Make sure you get a Fake Book
by Bob McMurray
The 2001 McMurray Jazz Festival
Exactly four years ago I got the itch to buy a piano. I can’t remember why but as soon as I got it I sat down with a beginner’s adult piano lesson book and have taken it from there. The first real song that I learned to play was Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’. However, when the piano people sold it to me they didn’t tell me that this beautiful instrument could one day be a source of sheer nervous terror. It becomes that, you see, when you make the jump from playing ‘Happy Birthday’ to your kids in your living room to playing live in front of more than 100 people.
A little introduction may be in order. I host my own private jazz festival in the backyard of my home every year generally with two jazz bands showcasing pretty major players. In fact, saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianists Anthony Wonsey and Ron Perillo as well as Chicago guitar legend George Freeman have been among the over 20 jazz musicians who have played my festival. But, one day I looked around at my own family and saw a makeshift jazz band in the making. My family is very together but none of us have any formal music training. Just instruments and a desire to fool around with them and have fun. Still, there’s something about me that sees a rhythm section instead of nephews and a lead trumpeter instead of a brother-in-law. So, since no one can kick me off my own stage… the Bob McMurray Quintet was born with me on piano. We would be starting the jazz festival this year as a “third” intro band!
When Jack DeJohnette, the great jazz drummer who’s also an accomplished pianist, was young and learning his craft as a pianist in Chicago the local musicians told him, “Get a fake book and learn all the standard tunes, because all the bebop tunes are written off of those changes.” Sounds good to me! I looked through my books and chose Paul Desmond’s classic composition ‘Take Five’ as our first number because the arrangement seemed easy enough. I figured I could fake it. The fact that the ‘Five’ in ‘Take Five’ refers to 5/4 time didn’t deter me since I paid little mind to things like that anyway. Little did we know how small a step it is from, “Yeah, it’d be cool to play together at the next McMurray jazz festival” and “Omigosh, the jazz festival is next month and I don’t know what I’m doing”!
The Bob McMurray Quintet
So I knew we needed work and sought the help of my professional jazz musician friend James who could serve as our musical director. James arranged all of our parts in a two hour studio practice and taught nephew Mark how to craft a solo on guitar and gave brother-in-law Mike some solo ideas on trumpet. I learned that a vamp wasn’t a female Transylvanian. Then I learned how to comp a vamp. Hey if nothing else our lingo made us sound like hepcats. I later tried my hand at leading Mike during his trumpet solo by offering some well-timed and likable chords. As for me, no, that’s ok I can just play the melody by myself I don’t need a solo.
I thought James was my friend but once inside the studio he turned into a marine. James would say stuff like, “Ok, piano start us at two bars before the bridge and head us out.” Huh? I’d always started my songs from the beginning. I hated when he isolated just the piano and bass to hear how tight we played together. It’s no fair. My nephew Jim is way better on bass than I am on piano. Nevertheless, after our first practice was over we started to sound like people doing something together on purpose. I was so ecstatic I went to work picking another song to fake. It was a quick decision to Ellington/Strayhorn and ‘Satin Doll’ – after all I could already play it. James kept up with the coaching and told brother-in-law Chas on the way out that he expected his drummer to be twice as good at the Jazz Fest. Gulp.
Fast forward to the McMurray summer jazz festival. I took my seat at the outdoor digital piano I had rented for the day beneath our large white canopy tent. Lucky for me I’m only comfortable playing my spinet in my living room. While James introduced us to the milling throng assembling on my driveway I felt like a kid in school who wasn’t ready for the test. James keep talking! Maybe I’ll be saved by the bell. No such luck as James stepped away and Jim started us out with his bass line on ‘Take Five’ with Chas’ sticks joining in a few seconds later. My heart is pounding in my chest. I was next. Ok, James told me to let those two get “fat” at the beginning. Let ’em get fat! Be patient, PATIENT. Oh no I’m not counting the bars. Oh well, neither is the audience. That seems like long enough I can begin the melody line now. Take it slow. Be cool. Be hip. Mike’s waiting for you with his trumpet at the bridge. Off we go.
Life seems incredibly unfair when your standard for success is simply avoiding the horror of completely forgetting where you are and having to stop while everyone else keeps playing. Sort of like the difference between a cook and a chef. The chef can bring the sauce back from disaster. With me think “Mac and cheese”. Mark’s solo is first as we come out of the bridge and is really beautiful. The only trouble is no one claps. I think to myself I’ll have to speak to his brother after the show. I hope Mike fares better on his. He’s quite the player and his solo is one of the high points of the tune. I enjoy playing underneath his muted horn with my simple but improvised octave block chords. This time the crowd gets it and responds with applause. Nice. I listen for a brief few seconds and start back in on the melody letting Mike rest his chops. We’re almost home as Mike joins me once again on the bridge then takes a brief solo and finishes. Mark drops out while I play an inversion of the intro that I had memorized. I drop, relieved, leaving it to Chas and Jim to end it opposite the way they started.
I couldn’t believe it. We had actually gotten through it without utter humiliation. I didn’t know how to act. Isn’t the leader supposed to talk to the crowd at this point or something? Then my training kicked in. James had told me to count off the next song right away. I looked over at the group. They were all apparently ahead of me on this one and stared back with looks of diligent panic. A look I won’t soon forget by the way. Then, I prayed for forgiveness from Count Basie under my breath and then sheepishly counted off my very first 1,2, a 1,2,3,4. I had insisted we play ‘Satin Doll’ at a breakneck tempo to differentiate it from the cool eccentricities of ‘Take Five’ – my first arrangement credit, I guess. Jim’s driving bass line really motivated me throughout to keep the tune way up-tempo. It’s a good thing he did. At that speed no one could hear how weak my left hand was on the second half of the bridge. There were no extended solos as we just circled back on the melody and sped out. The crowd whooped it up. What a nice feeling to have it over with while all you can hear is clapping.
I think there was something like 50 hours of practice between us just so we could play together for 10 minutes. Even if it was really more like Take Four or Take Six what did it matter? The audience really liked it. They stood and clapped and cheered. The party was off to a rousing start. To quote a Gershwin entry from my fake book “Who could ask for anything more”?