Love For SaleNov 12, 2020
It took a long time for me to back into the point and significance of the Great American Songbook. To some extent, this has to do with where I sought my information and, to that end, I have a somewhat welterweight yet substantial axe to grind with the way jazz is taught in institutions of higher education. That is, perhaps, a soapbox for another time. But ultimately, no one was stopping me from figuring the missing pieces out on my own, which I ultimately managed to start doing.
Without realizing it, I first heard Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and so on when my dad sat down to play the piano, something he did after dinner, while waiting for my mom to get ready to leave the house, or when people were around who wanted to sing. He wasn't an improvisor, at least in the jazz sense, and standards like "Over The Rainbow" and "How Are Things In Glocca Morra" sat cheek by jowl in his repertoire with folk songs, holiday tunes, Beethoven sonatas and Bach inventions. He thought of the standards he knew as "popular" tunes, probably, and I thought of them just as songs, or maybe a little later, as Broadway songs or simply "songs from musicals," since, until my sister and I got interested in owning our own records, what we mainly had next to the family turntable were original cast recordings ("The Sound of Music," "Fiddler On The Roof") and what I later learned to classify as "commercial folk music" (which I nevertheless loved): the Weavers, the Kingston Trio). We had classical recordings, too – the three B's and Chopin predominating – but my dad was far more likely to play his favorite music than sit and listen to it, a predilection I have appear to have inherited.
So when, in high school, I determined to get more adept at jazz, I collared my pal Jim for a trip downtown to score a copy of The Real Book, an outrageously successful piece of samizdat legendarily concocted by disgruntled Berklee College Of Music students in the 1970s. Getting off the T in Copley Square, we walked the couple blocks to the ironically-titled-in-retrospect print shop Copy Cop (their logo was a slew of bobby-helmeted cops with batons menacingly raised). Going up the counter, we asked: "You've got the Real Book?" At which point the clerk reached under the counter, pulled up a massive slab of 8.5x11 comb bound paper with a blank cover and said, "That'll be $36." I'd like to think he insisted on cash, but since that's all I would have been carrying at age sixteen anyway, the point, and my recollection or lack thereof, remains moot.
Back home, I flipped through the pages of profoundly stylized, handwritten charts, thinking "ahh, here's what I need to know!" Only to gradually realize, over time, that I would no more learn how to play jazz by owning a Real Book than I would learn conversational Latin from owning a Latin-English dictionary. In college, guitar teachers would dismiss the Real Book's chord changes as hopelessly inaccurate ("Berklee students!" spat one of them, reading through the page for "Round Midnight") and it only slowly dawned on me that for songs not actually in the Real Book, I might have to actually sit down and figure out the chords off the record myself. Slowly, I suppose, because for the songs I did hear and love on actual recordings, the chords seemed invisible when played by pianists or voiced by saxophones, unlike the chords I was beginning to get a palpable feel for when played on Bob Dylan's or John Lennon's guitar.
Then there were the words. My dad played songs, but jazz cats apparently knew "tunes." I first heard Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" interpreted by Joe Pass and Herb Ellis in a tricky stop-time, syncopated arrangement filled with contrapuntal interplay between Pass' nimble bebop lines and Herb Ellis' more Charlie Christian-inflected ideas. This was clearly a tune, a vehicle for cool guitar stuff to happen, right? When I finally heard the lyrics, I realized, "Ohhhh. So that's what this song is about." Some critic whose name I can't recall once observed of American popular song, "The first half of the twentieth century involved songs about sexless love; the second half, songs about loveless sex." Clearly, Cole Porter didn't get the memo.
The blues is also a vehicle for cool guitar stuff, but just like looking at a chart won't reveal the actual music involved in a Cole Porter tune, just knowing the blues progression does not necessarily make for cool stuff happening on the blues. Even learning new chords or licks won't necessarily up your game, because it's knowing how to use those chords, in that progression, that makes for a musical, colorful experience. That's the point of my workshop this weekend, Chord Substitutions And How To Use Them. On the info page for the class, I've posted a short video explaining my take on the role of chord voicings in the blues. You can check it out here:
In other chord news, I've got new Youtube video out today in my One Thing About Fingerstyle Blues series, on making the most of the "Red House" chord voicing:
One Thing About The "Red House" Chord
Finally, and this slipped my mind in Tuesday's letter, here's a link to download the tab for all the lessons in my new Youtube series without re-entering your email address:
Get The Tab