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Performance tip: On jazz and keys

By Warren Sirota

I’ve always had a bit of trouble keeping track of key signatures in jazz charts; they don’t remind you on every line. I *should* remind myself to take special note of the key before playing every song, and I should force myself to mutter the tonic’s name under my breath, but, well, I’m not that disciplined a son-of-a-gun. Or let’s be generous and say I have a "relaxed" attitude (even when I do say the key name, it can be hard to remember, with a split-second to spare, whether it was this tune that was in F or the previous one). But I’ve recently gained an insight that saxophone players will dismiss as utterly trivial, but which has made a big difference in my ability to stay in the key.

Y’see, we guitar players, piano players, and other musicians who play instruments "in C" don’t always realize that jazz was shaped to a very large extent by saxophonists and players of other horns in Eb. What this means is that when a sax player plays a "C", the actual note that comes out is Eb. Why this is so is a little mysterious to me, but I’m sure it has to do with maximizing the ease of fingering common scales and, no doubt, historical accident. Logically, you’d think that sax players could just learn from the beginning that if they just learned all the same notes that they now know, only learn them with the names that C players use, everything would be hunky-dory. Okay, but that’s not the way it is. If I’m missing something, and someone out there would care to enlighten me, please do so and I’ll pass that on.

Anyway, that’s why fake books come in "Concert" version (for C instruments) and Eb and Bb versions, and sometimes in other keys. And that’s also where my insight comes from: most jazz tunes are in Eb (concert) so the horn players can have it easy and play in C! Now I get it!

And that’s also the key to keys in jazz charts. Just use Eb as the default – in other words, when in doubt, play those Bs, Es and As as flats – and simply note, as you start a tune, whether it deviates from the default or not. Believe me, this simple technique has greatly increased my M/C (melody-to-"clam") ratio, and my audiences are greatly relieved.

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