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The Real Book: To Burn, or Not to Burn?

Jonathan Ross

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I remember the day I bought The Real Book.  It was Sunday, September 22, 2003.

I remember this because the Chicago Cubs were in a tooth and nail battle with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the historic Wrigley Field in the last series of that infamous season. It was cloudy and grey that day, but as I passed by on the Red Line train bound for the Morse stop, the sun’s rays squeezed through the darkness and shone its light on the old ballpark. It was surreal. It was also surreal to think that I was traveling to buy the famed The Real Book.

To give a brief history of the Real Book, it’s a book that contains the melodies and chords to hundreds of Jazz Standards.

It was created by Berklee College of Music students in the 1970s. These students began distributing copies of this book and were literally selling it out of the trunks of cars and under the table. This was illegal, since the composers of the music contained in the book weren’t being paid royalties for these sales. My edition was an illegal Fifth Edition. In fact, my guitar teacher at the time told me to go to that store, and ask the person at the counter for it, because you couldn’t find it on the shelves. And I did just that. After completing the long train ride, and walking a couple of miles to the store, I asked the person working the counter, “Do you have the Real Book?”  He reached somewhere behind the register and produced a copy of the Fifth Edition Real Book, which I bought for $40. I had experienced a famed practice in Jazz Lore, and on the long train ride back home, began studying it immediately.

A lot has been said about the Real Book, some good and some bad. My opinion about the Real Book has changed since that day.

First, here are the good things about The Real Book:

1) If you can read music, you can instantly begin playing Jazz Standards.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The way to learn Jazz is by listening, but also by playing it. To the new Jazz Student, the Real Book is a Godsend.

2) You can play tunes that you haven’t memorized.

If you’re hanging out with friends and playing tunes, they might call a tune that you don’t know. You can crack open the Real Book to keep the good times rolling.

3) The Real Book isgreat tool to practice sight-reading.

The tunes contained in the Real Book all follow very common song structures, melodic devices, and chord progressions. These are the types of tunes you will usually be expected to read on sight.

4) Its Filled With Mistakes

The Fifth Edition and its previous versions were loaded with incorrect melody notes and chords. The Fifth Edition had many pages of “Corrections”.  The Sixth Edition supposedly corrected all mistakes, but you can still find chords that aren’t consistent with some recordings.

5) Its A Multi-Tool

Use it to stop your door from slamming on a windy day when you have your practice room window open. You can stick it under a table or chair with uneven legs. It’s a paperweight made out of paper (the irony is overwhelming)! It’s an effective flyswatter. You can use it as a fan on a hot day. You can even use it to save the Earth by throwing it in the recycling bin. The possibilities are immense.

And now for the negative things:

1) The Real Book is Merely an Idea of an Idea

That’s a paraphrased quote from Pat Martino. This means that the Real Book doesn’t take into account articulation, dynamics, or lyrical content of a tune. It shows you the notes and chords, but it doesn’t tell you how to play a tune, in other words, the way a tune should be expressed.

2) It Shuts Off Your Ears

When playing in a group, whether a combo or duo, Jazz as its best is played with the members of the group listening to each other, and having a musical conversation. This is how Jazz began, and part of the aural tradition of Jazz. They say that someone who is blind possesses enhanced versions of their other senses. This makes sense. When you are focusing on reading a sheet, it’s far easier not to hear something in the music that demands attention. Without a sheet, you can focus strictly on listening.

3) You Can Memorize Tunes, But Not As Quickly

I know some musicians who have memorized a lot of tunes from the sheets. I have too, but a lot of those tunes I’ve forgotten and had to relearn. I find that by learning a tune by ear off a recording, I can remember the tune even after not playing it for a long time. And I can practice learning tunes without having the Guitar in my hands. If I’m driving to lessons, the grocery store, or wherever I’m going, I can get the melody in my head, and sometimes the chords too. It’s a difficult skill to learn, and I’m still getting better at it, but taking the time learning the skill of learning tunes by ear will save you a lot of time in the long run, and you will acquire a skill that is part of the makeup of Jazz Tradition.

In truth, I sometimes take out the iReal Book App on my phone. There are some situations that do call for it. If I’m the only comping instrument, I’m not willing to let my ego get in the way of the music. I’d rather play the chords and provide solid backup for the group.

From the time of Middle School Band, the emphasis on a lot of the music is looking on the sheets. This is carried over into high school, and then into most colleges, which for a lot of people, is where ear training begins. The sooner you can acquire the skill of learning by ear, the quicker you can learn tunes and develop an enormous repertoire, and the more in line you will be with the Jazz Tradition.

The Real Book is available online at Amazon.com

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