If you play jazz piano, you probably have a copy of the Real Book. (If not, consider getting one; it contains leadsheets for many tunes that are played at jam sessions.)
Now let me ask you a question: Have you ever gone through the book and learned every tune, page by page?
It’s a challenge, but you’ll benefit greatly by doing so. The best thing is that you can do it at whatever level you’re at. If you’re a beginner, just learn each song’s melody, or maybe the chords alone. If you’re at the point where it’s easy for you to play chords and melody together, then do that. Or you can play walking bass lines, 2-handed voicings, or whatever.
The idea isn’t to spent a lot of time with each song. Rather, it’s to build an awareness of the jazz repertoire and to develop fluency until it gets easy, which it will over time.
Even though I’ve had a real book since I was 15 years old, I’m doing this right now. I’ve played many of the songs for decades, but there’s some that I’ve never played. I’ve challenged myself to make a video of a Real Book tune every week. If you go to the KeyboardImprov page on YouTube, and click on “playlists,” you’ll see all the videos I’ve posted so far.
Here’s a direct link to the playlist:
Journey Through The Real Book
I’m literally going through the book in order, playing one song per week. I think the best approach would be to simply enjoy watching and hearing me play each tune as you look at the the leadsheet in the Real Book. See if you can follow along. (You may get lost a little in the beginning but over time you’ll get better at knowing where I am in the music.)
This is how jazz musicians learned “back in the day.” By watching and listening to other jazz pianists play and improvise. As you listen, just absorb what I’m doing and tell yourself that someday you’ll be able to play like that too. This is what I did when I went to concerts when I was starting out. I’d go see Oscar Peterson or Chick Corea and even though they were playing things that were way beyond me at the time, I tried to soak it all up and tell myself that it would stay with me over the years to come.
And as I said earlier, you can also start learning each tune, at your current level. Maybe this means to simply learn the melody. Or perhaps you can play the chords slowly. And for some tunes, you can spend more time on them and go deeper, learning a walking bass line or improvising on the chord progression. The main thing is to enjoy whatever you’re working on at the time.
Always remember that the knowledge you gain from each practice session in jazz is cumulative. Learning The melody to “The African Flower,” for example, will make it slightly easier for you to learn the melody for “All Of Me.” Your reading skills will improve with each tune you learn, and you’ll get more familiar with each key. It’s the same with chord progressions. There are only a limited number of chords and you’ll begin to see the same chords used in tune and tune. So if you learn to play and
improvise on the Cmaj7 chord in “All Of Me,” you’ll already know the Cmaj7 chord that open “Take The ‘A Train.”
Going through the Real Book like this is one of the best things you can do to improve your jazz piano playing to the point of real fluency.
I’ve also made some playalong videos to help you learn Real Book tunes. These will give you some real playing experience to get you prepared and confident enough to start jamming with jazz musicians you may know. You can find the complete series of “Let’s Jam Together” playalongs at the KeyboardImprov.com Youtube channel, but here are a few to get you started:
Have fun playing the tunes in the Real Book, and remember to always “let the music flow!”
Take your left hand playing to a new level with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration