I'm a classically trained pianist. Took lessons all through my childhood. I've continued to play and read classical literature all my life. But I never learned anything about jazz piano. I also know a lot about music theory, am a good sight reader and have a good ear.

At this point in my life (>40) what's the best approach to try to learn to play jazz piano music? This could include improvisation, but looking for some tips on how to get started. And some things I can do on my own.

  • 6
    One thing that I don't think the answers below emphasise enough is the importance of learning to comp, i.e. play a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment for soloists, before worrying too much about your own soloing. A pianist who can't solo (well) can still jam with other musicians, but a pianist who can't comp can't play.
    – nekomatic
    Oct 16, 2014 at 8:36

9 Answers 9


Do you listen to jazz?

I think a big part of getting into jazz as a trained musician means experimenting on your own. One of the biggest challenges for you will likely be learning the style of jazz piano, i.e. being able to play and not sound "square".

If you want a listening list, check this out: "100 Greatest Jazz Pianists". The top 5 would be plenty to get you started--you could probably set up a Pandora station and be set for a good while.

The best jazz musicians learned by doing. They learned the "rules" in an intuitive sense just by going to gigs and using their ears. Now we have jazz educators, of course, so that process can be made a little less painstaking. One such jazz educator has written the well-regarded Jazz Piano Book that may be enough to get you off the ground if you don't want to go out and find a teacher.

You can also find plenty of books to get you familiar with jazz voicings through notation. The extremely popular Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long series contains a selection of transcribed piano voicings from the existing play along CDs.


If you're well-trained in music theory and good at sight reading, then you've already got some strong and important assets. I have a background similar to yours, so here are some things that I remember from when I got started:

  • get used to jazz rhythm: if you take for instance 4/4 songs, you'll notice that in many genres the first and third beats are emphasised, whereas in jazz it's the second and fourth;

  • about reading: jazz pieces swing, which means for instance that two subsequent eighth notes should approximately be read as "dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note". I'm sure this sounds obvious to jazz players, but it confused many excellent classical piano players I know when they had to sight-read some of the pieces I was practicing.

  • listen to it of course, to get the hang of the overall feeling, because there will always be a point where you'll learn and understand things much better if you've first heard them (but then that also applies to many other genres).

  • get your hands on "The Real Book" volumes, which are standard books in jazz and contain many interesting tunes. This will also help you get acquainted with the above points, and help you learn frequently occurring patterns of chords (like 2-5-1) so you'll have a better idea of the big picture. In my experience, this is another big difference with classical music, where my training was more about playing a given sequence of notes rather than about getting the general structure of a song.

  • keep your excellent technical skills provided by your classical training, but try to be more flexible. There are a few chords in jazz music that might sound dissonant when you first hear them, especially when coming from a classical background, but you'll get used to them. This is also relevant to improvisation, if you want to avoid merely using scales.

  • it's frequent in jazz that the left hand keeps playing a rhythmic part, while the right hand improvises. To help develop their "independence", one exercise that my professor advised me to work on was to let your left hand play the beat, and try to do something else with the other hand at the same time -- not playing however: moving it slowly up and down the keyboard, grab an object and move it elsewhere, and so on.

I'm sure more seasoned and more serious players will have many things to add, but I hope these tips will at least help you get started.

  • Not a bad summary, but this completely fails to mention syncopation! Syncopation is probably the first differentiating feature of jazz music that I'd mention.
    – Noldorin
    May 3, 2011 at 22:04
  • 4
    Mostly good but the dotted 8th & 16th note is technically and feel wise incorrect... Swing feel comes from an African 12/8 triplet inference... i.e. a quarter note triplet with first two eighth notes tied rather than a dotted eighth (unless you're going for a "Lawrence Welk" tribute feel... take the train "Eh?"). Divide your quarter notes by 3 not 4. May 28, 2012 at 22:11
  • @DavidAxtellMooreII: I fully agree with what you have said, but would like to point out also that this is not a "new" development. Actually it goes back over 1000 years. See Notes inégales for an interesting article on the subject.
    – BobRodes
    Apr 3, 2014 at 16:11
  • 3
    @Noldorin if syncopation is the first thing you have to learn so as not to sound square when playing jazz, the zeroth thing you have to learn is not to call it 'syncopation' ;-)
    – nekomatic
    Oct 16, 2014 at 8:29

A few more suggestions -

  1. Play Blues - not Delta guitar-style blues, but jazz blues, with turn arounds. There are hundreds of sets of jazz blues changes available ( http://www.jajazz.com ). Instead of jumping into the complexity of the full blown jazz repertoire, blues is a great way to get your chord voicings and soloing going. You can take blues a looooong way and many many tunes are based on the blues in one way or another, even if it doesn't seem like it. You can start simple and add more chords to solo over as you get better.

  2. Listen to lots of jazz. Not just current players, but go back to the beginning and start listening to how jazz piano evolved - Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington (his actual piano playing), Monk, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea...there are hundreds of names. Be able to identify them by hearing them and why they sound like they sound.

