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Great Jazz Pianists and Their Contributions to Music

Jul 15, 2008
Some of the greatest piano players in history became known for their proficiency in jazz. Technicality and a heavy reliance upon the ability of the musician to improvise makes jazz piano one of the hardest styles to learn. That does NOT mean, however, that it can't be learned, but to get to the highest rungs a pianist must have lots of talent, a great ear, and the ability to improvise.

The birth of jazz music in the early 1900s was a significant period in musical history. Many of those who are considered among the greatest jazz pianists of all times were pioneers of the genre during this period. Jazz evolved from musical styles that African slaves brought to America. Therefore, its inception can largely be attributed to the early African-American community. African-American pianists, such as Scott Joplin and Ernest Hogan, are considered to be among the fathers of ragtime music. Although the ragtime era only lasted a few years, it was a precursor to, and contemporary of, the jazz era.

Many of the earliest and greatest jazz pianists were African American. For this reason, jazz music had something of a hurdle to overcome. While many embraced jazz as a new and exciting genre, others didn't. The emancipation of African slaves was still a fresh memory, and many people still carried strong attitudes of racism.

Jazz's public image changed slowly over the first two or three decades of the 20th century. Great African-American jazz pianists of the early to mid 1900s were instrumental in helping transform the perception of jazz. African-American artists like Erroll Garner, Theoloius Monk, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson brought a level of class to the genre that was undeniable. In fact, the Count Basie orchestra was pivotal to the jazz culture of New York for half a century. Noteworthy musicians in and of themselves, they also provided back-up for critically acclaimed singers like Billie Holliday and Big Joe Turner.

Count Basie's association with Ella Fitzgerald is both historically and musically significant. The 1963 album the two made together is remembered by critics as possibly the greatest recording of her career. Count Basie also made recordings with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett. These match-ups lent even more credibility to jazz as a distinct genre.

The evolution of jazz saw many changes over the ensuing decades. More branches and sub-genres developed. In fact, jazz music fell out of favor with the public for several years in the 1980s. There was controversy within the musical community over the fusing of so many different types of music with jazz. Some purists viewed it as "watering down" the art form. Other musicians and fans see jazz music as a culmination of many types of music and view blending it with rock as simply another variation generally known as "fusion".

Contemporary jazz artists have brought jazz back around into public favor in the 21st century. Today's great jazz pianists, like Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Norah Jones bear living proof of this by number of albums sold. While some write off their work as "pop" jazz, many believe they are instrumental in keeping jazz alive in the new millennium.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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