Billy Taylor on Jazz Improvisation

The locked-hands style of Milt Buckner
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Milt Buckner was a great jazz pianist who, because of the star system that prevails in the jazz field, was never given proper credit for his tremendous contribution to the jazz lexicon.

Buckner was an imaginative, innovative musician who developed orchestral-sounding block chording into a widely imitated piano style. His facility for playing rapid, highly rhythmic passages in chords was astounding (check out his recording of “Nola” with vibes player Lionel Hampton in the late ’30s), but he was so consistently relegated to the role of accompanist that few listeners realized what a great soloist he was. The devices he created were popularized by other pianists (George Shearing, Nat Cole, and so on) and have become an important part of contemporary jazz piano playing.


The basic concept is simple: Harmonize a melody using four-part closed-position harmony, with the melody doubled in the octave below (see Ex. 1). Nat Cole and other pianists of the early ’40s also liked to double the top two notes of the chord. I have found that to double all the notes gives an even fuller sound, most effective in slower passages.

Because the jazz pianist has the ability to play melody, harmony, and rhythm simultaneously, the piano has been used orchestrally in jazz since the ragtime days of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Milt Buckner pioneered in exploiting the four-, five-, and six-part voicings that were being used in scoring for the various sections of the big bands of the late ’30s (see Ex. 2).


As you can see from the examples given so far, this style of block chording was called the locked-hands style because, in order to play it properly, the hands had to move across the keyboard as though they were locked together at the wrist.


In the chronological development of the jazz lexicon, styles have often overlapped. I call the transition period between swing and bebop “prebop.” The pianists of that period laid the groundwork for those who followed them by incorporating the locked-hands device and other innovations of the period into their own styles. For instance, Jimmy Jones used the kind of pattern shown in Ex. 3 to accompany violinist/vocalist Stuff Smith on “Perdido,” while I used the kind shown in Ex. 4. Other pianists, such as George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, have used combinations of chords and octaves in order to accent certain notes while playing with greater speed (see Ex. 5).


Buckner’s astounding technique allowed him to finger the most difficult passages and articulate them rhythmically like a reed section or a brass section depending on the mood he was trying to convey. He knew how to be percussive and yet melodic, and his style has been an influence on many of today’s best-known pianists. Those who insist on making comparisons between artists with the idea that any one person can really be judged “best” do us all a disservice if we allow them to impede our ability to focus on the superb talents of such artists as Milt Buckner. It is unfortunate that during the last ten years of his life he got less attention and encouragement at home than he did in Europe.


If you would like to hear how the locked-hands style should be played, listen to Buckner’s album Play Chords. In the meantime, Ex. 6 shows a tune in his style to play.