Should jazz instrumentalists learn the lyrics to the songs they play?

I once heard a story about the song “Old Man River,” which was written for the Broadway musical Showboat by the composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. (Quick quiz – what famous “Real Book” tune did they also write together? The answer is at the bottom of this post.)

As the story goes, their widows were once at a social event, and Mrs. Kern was bragging that “Well… MY husband wrote Old Man River. Upon hearing this, Mrs. Hammerstein interjected, “No… YOUR husband wrote Dum-dum-dum-dum!”

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but the point is well taken. Lyrics are an important part of how we experience a song.

But as we get farther and farther away from the era in which jazz standards were written, we lose track of the lyrics. We open a fake book and learn the tunes as a series of notes. But however beautiful these melodies may be, we don’t experience the songs in the same way as the musicians like Lester Young, Miles Davis, and even a “younger” musician like Herbie Hancock did (and in his case, still does). And then we wonder why our playing sounds stiff and overly technical!

Fortunately, this situation is easily remedied. We can listen to vocalists sing these great lyrics. We can perform with vocalists who sing these songs. And (gasp!), we can even sing some of these lyrics ourselves, in the privacy of our own homes if need be.

The 143rd tune in The Real Book, the old chestnut “Guilty” is a great example of this. Musically, the song is pretty but in my opinion, nothing special. But… when combined with the lyric, the melody comes to life and is imbued with charm and feeling. As it turns out, it’s a love song, and this can come out in our playing, even when playing an instrumental rendition on piano.

I learned all this firsthand when playing “Guilty” for my ongoing Journey Through The Real Book series on YouTube. By the way, thanks to all of you who emailed me to ask why I didn’t post a new video on Friday, like I usually do. It’s because my piano needed tuning, and the tuner couldn’t get to it until Friday. So I made the video yesterday and posted it earlier today.

Here’s my version, which also includes some discussion about the relationship between the popular and jazz vocalists of the 1930s and 40s and the great jazz instrumentalists of the time.

Guilty: Journey Through The Real Book #143

Good luck playing this and the other tunes you’re working on, and if you’re looking for some piano lessons via Skype, just respond to this email. I have some space for a few new students after a busy holiday season.

As always, enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”


PS – Answer to the quick quiz: In addition to the musical Showboat, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein also wrote the jazz standard “All The Things You Are.”

PPS – The same is true in the world of classical music, by the way. When Mozart and Beethoven wrote Themes and Variations on popular operatic arias of their time, they never imagined that pianists would ever play these pieces without knowing the lyrics. The lyrics are integral to how we experience the music.

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