The History of the Jazz Pianist's Left Hand

Here's a brief synopsis of the history of the Jazz pianist's left hand:

Scott Joplin used an oom-pah style bass. This consisted of octave-chord-octave-chord. The chord generally reflected the simplicity of 19th century pop music - generally triads and 7ths. The octaves on the down beats did not necessarily just do one-five-one-five, though. There is harmonic motion, leading tones, etc.

Jelly Roll Morton continued in the oom-pah vein, but used innovations such as descending sixths and 9th chords on the upbeats.

James P. Johnson (the Father of Stride) substituted 10ths for the octaves on the downbeats, and introduced walking 10th bass lines.

For more on left hand tenths, see the article "Left Hand Stride Piano Tenths".

Fats Waller held true to Johnson's teachings, but had an incredibly fertile imagination. At this stage in the evolution of the style we see the addition of things like 9#5 chords, left hand runs, descending chromatic lines over circular progressions using tritone substitutions.

Art Tatum (aka GOD) once said that everything he did came directly from Fats. Among other things Art Tatum had an unerring sense of rhythm, he could go off on a tangent, and then come back in strong and rhythmic as ever. His left-hand style is still based on the Stride version of the oom-pah bass, but he throws in wild passing chords, complex cluster chords, runs that still blow the minds of even the best pianists.

Basie, Ellington and even Monk were all beholden to the school of stride (listen to any Basie and Ellington solo recordings, Monk's very last recordings were solid Stride numbers).

In the mid-40's a new style was brewing. Nobody could compete with the solo piano of Art Tatum, and so guys who were playing with combos decided not to.

Bud Powell used "shell" chords in the left hand. This still provided a rhythmic impetus and harmonic interest, but stayed out of the bass player's way.

Typically "shell" chords consisted of the 1, some kind of 7 and some kind of 9. They're called "shell" chords because they include only the outer reaches of the chord (and exclude 3rds and 5ths). In this way Bud needed to devote very little brain power to the left hand, and could devote almost the entirety of his creative energies to executing those intricate speed demon bebop lines in his right hand.

The next step in the evolution was the rootless chord system. I'd like to mention that the rootless chords still have all the same tendencies of their "rooted" counterparts. There are some tunes (cocktail solo too!) that I just play left-hand rootless chords all the way through and they sound great.

For more on rootless chords, see the article "Rootless Chord Voicings for Piano".


After that the "modernists" got into quartals. (stacked perfect 4ths) These give a spacey modal effect. Try these quartals to spice up a tired old ii-V7-I progression:

Dm69 (no root, no b3) B E A

G9 (no 3,no b7) A D G

Cmaj13 (no root, no 5, no 9, no 11 ) B E A

For more on quartals check out my lesson "Quartals".

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Look for places where a set of descending sixths would fit in nicely. Also keep in mind that inside of any chord progression there are always secret lines where one chord tone can move to a nearby tone in the next chord - Always keep an eye out for those babies!

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