Inquiring Minds Want To Know! More Of Your Questions Answered

I receive quite a few questions from bass players, fans, and “others” from around the globe. Here is a sampling of a some recent enquiries.

  1. How to practice effectively with limited time.
  2. Your Bass Player Magazine article on “Someday My Prince Will Come” confused me! I had to re-learn the tune to play it with my wedding band.
  3. Pedro wrote with a question about Mexican/Texas Conjunto music, which I know nothing about.
  4. Hey John—Your publishing website says that your six-volume bass method will be out in 2014. Running a little behind, aren’t you?


Here are the questions and my responses:



(1) AJ from LA writes to ask about how he can practice more effectively with limited time.

Dear John,

I’m getting back into music after a layoff (family stuff – small child, work schedule, etc.) and am hoping for some advice on using my limited practice time efficiently. I like your articles from earlier in the year on modes (major and melodic minor) with the excercises you layed out, I have also been getting around the keyboard and trying to sing the scale as well as playing basic 3 or 4 note voicings along with it. This takes away time from the bass, but is this a good start? Secondly relates to building my tune knowledge. Within the Jazz world, I know transcription/learning by ear is the way its done . Problem is, this takes me a long time and I want to build up a solid repertoire of 30-40 jazz standards. So, in short, is it ok to use a reliable chart (sher, aebersold) as long as I continue to listen to historical recordings and focus on singing the melody? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks, AJ

My answer:

Hi AJ,

That sounds like a good approach. I always advise that we practice some “pure technique,” like scales, arpeggios and licks; then practice “technique applied to something musical” like playing arpeggios through the harmony to a song; then “pure music” where you forget about that and just play tunes or whatever your learning.

Since your time is limited, I would skip any transcription and just listen a lot in your free time — in the car, around the house — just make sure you’re listening to music.

Make a list and pick one or two small technical things to practice. You could possibly use things that you will apply to the songs you’re learning.

On your list, put three tunes that you want to learn, and play those tunes everyday.

Stick with the list for the 30 minutes or so that you set aside to practice, and do that every day for a week.

Then review the list, move on to a couple of different or related technical exercises, and switch some of the tunes you’re learning.

Example: You want to learn “In a Sentimental Mood” with the melody, bass line, solo, etc. Make your technical exercises relate to that tune. Practice D minor pentatonic and D Dorian scale. Practice Db Major scale (for the bridge) and the arpeggios in that scale. Do that for 15 minutes. Then work on the tune for 15 minutes. Do the same thing every day for a week. It’s important to practice something simple to (almost) perfection, rather than try and practice too many unrelated things.

Good luck with all of that!

All the best,


(2) Your Bass Player Magazine article on “Someday My Prince Will Come” confused me!

Jack wrote to me because I confused him with my article on SMPWC . . . sorry, Jack!

Mr. Goldsby ,

The version of Someday my prince will come  as proposed in your article (Bass player , August 2015) differs greatly from the bass line by Paul Chambers. I spent some time learning the one that you proposed only to have to re learn it entirely for a wedding reception .

Otherwise, your articles in bass players are awesome.

A fan.

I did my best to explain:

Hi Jack,

Thanks for checking in. The “Someday My Prince Will Come” etude was just that — an etude based on the harmony of the song. I used the original harmony to the song, which differ slightly from the “classic” version that Miles Davis played. In the last 8 bars of the original version, the changes once again repeat the BbMaj7 to D7#5 progression, moving to EbMaj7. Miles’s version inserts a ii-V: Fmin7 to Bb7 to EbMaj7 at that spot.

I also suggested in the article that you listen to several versions of the song: Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans, Norman Bates with Dave Brubeck, and—yes—Paul Chambers with Miles Davis. I gave the link to another blog site with the transcription of PC’s line, plus I gave links to videos of Chuck Israel and also Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen playing the song.


With all of those sources cited, I thought it was obvious that the article deals with a practice etude based on the harmony, not with any one particular historical version.

I hope you checked out several of the recordings and links, as well as working through the bass line and solo. Now that you’ve played the tune live, you probably have a good handle on how to lay down a solid bass line. I hope I helped a bit with that. You should be aware that certain players (your wedding bandleader/piano player, etc) will possibly use different changes. There’s no one “right’ way to play the tune, but there are several historical versions, which are touched on in the article, that dictate certain stylistic approaches.

Thanks for reading the column, and also for your feedback.

All the best,


(3) You say Conjunto, I say Conjunto . . .

