Below I have compiled a short list of jazz standards I believe every keen jazz student should learn. I’ve given reasons why I think these particular tunes are so valuable and would love for you to add in your favourites and if you can, write out some reasons why they are on your list. I’ll try and stick to the classics and not choose too many by any one composer, despite having some definite favourites among them. I have mainly focused on the first songs I learned, even though there are hundreds of other tunes that have since been added into my ‘favourite repertoire’ list!
By ‘learning a tune’ I mean the following…
1. Learn the written melody.
Get a chart, learn the head (by heart – have it memorised in at least two places on the fret board).
Listen to the melody as played by different artists in different versions and find one that resonates with you.
Try and identify the musical elements that make that version special in your mind and take time to learn these articulations, embellishments and nuances – has the artist played the melody strictly, do they interpret, how do they interpret, do they use specific arrangement techniques that alter the original and if so, what are they?
2. Learn the original or most popularly played chords.
Use the real book chart to write out the song form with bar numbers and lettered sections. Add in any rehearsal marks (Coda’s, D.S. / D.C.’s etc) that are in the original version.
Now try the methods used in learning the different melody interpretations; now look for specific harmonic alterations; is it reharmonized, are arrangement techniques used that add harmony in and if so what are they – do you think they add to the song and if so / if not, why? (Look for things like stop time hits and stabs which are often reharmonized, chord substitutes or super-impositions, vamps, intros or tags etc).
3. Research the historical elements.
Use the web or your local library to source info on the composer. Check out when they lived, who their influences were; what music and musicians did they dig? Compare what they were writing to other compositions they did around that time, look at their works in chronological order, was there a progression; a sudden shift in writing style? Did they sound like others in that same era; were the compositions they wrote ground breaking / unique and how? What is it you can identify about their writing in terms of musical elements?
Studying these elements can reap great rewards and give you a deeper insight into the why and how not just the ‘what’ i.e. the notes they chose or the chords they used. Incidentally, all of these tunes will be covered in our in depth, concept based ‘Jazz Standards’ video lesson series as some point.
Standard number one is ‘Autumn Leaves’ by Joseph Kosma, originally written with French lyrics that were adapted to English and performed extensively as a (then) popular standard in the mid to late 1940’s and on. It is commonly played in the keys of Bb or G major. I chose this tune because the harmony is great for beginner jazzers, being mainly in one key which makes it easy to improvise over. I dig the way in which the chords circle using 4th movements in a logical manner (i.e. Cm-F7-Bbma-Ebma etc). This was also one of the earliest tunes I really worked hard at getting solid and I still call it at gigs today.
Next I chose ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young, 1944), first and foremost because I absolutely LOVE the melody. In addition, the tune has many great harmonic movements and modulations, using common jazz changes in unexpected ways (usually by resolving or sequencing through uncommon chords). The resulting harmonic underpinning is fantastic, with waves of tension (heightened by the +7 chord at the bridge and the series of descending minor 2-5’s in the 4th section) juxtaposed against eventual, distant resolves. A great exploration and workout for an improviser!
Number 3 is ‘All of Me’ (Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, 1931) which uses a simple but effective melody set against a long series of secondary dominant chords that move around and against the pitch axis (of C Major). Listening to Louis Armstrong’s version (almost anything he plays and sings gives me goose-bumps!) is still a great and humbling experience…
I also really love the melody on the last section (Fma6 – Fmi6), just a great choice of notes and rhythms, super lyrical.
‘All the Things You Are’ by the great composer Jerome Kern is next up. I could easily have dwelled on Kern’s compositions for this entire blog – he wrote so many great standards, ‘Yesterdays’, ‘Smoke Gets in Your eyes’, ‘The Song is You’, ‘A Fine Romance’, ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ and another personal fave ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, any of which could be included here and classed as a definitive classic American Songbook Standard. But ‘All the Things’ was a real feature tune for me, in that I have spent a lot of time working on it over the years and I grew up listening to so many great versions, especially when I was just getting into jazz (Pat Metheny’s version of ‘Question and Answer’ was the first time I heard it). I dig this tune because of the simplicity and beauty of the melody, the constant modulation, the logical chord sequencing and the fact that it is through-composed (not having a repetitive form sequence like AABA etc). Again, great study for any budding improvisers!
‘My Romance’ is a 1935 show tune by Rodgers and Hart taken from the musical ‘Jumbo’. I love the two beat changes, the classic key-modulations (Bb major to Gmi, to Ebmaj, to Dmi, to C7 etc); it is a real showcase for standard changes and how they can be used to cover all the different areas of one key centre without any real modulations (just tonicizations / transitions towards related tonal centres). A teacher of mine introduced me to this tune and I have never stopped calling it at gigs, a great blowing tune.
‘There Will Never Be Another You’ was composed by Harry Warren in 1942, with lyrics added in by Mack Gordon for inclusion in a musical entitled ‘Iceland’. Show tunes from this era (Late 1920’s to the mid 1950’s in particular) yielded many wonderful Jazz standards that are used in the repertoire of musicians worldwide, in many genres and styles. The songs were originally part of a greater score that was the backdrop for musicals such as ‘Anything Goes’, ‘West Side Story’, ‘Oh, Kay’, ‘The King and I’ and operas such as ‘Porgy and Bess’. In some cases, the tunes themselves were only extracted parts of a longer piece. I love the chords in this one and the contrafact taken from John Scofield’s album Works for me (cleverly titled ‘Not you again’ HA!) which is a great blend of melody and improvised counterpoint and also one of my fave solos by Mr S.
Next up I put in ‘Green Dolphin Street’ (composed by Bronislau Kaper with lyrics by Ned Washington) because I really dig the strong melody and lyrical themes the composer used to cover the modulating harmony. Soloing on this tune is so much fun. I remember learning the tune and trying to memorise the chords away from my instrument (I was around 19 at the time) which turned out to be one of the best *CLICK* moments in my musical life – for the first time ever I was attempting to see and hear music without my guitar in hand. This then became what I call the Sing-Play rule, where I would sing everything I played, (at first in my head) – an improvising tool I still really value.
I thought I would include a ballad here; the first one I ever learned was ‘When I fall in Love’ by Victor Young, with lyric by Ed Hayman. A close second would be ‘Misty’ and third would be ‘Body and Soul’, then there’s ‘Round Midnight’, ‘When Sunny Get’s Blue’ – in fact I could probably write about a dozen classic ballad favourites! I remember the challenge of memorising ‘When I fall in Love’ – it has such a long song form but the melody and lyric act as a strong guide; I particularly love the final section before the restatement of the last line (And the moment I can feel that, You feel that way too, Is when I fall in love with you…) that melody and series of chords is stunning! If you have time, have a search round for versions of the ballads listed here and add to the list below!
I must include ‘Summertime’ by George and Ira Gershwin as it is probably the most covered, widely known jazz standard of all; or close to it! So many great versions and arrangements exist today; I couldn’t choose a favourite. It’s one of those tunes you can call at any gig because everyone’s going to know it and have some different arrangement or way of playing the changes.
And lastly I wanted to include one of my favourite jazz blues and a bebop tune to boot; ‘Billies Bounce’. This was the first jazz blues I learned after I heard Benson play the absolute stuffing out of it in a quartet version from 1968 off the album Giblet Gravy. Just a killing version with a ridiculous line up – Herbie Hancock (Pn), Ron Carter(Bs), Billy Cobham (Dr) and Johnny Pacheco (Prc). Check it out!
Leave comments questions and favorite standard lists below.
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