Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
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Do you want to get paid to play jazz piano and get a steady jazz gig? If you want to play background jazz piano music and gig professionally, you need to know a few chord progressions that you can easily improvise over.

Today, I’m going to teach you how to improvise over the Turnaround Progression. You’ll learn 2 left hand approaches, a scale for improvisation, 3 improvisation tools, and 3 exercises to play beautiful jazz improvisations. Let’s begin.

Tunes Versus Progressions

Before I teach you the progression and how to improvise over it, it’s important to understand that when playing jazz gigs, you don’t need to learn lots of tunes. That’s because most venues like restaurants, weddings, and private parties want you to provide ambient background music.

While you certainly could play jazz standards to fill in the background, it takes a lot of work to learn so many songs. For example, if you did a 4-hour gig, with four 45-minute sets, that is 180 minutes of music. If each song you play takes 3 minutes, that is 60 songs… yikes!

So how was I able to start gigging as a professional pianist when I knew only 5 jazz standards?!? I knew a handful of jazz chord progressions and how to improvise over them. And for over 17 years as a professional jazz pianist playing hundreds of jazz gigs, the vast majority of my playing was not playing tunes, but actually improvising over those tune’s chord progressions. Therefore, if you want to play jazz piano professionally and get jazz gigs, I strongly believe that the most important skill is not knowing many tunes, but knowing how to improvise over chord progressions.

With this skill, you’ll be able to create beautiful jazz piano background music for hours on end, and get paid for it! So, now that you understand the importance of being able to improvise, let’s talk about the first and most important progression that you should know if you want to get a jazz piano gig anywhere.

The Turnaround Progression

The Turnaround Chord Progression is one of the most important and useful chord progressions in jazz music.  It is the basis of hundreds of songs (I Got Rhythm, Cheek to Cheek, the Way You Look Tonight, Heart & Soul, & Blue Moon to name a few), and it work’s wonderfully as a chord progression to improvise over!

Now, there are many ways to lay down a Turnaround Progression accompaniment (Turnaround Accompaniment Grooves, Turnaround Songs, & Soloing Over a Turnaround). But… if you are new to jazz improv, then I would pick a simple left hand accompaniment. One of the best ways to do this is with what chord inversions and a 4-on-the-floor feel.

Here is an excellent beginner jazz approach to playing a Turnaround Progression accompaniment:

Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions
Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions

As you can see, we have some very beautiful chords! FMaj7, F6, Gm7, and Gm6.

Now, if you have studied our courses here at PianoWithJonny, you will know that the Turnaround Progression is normally played FMaj7, Dm7, Gm7, and C7. So how is this progression that I just taught you the Turnaround Progression? Because of inversions. The second chord, F6, is simply an inverted Dm7. And the Gm6 chord is simply a C7, but the D is substituted for the C (we call this a 9th chord. For more on 9th chords, click here).

You can play this chord progression on each beat as written above, or you can do a root-to-chord approach, which we call a stride-ballad left hand. Check it out!

Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using stride ballad approach
Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using stride ballad approach

Now, try playing both of these left hand accompaniments with the backing track (you can download the backing track by logging into your membership on this page).

Now that you have the progression, it’s time to learn a scale that you can use to improvise endless melodies over the left hand.

The Gospel Scale

The Gospel Scale is arguably the most important scale in jazz improv because it works over so many songs and styles.  Here is the Gospel Scale:

F Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) on the piano with fingering
F Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) on the piano with fingering

As you can see, where are playing a F Pentatonic Scale (F G A C D), but we are adding the b3.  Some musicians will call this Pentatonic b3.  Other people will call this the Major Blues Scale – that is, because it is the top portion of the D Blues Scale (D F G G# A C), which is the relative minor to F.

If the theory is confusing, don’t worry! The point is that this scale is very important and can be used over just about any song or style in the key of F. I highly recommend that you practice this scale up and down the piano, building speed and confidence. Another thing you can try is practicing the scale in other keys. You can do this with the click of one button with our smart lesson sheet music here.

Once you feel comfortable with the scale, it’s time to practice improvising.  First on the agenda: 8th notes!

Exercise 1: 8th Notes

If you want to improvise jazz piano, the most important note value is the 8th note. This is the most common note value that improvisers use, so it is essential that you are comfortable with it. Here is an 8th note exercise to practice the Major Blues Scale with the Turnaround Progression:

8th Note Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions
8th Note Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions

Once you have this exercise in your hands, it’s time to start creating some 8th notes lines! How do you create a line? Well, a line is like a musical “sentence”. It has a start and an end point. You can start on any note and end on any note, but the key is keep your lines interesting! How do you keep you lines interesting? Follow my 3 lines building tips below!

3 Line Building Tips

Start each line on a different:

  • Note
  • Beat
  • Direction

For a deep dive on application of line building tips, and also how to create amazing lines with the blues scale, checkout the 10 Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3).

Now that you can play 8th notes over the Turnaround Progression, it’s time to learn slides.

Exercise 2: Slides

If you want to improvise jazz piano and make it sound bluesy, you need to add slides. What is a slide? A slide is when you brush up or down to a note from the note a half-step above or a half-step below the note. When I’m using the Gospel Scale to improvise jazz piano, I like to slide up to the D from the C#, up to the A from the G#, and down to the G from the Ab.

Quick Tip! I recommend using the same finger for the slide (this way you’ll get more of an accent on the first note). Once you have practiced these slides, here is the slide exercise over the Turnaround Progression:

Slide Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions
Slide Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions

As you can see, we are practicing maneuvering up and down the keyboard with slides. Once you feel good about slides, it’s time to work on creating lines with them! You’ll want to mix 8th notes and slides.  Again, follow my line building tips above to create beautiful, interesting lines. The key is variety!

(By the way, you can download the lesson sheet music and print it at the bottom of this page by logging into your membership)

Now, your improvisation should be starting to sound pretty sweet! But there is more you can do! The final technique you will learn in today’s jazz piano lesson is triplets

Exercise 3: Triplets

Besides 8th notes, the second most important rhythmic value that jazz improvisers use are triplets. Triplets are exciting and help you move up and down the keyboard quickly!

Here is an excellent exercise to practice triplets on the Major Blues Scale over the Turnaround Progression:

Triplet Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions
Triplet Exercise over the Turnaround Progression in F for jazz piano using inversions

What I love about this exercise is that it forms a musical pattern on the way down.  In fact, if you didn’t go back up the scale to restart the exercise, you could continue this pattern all the way down the piano, creating an amazing run. Now that you have triplets, work on creating triplet lines. Remember to leave little gaps in between your phrases.

Putting It All Together

The final step is to combine 8th notes, triplets, and slides in your improvisation. An interesting improvisation will have a nice mix of these elements. I strongly suggest that you record yourself improvising and then listen back to the recording. Did you use many triplets? Did you use many slides? Did you only use 1 slide but not the other 2? It’s very important to be mindful of these things and work on them each time you improvise.

Now, if you enjoyed this lesson, I highly encourage you to checkout the Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge, where you will learn even more improvisation techniques like lower/upper position soloing, chromatic connectors, exotic scales, and more.

If are a member here at, post a video of your improvisation in our private member Facebook group.

And if you’re not a member, I recommend sharing your video in our Piano Challenges Facebook community here.

That’s all for today. Happy practicing!

Jonny May


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