Heard occasionally on the bandstand:
“Oh come on guys, surely you don’t have to read THAT one?”
Well, in theory we should all know just about every tune by memory. But this isn’t the ’50s and not even the busiest musicians gig every night anymore – and even when they do, it’s not always jazz gigs. Nor are these the days when they tried to roast Cannonball with I Remember April because it was the latest hip thing.
About 20 years ago I was gig-hot and used to go out without books (this was several years BI – before iRealBook). At one stage I had instant recall of hundreds of tunes, but I’m afraid they haven’t all stuck in my active memory, or my recollection of the detail is a bit foggy.
I’ll agree with the view that ideally you should play unpaged. But that doesn’t mean, once you’re fairly experienced, that you necessarily play worse when reading. It’s also not the case that good players don’t read – they do it all the time, and not just on detailed arrangements. Of course, nowadays good players tend to be good readers as well. And they’re not reading point to point, they’re scoping it out in chunks and memorising or refreshing their memory as they go…
The late great classical pianist Sviatoslav Richter caused quite a controversy late in his career when he started using a score in performance, and I don’t think even his most offended critics could have claimed that he played any the less magnificently for it. They still took offence, of course (it was in their job description).
Anyway, he wasn’t really reading. It would be absurd to assume that he didn’t actually know the pieces. He was renowned for his phenomenal sight-reading, memory, extensive repertoire and attention to detail. The score was there, one felt, as much as a comfortable aide memoire as anything else.
Incidentally, sometimes audiences will assume that you’re not really improvising because you’ve got a piece of paper in front of you. Some people might even go so far as to say you aren’t really a proper jazz musician at all – shock, horror! Jazz is ear music, man! Yeah right, but the eye can feed the ear, pal. (And frankly, some ear players don’t really seem to know their ear from their elbow…)
It would be quite useless to show them the chart and point out that you’re using a one-page harmonic skeleton to produce a performance equal in length and complexity to a concerto movement…
I think this is the crux of it, for me at least – the fact that you may flip open a book or poke at your phone when someone calls Inner Urge doesn’t mean that you don’t know the tune. The important thing is that you should have known the tune. Worked on it before, played it before, or at very least even just heard it before. You should, to some degree, have internalised it.
And here’s a little game for you to play with yourself. The next time someone puts a chart in front of you absolutely cold, aim to not need it after about the third or fourth time round the form. Rhythm section players can roughly learn a tune while comping. Anyway, it’s excellent training and will challenge and develop your harmonic understanding.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
There are, of course, some tunes that you really do have to have not so much in memory, but in your bones. Blues, rhythm changes, Autumn Leaves, GDS, ATUR, things like that, you really shouldn’t have to read. This is really just a benchmark of basic training and experience, since these things are classics and the most commonly taught and played.
Opening a chart to blow on Take the A Train is a bit like hopping into the driver’s seat and asking which pedal is the clutch and which the brake. In that case, your passenger is reasonably entitled to feel nervous and say: “oh come on, surely you don’t have to ask THAT?”
It’s a vexed issue though. What do you guys think?
PS See also Maria João Pires Handles a Nightmare.