I know next to nothing about jazz music. There's one particular style of jazz that I've always liked, though—but I can't seem to figure out what "style" of jazz it is. Here's an example: Oscar Peterson — You Go To My Head.

It's the kind of jazz piano that has that cool, smooth quality to it. Obviously, when you look up "jazz piano" you get lots of different styles, like that uptempo blues style, swing, etc.

What's this particular kind of jazz piano called? If I wanted to learn to play this style, what would I look up?

  • Try out the pianist Bill Evans.
    – Aaron
    Feb 4 at 6:23

The first thing to point out is that this is a ballad and there are no improvised solos on this song, just the melody once through, then back to the bridge to the end. So the only improvisation comes in the form of embellishing and filling around the melody. A ballad is not a “style” simply a type of song.

Another thing to point out is that Oscar Peterson transcended “style” throughout his career. He was equally adept at playing stride piano, boogie woogie, block chord melodies and harmonies, swing, blues, bebop, hard bop, and lyrical ballads like this one to name a few.

I would say as far as piano styles for this song go Oscar is basically incorporating 2-3 different stylistic elements of jazz piano. One is playing right hand melody with left hand rootless voicings (leaving the roots to the bassist) the way pianists did in the bebop era and beyond. Another is embellishing and filling around the melody reminiscent of Art Tatum. The third is playing block chord harmony under his melodies in spots. All of these elements make up some of the parts of the standard vocabulary of jazz piano.


This song is from the album Oscar Peterson Plays Pretty.

Oscar might be insulted, but I would describe it as "cocktail jazz", a style starting in the 50s or 60s, popular as background music in elegant restaurants, clubs and bars (thus the name "cocktail"):

Cocktail piano refers to a style of solo piano where the melody is highly ornamented with runs and arpeggios. the repertoire is usually pop tunes and standards.

Cocktail piano uses standard jazz harmonies on things like showtunes and standards, but discards the rhythms you find in straight jazz in favor of a looser embellishment of the melody. Cocktail piano stays with a standard harmonic interpretation of a tune. Also since it's solo piano, voicings include the root. Based heavily around the melody. Because the goal is basically background music, you won't get too far out as far as improvisation or harmonies go.


Compare the following:

You also hear this style described as "lounge piano jazz."

  • 1
    It arguably is "what it is", though. The fact that it is usually choosen for what is considered "music you are used to [or believe you should] listen while having your drink" doesn't make it "cockatil jazz". It would be almost like saying that "The Girl from Ipanema" is "elevator music", or the Dies Irae from Verdi's Messa da Requiem is "epic trailer music". Feb 4 at 2:37
  • Got a better description? (And yes, that's dead on for the Verdi.) Feb 4 at 2:38
  • 2
    Well, I'd start with saying that the OP is about the "style of jazz piano", which is a broad request as much as it means almost nothing: to me, it's like asking "what style of classical violin is Mendelssohn Concerto". I agree that there are "styles" of playing certain instruments (for instance: stride piano, a style for which Peterson was well known), but they are just vague indications that lack a full spectrum allowing better and more precise definition. I'd go with "standard slow ballad" (or even "swing-era ballad"), which says almost nothing, as much as "style of jazz piano" usually does. Feb 4 at 2:58
  • Now you’ve done it, lol! (For the record I didn’t DV you) Feb 4 at 3:36

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