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…