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Oscar Peterson Jazz Piano Intros Demystified: Creating Memorable Openings

In a jazz performance, it often falls upon the pianist to set the tone and create a memorable introduction to the tune. As such, you never want to be caught unprepared during these crucial moments. That's why understanding the art of creating jazz piano intros is essential. In this article, we will explore six jazz piano intros employed by the legendary Jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, and analyze the techniques that he used in them. Get ready to elevate your performances and ensure you're always ready to make a lasting impression!



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The Basics: How To Create A Jazz Piano Intro


A basic procedure in constructing a jazz piano intro is as follows:

  1. Create a chord progression that ends with either a perfect cadence or imperfect cadence

  2. Improvise a melodic line and an accompaniment part over that chord progression, being sure to end the the last note of improvised line a little earlier than the main melody of the tune itself, so there's some breathing space to time the entry of the tune's melody

  3. An optional step is to play the V7 of the first chord of the tune at the end of the intro. This might help lead the intro into the main body of the tune itself a little more smoothly in some situations. This is elaborated on later in the article.

When creating a jazz piano intro, it is important to consider the following questions:

  1. Is the tune in a major or minor key?

  2. What chord does the tune begin on?

  3. Does the melody begin in bar 1, or does it begin with an anacrusis?

Check #1: Is The Tune In A Major or Minor key?


The first step in creating an intro is to ask if the tune is a major or minor key. This is important as intros for major key tunes are mostly likely not compatible with minor key tunes and vice versa. They are exceptions but more often than not, such is the case. Generally speaking, an intro for a major key tune would use more chords that are diatonic to the major key, and intros for minor key tunes would use more chords that are diatonic to the minor key. In creating chord progressions for jazz intros, you will want to keep this in mind.


In this article, we will introduce ideas that Oscar Peterson used for both major and minor key tunes, but to keep things simple for a start, let us assume that our tune is a major key tune for the next part of our discussion.


Check #2: What chord does the tune begin on?


To create a jazz piano intro, you should plan for the intro to end in either a perfect cadence (ending on Chord I) or ending in an imperfect cadence (ending on Chord V7).


However, to further ensure that our jazz piano intro connects nicely into the main body of the tune (the main body of the tune is also referred to as the 'head'), one common method is to precede the first chord of the tune with its related dominant seventh chord, or in other words, the dominant seventh chord that is constructed from a root note that is a perfect fifth above the root note of the first chord of the tune. This is better explained with examples. Here are some examples:

  • If a tune begins on chord I, that means the last chord of our piano intro would be V7 of chord I. In a tune that is in the key of, say, D major, this would mean that the tune starts with a D chord, and the last chord of our piano intro would would be an A7 ('A' is the V of 'D') An example of a jazz standard that begins with a chord I is "All Of Me"

  • If a tune begins on some kind of chord II (typically, it will be a II-7 or II7), that means the last chord of our piano intro would be the V7 of chord II. In a tune that is in the key of, say, D major, this would mean that the tune starts with some kind of E chord - this can be Em7, E7, Em7(b5). For such a tune, our intro would end with a B7 chord ('B' is the V of 'E'). An example of a jazz standard that begins with a chord II is "Our Love Is Here To Stay"

  • If a tune begins on some kind of chord VI (typically, it will be a VI∆7, or VI7), that means the last chord of our piano intro would be the V7 of chord VI. In a tune that is in the key of, say, D major, this would mean that the tune starts with some kind of G chord - this can be G∆7 or G7). For such a tune, our intro would end with a D7 chord ('D' is the V of 'G'). An example of a jazz standard that begins with a chord II is "Just Friends"

Hence, depending on what chord the tune begins with, the last chord of our piano intro will differ. It is also important to note, however, that not all intros will end with the related V7 of the first chord of the tune, as we will see in some of Oscar Peterson's jazz piano intros below.


Check #3: Does The Melody Begin In Bar 1, or Does It Begin With An Anacrusis?


Depending on whether the melody of a tune features an anacrusis, your intro will have to be adjusted accordingly. An anacrusis is an incomplete measure of melodic material before the first complete measure of the tune. Examples of jazz standards that have an anacrusis in their melody would be like 'Autumn Leaves' or 'In A Sentimental Mood'. Examples of jazz standards that do not have an anacrusis in their melody would be like 'All Of Me' and 'All The Things You Are'.


To create a simple jazz piano intro, a common procedure would be to come up with some kind of chord progression and improvise the melodic material and accompaniment parts based on that chord progression. A typical jazz intro would be 8 or 4 bars in length or some kind of multiple of 4 bars (eg, 12 bars, 16 bars).