I recently heard from Pedro with a question that I know absolutely nothing about. Let me know if I’m missing something here.

Dear John,

I am a bass player in a conjunto group here in Texas.  My teacher is a cat from the old school and is considered a conjunto music legend here in south Texas and knows his theory.  Recently, he showed me a song and he noticed I was not playing the right notes. The other instruments are playing major and minor but the bass is strictly major.  He kept repeating that I needed to play the first rotation of C and I didn’t understand.  So he stopped the band and said to play the first rotation of C and I did not know it.  He then told me that the first rotation of C is C then to D then to G then to E then to A then to D then finally resolving on G.  I later tried to find out what this rotation was by referring to the Circle Of Fifths but again I did not know how this “rotation” is formed.   If you can shed some light on this it would greatly be appreciated.  Thank you very much! Sincerely, Pedro

My reply to Pedro:

Hi Pedro,

Nice to hear from you. I’m really not experienced with conjunto music, so I can’t give you an informed answer about your teacher’s concept. If you say he’s an older cat, then he probably learned just by playing gigs, and he developed his own system of thinking about things—that’s a very valid way to make good music. Plus, your guy is a top player in the scene, so what he’s saying obviously carries a lot of weight. I’m not sure what he means by “rotation,” but it sounds like what I would call a “turnaround.” There’s a lot of info on turnarounds in different jazz books, and in my books.

Also check here:


and here:

Jazz Turnarounds

It seems like you understand the cycle of fifths, right. If not, look here:

Cycle of Fifths

and also download this booklet:

Jamey Aebersold Free Jazz Handbook (that’s free in the sense that it costs nothing, not that it deals with free jazz 🙂

All those links deal with jazz music, but of course you can apply the theory to any style. Good luck and let me know if you figure out what your teacher is saying in different words 😉



(4) Some keen readers have noticed that I announced the release of the six-volume Goldsby Bass Method in, ahem, 2014. Yes, my jazz bass method is still in the works!

The Goldsby Bass Method is being prepared as you read this. Although I love to write and teach, I am first and foremost a bass player, and I’ve been working like crazy, performing and recording. This is of course, a good thing. I’ve been writing and re-writing and preparing the new method for release, and I plan to have all six volumes out on the market in 2016. Mark my words, and stay tuned.


Steve Erquiaga, Ed Soph, John Goldsby – “Euzkadi” 1986

Kenny Werner, John Riley, John Goldsby

Kenny Werner, John Riley, John Goldsby – Sligo Jazz 2013

Questions, Answers, and more stuff you might not need to know.

I receive quite a few questions from bass players, fans, and “others” from around the globe. Here is a sampling of a some recent inquiries.

  1. Am I too old to learn the bass?

  2. How Do I Hold My Bow?

  3. Gig Inquiry Fail

  4. What The Sus?

1. From Vincent the bass player


Hi John, Just wanted to drop you a line to mention how much I am enjoying The Jazz Bass Book. Ive never seen so much useful info gathered in one book. I plan to order Bass Notes real soon. I am 59 years old and returning to the electric bass after about 10 years. Just about to start lessons with a upright /electric player in my area. Hope to make some significant strides in the future. Hope my age isn’t a deterrent. I signed up for your newsletter and just wanted to mention how great your book was and how much Iam enjoying it. Thanks John! 


Hi Vincent,

Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad you are enjoying the Jazz Bass Book! I’m sure your teacher will be able to guide you in the right direction.

Age is no problem when learning an instrument. The main goal would be to find some other people on your level who you could hook up with and play on a casual basis. Once you have some like-minded fellow players, then you can really start to focus on material.

Good luck and let me know how things work out.


2.  From Eric the bass player


Hi John,

I’ve always enjoyed your playing, and my question has to do with bowing. I think my hand in the bow is similar to yours, and it doesn’t seem to fall into any stereotypes. Do you use a particular bowing grip?


Hi Eric,

I use a version of the Ludwig Streicher grip, which I learned from Michael Moore. Streicher has a series of books on bass technique and there are some videos of him:

Ludwig Streicher

3. From Mr. XYZ, a trumpet player


Hello John Goldsby,

I’m a jazz trumpeter currently living in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve had the pleasure of working with such jazz greats as Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Mongo Santamaria, Houston Person, Lester Bowie and Steve Turre.

