“Why is Autumn Leaves played in the key of E minor?”
That’s the question a reader of my Jazz Pianist’s Guide To The Real Book recently emailed me. (You can read the Autumn Leaves page HERE.) It’s a great question and the fact of the matter is that I don’t really know the answer.
What I do know is this:
Several generations of jazz musicians played Autumn Leaves in the key of G minor (the first chord is Cm). And then, all of a sudden, newer generations began playing it in the key of E minor (the first chord is Am).
What happened to cause this abrupt change? The answer is this: The Real Book happened.
But the “real” question is this: Why did the original compilers of The Real Book put the tune in E minor? All the jazz greats, after all, played it in G minor. Cannonball Adderley’s version, with the famous trumpet solo by Miles Davis, is in G minor. And the older musicians I worked with at the beginning of my career always played it in in G minor as well.
Since the original edition of The Real Book recommended Bill Evans album “Portrait In Jazz” at the bottom of the Autumn Leaves page, I thought that maybe Evans had recorded it in E minor himself. (He did enjoy playing in “sharp” keys.) But no, his version is in G minor too.
So why did The Real Book put it in E minor?
My theory lies in the melody itself. In the “older” key of G minor, the melody’s high note is an F, which is above the comfortable range of most jazz vocalists. (And with female singers, it sounds more operatic than jazzy.). In the “newer” key of E minor, however, the highest note is a more manageable D, which most male and female jazz vocalists can easily sing.
Even though The Real Book was written, for instrumentalists, it may be that one of the Berklee College of Music students was currently playing Autumn Leaves with a jazz vocalist and decided to include that version in The Real Book. To me, that’s the most likely answer.
But… if you have a more accurate or verified theory on why Autumn Leaves is now played in the key of E minor instead of in G minor, please let us know in the comments section below. You’ll be contributing to jazz history!
PS - if you'd like to practice "Autumn Leaves" in the traditional key of G minor, here's a playalong video I made:
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