Classical Piano and Jazz Piano in Comparison - Which one is the best?
The history of the piano begins long before the history of jazz. However, the jazz piano represented a real revolution, greatly widening the limits of the instrument and bringing new momentum and new styles. For this reason, I tried to think a little about the relationship between classical piano and jazz piano.
At the beginning of the Jazz Piano: the stride softly
Ragtime is still not really jazz as it is music written in its entirety, without improvisation. However ragtime represents the starting point of the jazz piano, the ragtime technique has been transferred almost unchanged to the stride piano, the first true form of jazz piano. Scott Joplin was the best known ragtime author.
The stride piano had to satisfy a specific need: playing at a medium-high volume. The pianists in fact performed in noisy places, or had to cope with instruments much more sonorous than the piano: wind instruments.
Consequently, octaves and whole chords abound in the piano stride, the left hand plays the bass in the low register on the first and third movements of the measure, while on the second and fourth movements it jumps to the center of the keyboard where it plays whole chords. Here is a typical example of left hand movement, taken from a performance by Count Basie.
The right hand, on the other hand, plays the melody in octaves, or quick flies of various arpeggios and embellishments. Here is an example of a piano stride of the right hand, a phrase played by Teddy Wilson, embroidered on the F9 chord.
Some of the champions of the piano stride, who often competed in real competitions, were James P. Johnson, his pupil Fats Waller and Willie the Lion Smith. The most virtuous jazz pianist by far was Art Tatum. All these pianists had a solid background in classical studies, on which they grafted the stylistic elements typical of jazz: swing rhythm, improvisation, blues.
From one point of view, the piano stride is not too different from some piano music by Listz or Brahms, which use chords and octaves in a similar way. Of course there are many differences, in particular the stride piano tends to be much more repetitive, and although it is very tiring it is on average simpler than the piano repertoire of the nineteenth century.
However, Art Tatum reaches heights of difficulty that have nothing to envy to the European piano literature which inspired it. What is most amazing about Tatum is not so much the impressive piano technique, but the ability to improvise phrases between the internal voices, moving the chords of the left hand in a totally independent way from what the right does.
The Piano and the Orchestra:
With the advent of big bands, the piano radically changed its function. Unable to cope with a section of numerous wind instruments, the piano often plays introductions and endings, perhaps playing solos when the winds are silent, accompanied only by bass and drums.
For example, Duke Ellington often got up from the piano to conduct the orchestra after playing the introduction. Count Basie, on the other hand, played short counterpoints to the riffs of the winds in the high register of the instrument, to be able to "pierce" and be heard through the powerful sound of the big band.
Despite being a valid stride pianist, Basie therefore invented a style of his own, minimalist, somehow overturning the concept of the “piano and orchestra”. In classical concerts the piano is often the absolute protagonist and makes itself felt in all its possible registers. In Count Basie's big band, instead, the orchestra with its riffs are at the center of the musical discourse, the piano pushes it with short but very effective interventions.
The total revolution: the Bebop Piano:
Bebop represents a revolution for jazz music in general and the piano is no exception. The approach of the bebop pianists is radically different from that of their predecessors: the classical root of the instrument is apparently forgotten.
In reality, some first-line bebop pianists had a solid classical background (this is the case of Bud Powell), however pianists who grew up in the tradition of the jazz piano also entered the scene. This is the case of Thelonious Monk, Hampton Hawes and Erroll Garner, mostly self-taught pianists with little or no classical background.
Whether they had a classical background or not, bebop pianists ushered in a new use of the instrument: the piano plays dense single-note melodic lines, imitating wind instruments. The left hand often plays simple bichords, with a mainly rhythmic function.
In the example above we see that the left hand plays incomplete chords: root and seventh, root and third (or tenth). The harmony is however well defined by the incessant movement of the right hand, so it is not difficult to understand which chord a bebop pianist is thinking about, even if he does not play it in full. Bebop musicians often play thinking about chord themes, so the harmony is usually quite clear.
With bebop the jazz piano reaches its full maturity and autonomy, not only for the absolutely innovative style but also and above all because the piano imitates the instruments that are typical of jazz music: the sax, the electric guitar, the vibraphone, the drums. , the pizzicato double bass.
The Jazz piano after Bebop:
After bebop, the two piano traditions, the older European one and the recent jazz one, are reconciled and often coexist in important musicians. Great performers such as Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and many others have done serious and in-depth studies in both worlds, actually overcoming their boundaries and making them less defined.
The present and the future of the jazz piano:
The tradition of the jazz piano is now about a hundred years old, so there are numerous styles of jazz piano that we can define as "classic". Deepening each of them requires years of commitment and sacrifice, just like studying the European classical repertoire. Specializing in Bach's or Art Tatum's music, studying Bud Powell or Chopin, are different but not necessarily irreconcilable possibilities for today's pianist.
In the great performers there has never been any prejudice. If anything, it was critics and music teachers who set unnecessary boundaries, trying to establish presumed and sterile superiorities in one or the other field.
Anyone who loves the piano and music in general can only be happy to have so much choice, regardless of their personal tastes. We can enjoy a Chopin Nocturne as well as a Thelonious Monk solo, and be amazed that a single instrument, the piano, can produce such different music.
The jazz piano has entered the tradition of the piano, offering the pianists of today and of the future even more extensive and exciting possibilities of choice and study.