it.
  • In jazz piano or jazz, on the whole, note reading plays a secondary role and is only used to notate the melodies.  Sometimes a specific line will be written out as well.  On the jazz lead sheet only the melody line will be given,  plus the chord symbols above it,  leaving the accompaniment or use of the chords to the pianist or instrumentalist to explore and use creatively.

Learning will take time

If you want to start to learn jazz, it’s important to realise that it will not just take one or two lessons to be able to play jazz, but rather a whole few years and a lot of mind-changing and hearing or listening to this style of music so that it can come from your inside as a player.  This is especially applicable if you are classically trained and are used to the normal major and minor triad sound.

After I studied classical piano for years,  I had the desire to expand my horizons and learn to play some jazz.  I thought it would be easy and after one or two lessons would be able to carry on on my own!   Well to my amazement I found that this new world of music was not going to be a quick one to conquer at all.  You need a whole mind shift to play and create in this style.  In the end, I decided to enrol at a jazz school for 3 or 4 years to learn things properly.   Well after one year of study I realised that if I  really wanted to do this genre well, it might take me closer to 5 – 10 years to reach the goal and not a few months or 2 lessons!

Find a good teacher

Of course, training depends a lot on the teacher and their ability to teach you the needed skills and lead you.  At the university where I studied, the lecturers of jazz were more than excellent master performers but they had no idea how to convey this to their students, probably because they themselves were trained by ear.  There were no jazz courses readily available before this time. Of Course, their training of what they could show or explain did help tremendously.

Being amongst other students helped in a major way and we learnt from one another, and of course from listening and listening and listening to jazz and practising chords, chord voicings etc.   We had to be part of a small band and this forced us to work, practise and play!  Today there are jazz schools and colleges that make the learning of Jazz so much easier and there are amazing tutorials on youtube available.  Finding jazz music to listen to is no problem today with google.   At the stage that I  studied jazz, one had to “search” for a CD with jazz,  if you wanted to study something specific like ‘Straight no Chaser’ etc.

Jazz today has become sophisticated!

Jazz has lately become much more of an important genre than in the past when it was often seen as music for the lower uneducated class. And wow could they play!  It makes one think.  Today jazz has been elevated and has become “sophisticated”.   Jazz piano pieces are now even part of classical music exams, except that in the classical exams,  the music is all written out on a score for the student and not really left to the creativity of the player, as the real jazz players would do.


Another major aspect of jazz is the improvisation used.  Actually, jazz is mainly improvisation on chords and most times there is a main melody given which is often called the head or head part.  Improvisation is the ability to spontaneously create music on the instrument, normally on a specifically given chord progression.

Playing with a band

Jazz piano can be part of playing with a band or the jazz pianist can do solo playing.  When you play as a band,  each player will receive a lead sheet with the basic melody and chords.  The head or melody is played and then each member of the band improvises on the chord progressions of the head given.  When the leader calls the “head” or shows to the head again, the band will repeat the head or melody and end the performance.  It’s an amazing and exciting feeling when the chemistry of a music piece or chords suddenly comes alive and the whole band flows together in a magical feel or oneness!  Improvisation is always an exciting time to explore with new notes, tensions and creativity by each band member.  The band usually at least consists of a bass player,  drummer and pianist or another instrumentalist.  Of course, you can add as many instrumentalists as you want.

The great pleasure of Jazz piano is the fact that you can play around with sounds, chords, ‘feel’ and be as creative as to whatever comes to your mind.  This can be very very exciting and most satisfying to the performer or piano player.

Creativity and excitement of Jazz piano

Ok, so for you as an adult beginner, to start to learn jazz piano can mean a lot of excitement and creativity.  It might take some time to get the basics underfoot, but it will be worth it.  You will soon be in love with the feel of movement and creativity.  Jazz is more based on feeling, hearing and creating of music than on reading of notes.  For the formal intellectual adult, used to being in control of every note, this could be quite daunting and stretching, but it will bring you to new avenues and new heights that you have not experienced before.  New sounds and chords and rhythms.  In today’s intellectual world and preciseness,  it is most exhilarating to be able to find an outlet and be more focussed on creativity and expression of emotion and sound.  Jazz is great for this, as is singing and playing songs by ear, besides the classical disciplined piano playing.  The classical piano piece is of course just on another level of expertise and can not be replaced by jazz.  It’s two totally different ways of expression.  If you are a classical pianist,  do think about doing a bit of jazz training.  It’s truly worth it. Today many classical pianists combine the classical and jazz sound to create a new amazing sound.

