All the videos of the greatest jazz pianists

Legendary Jazz Pianists

Legendary Jazz Pianists

Since its beginnings in the early 20th century, the piano has always been an integral part of jazz. This is mainly due to the instrument’s ability to add both melody and harmony to a piece. It can also be used to play individual notes or full chords -- a quality that would become increasingly important in the history of jazz.

What we think of as early jazz piano is the stride style of playing popularized in places like Harlem and Philadelphia in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith are two of the main men behind stride. They helped develop the style during “cutting contests” at house parties and jam sessions. Essentially, stride pianists would compete to see who could add the most improvised flourish to jazz standards. Jazz elements like tension and release, syncopation, and rhythmic accents came out of the stride style.

Next came bebop in the ‘40s and ‘50s. For many, bebop is still the standard for jazz. Along with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, pianists such as Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and Ahmad Jamal would help create this revolutionary sound. Bebop is characterized by fast tempos, improvisation of harmony and melody, and the use of block chords. So it’s no surprise that pianists formerly familiar with the stride style quickly found ways to adapt their instrument to bebop. Bebop pianists are known for playing with exceptional virtuosity, riffing incredible rhythmic solos that often incorporated elements of polyphony. Piano became the main rhythmic base in bebop, making for a bold, bright sound that’s now familiar, but back then was a far cry from the blues-tinged jazz of the early 20th century.

By the beginning of the ‘60s, with the rise of other genres like funk, R&B, and rock, jazz began to change again. And once more, pianists were at the forefront of this movement. Pianists like Chick Corea, Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock began experimenting with ways to meld jazz with their other musical interests. For some, this meant incorporating their classical training for a lush, orchestral sound with seamless harmonic transitions. For others, especially Corea, this meant pushing the envelope with atonality and different ways to play the piano. And particularly for Hancock, this meant melding funk, pop, hip-hop, and R&B for a completely new sound.

Subgenres like fusion jazz, free jazz, and hard bop became standard on the charts and in clubs around the country. It remains the same today. More than ever, jazz means incorporating your own personality and influences into jazz standards and original compositions. Though the initial elements like improvisation and syncopation are still there, jazz has grown in scope since its start nearly 100 years ago. And as you can see, jazz pianists have always been main players in these innovations.

Chick Corea

Chick Corea was born into jazz. Born as Armando Corea on June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, his father was a Dixieland trumpeter who had led a jazz band in Boston in the ‘30s. His father started teaching him the piano at age 4, and at age 8, he took up the drums as well. Yet he also received a different sort of musical education during this time: Growing up surrounded by jazz records by beboppers Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell. Jazz gave way to more classical training once Corea started learning under concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, who piqued his interest in composition and music theory. In his late teens,... Read more >
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Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock. It’s a name that’s become nearly synonymous with jazz piano. From his early association with Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, to his innovations with hard bop and fusion jazz, all the way to his still prolific solo career, Hancock is a true master of jazz. It’s no surprise that Hancock was a piano prodigy. He started classical training at age 7, and only four years later, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though he didn’t receive any jazz training, he was a fan of the early bebop group the Hi-Lo’s. When he was 20, he asked jazz pianist Chris Anderson to teach... Read more >
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Ahmad Jamal

Music critic Stanley Crouch has said that Ahmad Jamal is so important to jazz, he’s only bested by Charlie Parker in terms of influence. With a classical approach to jazz -- he even calls his bandmates his “orchestra” -- Jamal continues to be a master pianist, composer, and technician. Jamal was born named Fritz Russell Jones on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh. He started his piano training at age 3 by mimicking his uncle, though he received more formal training four years later with Mary Cardwell Dawson -- a Pittsburgh art patron and a founder of the National Negro Opera Company. In fact, Jamal credits the Pittsburgh arts scene as a... Read more >
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Keith Jarrett

Few musicians have had the impressive career that Keith Jarrett has had. Since the ‘60s, he’s been consistently successful. Jarrett is known in particular for his fusion of jazz with other genres -- a quality that would influence the likes of Art Blakey and Miles Davis. Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1945. He began piano lessons right before turning 3. Possessed with perfect pitch, he was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. He made his performance debut only two years later, appearing on a local talent TV show. By age 7, he was playing Mozart and Beethoven off memory alone. He continued his classical piano... Read more >
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Fats Waller

Though you may not know him by name, you’ve definitely heard a song by Fats Waller. In addition to being a great organist and stride pianist, Waller was the most prolific composer of his time. Though he died too young, at the age of 39 in 1943, Waller accomplished so much in his short life. His stride style of playing set the scene for the swing craze of the ‘40s. He was born Thomas Wright Waller on May 21, 1904 in Harlem, New York, right on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz would flourish. The son of a preacher, he played the reed organ during his father’s sermons. He eventually parlayed this into a gig as the... Read more >
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