Learn Happy Birthday Cocktail Jazz Piano Style
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Have you ever been at a friend’s birthday party with a piano nearby, and you thought, “I wish I could play a nice jazz rendition of Happy Birthday?”. Well, today I’m going to teach you how to play Happy Birthday in a classy Cocktail Jazz Piano style. You’ll learn how to color the chords, add chord extensions, alterations, use guide tones, rootless voicings, and more!
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Learn the Lead Sheet Melody & Chords
If you want to play Happy Birthday in a jazz style, you first need to learn the basic melody and chords. The best way to do this is with a lead sheet. A lead sheet contains the most basic elements of a song, but it leaves you room to embellish and add to it with your own harmonic and rhythmic ideas.
Here is the lead sheet for Happy Birthday.
Step 2: Convert the song from a 3/4 to 4/4 Time Signature
Happy Birthday is originally a waltz, which means that it has 3 beats per measure. Most cocktail jazz is played with 4 beats per measure, so you want to adjust the notes so that each measure takes up 4 beats. Here’s how I would play the Happy Birthday lead sheet in a 4/4 time signature:
Step 3: Add Jazz Chords Using the 2-5-1 Progression and Secondary Dominants
The next step is to make your chord progression more interesting by adding chords to the arrangement. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to add the 2-5-1 chord progression throughout the arrangement. Here is a basic 2-5-1 in the key of C Major:
As you can see, we can target a C Major chord by adding a D minor 7 (the 2 chord in the key of C), and then a G7 (the 5 chord in the key of C). The 2-5-1 is one of the most common chord progressions in jazz, so it will automatically make the arrangement sound more jazzy.
What is a secondary Dominant chord? A secondary dominant chord is a chord that can be added in front of any chord, and it is the dominant 7 chord built on the note a perfect 5th above the target chord. For example, if we go back to our 2-5-1 chord progression, there is a chord we can add before the 2 chord, the D Minor 7 chord. If we follow our secondary dominant rule above and we play a dominant 7 chord built a perfect 5th above the D Minor 7, then this is an A7 chord. Therefore, here is how we could use a secondary dominant chord before the 2-5-1 chord progression:
Now, with these two concepts (2-5-1 & Secondary Dominants), here is our new chord progression:
As you can see, measures 2-4 is a big long 2-5-1 in the key of F (Gm7, C7, and FMaj7). The Ab13 on beat 3 is a dominant 7 chord with an added 13. Why does this chord work? It is a substitute chord for the secondary dominant chord D7, which leads us to Gm13. Specifically, it is a tritone away from D7, and we call this a Tritone Substitute chord.
For more on the 2-5-1, Secondary Dominant Chords, and Tritone Substitution, checkout our Passing Chords & Reharmonization course (Level 2 and Level 3).
Step 4: Add the Cocktail Stride Left Hand
The next step is to add the Cocktail Stride left hand. The best way to do this is by jumping from the root note to either a guide tone or a rootless voicing.
For example, on an F Major 7, I might jump from root to guide tone like this:
Or root to rootless voicing like this:
It’s up to you which one to use, but if you are beginner, I recommend the guide tones, and if you are more on the intermediate side, use rootless voicings. For this arrangement, we will use a combination. Here are the first few bars with the left hand that I would play:
For a deep dive on rootless voicings and mastering them in all 12 keys, checkout the Rootless Voicings lesson.
Step 5: Color Chords with Extensions & Alterations
Now that we have more interesting chords and a left hand accompaniment, you’ll want to color your right hand melody with chord extensions and alterations.
Here are the first few bars of the arrangement with colored chords:
(By the way, you can download the full lesson sheet music PDF on this page by logging into your membership.)
Notice that we don’t play an ordinary F major chord. We add the 6, 7, and 9 to the chord (D, E, and G). This adds a ton of color to Major chords! Next, we don’t play and ordinary Ab7 chord. We add the 9 (Bb), and the 13 (F). Finally, we don’t play a regular G minor 7. We add the 9th, the A.
It’s extremely important to understand which notes can be added to each of these chord types (you can learn more about coloring dominant 7 chords here).
Step 6: Putting it All Together
Now that you have both hands learned, let’s put the hands together. Here are the first few bars with hands together:
Doesn’t this sound amazing?
Now, I encourage you to practice this in other keys. One of the easiest ways to do this is with our smart sheet music, which allows you to change the lesson sheet to any key with the click of one button.
If you want to do a deep dive on developing a lead sheet in the Cocktail Jazz Piano style, checkout The Way You Look At Me course (beginner/intermediate and intermediate/advanced).
And if you want to learn Happy Birthday in even more styles, you can in our Happy Birthday in 7 Styles course, where you learn this song in the following styles:
- Latin Samba
- Jazz Swing
- Bass Crossover
- Blues (Broadway Kickline)
Thanks for learning, and see you in the next piano lesson!
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