It’s time to get beyond letter “A” in The Real Book!

Jazz musicians:

Ever notice how everyone knows the Real Book tunes that begin with the letter ‘A?’ (If you’re new to jazz, The Real Book is the most popular collection of jazz tunes.)

Go to a jam session and ask to play “Autumn Leaves.” Someone will start counting it off immediately. Then the sax player will call “All Blues” or “All of Me.” And even though “All The Things You Are” is more difficult than a tune like “Stomping At The Savoy,” more jazz musicians have it memorized.

I once went to a dance performance where my wife was singing a classical piece as dance accompaniment (it was the Mark Morris dance company). During intermission, a jazz quintet provided background music in the lobby. It was a nice touch by the theater’s management and the group sounded good. As I stood there sipping my soda, I enjoyed hearing them play their first song, which was indeed “Autumn Leaves.” When they huddled together to discuss their next song choice, I joked to a friend, “OK,  ‘All Of Me,’ 1-2-3-4” as if I was counting off the next song myself. Even though I was all the way across the crowded lobby and there was no way the group could have heard me, sure enough, they immediately launched into the melody of “All of Me.” (I’m not making this up!!!)

They weren’t reading music. They didn’t have a Real Book in front of them. They could have called any tune in the world, regardless of whether it was in the Real Book or not. But instead, they began their set with two “A” tunes from the Real Book. (I didn’t stick around long enough to hear if “All Blues” was their next selection!)

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this. They played some great songs and they played them very well. But why should we be so limited in our song choices? Why not start with “Blue Bossa” or perhaps (if we’re allowed to skip to the letter ‘Q’) “Quiet Nights?” Out of the thousands of great songs out there that could have a jazz interpretation, are “Autumn Leaves” and “All of Me” the very best choices? Really?

The reason for this is that we’re creatures of habit. It’s simply a force of habit since so many of us first began learning jazz standards from the Real Book and we naturally started at a very good place to start: the beginning. But at some point we need to mature in our music decision-making and carve out a repertoire for us, as musicians. What songs do we enjoy playing? What songs would our audience recognize? Start with those songs and go from there. And if our fellow band members don’t know a tune or two, we can simply bring some leadsheets to the gig, or (gasp!) rehearse beforehand.

Don’t be limited by “force of habit;” there’s a whole world of music out there waiting for you, beyond the letter ‘A.’ Now turn the page and “dig in!”

Want jazz piano to come easier for you? Here are some free lessons to get you playing with more joy and fluency. Have fun 🙂

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