What does it really take to learn how to play jazz? Well, that depends on what you mean by jazz.
If you mean playing jazzy-sounding tunes appropriate for your skill level, then all you need are the basic ear and/or reading, rhythm and technical skills to play those tunes. Many people are satisfied playing written pieces that are “jazzy,” or written-out jazz arrangements, or transcriptions of improvisations by famous jazz pianists.
On the other hand, if by “jazz” you mean learning how to improvise – which is the true essence of jazz – then you mean something quite different. Learning to improvise in jazz style requires a more extensive skill set than reading jazz arrangements.
The essential “building blocks” of jazz improvisation are the same materials that Beethoven used to write his symphonies – scales and chords. Scales are the building blocks of melody and the raw material for the improvising jazz pianist’s right hand in particular. Beginning jazz pianists will minimally need to know the major scales and one or two minor scales, in all 12 keys. Advanced players must know well over a dozen scale types in all 12 keys. From those scales a good player will then practice numerous patterns that they will combine spontaneously when improvising. Learning all of this obviously takes some dedication. Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was once observed to practice the C major scale – and nothing else – for 11 hours straight. That’s dedication.
Chords are the essence of musical harmony and the raw material for the improvising jazz pianist’s left hand in particular. Harmony has both vertical and horizontal aspects. The so-called vertical aspect of harmony are the chords themselves. The beginning jazz improviser should minimally know four or five triads (three note chords) and four or five tetrads (four note chords) in all 12 keys. He should be working on learning the inversions of those chords too. As soon as possible, the new jazz improviser will want to learn the basic jazz chords as well, such as 9 and 13 chords.
The horizontal aspect of harmony is the movement from one chord to the next, also known as a “chord progression.” After the basic chords have been learned, the advanced beginner or intermediate player will want to learn essential chord progressions such as II-V-I, and to begin learning options for chord substitutions, which any good jazz player should know.
Is there more to learning jazz than you thought? If so, don’t be intimidated. Any pianist can learn to be a good jazz player given time and practice. If you already have basic reading and technical skills, you can learn to play jazzy-sounding tunes right away. If you want to improvise, but aren’t attached to doing so in jazz style, you can begin almost immediately after learning the fundamentals of the instrument. Improvising is one of the best ways to become a better musician. After all, improvising words and phrases to create sentences and paragraphs is how all children learn to speak. In jazz, words are patterns and scales, and sentences and paragraphs are tunes and sections of tunes.
If you want to be a genuine improvising jazz pianist, now you know what’s required. And if you want to get really good, take a hint from Mr. Coltrane!