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Bluffers Guide to Playing Jazz

By Published: August 2, 2004
Copyright exists only in the melody, no one can copyright chords. This is how bebop was started by a bunch of crafty but poor musicians. They took the chords used in standard songs and then invented new melodies over the top of them. This is how Ornithology sounds so much like How High the Moon. You still have to pay the estate of the composer of Ornithology a copyright fee. I don't know who he was or when he died but no doubt several million jazz ancestor worshippers will e-mail in and tell me and I'd reply that any nerd can look it up in seconds.* *before you clever dicks start it was Charlie "the Bird" Parker, d 1955, the bird, ornithology, Birdland the famous New York jazz club, geddit? Did you know that they put a flock of birds into Birdland as a decorative feature, but they all died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out. Laugh a minute jazz is.

Real Books
For about £35 you can buy a Real book consisting of about 500 jazz song manuscripts with the words. This costs you 7p per song and looks like a bargain. But you'll never play about 450 of them in your lifetime. So it actually costs you about 70p per usable song. Still a bargain when compared to paying for downloaded music scripts.

Bandleaders have to buy Bb and Eb versions of Real books because you can never expect alto sax players and trumpeters to buy their own copies.

What the sellers of Real Books don't tell you is that the song the band wants to play is in a different copy of the Real Book - one you don't own.

No, I'm not going to tell you how to get an illegal copy of half a dozen different Real Books downloaded to your hard drive. But you can.

Playing by ear

You are not supposed to do it. This is what the old great jazz players used to do because there was no jazz music theory then. But how can you build a world of jazz music education if people just pop off and play by ear? As a trained jazz musician you are supposed to know what you are doing and why at any time. This of course is absolutely impossible and all professionals end up playing by ear themselves. Afterwards they'll tell you what they probably did in theoretical terms, but will be unable to reproduce it. "I was using D7 over C major, I think" they'll bluff.

You can tell when the pianist is at his wits end and is playing by ear. He will drop the left hand out and just play with the right hand. This means he does not know where he is in the song and hopes the drummer will give a big flourish at the end of the section. He is too worried to listen to the bass as he should.

This article first appeared at a UK website for amateur players. It is reprinted with permission.

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