The Essential Instruments of Jazz Part 2

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The Piano

The piano is about as common to a jazz bar as the bar itself. The piano is a highly versatile instrument that is welcome in the vast majority of genres out there, except for the highly odd niche ones. Yet, like with a lot of jazz instruments, knowing how to play the piano doesn’t automatically make a capable jazz pianist. Having a classical education in playing piano is a fantastic start in terms of reading the notes and having a great deal of muscle memory in place. However, some will say that switching from classical piano to jazz is a bit like switching from writing with one hand to writing with the other. It’s unnatural and cumbersome even though knowledge of how writing works and experience in writing is there, the brain just doesn’t seem wired for it.

The same thing is almost literally true for the piano when it comes to the differences between jazz and classical. Much like there are very few properly ambidextrous people out there, there are few pianists who can do both jazz and classical with equal level skill. The classical pianist due to their training is more deeply concerned about the technique with which they play, producing a harmonious musical composition with flawless rhythmic uniformity. The jazz pianists can’t boast such ability to produce perfection, but perfection is subjective in the world of jazz. The values of jazz are somewhat different than that of classical music. Jazz is based on the ability to combine and interact with other musicians in unexpected ways, entering the rhythm that is there while innovating within it with improvisation. When faced with an unexpected change the classically trained pianist will more often than not be thrown off the rhythm. The jazz pianist is will handle the change with more aplomb, adapting to the new musical direction and inserting their original thought into it.

This seeming opposition between the classical and jazz piano is has a dark history. After slavery was abolished the segregation in society remained. The classically trained musicians were seen as naturally superior to whatever was played by the African-American community. What was regarded as inferiority was later recognised as a unique flavor of music and a somewhat different sense of rhythm. Nevertheless, music lovers from all over America gravitated to this new “groovy” approach to playing piano. White musicians emulated the style, without giving credit, but were not as good as their African-American counterparts. Soon, the latters’ musical complexity was finally recognised for it’s true value. One of the most famous pieces of that era was “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin, a tune that few can name but many will recognise. This kind of music lay the foundation for what will eventually become jazz thanks with the improvisation and “swinging” that defines it. It was in the early thirties that Jazz truly came into its own, and it owes so much to the piano, as some of the most iconic and complex pieces were composed and played on the piano.