Go ahead and use a fakebook

gold saxophone

I felt a lot of stress and pressure during my years in college and graduate school, about jazz and Learning Tunes. Nobody who is anybody uses a fakebook! You have to Learn the Tunes! Do you know All the Tunes? Why don’t you know More Tunes?

My teachers told me I would never make it as a jazz player unless I knew hundreds of tunes by heart. Melodies, chord progressions, and “standard” intros and outros. And since I’m a reed player, I would need to know them in at least a couple of keys. I tried, but I found it pretty daunting. My teachers seemed to think that meant I was doing it wrong, in some way they could not specify.

And besides, fakebooks are bad! They have mistakes, unlike other kinds of sheet music! Plus, the fakebook version of that tune might not be the true and authentic secret original version, but merely a common and tasteful reworking! And if you’re looking at a fakebook, you’re trapped within the confines of the printed page, literally unable to play anything creative!

My university degrees are in “classical” performance, and in multiple instruments, so jazz has never been my sole concentration. If I had done more focused and advanced study of jazz, I suppose I would have had to Learn All the Tunes, or flunk out and fail to make it in the business.

But it was never my goal to be the next big name in jazz. I love to play jazz music, but I’m quite content to do my best impressions of my favorite players, take modest solos, and yes, use a fakebook. Of the musicians in the world who play jazz at some level, very few are recording on Blue Note or headlining at the Village Vanguard.

For hobbyist or part-time jazz players, a fakebook can be very useful. Using a fakebook on a gig means I can just play the tunes the group wants to play, rather than slinking away in shame at my failure to Know them All. It means we’re all on the same page, so to speak, about keys, chord changes, forms, intros, and endings. The practicality of low stress and high versatility wins out over the ideal of never looking at a music stand. I can Learn Tunes by playing them frequently in a relaxed atmosphere. And if I forget a chord or a melody note, I can fall back on my musical skill of reading notation.

Is learning tunes by heart preferable? Probably, ideally. If you’re in a jazz studies degree program, or trying to break into the top-level jazz scene in a major market, you may indeed find it necessary to memorize a whole lot of tunes as quickly as you can. But for the rest of us, there’s no shame in using a fakebook.

Clarinet glissando

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Written jazz articulation problems

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brass drums

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man playing saxophone

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Transcription: Stan Getz, tenor saxophone on Huey Lewis and the News “Small World (Part Two)”

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