Ron Drotos is a jazz pianist and educator based in New York who is in the midst of a mammoth project of recording the entire Real Book as piano solos. The videos are recorded in one take with no edits, as a live concert would be. This week Ron published recording number 73 on his YouTube channel, where you will find many additional treasures.
Pianoways: Ron, what is actually the Real Book? How did it get its name and what makes it different from Fake Books?
Ron: The practice of creating your own arrangements by using a tune’s chords and melody, instead of reading sheet music, is sometimes referred to as “faking it.” At some point, musicians began making “lead sheets” of songs, which consisted of just the song’s melody and chords. The early collections of lead sheets used by jazz musicians were called “fake books.” In the early 1970s, some students at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music assembled their own collection of lead sheets, but they used chords that they considered better and more jazz-oriented than the previously available fake books. They used the name Real Book to distinguish their book from the older ones.
Pianoways: Who put the Real Book together and decided which tunes get included?
Ron: The college students who created the original Real Book have never publicly acknowledged themselves. This is because they never paid royalties to the composers for the songs they included in the book. They included the jazz standards they enjoyed playing at jam sessions, and also some tunes that were newer at the time. The current edition’s publisher, Hal Leonard, does pay royalties to the composers, so it’s now perfectly legal.
Pianoways: The tunes in the Real Book are from the early and mid 20th century. Is jazz going in the direction of classical music where the tendency is to play music mainly by masters of the past?
Ron: In addition to the jazz standards you’re referring to, some of the tunes in the book are from the late 60s and early 70s, which means they were very current at the time. Although there have been many wonderful tunes composed in the past few decades, the basic jazz repertoire is indeed from the early and mid 20th century. The main reason for this is that everyone knows these tunes so they form a common ground for jazz musicians to use when playing together. You can simply walk into a jam session and call for Autumn Leaves, and everyone instantly knows how to play it. With a newer tune, you’d have to bring in the music.
But you raise a good point here, Nurit! In many ways, jazz is going in the direction of classical music, and I don’t think that’s always a good thing. I’ll give you an example. My piano teacher, Billy Taylor had studied with the great jazz pianist Art Tatum back in the 1950s. Whenever Tatum showed Taylor a chord voicing or melodic lick, he wouldn’t let Taylor use the same technique on a gig. The idea was to develop one’s own unique individuality. So Taylor was expected to take what Tatum showed him and make it his own, not just play it note-for-note. But nowadays, not many jazz musicians are as interested in developing their own style. They tend to sound too much like the musicians they emulate.
In this sense, jazz is becoming like classical music has become. Back in Mozart’s day, all the pianists improvised their own variations on the melodies, even in piano sonatas. And there’s evidence that even Mozart himself didn’t play the way we think he played. Beethoven reported that Mozart played non-legato. Can you imagine what would happen if a classical pianist performed Mozart non-legato in Carnegie Hall today? No one would take them seriously. So there’s becoming the same narrow stylistic range in jazz as there now is in classical music. The correct way to play bebop is this, the correct way to play baroque music is that, etc.
On the other hand, jazz continues to absorb contemporary influences and morph into wonderful hybrids, so maybe there’s some growth in this direction after all.
Pianoways: Coming back to the Real Book, why did you decide to go on this journey?
Ron: I wanted a project to challenge myself with over the long term, and I thought it would inspire others as well. Also, it’s important for aspiring jazz pianists to know something about the historical and musical place that each tune occupies, so I talk about this before I play each tune. I also give ideas for how to practice and interpret them.
Also, I’m going through the book sequentially because this makes me face every tune head-on. I can’t avoid the hard or unfamiliar ones! The whole process has been incredible rewarding.
Pianoways: How long will it take you to complete it?
Ron: With one new video each week, the 400 tunes will take me about 8 years to complete. Right now I’m in my 2nd year of the project.
Pianoways: Did you know all the songs before you started or are you learning some as you go along?
Ron:I already knew a lot of them, but the new edition is actually pretty different to the original that I’ve had since the early 1980s. So I’m having fun learning new tunes as well as revisiting ones that I’ve been playing for decades.
Pianoways: For someone with no jazz experience, what are the minimum requirements to play a few tunes from the RB? Is it enough to be able to read treble clef and know the major and minor triads?
Ron: Absolutely! You don’t even need to play the full 7th chords for many of the tunes, at least to get started. I’ve found that you’ll go further if you aim for a sense of flow first, and add complexity later. Learn a few tunes at whatever level you can, and then you can make the harmonies more sophisticated or whatever. Many new jazz pianists get hung up on playing complex chord voicings way too early in the process and as a result, each step is a struggle for them. It’s much better to have fun right away!
Pianoways: Hal Leonard have easier versions that are simplified and all in the key of C (Your First Fake Book, Easy Fake Book)- would you recommend starting with those?
Ron: I used to get excited about these books, but then I discovered that they’re oversimplified and my students would get tired of playing everything in the same key. I wish they had 5 songs in C, then 5 in F, 5 in G, and so on. After about 5 songs in C, it’s time to move on!
Pianoways: Thank you so much Ron, for sharing this here! All the best on your Real Book journey, I enjoy following you and learning about a new tune every week.
Here is the link to a list Ron put together a few years ago with the best known songs and their levels of difficulty.
Pianoways on Facebook
- The Magic of Jazz Piano
- Interview with Jazz Pianist Eric Gilson
- From Classic to Jazz: Interview with Bettina Urfer