Let's take the 8-bar length for example. In an 8-bar intro, if the main melody features an anacrusis, it would mean that the anacrusis would occupy bar 8 of the intro, and therefore, the improvised melodic material on the intro has to stop some where in bar 7 of the intro. If you were to continue improvising melodic material during the intro into the 8th bar, it can potentially confuse your fellow musician who is playing the anacrusis on bar 8, because it would feel like the intro has not yet ended and it is not yet their time to start playing or singing their part.


Hence, it is important to determine whether a tune has an anacrusis, and on what beat does the anacrusis starts on, as it determines when the melodic improvisation stops in the intro.


Some of these concepts above sound more complicated than they really are, especially when explained in a purely writing format in a blog article. It might be helpful to get a jazz piano teacher to explain and demonstrate these concepts to you and help you in your jazz piano journey.


Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, let's dive right into what we're here for: the six jazz piano intros played by the legendary Oscar Peterson.


Intro #1: All Of Me, A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra (1959)


When it comes to crafting unforgettable jazz piano intros, studying iconic examples like the opening of 'All of Me' from Oscar Peterson's album 'A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra' (1959) becomes invaluable. Below is a transcription of the intro section



The chord progression used in this intro consists of IV7, #IVdim7, Ic, VI7, II7, V7, I —an extremely common chord progression used in jazz piano introductions. For those who might be unfamiliar with this particular manner of indicating inversions in roman numerals, 'Ic' refers to a chord I in second inversion.


These are the things you should notice about the intro:

  1. The intro ends in a perfect cadence. However, contrary to what we've discussed earlier in the blog article, this intro does not end with a V7 of the first chord of the tune.

  2. The duration of the intro is 8 bars long, which is a typical length for jazz intros.

  3. The intro leads into a tune that does not originally have an anacrusis; the melody of 'All Of Me' typically begins on beat 1 of the first bar. However, Oscar Peterson does add an ascending scale run leading up to the first note of the tune, which almost has the aural effect of having an anacrusis. For tunes which start their first note exactly on beat 1, you could also consider doing the same thing.

Other note-worthy points are that in terms of melodic material, Oscar Peterson uses mostly the Ab major pentatonic/major blues scale, which is also the same scale as the F minor pentatonic/minor blues scale if you're used to thinking in minor pentatonic or minor blues scales instead. There are also some Ab mixolydian notes mixed in as well.


The phrases that he uses are typical of blues piano, and it would of great benefit to practice these phrases in all twelve keys to get them into your improvisation vocabulary.


Intro #2: I Only Have Eyes For You, Oscar Peterson Plays Harry Warren (1954)



Below is a transcription of Oscar Peterson's jazz piano intro to 'I Only Have Eyes For You'


Like the intro on 'All Of Me', the piano intro to 'I Only Have Eyes For You' also features the an almost-identical chord progression, that is, IV7, #IVdim7, Ic, VI7, II7, V7.


The difference is that instead of being 8 bars long, this progression is only half that duration, that is, 4 bars long. The reduction in length by half the duration means that compared to the 8 bar version, all the chords (with the exception of the II7 and V7 chords) are reduced in duration by half - in the previous intro, each chord took the duration of one entire bar, whereas in this intro, each chord only takes the duration of half a bar.


However, you might have noticed that there is an exception to the reduction of each chord's duration by half - the chords II7 and V7 are not reduced in duration; they still occupy the duration of one entire bar. Also, compared to the intro of 'All Of Me', the chord I is removed entirely from the chord progression. This results in the second main difference between this intro and the one heard in 'All Of Me' - the intro of 'I Only Have Eyes For You' ends in an imperfect cadence as opposed to the ending in a perfect cadence in the 'All Of Me' piano intro.


Compared the first piano intro, you should note that this intro:

  1. ends in an imperfect cadence (ending in V7)

  2. leads into a tune that begins on chord II-7 from an intro ending in chord V7; once again, this goes against what we previously discussed earlier in this blog article, in which it is suggested to end the intro with the V7 of the first chord of the tune.

  3. leads into a tune that begins with an anacrusis beginning on beat 3+ of last bar. Notice where does Oscar Peterson end his melodic improvisation in the intro - he ends it on beat 3 of the last bar of the intro. This is actually considered very late given that the first note of the main melody starts just a quaver's duration after the last note of Oscar Peterson's intro improvisation. By ending the last note of the intro improvisation this late, it not as intuitive to time the entry of the anacrusis immediately after. If you were playing with another lead player or singer who's taking the main melody of the head, it is very likely they will miss their entry if they are less experienced. A way around this would be to end the intro improvisation earlier, for example, the last note of the intro improvisation could have been placed on the first beat of the F7 chord instead of the third beat.


Intro #3: Take The 'A' Train, Solo (2002)



This next intro is from Oscar Peterson's performance of 'Take The 'A' Train' in 1972, featured in the album 'Solo' that was only released in 2002. Below is a transcription of the intro.



