Goodbye Pork Pie Hat - a fresh look

Did the Real Book get it wrong?


In 1980 I handed $30 over the counter of a music store in Adelaide, and the owner surreptitiously passed me a brown paper bag from beneath the counter. A drug deal? No. I had just purchased my copy of The Real Book, 5th Edition. I owe a huge debt to the creators of that highly esteemed assemblage of copyright infringements. It helped me fill in the gaps in all the standards I half knew, introduced me to countless other wonderful tunes, and truly was the backbone of my jazz education. The contributing transcribers for the most part did a remarkably accurate job, but they were not superhuman.

A case in point might be Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, one of Charles Mingus’s best known compositions from the album Ah Um, an elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, known for his pioneering musicianship, and for sporting the fashion accessory of the title.

The Real Book transcription of this tune has been treated as the gospel truth of the tune for some decades; an internet search for a lead sheet will bring up either a scanned copy, or a rewritten copy of its triplet-strewn interpretation. But the tune deserves another, more careful look.

A few years ago I directed a university ensemble who wanted to perform this tune, so I went to the original recording in order to transcribe the blowing changes (absent from the Real Book). While listening to the head, specifically the melody, I detected a strong syncopated semiquaver inflection.

It is understandable that, given that the tune is a ‘jazz ballad’, the transcriber might assume that the  subdivisions would be based upon quaver triplets; working from that assumption, one would come up with precisely the rhythms given in The Real Book.

However, I believe a more correct transcription of the rhythms of this melody can be rendered in sixteenth note phrases, despite the languid execution and the rhythm section playing normal jazz ballad things. Before you begin building a fire under a stake for me, get a copy of the original recording out and read the following along with it. If you don’t think it gives a more accurate rendering, I’ll tie myself to your stake.


Note that in bar 7 there are two notes on the ‘and’ of beat two. Both of these notes are present in all four iterations of the head on Ah Um, John Handy playing one and Booker Irvin the other. I wouldn’t dare to postulate an explanation for this artefact, but it sure is fascinating.

What else is not quite right (ie wrong) with the Real Book transcription? Well, it doesn’t give the blowing changes, which are so different form the head changes that the only relationship between them is the key centre.

Discussions of rhythm aside, what a great music lesson Mingus gives us in this composition. A melody, almost 90% of which is drawn from a single pentatonic scale, 95% if we include the “blue note”, matched harmonically to chords that wander far away from the key centre. (Yes, I counted the notes - there are 75.)


Here’s a question to help you understand Mingus’ brilliance:

Of the notes in the Eb minor pentatonic scale and the Eb minor ‘blues scale’, what notes would you need to omit or alter to address each of the following chords?

Eb7, B7, Emaj7, A7, Db7, B9, Abmin7, Fmin7, Bb7, C7, F7, and Ab7


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