Dear Nano: Key for Autumn Leaves?

Dear Nano is going to be a weekly advice-column-like post to answer to questions posed by students or colleagues. This week’s question:

Which version of “Autumn Leaves” is going to get called on the bandstand – G or E? Should I memorize both? In the Real Book, it starts with an A min7 chord.

Calling “Autumn Leaves” always gets confusing because it moves between two key centers: the major and its relative minor. When you call it in ‘G,’ you mean Bb major/G minor. For ‘E,’ it’s G major/E minor.

When in doubt, ask everyone to identify their first chord. In Bb/G, it’ll be a C min7 (ii of Bb); in G/E, it’ll be an A min7 chord (ii of G) – as you identified.

In my gigging experience, “Autumn Leaves” gets called more in Bb/G – mainly because that’s the key it’s in on Cannonball Adderley’s classic Somethin’ Else recording (featuring Miles Davis).

(Bass players: make sure you’ve transcribed Sam Jones’ opening bass vamp!)

I’ll analyze “Autumn Leaves” in a future post, but for now I’ll say that it’s important to memorize it in both keys to start thinking more functionally (ii-V-I-IV instead of each individual chord).

If you just memorize it in one key, you can skate by with muscle memory on your instrument. Learning it in two or more keys gets your brain more involved.

That said, I usually bring my tablet with iRealPro to each pickup gig or jam session. Sometimes, you’ll play behind a singer who requests standards in atypical keys or someone will call more obscure tunes.

I was always taught that “real” jazz musicians know hundreds of tunes in all 12 keys, but I’ve moved away from that line of thinking. Being a jazz musician in the digital age requires a lot more “soft” skills than it used to, so outsourcing some of the “hard” skills to technology just makes sense.

I’d encourage you to memorize “Autumn Leaves” in those two keys (at least) because it’s such a common tune and it’ll help you build your knowledge of jazz theory.

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist and Instructor

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