  3. Transcribe the players you like. Nothing will teach you more than figuring out the great masters. I think it is in the Levine book, but there is a quote that says "all the answers are in your CD collection". Meaning, if you figure out the lines/chords of the guys that invented it all, you will learn things at a level that a book cannot provide. Remember, DVD's/videos and method books about jazz are only things that exist in the second half of the 20th century. Everyone before that had to listen and figure stuff out. It is still the most powerful way. Being able to transcribe is the most important and useful skill to acquire.

  4. Record yourself. It doesn't have to be high-quality, just a boom box with a built in mic, or your iphone, or whatever. The point is not the audio quality it is to hear what you REALLY sound like. We have biases and other things that make it hard to hear that, especially when we are actually doing it. You might hear that you rush or drag when you listen back, but you might not when you are actually playing.

  5. Learn how to identify the third and seventh of any chord you see. Instantly. Those are the juice notes, many early chord voicings are nothing more than those two notes of every chord. For both harmony and soloing those are the most important notes of any chord.

  6. Play with players better than you. It's scary and humbling, but it will make you stretch and you will be surprised how fear can motivate you. :)


I am a jazz musician who has helped people make this very transition. I would like to add the good comments here by suggesting a few books for study material:

  • The Jazz Piano Book - a definitive work by Mark Levine
  • The Jazz Theory Book - another definitive work by Mark Levine
  • Modern Harmonic Progression - a wonderfully written book on Tertiary Harmony by Allen Michalek

There are so many good books and so much to say about learning jazz, but I will leave it at these few suggestions for reading material because just the journey through these books will spark many paths that will cover all my comments.

However, the best thing to do is take some University jazz courses and take some lessons from the best jazz musician(s) you can find in your area. Also, if there are jazz workshops in your town or city, get into one of the better ones.

Have fun with the transition. I play with a Juno award winning jazz bass player who divides his time between the jazz and classical world. He made the transition many years ago and says it was the best move he ever made. I certainly envy all those who can do both.

Have a great time with it all.


I am pretty much exactly in your situation. Some already mentioned the Jazz Piano Book, which is great for classical-trained pianists, though it's also "intense". As a professional Jazz player friend of mine put it, if you study 8 hours from that book daily, you will be a pro jazz player in 3 years.

If you don't have that amount of time, I recommend a class by Gary Burton on coursera that was life-changing for me. He covers pretty much all the basics from a very practical standpoint.

The class is free and lasts 5 weeks, and I believe you can always watch it without registering to the class. This class is simply outstanding; you will be at a different level 5 weeks later, and you will have many of the tools you need to keep getting better.


My 2 cents is that:

You need to do something about your mindset. 1. You need to get rid of the habit of sight reading which is very prevalent of music students in my country: 2. You also need to get out of the mold and mindset where you must everything written for you. Let's just say that Jazz Musicians can hardly play the same piece exactly the same way twice with the same feel, same style or same notes.

Jazz is about 'Freedom' whereas a mainstream, classically trained student is used to playing exactly what's written.

A good start to jazzing is start with Melody Faking: using the repeated notes style, use the attentive style, use lots of syncopation and anticipation while retaining the melody motive, play around with lots of ornaments. A favourite folk song I like to "Little Brown Jug" and "Mack the Knife". Google Youtube to hear these songs.

And while doing that, developed the swing feel (where 2 quaver notes develop the long-short feeling - reminding you a bouncing ball). This one is best taught interactively with a coach where offline or online.

Once you catch the swing feel and developed your ability to melody fake, they you can move on to do ad-lib where you have total freedom to do whatever you want with music. Take your time. A mainstream note-reading student is going to find this a huge change of mindset.

Of course, one more aspect is your ability to play "by ear" so that you can deal with the harmony.

If you need any elaboration, you need to PM me.


I'm classically trained, and that kind of age, and took up jazz piano three years ago. I think all the suggestions here are great, but finding a good teacher is really high on the list. For me, there were so many stylistic aspects of playing that are different from what I was used to that I was "blind" to, even though I thought I understood them. Swing, for example -- I thought I got it, but it took months before I realized I didn't and really began the process of getting it. Anyway it happens that my piano teacher is the author of a jazz piano book which personally I love, and I think it's written and organized in a way that works very well for someone coming from a classical background. It's very thorough in terms of the theory, but also kind of bootstraps you through a different relationship to the keyboard, in terms of intervals and chords and scales and colors.


This guy comes from a classical background and started studying jazz rather "late" in his musical career. He has a website with tutorials. Check out his practice tips and links section.


I agree with all of the above but here's another. Just sit down and play in the dark. Doodle, noodle, explore... Don't judge. The most important thing is to not stop. Set a timer for say, 15 minutes and keep playing until it rings. Dig into your imagination. Forget your training. Good luck!

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