This is an 8-bar intro that features a tonic pedal point. Typically, a pedal point refers to a technique in which a single note is sustained in the bass for an extended duration while the harmony changes from one chord to the next above that unchanging bass note. This means that the bass note may some times not be always be consonant (in a traditional sense of the word) with the chord tones of the chords that are moving above it. Most of the time, the pedal point note is the tonic note (first scale degree) of the key or the dominant note (fifth scale degree) of the key.


Another way to look at a pedal point technique is to sustain a single note in the bass for an extended duration, while the melody above improvises modally without a chord progression. This is more in line with what you hear Oscar Peterson doing in this recording. In this intro, Oscar Peterson uses a tonic pedal (meaning, a pedal point in which the sustained note is the tonic note of the key) in his left hand, but he also increases the 'heaviness' of the sound of the pedal by adding the perfect 5th interval above it. In his right hand, he improvises bluesy-sounding lines using a combination of C major blues scale and C mixolydian.


Intro #4: Summertime, Exclusively For My Friends (1992)



The next jazz piano intro is from Oscar Peterson's recording of 'Summertime'. This intro is also based off a pedal point technique. The only difference being that this is a minor key tune, hence the note choice of the improvisation above the pedal point is based off a C minor blues scale instead of the C major blues scale in the intro of 'Take The 'A' Train', which is a major key tune. Below is a transcription of Oscar Peterson's intro to 'Summertime'


A few things to note about this intro:

  1. It is 16 bars long in duration.

  2. In the last bar of the intro, the tonic pedal point ends and the left hand plays a 'G' in the bass before the start of the main body of the tune. This can be interpreted as playing the V7 of the first chord of the tune before the tune begins proper, a technique mentioned earlier in this blog article to ensure that the piano intro flows naturally into the main body of the tune itself.


Intro #5: Dancing On The Ceiling, Tracks (1970)



This next intro is an interesting one. In Oscar Peterson's 1970 recording of 'Dancing On The Ceiling', he plays a jazz piano intro in minor key to a tune that is in a major key. The key of the tune in this recording is D major; the intro that Oscar Peterson plays is in D minor. Below is a transcription of the piano intro to 'Dancing On The Ceiling'



This also marks a very different kind of intro as compared to the ones we've explored so far, because this is a ballad intro played in rubato tempo, which means the tempo is played freely rather than a strict tempo.


This intro starts with 3 bars of a D minor modal chord progression that revolves around an alternating Dm7 an Em7 chord played over a D tonic pedal. This is played by the left hand. The right hand improvises using the notes from the D natural minor scale on top of the left hand part.


Thereafter, Oscar Peterson plays two cadences:

  1. A perfect cadence

  2. Deceptive cadence

The perfect cadence is not a pure V7 to Im cadence; it features a tritone substitute chord before getting to the Im chord. Hence the Eb7 between the A7 and Dm7


Same with the deceptive cadence. Traditionally, a deceptive cadence is V7 that is expected to resolve to chord I but ends up somewhere else instead, hence the 'deception' in deceptive cadence. Here, Oscar Peterson has already stated a perfect cadence prior to the deceptive cadence, hence setting up a certain expectation of repetition of the same cadence. However, instead of V7 (A7) resolving to Im (Dm7), this time, Oscar Peterson resolves it to Ebmaj7 instead. (The reason why this particular resolution to bIImaj7 works is another whole discussion in itself, but that's a discussion for another time)


Additionally, Oscar Peterson also precedes this deceptive cadence of V7 to bIImaj7 with a IIm7(b5) chord as well. Once again the reason why this works is another discussion in itself, and outside the scope of this already lengthy blog article. However, it is generally suffice to say that in most situations, you could extend of V7 by preceding it with it's related II-7 to create more harmonic interest.


After these two cadences, he ends the entire intro with an imperfect cadence, which then leads nicely into the main body of the tune.


Intro #6: In A Sentimental Mood, Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington (1952)



For the last jazz piano intro of this article, we will explore Oscar Peterson's recording of 'In A Sentimental Mood'. Below is a transcription of the piano intro.


The key of the tune is D minor and the chord progression in this piano intro starts with a bass line that descends chromatically from the tonic note of the key. Take note of the chords that are used to harmonize this descending chromatic bass line as it is a fairly common chord progression.


After the descending bass line sequence, Oscar Peterson continues the chord progression with a chord IV- followed by a chord V7, although the chord V7 he uses has been tritone substituted, hence it is an Eb7 chord instead of an A7 chord.


The piano intro could have ended at this point given that it would have constituted an imperfect cadence on that Eb7. However, Oscar Peterson goes a step further and adds a C7 chord after, making it an imperfect cadence as well, but to the relative major key instead, that is, F major. Ending an intro with an imperfect cadence to the relative major key of a minor key tune can some times work given the correct conditions, and is a technique that you can consider using in your own piano intros.


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