Jazz Lead Sheets

How to handle them...

Right off the bat, I encourage you to read this article about the history of so-called 'real books', as well as this one.  The reason I share these now is to reinforce that my article is not about them theoretically, it is how to use them to master repertoire away from the piano.  I will provide many repertoire examples to demonstrate the points made in the hope of enhancing your understanding.

I recommend the follow videos, the first of which discusses the most common chord progression in jazz.  You will find this in almost every song in the real book, so do be sure to internalise it because it will help you more rapidly to learn pieces and recognise patterns, thus making improvisation and reharmonisation easier.

The second video discusses the 'floating 251' philosophy, which is related to the above video but focuses on only one important element.  Again, mastery, or at least a solid awareness of these components of jazz theory will help you tremendously in mastering repertoire away from the piano for much more fluent performance at the piano.


So, you want to acquire jazz repertoire!  Whether or not you want to improvise with it, embellish a few chords or play the songs in their standard form, you must get the song on your internal jukebox.  If you don't know it in your mind, you can't play it at the piano.  It's that simple.  You also have to want to learn it, at least as you're getting started.  If you begin to take it seriously and imagine making money from it, you'll obviously have to learn many, many songs, some of which you may not like so much. Learning the lyrics also helps you find your way through a song but it's fair to say that not all jazz repertoire has them; a lot does, though.

So, I want to the learn the song 'Just in Time' because I like it.  So, here are the lyrics, here is an original (Frank Sinatra), here is a jazz piano version (Andre Previn, madness), here is another (Dudley Moore, what a cat!), here is another (Red Garland, not his Liebestraum at the beginning, I almost cried when I first heard this) and here is a saxophone version (Sonny Rollins).  After a day's listening, I think I have the song pretty well ingrained on my internal jukebox.  Do you?  Good, then you now deserve the lead sheet so visit here and find it in the list on the right.  Use that link for all lead sheets until you buy a fake book for yourself.  

But wow, what a listening session!  You are encouraged to listen to them on repeat, and then find more, and listen them on repeat... if you're serious about jazz.

So as you can see, a lead sheet is just the chord symbols placed on beat 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 above the single-note melody line.  Since you know the piece, you can easily identify the melody anyway so 90% of your focus should be on the chords since that's what jazz is about: a progression of chords, often predictable, for you to embellish and change as you wish.  And that is the key point: as you wish!  Not what someone else says or does but what you want to do.  Rarely, a chord type is absolutely fixed, such as the so-called So What chord so apart from those moments, you can do what you want, as long as you focus primarily on the major/minor quality of the chord, the dominant or major 7th quality of the chord and the diminished state of a chord (minor b5).  Experiment.

I'll now use Autumn Leaves to discuss the next point.  I listen lots (here, here and here), then get hold of the lead sheet, left.  The first thing I care about is the key of the piece so that all the chords can be identified and internalised numerically for performance in any key.  I see it's Bb.  Tempo?  Medium swing (if I want!)  You would do well now to listen (with your internal jukebox or a real recording) as you follow along with the changes.  This will start to 'lock you in' to the piece and you'll start 'feeling the changes', as the lingo goes.  I mean, who needs sheet music in jazz, right?  Note that the above takes place away from the piano.

Once you've quite familiar in general with the changes, it's time to identify the chord progressions and common patterns.  In this, it's immediately obvious we're doing a 251 directly into the master key, Bb:  Cm7, F7, BbM7.  Each bar is four beats.  After the 1, we go up a 4th.  This is very common so get used to it:  251 / up a 4th.  Then it's doing a 251 onto G where G is the 6th of the master key.  This is called a 'floating 251' because the 1 is not the root of the master key, it's a note of the master key's major scale (6th, in this case).  Since it's landing on a minor chord, the 2 is (more often than not) a m7b5 rather than a m7 (because, theory).  Here it's Am7b5: A, C, Eb, G.  These two progressions repeat and that's it.  So when I ask if you can play Autumn Leaves numerically, you'll say, while away from the piano:  Sure, it's just a 251 onto the master key, up a fourth, then a floating 251 to the 6th (of the master key), and repeat.  And I will be most proud of your exquisite new skill that you can now apply to any key, finding the melody by ear like a true jazz cat.  Can you work out the second second? It's embarrassingly easy...

But what boring chords, no?  Cm7?  D7?  Jazz pianists play much richer, tasty chords than that.  And the lead sheet doesn't even tell you how to play what chords where (or how to improvise).  Well, that's because it's down to you.  You can blend the melody in with the chord (as a chord extension or part of a regular chord), you can do some left hand accompaniment (see this video for more ideas), or you can play shell voicings (highlight the 3rd and 7th) and comp to a right hand improvisation (or the melody itself).  You really can do whatever you want... so do experiment instead of copying what others have done.  I will now, however, give some tasty chord ideas.

The 9th is the first note to add to almost every chord type.  It works with minor 7ths, Major 7ths, whole and half diminisheds (although these two chord types don't yet have an official name but they should be called dim9 and half-dim9 because... why not?)  They work with augment chords (raised 5th), dominant 7ths, 13ths, ... an amazingly versatile extension, the primary voicing for which being 3rd, 7th, 9th.

A m7 chord often enjoys the 11th, nicely voiced as d7, 9, b3, 11.  The dominant 7 chords are often 5-1 chords, known as an 'authentic cadence' (a type of 'finality' sound) and can be enhanced and voiced in all kinds of ways.  7th chords like the 13, 9 and variations thereof:  b9, #9, b13, voiced respectively as:  3, 7, b9/#9 / 7, 3, 13/b13.

So as you can see, the lead sheet really is the just the skeleton of the piece and it's down to you to play the chords wherever you want, with whichever hand, and add the melody to the chords, or keep it separate.  You can embellish the chords, keep them simple, use inversions, only play the bass note, ignore the melody and only play the chords... but all of this is only possible once the piece exists on your internal jukebox and you have mastered the identified chord progression numerically.  Your ambition should be to be able to sit at the piano without the lead sheet and just play the piece, improvising if you wish.  You have absolutely no need to stare at the chords since they will have been internalised away from the piano already.

I recommend making a list of 10 jazz pieces you'd like to learn that you already know or which you'd like to play, then go and listen to a load of jazz albums on YouTube and pick another ten that emotionally impact you.  Get them all on your internal jukebox, grab the lead sheets, identify the patterns, follow along with the changes, etc, and then get to the piano and start having fun!

Here's a few recommendations which deserve serious study: