Fakin’ It

I feel guilty when I read Ethan Iverson railing against the use of fake books in jazz performance. I steal a nervous glance at the shelf of fake books in my office, and wonder, “are they really such a bad thing?”

Well, Iverson is quite correct that they really are a bad thing if they delude people into thinking that they are truly doing justice to a piece simply by unquestioningly rendering the chords and rhythms notated in the fake book. Lead sheets are only an aid, and a limited one at that – and often a hindrance. And the more mature the jazz performance, the more limited the utility of a fake book. And yet… for those of us whose relationship with jazz is on the aspirational side of the spectrum, rather than being fully formed professionals, an intelligently utilized fake book, coupled with study of recorded and live performances, can be a helpful resource, if for no other reason than giving some kind of ready reference to a large amount of material.

I think fake books were originally intended to provided gigging musicians with convenient access to a lot of pop material so as to please patrons on the job. I have a reprint of an old book that I have heard musicians more senior than I refer to as the “#1 book” – not in terms of excellence or popularity, “#1” just being a generic title. (I say “reprint” because I have seen an even earlier version that was loose-leaf sheets in a binder.) The book was not legal – John Harbison has told me how it was the kind of thing that would be sold from out of the trunk of a car. (My first girlfriend gave me my copy, she claimed she just bought it in a music store, which seems improbable.) The newest songs in the book are from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949). There are three tunes on each page, including lyrics – the notation is pretty hard to read in a dim room! A fake book such as this one was not an unreasonable resource if you were requested to play “Did your Mother Come From Ireland” or “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”. (I speak from experience.) The problem is that most of us who had to play such tunes from such books were aspiring jazz musicians – and the fake book consciousness, so to speak, was still in place when volumes like the illegal version of The Real Book became available. Hence the renditions of  “Confirmation” offered with the same interpretative depth and care as performances of “Did Your Mother…” .

As for Iverson’s comments about the Ray Brown performance of “Solitude”, attention must be paid to his professional judgement, but I hesitate to fully endorse it. I have always been struck by how black practice of black music doesn’t necessarily correspond to how (many, though not all) white folks would like black music to be. I’m talking about choice of repertoire and decisions about harmonic and rhythmic framework, not matters of technical competency, ability to swing, etc. The one African-American teacher at my high school back in Cleveland would listen to well-performed but cheesy jazz-pop with appreciation, just as he would listen to Miles, and I don’t think it was because he couldn’t tell the difference. What I perceived as a conflict was perhaps my problem. The one time I saw Ellington perform (thanks to that same teacher who gave me a ride there), I was surprised at how much the pop side of his book, with a vocalist (forgive me, I don’t remember who), was the focus of the concert. I had gone there hoping to hear “Ko-Ko”, or “Chelsea Bridge”, not “Satin Doll”, no matter how impeccably performed. Even at that young age I (unwittingly) had certain Euro-American modernist ideals in place, the kind of thing for which Gunther Schuller is criticized. (I’m not saying Iverson has that problem! I am just saying that I suffer from that problem, and I know I need to keep that in mind.) I don’t mean to naively romanticize black musicians as though every record by every black artist is great. And maybe Ray Brown’s interpretation of “Solitude” is just bad, I don’t know the record, and Iverson’s opinion must be respected. But maybe a bossa nova version of the piece, with the “wrinkles” omitted, is actually part of the “folklore” of black music(s), more widely interpreted.

I am always annoyed by assertions that jazz is utterly un-notate-able, while European music is fully contained, so to speak, in the notation. Any serious attempt to perform the rhythmic subtleties of a Chopin mazurka, or to figure out the articulations to employ in a Bach suite movement will reveal how little is recorded in the notation of European music – about as much as appears in the rare good transcriptions of jazz improvisation that do exist. As for jazz performance, notation obviously occupies varying degrees of importance, depending on the medium, style, etc. Of course, notation infrequently plays a dominant role.  But it still has a place. And in the realm of us aspirational sub-professionals, notation, even the incomplete or half-incorrect notation in a lowly fake book, can still serve a purpose.

Now to work on my reharmonization of “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?” using Maj 7 #5 chords…

7 thoughts on “Fakin’ It

  1. Hi James! I see you like responding to Do the Math! Thanks for the interest.

    In my opinion, Dumbing down the details is just dumbing down the details. There’s nothing particularly white or black about it.

    As far as notating Ellington goes, it’s interesting that Ellington took the time to make and publish fair-copy piano/vocal scores of all his songs, with all the correct information — a fact that jazz history (typically) pays little attention to.

    A book you will want to look at is THE STORY OF FAKE BOOKS by Barry Kernfeld, which has much more on those early, pre-Real Book bootlegs. Interesting stuff. One of the problems is that the evolution of the chord symbol comes straight from ukulele fretting. (You can see them on early sheet music everywhere.) This ukulele guide leaves out the bass line — not ideal! Baroque figured bass in general had more of the right idea…

    Anyway, just me two cents, and thanks for engaging with DTM, it keeps me on my toes!!

  2. Thanks for writing, Ethan, nice when classy commenters visit the premises.

    I will check out the Kernfeld, sounds really interesting.

    I knew about the uke tablatures phenomenon from old sheet music I inherited from my father and other family members. I think I have some with banjo tabs, too – also, accordion chord symbols (for the left hand buttons) may play into this. The root position orientation of my own (and many other’s) early (mis-)training in pop harmony can be blamed on Rudy Valle!

    Are piano/vocal (sheet music) scores always reliable records of the composer’s intentions? It sounds like you have checked this out with respect to Ellington, but I wonder about other composers. For example, does the sheet music to a Richard Rodgers song document a piano part that Rodgers himself wrote out?

    How much do (or should) jazz practitioners draw upon the piano/vocal sheet music for musical details of a tune? It sounds like with Ellington it could be helpful as a reference point. I know my colleague John Harbison has spoken of finding it interesting to go back to early sources in preparing his jazz performances of standard tunes at the Token Creek Festival.

    Thanks again for your note, and thanks so much for D the M, it is a tremendous contribution.

  3. Hi James:

    Richard Rodgers is actually a great example of a terrific composer who battled for each note on the page. As you know, he loved diatonicism, and his piano scores are mini-essays on how to get the most richness out of the 8 notes. In jazz we put chromatic II/V’s through everything, which makes it easier to “bebop out” on but also perhaps paradoxically blander.

    The only person of older pop I can think of who maybe didn’t write out all his piano scores on his own was Irving Berlin, but I’m not sure. (I think there is cloudiness on this issue.) And probably there are some less well-known others who had staff arrangers that came up the with piano music.

    When you get to modern pop, the piano score is often a non-event. “I Will Survive” comes to mind — any fake book in the world is going to be closer than that piano score.

    I sound like an expert here, but I’m really not! I always like looking at piano scores, though. Someone made the decisions, somewhere…

    1. Hi Ethan,

      You hit exactly on the reason I chose to mention Rodgers in my question about referring to piano scores – his preference for diatonic stasis is antithetical to mainstream post-bop harmonic practice. I don’t think most people play the front eight bars of “There’s a Small Hotel” (if they play that tune at all) with as few changes as Rodgers wrote – You have a point that it might actually be more interesting for somebody to try to purify the harmony, return it to its diatonic origins in Rodgers’s piano score.

      I need to go back to the records both Sonny and Miles made of R & H’s “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to see how they treated another harmonically static “A” section.

      I have heard at least one scholar talk about the irony of Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” because of Hammerstein’s diabetes-inducing lyric – neglecting to observe that the minor chord stasis of Rodger’s tune lent itself to extended modal treatment. It’s not ironic for Coltrane to play that tune, it makes perfect sense, if you care about notes and rhythms.

      My recollection from “As Thousands Cheer” by Laurence Bergreen is that Berlin used a “musical secretary” to notate his music, but it is not clear to me how much the secretary was making note choices in the accompaniment.

      It’s true that piano parts in sheet music became a joke in the rock era when the guitar replaced the piano. You actually had to have a moderate degree of proficiency to handle the piano parts in the older sheet music.

      Thanks again for your comments. You are inspiring me to pull out the boxes of sheet music from Aunt Agnes…

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