Playing By Ear, A Life’s Lesson Learned

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New OrleansLouisiana, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime.[1][2][3][4] Since the 1920s Jazz Age, it has been recognized as a major form of musical expression in traditional and popular music. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, complex chordscall and response vocalspolyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in European harmony and African rhythmic rituals.[5][6]


My first piano lessons came as the result of the casual visits to the home of an aunt on my father’s side.

She taught me the scales and I learned to play the C scale before I began taking formal lessons at the home of Miss McLaughlin, an elderly white lady who taught my brother and I how to read music and imparted the musical work ethic of practice, practice, practice, and, you guessed it, more practice…

As I approached adolescence, I developed an interest and an ear for being able to play what I heard, which was much more attractive and intriguing to me than the repetitive drills of practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms….

We were supposed to read the sheet music and memorize it in preparation for the periodic recitals that were an element of the formal course of instruction.

My ‘problem’ was that if/when I got to a passage in a piece that I couldn’t quite remember from the sheet music, I would improvise my way through it based on remembering what I heard while practicing…

Needless to say, my capacity to read music began to atrophy as I delved further into the musical world of playing by ear and improvising…

I have often said that I didn’t really begin to learn how to play the piano until I stopped taking lessons and started to listen….

You may already know who my favorite pianist is. Erroll Garner couldn’t read a note of music yet he wrote ‘Misty’, one of the most well-known and recorded songs of all time…

In as much as this is Black History Month, I could make a list of the black jazz and R&B pianists I listened to intently through the years as I developed what meager skill and style I have…

I’ll never be able to play as well as I’d like to, but I’m told that I play much better than I think I do…

At the very least, I’m consoled by the fact that I play well enough to have earned back the money my mom spent on piano lessons…


Here are A Few White Guys I Learned From


Dave Brubeck,
Take 5, 1959

Bill Evans,
My Foolish Heart, 1961

George Shearing,
I’ll Be Around, 1950

Vince Guaraldi,
Cast Your Fate to the Wind, 1962

Andre Previn;
Just In Time, 1961

Keith Jarrett
Danny Boy, 2016

Chick Corea
Overjoyed, 2020

One great lesson that learning to play the piano by ear has taught me:

When you learn to listen, you can’t stop learning…

That goes for much more than music…