When looking at Jazz Standards as sheet music, do you play them as is or are you supposed to improvise off of them (or just add some flavor)?

I've been looking at these sheets for Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma) for piano, and to get a feel for the song I tried looking it up online. However, every version I listened to was different in shockingly different ways. So, now I'm a bit confused on whether or not I should be adding some flavor to the rather straightforward sheets or treat them as the arranger's own interpretation.

I should note, the book I'm getting these sheets from doesn't seem to be a fake book exactly, but it does seem to be a possibility. Here is part of what the sheets look like


3 Answers 3


When looking at Jazz Standards as sheet music, do you play them as is or are you supposed to improvise off of them (or just add some flavor)?

TL;DR: You never play something as it is in Jazz, unless it is specified to for some reason. That's Jazz. If you listen to two takes of the same song by the same group, it (most likely) will sound totally different.

Longer Answer: It would be good at the beginning to practice with that kind of sheets you provided, especially if you don't have any idea what or how to play a jazz song. But if you're a bit experienced with jazz, I would suggest to take the song from a real book, which would look like this:

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And improvise on top of that. As you can see, it has the melody and the chords, but it doesn't say exactly how you should play the chords; you have to figure that out for yourself. Also, the melody is rarely played like it is written in this music sheet. You'll have to find variations of that too. You'll have to improvise everything from this sheet.

This sheet should be looked as a kind of 'general guideline'; it has the melody and the chords as a reference point, but besides that, you'll have to do all the work yourself.

But using the real book from the beginning might be confusing and might get you lost, so if you can find sheet that help you with what you have to play, it'll help you get started. Also, using these sheets will give ideas on improvisation.


So - from a note perspective, you should play the notes as written, depending on your level of skill at your instrument, and your confidence with the song.

However, the rhythm is almost never played as written - the fake books have very simple rhythm notation, and if you want to get some respect with your fellow jazz cats, this is where you'll add your personal touch.

Usually, the melody players take turns doing 'heads' (melody), if you're not playing the head on a given tune, you'll jump in later on blow over 2 or 3 choruses and hand it off to the next melody player - sometimes you'll trade 4s with the drummer or bass player or another melody player.

The best way to get started is to pick a few tunes you like, and listen to the songs on recordings by big jazz names, Coltrane, M. Davis, Bill Evans, etc. Many of the standards in the fake book come from "Tin Pan Alley" broadway show tunes from the 20s, 30s, 40s, etc so find some of the original versions also. Learn the melody by heart from the fakebook, and play it over and over until you know it really well - it will naturally start to take it's own direction.

  • Also wanted to comment on about about changing voicings - I don't see the voicing written out on this chart, most jazz charts are this way, allowing the person comping to choose their own - do you play a chording instrument? (mainly piano and guitar) Or do you mean changing the actual chord? If you change the chord, be aware that other players are playing over these chords, and you may clash. Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 22:37
  • Thanks for the info ;D. The pic I posted does have the chords and their voicings, Sheliaskovic's version does not. I was just gonna change up the voicings on from the book I have, but I may try a run through with the block chords that are there.
    – Devster44
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 23:05
  • OK - yes, my mistake, I was thinking of the Fakebook chart for Autumn Leaves. Try walking down from Am using dominant chords as a sub. for the IV chords - so Am - D7 - Gmaj7 - Cmaj7 - F#-7b5 - B7 - Em becomes: Am - Ab7 - Gmaj7 - Cmaj7 - F#m7b5 - F7 - Em (you have to leave the G - C for now). You can also try m7 chords in place of the subbed dom. 7 chords. Am - Abm7, etc. Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 23:47

You can play the melody as written. You can construct an improvisation, using melodic and rhythmic fragments from the melody over the chords - you know, the usual jazz stuff. If you're feeling short on ideas you can even do that Berklee chord=scale thing and just noodle around.

But don't neglect the strength of just playing the melody beautifully, precisely as written. There's a shape and structure there. Getting it slightly randomly wrong doesn't add anything. Unless you've got something better, consider playing what the composer wrote. Particularly if his name was Porter, Gershwin, Kern....

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