I just found out I’m going to be performing in Pittsburgh, PA. in September with a big band. I’m planning on staying in the state for at least a week afterward doing clinics, workshops and concerts. Do you think it might be possible for me to do a performance with you.  Since I’ll already be in your state there will be no need for you to cover my travel expenses. I’ll just need my hotel taken care of. With the economy the way it is I try to be as flexible with my fee as possible.

I put my website link below for you to visit if you’re not familiar with my work.

Let me know what you think.

Talk with you soon.



Dear Mr. XYZ,

Thanks for getting in touch. I guess you used the email contact form on my website. You might have also noticed from the info on my website that I live in Germany, not Pennsylvania.

Anyway, good luck with your tour.


4. From Gary the bass player


Hi John, I’ve written before.  I have a question about the notes in a F7 sus7. What notes can I use? What’s the sus part? You mentioned the D & G in one of your articles. Are those notes past of a scale? I wouldn’t have associated those 2 notes with a sus7 chord. 


Hi Gary,

Here it is in a nutshell:

There are different ways to think of a sus7 chord. Yes, the scale that fits to that sound is also just like the F7 scale:

F G A Bb C D Eb F

but the voicing on the piano is more like this:


or this

Eb triad / F

If you play those chords on the piano, or just run the arpeggios on the bass, you have these notes (from low to high)

F, C, Eb, G, Bb

That sounds like a sus7 chord, because it’s different than the F7 because of the note Bb. An F7 chord would have the note A (the 3rd) and the Fsus7 has the note Bb (the 4th, or sus 4 as it’s called).

Usually for bass lines on a sus chord, you can play anything that does not emphasize the 3rd. For example, a couple of tunes that uses the sus7 sound are “Passion Dance” by McCoy Tyner and  “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock.

If you play a solo, you can use all of the notes of the F7 (Mixolydian) scale:

F G A Bb C D Eb F

or you can combine triads to make the sus sound, like an Eb triad and an F traid:

F A C, Eb G Bb, A C F, G Bb Eb, C F A, Bb Eb, G etc

or you can think of the Cmin7 over the F root and play a C min dorian scale:

C D Eb F G A Bb C / over the F in the bass.

I hope that clears it up for you. Let me know if it was a specific article you were talking about.



John Goldsby Interview

From the nice folks at



John Goldsby – Peter Leitch Duo: ‘Solar’ (1992)

Here’s a ‘new’ old video for you. Peter Leitch and I played at William Peterson College back in 1992 for their Jazz Room concert series. I just ran across this cut, our version of “Solar.”



Let It Snow!

Here’s some more holiday cheer from four members of the WDR Big Band, Koeln.

  • Ludwig Nuss – trombone
  • Karolina Strassmayer – alto saxophone
  • Hans Dekker – drums
  • John Goldsby – bass

“Let It Snow” (Sammy Cahn & Julie Styne, arrangement John Goldsby)
ARD Morgen Magazin, Dec. 17 2013

O Tannenbaum

Here’s a little holiday cheer from four members of the WDR Big Band, Koeln.

  • Ludwig Nuss – trombone
  • Karolina Strassmayer – alto saxophone
  • Hans Dekker – drums
  • John Goldsby – bass

“O Tannenbaum” (Traditional / arrangement John Goldsby)
ARD Morgen Magazin, Dec. 17 2013




But Is It Music?

Chord/Scale Theory

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music!

I recently got an email from Hector in Florida asking for my thoughts on chord/scale theory and whether it’s okay to play notes outside the generally accepted chord/scale sounds. Hector boiled several far-reaching questions down to this one, simple question:

“Is it ok to play any note against any chord (without restricting your notes to those from a particular scale), as long as you’re aware of the chord tones, especially in jazz and improvisational music?”

My short answer to Hector is:

Yes, if you have trained your ears and fingers, and use your musical instincts, you can play any note on any chord, as long as you resolve the note in a way that makes sense and sounds good. You can play an Db on a CMaj7, but it’s going to pull towards the 9th (D) or the root (_DSC6254_WebC). You can play a B on a C7, but it needs to resolve to the root C, or down to the b7 Bb. If you don’t resolve the notes, there probably remains some tension in the line that sounds either unfinished, or in the worst case, like a mistake.

The notes of the chord are what are important. Scales are just a linear description of the notes of the chord:
Dmin11 = D F A C D E G
D Dorian scale = D E F G A B C

Those are 7 seven notes in the Dmin11 chord, and those notes laid out horizontally make up the D dorian scale.

