A guide to help you play better jazz piano

Ron Drotos


One fine day in 1979, a high school classmate of mine asked me if I wanted to come over to his house and “play some jazz tunes.” Of course I said yes. At the time, I was playing keyboards in a “garage band,” playing mostly rock with a touch of modal jazz fusion mixed in. I could improvise on an A minor 7th chord for 20 minutes, but I didn’t know any jazz standards and couldn’t find my way through a jazz chord progression even on a “good’ day. So I jumped at the chance to learn from my friend, who was studying jazz guitar with a famous teacher, Sal Salvador.

As we got ready to “jam, ” I sat down at the small upright piano in my friend’s basement while he tuned his guitar. His elderly Italian grandmother quietly sat in the corner, patiently waiting for us to begin. If I remember correctly, she spoke no English but enjoyed listening to her grandson play his music.

When we were ready, my friend opened his “Real Book” to the tune “Autumn Leaves,” and explained that I was to play the chords while he played the melody and soloed. Then I could play a solo, too. As I looked at the page and tried to figure out what an F#m7(b5) chord was, my friend suddenly counted out 1-2, 1-2-3-4 at an extremely fast tempo. Whoa!!! I somehow survived this “shock to the system” and muddled my way through the tune and maybe even eked out something that resembled a solo. My friend must have been desperate for an accompanist, because after an hour or so of jamming, he invited me back to do it again. As for me, I was hooked!

The first thing I did was to ask Sal Salvador where I could get my own copy of the Real Book. (I wanted to be prepared for the next jam session!) Luckily for me, I was good friends with his son, and I soon had my very own copy. It was a little tricky to get a copy back then, since the book wasn’t yet published legally. Legend has it that some students at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music had decided to put together a book that was better than the old “fake books,” whose lead sheets contained the chords from each song’s original sheet music. While these chords sounded good in the original renditions, they weren’t necessarily the same chords that jazz musicians used when playing the tunes in a jazz style. So the Berklee students put together a jazz-centric collection of their favorite tunes and called it The Real Book to distinguish it from the older “fake” books. (Pretty clever!)

The only problem was that no one was paying any royalties to the composers of the songs. So the book wasn’t legal and therefore couldn’t be sold in stores. You had to know someone who had a connection or find out when the “Real Book guy” was bringing his steamer trunk of books to a school in your area. In retrospect, I was very lucky to obtain one so easily.

All of this has been remedied in recent years, as Hal Leonard has legally published The Real Book and pays royalties to all the wonderful composers who are represented in the collection. Even though there are now Real Books for various musical styles and in different keys, the main version is still the most influential and important. The current version as I’m writing this is The Real Book (6th Edition), which is true to the spirit of the original and contains many of the same songs (although what happened to “Green Dolphin Street???”)

But there is one notable difference.

Below each tune’s lead sheet, the original copies of The Real Book listed a recommended recording by a famous jazz musician. This was really helpful because you could listen to the recording and hear a general approach on how to play the tune. It also taught me a lot about jazz history because at the time, I didn’t know who any of these people were! I still remember looking at the bottom of the “Autumn Leaves” page and seeing the handwritten words, Bill Evans “Portrait In Jazz.” (What? Bill Evans? Who’s Bill Evans???) Needless to say, I ran out and bought “Portrait In Jazz,” which turned out to be one of the best jazz albums ever made. It also provided me with an invaluable introduction to Bill Evans’ piano playing.

In short, The Real Book was much more than a good collection of tunes. It was my introduction to jazz history and the musicians who played the music. And even though we can now easily search the internet for each of these selections, it’s almost like we have too much information at our fingertips. I spent a lot of time listening to that “Portrait In Jazz” album, simply because it was recommended by the creators of The Real Book. Nowadays, we don’t necessarily know what information is correct or what recordings we should start with.

The Ultimate Guide To The Real Book is my answer to this situation. Not only have I listed a some recommended recording/videos for each of 400 tunes in The Real Book, but you’ll get a brief History and Overview, learn some Jazz Piano Practice Tips, and be able to continue with some Further Links and Resources.

So now you’ll have a much better overview of a tune like “Autumn Leaves” than I was able to get back in 1979. You’ll learn about the tune’s fascinating origin as a French popular song, and you’ll listen to the influential Cannonball Adderley/Miles Davis version which I myself didn’t discover for years. You can also go further with links to a video playalong and yes, that very same Bill Evans recording that so ignited my passion for jazz when I was a teenager.

I hope you enjoy The Ultimate Guide To The Real Book as much as I did putting it together for you. Good luck with your jazz piano playing and remember, "let the music flow!"

Go to Table of Contents

Further links and resources:
Here are the Real Book tunes you should learn first

A 1-hour jazz piano daily practice routine

A daily reminder to all pianists

The value of playing a jazz tune in all 12 keys

10 Essential Steps to Learning a Jazz Tune on Piano

5 ways to become a great jazz piano accompanist

How to practice chords to a jazz tune (for beginning jazz pianists)

The jazz pianist’s dilemma: What to play in your left hand?

Beginning jazz pianists: Just dive in!

10 “Must-know” Tunes for Beginning Jazz Musicians

Pianists: How to Make Your Walking Bass Lines Sound Better

10 Great Jazz Pianists for Beginning Jazz Musicians to Listen to

How to Play Jazz Piano Part 1: Immersion Through Listening

10 Ways to Improve Your Piano Improv Skills

“Inner Ear, Inner Ear, tell me what you really hear”

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

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

Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced levels.

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