Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jazz Appreciation Month: Jazz Piano

photo of Dave Brubeck Quartet with Brubeck at the piano

The origins of jazz are obscure, but one undisputed early trend is the use of piano in a central role. The piano was part of the small combos of early New Orleans Jazz, played a role in the Big Band/Swing era, came to the foreground in BeBop & Cool (Western) jazz of the 1950s, and continues to be a mainstay of jazz today. This year the Smithsonian features pianist Dave Brubeck for Jazz Appreciation Month. His famous "Take Five" was a crossover hit and is still heard outside of jazz circles today.

Ragtime music on piano is sometimes considered the earliest jazz form, and other early jazz forms also featured the piano. Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake are the best-known of the early piano masters. Other early pianists are Fats Waller, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton.

In the Big Band era the piano played a less central role, but some of the most important bandleaders were pianists: Fletcher Henderson. Duke Ellington, and Stan Kenton.

Oscar Peterson Trio photograph
The more combo-oriented Bebop style gave the piano room to shine once again. A few pianists became famous as soloists, and many who were associated with top saxophone or trumpet players established their own groups. Check out the piano stylings of Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Sonny Clark, McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner or Art Tatum. In the 1960s Bebop evolved into"Hard Bop," which included pianists Horace Silver and Ramsey Lewis.

The West Coast answer to East-Coast bop is known simply as "West Coast Jazz," and though other instruments exemplify this softer-sounding style, pianist Vince Guaraldi (most famous for "Charlie Brown" TV special soundtracks) is considered part of the West Coast movement. "Cool" jazz is also in this vein. The best-known "cool" pianists are Bill Evans, Marian McPartland and Dave Brubeck, though "bop" and "cool" are terms that can equally be applied to several performers.

Album cover for Herbie Hancock's Head HuntersSince the 1970s jazz stylings have been combined with rock, funk, international styles (especially African and Latin American). Some of the more famous bands of the "fusion" movement that combined jazz with rock were headed by pianists: Herbie Hancock (whose "Headhunters" album was jazz's first platinum album), Chick Corea ("Return to Forever"), Josef Zawinul ("Weather Report"), and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

A few pianists have carved out niches as soloists in recent times, most notably Keith Jarrett and Keiko Matsui in the smooth jazz vein. Brian Culbertson plays both piano and trombone as a funk fusion bandleader. Claude Bolling combined classical genres with jazz sounds in his suites.

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