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  • Writer's pictureSandy Coursey

Portraits in Jazz: A Pedagogical Approach to Jazz Piano

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

A pioneer for women in jazz, Dr. Valerie Capers is a pianist and composer that has the ability to inspire advanced and beginner pianists alike. A graduate of Juilliard School of Music and the Institute for Education of the Blind, Dr. Capers trailblazes as a musician on many fronts, but especially as a composer of pedagogical piano music. You can find out more about her life and career here.

Her Portraits in Jazz are a set of 12 intermediate piano pieces, published in 1976, with the aim to educate the learning pianist about famous jazz artists’ styles. In an interview by the African American Composer Initiative, she compares Portraits in Jazz’s purpose to that of Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach or Schumann’s Album for the Young— pieces that are simple to learn, yet still sound and feel authentic to the composer’s style. Portraits In Jazz is not only meant to inspire the young pianist to learn and enjoy jazz, but to also educate piano teachers on the nuances associated with playing the genre. Capers includes a CD and short biographical information on her muses to ensure an informed approach for both the teacher and student.

In this post, I will highlight 3 of the 12 movements:

Blues for ‘The Duke’

An ode to some of Duke Ellington’s earliest compositions, Blues for the “Duke” is written in a traditional 12-bar blues form, with three chorus variations, mimicking improvisational comping. Capers provides her own thorough fingering suggestions throughout, to help guide a pianist through a texture of parallel chords in the right hand. You can listen to my recording of Blues for ‘The Duke’ here.

A Taste of Bass

Although not indicated by the title, this piece is dedicated to bassist Ron Carter and the impact of his jazz solos for bassists in the 1960s. Alluding to Carter’s often intensely rhythmic and spirited style, the left hand in A Taste of Bass takes on a soloing role for the first 17 measures of the piece, followed by a clear transition to a more supportive “traditional” role of a bass in the jazz band— This transition is indicated by a change to a walking bass-line in the left hand. almost an etude for the left hand, Capers uses A Taste of Bass to hail the “unsung hero[s] of a jazz combo.”

You can listen to my recording of A Taste of Bass here.

Billie’s Song

In memory of the iconic Billie Holiday, Billie’s Song provides the player with lush harmonies, decorating a melody that feels hip and nostalgic at the same time. Written in the traditional pop form of AABA, Billie’s song is often cited as a favorite of students learning some or all of Portraits in Jazz. A true reflection of Holiday’s warm and often melancholic style, Billie’s Song provides a stark contrast to others in the set, and gives the student an opportunity to play with more expression. You can listen to my recording of Billie’s Song here.

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