Bill Evans and the Future of Jazz

Bill Evans died in 1980 after more than a 20 year career. He forever changed jazz, especially jazz piano and trio playing. He did this by creating, among other changes. two innovations: 1) Rootless chord voicings. Every modern player learns them and they are in every decent jazz theory book. 2) He made the bass player a near equal to the pianist, eliminating what I call "chunky sounding jazz." Jazz trios became more sophisticated. At its best, there was a sort of improvised counterpoint playing between piano and bass.

This approach has not changed. It is expanding on what Evans accomplished. Even while he was alive, players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Clair Fischer and others created their own voicings influenced by Evans.

This continues as new musicians from all over the world come on the scene. Jazz, like European classical music, is worldwide now. Israeli jazz artists incorporate middle eastern and Hebrew structures in their improvisations as one example of the impact of an American invented art form and the impact of Bill Evans. The Evans trio approach is in play everywhere you hear jazz.

Brad Mehldau, now in his forties, is increasingly employing counterpoint in his playing. Others have done this but not to the extent Mehldau has. This lack of counterpoint has been a source of criticism of jazz. Mehldau hopes to change that.

When I teach beginners, they must learn how to read music, along with everything else that lays the foundation for playing classical music. At the same time, I teach them to play chords with simple melodies-the foundation for jazz. It's wonderful when I can teach a student the "heavy stuff" of modern jazz, starting with the rootless left hand voicings of Bill Evans, while at the same time tackle a Chopin Nocturne. You need both to be a complete musician. You can be better at one, but you will be a better and happier musician with both classical and jazz.

The Importance of Teaching Chords to Piano Students

A significant number of my students have had a previous instructor. The teacher may have retired or moved, or the student moved and hired me. I have learned, with 30 years of teaching experience, that the vast majority of teachers are only classical trained. The best trained piano teachers teach what is called "music theory," which includes a foundational understanding of chords.

Understanding chords provides a student with a more foundational knowledge that can help a student understand how music works. It is kind of like learning grammar in an English class, and it allows the student to employ creative use of this knowledge.

When playing a Gershwin song or a modern pop tune, a student follows a published arrangement in much the same way they would approach any written classical work. These arrangements are not written by the song writer, but by a musician hired by the publisher. If you go to a recital and five students play the standard arrangement of a given song, they will be playing the same exact piece, note for note. In contrast, five of my own students playing the same song might play five individual styles drawing on the chord symbols and various musical devices that are not in the written arrangement, which they are not following. In doing this they are developing compositional and improvisational skills.

This is possible because my training and experience is in both classical and in jazz. When choosing a piano teacher, this is something to bear in mind. Jazz and improvisation has its origin in America, but is now all over the world and taught in every major music school. With a grounding not just in reading notes but also in understanding the music theory underlying any given piece, a student is better equipped to learn and grow as a musician. That is what I try to do for my students.

Why Teaching Living Composers Is Just as Important

I am bothered by the lack of teaching and performance of the music of living composers in today's piano teaching. Names such as Lowell Lieberman, Libby Larson-Penta, William Bolcom, Chick Corea... these are composers that you almost never see taught. You might not even see some of the great American composers that everyone knows and loves: Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, Barber, to name a few. Even some great pop songs have their place in piano teaching, especially the great American standards (there's value in everything from Billy Holiday to Nora Jones).

Don't get me wrong; I love Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and many of the other baroque, classical, and romantic-era greats. But it's 2013! We can't just maintain the old standards. We also need to present the new.

In my teaching, I do not exclusively use the traditionally-employed classical "educational music" commonly pushed by music publishers. I don't think this music is bad, but I find much of it dated and stale. Students become better musicians when they are exposed to a broader array of musical genres.

A modern song can be as beautiful, as complex, and as brilliant as any classical composition. As teachers we should teach all of it, and our concerts halls should have them performed.

New Collections Now Available!

My two newest collections of recordings are now available for purchase on CDBaby! Click on the album covers below for more information.


Piano Suite

The jazz pieces in this album are mostly in print in a variety of books published by KJOS. I have about a dozen books with them starting from 1996, with a book titled “Shades of Jazz.” The first six tracks of “Piano Suite” are from a book titled “Images of Jazz.” This album contains 30 years of music-making influenced by both classical and jazz. One work—the jazz piece “Nighttime song,” published in the book Shades of Jazz—is derived from Chopins nocturne in Fminor.

20 tracks | CD - $12.97 | MP3 - $9.99 | Songs - $0.99


Original Piano Solos

This is very much a listening album. The various solo piano works—some jazz, others classical and new age influenced—were composed over a 30 year period. There are compositions from every decade from the 1970s to the present. The last six recordings are in print. Published by Alfred or Alfred owned companies, they are in many books of compositions and arrangements by me.

17 tracks | CD - $12.97 | MP3 - $9.99 | Songs - $0.99

My Teaching Philosohpy (Part 6)

As mentioned earlier creativity- improvisation, composition- are integral part of the lessons. These techniques can be taught even before the student can read. Faber Adventure does this and I have my own ideas as well that I incorporate in a lesson. As note-reading is acquired by the student, there are many exercises I use to help a student improvise. No theory knowledge is necessary for these exercises which include the use of the blues scale (again, part of the jazz portion of the jazz-classical hybrid lesson).

Here are two examples: The student must already have learned to play the C, F, and G major chords. Identifying them using the roman numerals one, four and five paves the way for future theory lessons. The left hand plays the chords while the right hand breaks the chord up-playing single notes. This would include the flatted 3rd or blue note to be followed by the natural third. On the C chord this would be: E-flat, E-natural, G, going up the keyboard and then back down to a C.

A simple blues progression is used- four measures of the C chord, then two of F, two of C, one of G, one of F, two of C. This is 12 bar blues which is learned easily and enjoyed by many of my students. The blues scale can be taught simply by writing the letter names if reading them is too difficult. C,E FLAT, F, F SHARP, G, B FLAT, C. Although more difficult than the first exercise, it is doable and fun. It just takes longer to become good at it, but as with anything, practicing is key. Students love it.