Do a new Real book song each week

If you start to learn jazz, it helps to do a new Real book song each week.  As a classical pianist,  I really found that very hard to do, as, in my mind,  I first had to play the former piece/s perfectly before even thinking of another piece.  In jazz playing, it is different and it helps to do many pieces and be forced to move on to the next melody with chords, even if the former is not perfect.  When is it perfect?  There are no written notes, so there is no “perfect.”  Only better or close to perfect!

Starting to learn jazz piano

I will presume that you already know the basics of the piano,  the sitting posture, basic scales, the keys,  etc.

Chords in Classical music:

In classical music, the major and minor chords or triads form the basis of the music.  The chords are basically built with major and minor 3rds built and stacked on top of each other.

Chords in Jazz music:

Jazz music is built mostly on 7th chords.  7th chords consist of a major or a minor chord with a major or minor 7th added to the chord.  The main three 7th chords being:

  • the major 7th –  (a major triad plus a major 7th)
  • the minor 7th –   (a minor triad plus a minor 7th)
  • the dominant 7th –  (a major triad plus a minor 7th (b7))

These chords consist of 4 notes.  The chords are built with major or minor 3rds which are stacked on top of each other.


After the 7th tone (which is the 7th degree of the scale), there can still be added the 9th, the 11th and the 13th degree of the scale.  We call these add-ons or extensions and they create tensions that give us distinct jazz sounds on specific chords.   I will discuss the building of chords in a next article.

The II V I progression

There is this very important II  V  I  (two five one) progression which is used all the time in jazz.   Having this in mind will help you in understanding the harmonic structures better.  This progression will rather look like this in jazz chord symbols:   II7   v7   I maj7

Lead sheets and chord symbols

When you get your lead sheet, it will contain the melody of the song, let’s say you are playing “Autumn Leaves” by Johnny Mercer.   This melody will be notated on a stave with the basic key signature and time signature needed.  (It will be most helpful if you have a teacher to help you with the basics of theory here.)  Above the melody, there will be the chords used at each point of the melody.  We call this changing of chords ‘the chord progression’.  There are quite a number of chord symbols that are typically used in jazz.  There are chords like the d minor 7th flat 5 chord with given symbols like D-7b5.  It takes a while to get to know all these chords and know how they sound, but soon enough all will make sense.  It’s important to use your ear and give great attention to the sound of each chord so that in future your ear will be able to “hear” the specific chord before even playing it.  Using your ear in learning jazz is of utmost importance. Especially as the whole genre is built on the ear rather than on notes.  I can not stress the development of your ear more.  It truly forms the basis of playing jazz, so do overtly listen and give attention to the sound of chords and their tensions.

Start with simple chord progressions

I suggest that you start first of all with very simple chord progressions.  Just maybe use two chords.  Do an easy progression without a melody – just with chords.  Of course, it’s advisable to learn about the different keys and chords and practise these in order to become fluent.  This can be discussed in another article.  Practising around the circle of fifths, throughout all the keys is part of today’s jazz students repertoire.  For the new jazz beginner, I suggest that you first conquer one key properly and then move on to the next.  Having to do too many scales and chords at the start will be too much!

Dear new jazz piano player, the subject of jazz piano playing is wonderful and huge so please, book yourself a lesson!

Well, I hope that some of this has helped you as an adult beginner.  Maybe you feel totally lost with all this information.  The best would be to start with very basic lessons in jazz piano.  I would very highly recommend it.  It will be worth your while and make things much easier.  So do not wait.  Book a lesson!  There are so much information and wonderful avenues awaiting you.  Do not give up or think this is impossible.  Learning one on one with a good teacher will make things easy and worthwhile!  So do find yourself a good teacher and enjoy the new era of the jazz pianist.  Soon you will be able to create and improvise and enjoy!


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