26 May 2013


I was playing in a traditional jazz band in a Cambridgeshire pub when a young man in the audience told me he was a trumpet player and wanted to learn to play traditional jazz. Could I please lend him 'the music'?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The 'music' has to be inside your head. It takes months to build up a repertoire and much of your learning may have to come from picking tunes up by ear, as many of the old-time tunes are virtually unobtainable in sheet music form.

But a good starting tactic is to buy some busker's books (also called fake books).
They do not contain piano-type music, with two staves. They simply give you what is known as a lead-sheet - the melody line and the chord sequence.
That's all you and your band should need. Provided that you are all working to the same melody and chord pattern, you can improvise to your heart's content and also work out - if you like - a 'head arrangement' (i.e. a plan for who will do what, and when).

Of course, these books have their limitations. They sometimes leave out the Verse of a song, giving you only the Chorus. That's all right if you want to play only the Chorus; but it's irritating if you want to include the Verse, to provide some contrast or variety.

And with more complex old tunes (such as rags with three or more themes), it is annoying if the fake book gives only one theme and omits the rest.

Another warning: there are so many busker's books on the market. Do not waste money on chunky books that claim to contain 500 or 1000 tunes if there are not more than four or five tunes in them that you will ever be likely to play with a traditional jazz band. There are many such books available. Don't be fooled by the bulk.

Over many years, I have built up a bunch of fake books. They can be quite expensive when new; but I have noticed recently that plenty of them are available on internet auctions, so you should now be able to pick some up cheaply. Simply type 'Buskers' Books' or 'Fake Books' into your search.

After that, there are also resources on the internet where you can freely download the music for some of the rarer old jazz tunes.

For an example of dozens of tunes generously provided by a very remarkable Swedish gentleman - a musician and artist named Lasse Collin - go to this website:

It is also possible - if you search - to find downloadable books of tunes, sometimes generously provided by particular bands.

Also be warned that, when you come to play a tune with other players, you may find the band uses a version with slightly different chords or melody notes from those in your fakebook. They may even use a different key. So be prepared to adapt.
The book Playing Traditional Jazz, by Pops Coffee, is available from Amazon.