On Being a “Real Book Musician”

Eric at jazzadvice.com has written a pretty solid article on why jazz musicians shouldn’t rely too heavily on the Real Book. Read it here.

I’ll follow up with some of my own thoughts:

Real Book Origins and Use

The Real Book (wordplay on “fake book”) began as a large collection of unlicensed transcriptions of jazz and fusion tunes. Wikipedia cannot explain exactly how it originated; I heard it was a compilation of Berklee students’ transcription projects, but I have no idea how close that is to the truth. Because it contained material reproduced without permission, you had to “know a guy” to obtain it. Since its rise in popularity, two additional volumes have been released, and a legal edition has been published by Hal Leonard.

For decades, the Real Book has been a sort of bible for students of jazz. It is in our practice spaces, rehearsal rooms, and sometimes on stage. But it can be misused. Among professionals, it is a sort of faux pas to read from it in performance, because it indicates that you don’t have a large memorized repertoire of standards. But in settings where casual jazz is performed, like so many lounge and dinner gigs for which I am called upon, it is useful for those moments when a member of the group calls a tune that not everyone knows.

Why the Real Book Isn’t Perfect

There are problems associated with use of the Real Book. The article I mentioned above goes into greater detail, but in short:

  • Often the arrangements are inaccurate. Some pieces are in a key other than that which the definitive recordings were performed. Some common chord substitutions are not indicated. Charts for several tunes that commonly begin with an intro, end with a tag, or feature solo-send offs and breaks are missing these components. One famous example is “Autumn Leaves”: Many prefer to perform in the original E minor; but largely because the Real Book presents it in G minor, that key has become the new default. Now when I hear it called onstage, the question that inevitably follows is “G minor or E minor?”
  • It is tempting to rely entirely on the Real Book, rather than keep it around just in case you don’t happen to know a tune. At a jam session its use is entirely appropriate. But if I were preparing a set with a dedicated group, it has no place on stage.
  • It discourages transcription. Jazz music is best learned by ear, not only because it’s a vital part of an improvising musician’s skill set, but because it allows for flexibility when preparing music for performance. Recently, I led a group that performed at a benefit, and for that set I selected a few tunes that appear in fake books. However, I found myself rearranging a few of them. Some required clarification of details that were either vague or nonexistent in the published lead sheets, like rhythm “hits”. Sometimes, I chose to change the quality of a chord, or make substitutions. In this case, the lead sheets were merely a basis for the arrangement, not to be read as-is.
  • Fake books provide no cultural context for a tune — its origin, common interpretations, etc.

Using the Real Book Effectively

All said, the Real Book and other fake books can be indispensable to the jazz student and performer. Here is how I use it in practice:

  1. Select a tune to learn. I always include learning new repertoire in my practice routine. Unless I have to learn something for an upcoming set, I often turn to the Real Book. Chuck Sher’s Jazz Theory Book contains an appendix with a handy list of popular jazz tunes he feels should be in a working musician’s repertoire; you could look there for inspiration, and I often do. But I also take note of tunes that might have been called in past sessions, or that I commonly see in classic recordings, and select one that I feel I should be ready to play sans book next time it’s called.
  2. Give it a read-through. I usually play through the tune a few times slowly, chord-melody style, to get a feel for how the melody and harmony cohere. If you don’t play a chord instrument, you might read the melody once by itself, then try it over a backing track.
  3. Bring it up to speed. I do a little research to determine how fast it’s usually played, and in what general style (e.g. swing, bop, blues shuffle, latin, rock, gospel). Then it’s time to break out the metronome.
  4. Memorize it. Get the music away from your face as soon as possible.
  5. Research its history. I like to check Wikipedia and jazzstandards.com to learn about a tune’s origin, and which recordings of it are considered definitive. I listen to those recordings to see how closely they match the published chart, and take note of where they differ. Then, I learn how to play the missing parts. Sometimes, there’s a little extra material missing that has become part of that song’s tradition, like the two-note motif that often follows passages in “A Night in Tunisia.” All that stuff needs to be a part of my knowledge of that tune.
  6. Learn the Lyrics. Ever since I heard that Wynton Marsalis insisted that his sidemen learn the lyrics to standards, I have done the same. You don’t have to memorize them. Understanding the meaning of a song (if it originally had lyrics) might shade your personal interpretation.
  7. Play the Crap Out of It. Now it’s time to woodshed. Run drills over the chord changes. Transcribe someone’s solo. Write a chorus or two of an original solo. Break it and put it back together: How far out can you take it? Can you change its stylistic context (e.g., “Bloomdido” as a funk tune, or a samba version of “Inner Urge”)? How might you reharmonize it? Not only are these valuable practice exercises, but you might stumble upon a personal arrangement that you can add to your next live set.

Notice how, in the above steps, the Real Book was a springboard for deep-diving into the material, not the beginning and end of learning a tune. And it definitely isn’t just a tool that you use on stage in lieu of actually learning the language of jazz.

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