A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“I Could Write A Book” is a great “show tune” that’s stayed in the jazz world primarily because of the 1950’s recording by Miles Davis (see below) and more recently, because it was included in The Real Book. (In a sense, tunes in The Real Book are kind of like self-fulfilling prophesies, aren’t they? Are they in the Real Book because they are widely played, or are they widely played because they are in The Real Book? Probably a bit of both!!!)

The song was composed by Rodgers and Hart for the 1940 Broadway musical Pal Joey, which also featured the great ballad “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” (also in The Real Book). It’s usually played at a nice, medium tempo, a la the Miles Davis rendition. Check out the charming lyric, especially if you’re “not a lyric person.” Miles Davis certainly knew the lyric, and it will help you phrase the melody better if you know it too, at least a little.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Miles Davis: Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

The Three Sounds: Bottoms Up!

Pianist Gene Harris was known for his bluesy treatment of standards.  If you want to bring more blues into your jazz playing, check this out!

Harry Connick Jr.: from the “When Harry Met Sally” movie soundtrack

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“I Could Write A Book” is one of those standards that all jazz musicians once knew because they heard the song on the radio and in live performances. It was a “pop” song of the day. But these days we need to do a little research in order to get the same exposure to the songs in our jazz repertoire. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I’m writing this Ultimate Guide. The good thing is that listening to these tunes and learning about them is so much fun that it isn’t really “work,” it’s more like ‘play.”

The Real Book indicates that “I Could Write A Book” is a ballad, but that’s only partly true. Since the melody needs to move, even for the Broadway vocalists who originally sang it, the song would have been performed in ‘2’ as a ballad. At a slow tempo, but with only 2 beats per measure with a half note getting one beat. Play it like that and you’ll hear the effect. So when a jazz musician like Miles Davis plays it in a medium swing tempo, he isn’t really speeding up the melody too much, but the rhythm section is articulating every quarter note, so the rhythmic feel is totally different. For jazz musicians, the song usually has a moderate swing feel. It would still work as a slow ballad in ‘4,’ but it might seem like it’s taking forever to get through each chorus!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
An in-depth history of the song

Rodgers and Hart: Wikipedia

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

I Could Write A Book: Journey Through The Real Book #159

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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