Pianist Mark Davis shows how to make jazz in a new method book

Mark Davis pianist author

Jazz pianist and author Mark Davis practicing at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music where he directs the Jazz Institute. Photo by Kevin Lynch

In person, Mark Davis exudes warm, affable intelligence. At the piano he translates his personality, knowledge and talent into penetrating, fluent and swinging music. He’s the city’s premiere jazz pianist, director of the Wisconsin Conservatory’s Jazz Institute, and pianist with the school’s faculty jazz ensemble We Six, which can be heard on the recording Bird Say. He’s performed with jazz greats Jimmy Heath, Charles McPherson, Slide Hampton, and Frank Morgan, among others.

And now Davis is the author of Jazz Piano Method , published by Hal Leonard , which may become one of the most effective and efficient ways to learn jazz piano, short of taking lessons with a gifted musician and teacher like Davis. The book includes online access to 180 recorded examples of its practice exercises, each introduced and performed by Davis himself.

Mark Davis w book

Courtesy halleonard.com

What’s the genesis and motivation for this book?

I’d thought about this for years working with students of all different backgrounds and levels. There wasn’t  a perfect book to recommend my students that fit my way of teaching. So why not write my own book? In 2008, I began recording for Hal Leonard (the world’s largest music publisher) accompaniment tracks for various books including The Real Book (a primary jazz repertory book) with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayless. But I really wanted to write the jazz piano method. Everybody teaches jazz differently. From pianist Barry Harris, I learned how interconnected teaching and playing are. I hope the book allows students a method to find their own way.

There is an inherent mystery to jazz in that it seems created out of the ether. But you give each note a purpose and get into why the music sounds and feels this way . For example, you point out that diatonic chords are ones that contain the same notes as other chords– which helps a student move through progressions musically and easily.

Jazz is not easy music play. You can get very comfortable with certain chord progressions and I hope the book gives people the fundamentals to give them a certain kind of freedom, so they can really take off.

Another example of useful theory you address are “shell voicings” and extensions.

My home base as a musician comes from the bebop approach, so shell voicings is a left-hand technique that bop pianist plays. But they also use, say, a tenth  interval (extension) but I show them how to get around that by breaking the chord up, as well as things like rootless voicings. Also, you can’t be jazz musician without understanding what came before. I’m using the bebop era as the starting point, rather than Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett.

But this can get them to Hancock or Jarrett. You emphasize learning directly from recordings. Also you address the idea of tension and release in the basic II-V-I chord progression. Doesn’t this help a student make an aesthetic choice, to make these decisions for expressive, dramatic or sonic effect?

Tension and release is an important factor in so much music, or even in movies or drama. If you just give a student a scale to improvise with you can point out the tools to see how tension and release occurs, which is the drama music. Otherwise it’s like going to a movie where nothing really happens.

In Chapter 5, you make a strong point that the rhythmic feel and the blues feel are the most important things, even more than the correct note or chord. Why is that so important?

Learning to play jazz is similar to learning a language. When a baby is learning to speak, before words they get the rhythm of language,  it sounds like talking but you don’t hear the words. Then the meaning starts to be filled in. Same in jazz, the more we learn, the more we can fill in, like language, the specific thoughts or ideas.


At the end, why do you characterize jazz piano as a never-ending journey and a quest?

In his 90s, Hank Jones said, you never fully master it. I find that students with careers outside of music can find a way to escape the day-to-day grind and of our own personal lives — escape inside music to a place where nothing really else matters. Charlie Parker didn’t want to go back to that other place. Maybe that’s why he was such a genius player. It’s the beauty you can find within music.

What I hope is that teachers will use this with students and now have the background using as a guide to teach jazz and they can pick up on these pocket topics and run with it in their own way. For example Brian Lynch is really excited about what his students are doing with it at the Frost School of music in Miami. I want to get this book into schools.

Among other jazz piano books, Davis notes, Jazz Piano by Mark Levine is an excellent book which I recommend. But it’s more of a reference loaded with information, where my book is a method, a pathway hopefully to come away with a much deeper understanding of music and approach for how they can continue to play it.

I don’t want to give them too much information because people can become overwhelmed by this music. I want them to enjoy learning how to play jazz.

Mark Davis and We Six will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 18 with guest artists Brian Lynch, a Grammy-winning trumpeter originally from Milwaukee, and Benny Golson, a renowned jazz saxophonist and composer, at Marquette University’s Weasler Auditorium, 1506 W. Wisconsin Ave.  Over a distinguished career, Golson has worked with, among others, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. Golson has written a number of jazz standards including “I Remember Clifford,” “Killer Joe” and “Whisper Not.” He’s also composed for TV shows including Ironside, M.A.S.H., and Mission Impossible. For information, visit www.wcmusic.org.


Benny Golson. Courtesy jazzpages.com


This interview was originally published in The Shepherd Express in a slightly different form.

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