The Cultural Context of Jazz Tunes

First of all, I’d like to give a big “thanks!” to everyone who responded so positively to my completion of the Jazz Pianist’s ultimate Guide To The Real Book. The book is clearly “striking a chord” in the jazz piano community and it’s truly gratifying to see so many of you begin to look up individual tunes, browse through the table of contents, and use it as a way to learn more about the tunes you enjoy playing. (My inbox was flooded with supportive emails the day after I announced it.)

If you haven’t checked it out yet, here’s the table of contents:

The Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book

The Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book: Table of Contents

I guess it all comes down to knowing the overall context of the tunes. If we know that Autumn Leaves was original a lyrical French ballad, then we’ll play the melody a bit differently than we otherwise would. Even at a fast tempo, that lyrical element might pop up on only one or two melody notes, but it will still be there nonetheless. Just as it was for Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett. They knew the original version, because it was part of our popular culture at the time or when they were growing up.

Another aspect of this is the disappearance of “liner notes” on albums. Wow – I learned so much from reading liner notes! I eagerly looked at who the musicians were, when they recorded the music, and anything else the writer chose to share with us. But no more. As good as YouTube and Spotify may be, they generally don’t tell us anything about the cultural context of the music we’re listening to.

So it’s becoming more and more our own responsibility to ourselves to research and learn about the tunes we’re learning. Doing so will not only enrich our overall musical experience, but it will also set our playing apart from those who only know the notes on the page.

Listen. Research. Study. Absorb. Play.

That’s what it’s all about.

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