There are 5 notes that are not in the scale. You could also use those notes chromatically, as passing tones, or as part of a melodic phrase that goes outside of the basic chord sound. If you play a note outside, the ear wants to hear the sound go back inside.

Sounds Good, So Far  . . .     

In traditional swing and bebop bass playing, outlining the root movement is most important. A common method that I use to describe the spontaneous creation of walking bass lines in 4/4 time to beginning bassists is: root, something, something, leading-tone, root. The two “something” notes on beats two and three can only be chord tones, scale tones, or chromatic passing tones. That’s all there is . . . simple!
But many of the great players were doing something else: They were only using their ears and their available technique . . . also simple! When I listen to great musicians playing jazz, I often hear the likes of Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath and thousands of others deviate from the root-something-something-leading-tone formula. When they are playing well, they are creating spontaneous counterpoint by using their ears, available technique, and musical instincts.

Percy Heath Talking About The Role Of The Bass

Most of those players—like Percy Heath—obviously knew the progression Dmin7, G7, CMaj7, but they did not think of that as a ii-V-I that can be described with D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian scales. They knew the C Major scale, and were most likely aware of the modes of C Major. In their performances however, they were outlining harmony by using counterpoint in their bass lines, and an ear for tension and release in their solo lines. They simply used their ears and played within the limits of their bass technique.

My point here is that the currently prevalent chord/scale methodology is not wrong, but it is not the only way that players think of chord tones, scale tones, and tones that are outside of the scale and chord. Indeed, many of the master swing, bebop, post-bop, R & B, pop, rock, funk players never think about, or thought about chord/scale theory. As the seminal New Orleans bassist Pops Foster says in his autobiography, “I just play any old go-to-hell note, as long as it swings !”

Hector’s long question requires more in-depth response. Here’s what he asked in full:

Hi John,
I recently had a “mind blown” moment. I’ve been playing bass for 21 years. I’ve practiced scales and arpeggios for a long time. I could basically spell out (in bass clef standard notation) and play for you any chord and most of the common scales and modes.

I had read an interview in Bass Player magazine many years ago with bassist Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. In it, he said the following:

“What I learned in music school was that in modern music, you can play any note against any chord and make it mean something. If you don’t know how you’re using it, or where it resolves, you’re an idiot-you shouldn’t be in music. I learned a couple of simple laws, and I utilized them.”

Then, I opened my copy of Aebersold’s How To Play Jazz and Improvise and looked at the scale syllabus. He lays out every common type of chord, and then the scales you can use with each in order of preference. If you look closely, you’ll realize that, when you combine all the notes from all the scales that you can play with, say, a Maj. 7 chord, all 12 tones are represented in one way or another.

So, my question is this: How right is Scott Thunes? Is there really an issue if I play a Db against a Cmaj7 chord while every other tone I play is from the C major scale? How about if I just add a flatted 6th? I don’t think there’s a scale that goes C-Db-E-F-G-A-B,  is there? But the point is, I think it wouldn’t matter.

Scott Thunes playing with Frank Zappa in 1988

My Long Answer

Hector, it depends on so many factors.
In the Jamey Aebersold scale syllabus, he concisely describes all of the basic types of chords, and spells the scales that are usually played over each chord. Aebersold’s theory and methods are correct — but after you master the scales and chords, then your ear should be your guide. Ultimately, your ear is what determines the notes that sound good to you, and your choices and instincts determine and support your unique musical personality.

Scott Thunes is a brilliant bass player who played highly complex, thoroughly orchestrated, sometimes-written, sometimes-improvised music with Frank Zappa. When I hear Thunes play, he is precisely outlining harmony and rhythm and serving the music. His comment that any note can fit any chord is indicative of a master player who does not feel constrained by any particular theoretical concepts—he’s got tons of chops, but he is using his great ears and musical instincts.

What’s the style of music? If everyone is playing freely and reacting to a certain rhythmic and harmonic structure, then anything goes. There are no set formulas. On the other hand, if we are playing Zappa’s “Black Page,” then we really have to play it precisely—there’s no room to play notes that are not the composer’s intent.

If we play a jazz gig in the style of ‘50s bebop, then there are certain unspoken agreements that the players abide by: The bassist outlines the root movement; the pianist plays the chords with proper voice leading, the soloist outlines the chords  (usually emphasizing chord tones on beats 1 and 3), and the drummer plays a repetitive swing ride pattern with the hi-hat one 2 and 4, and comps on the snare and bass drum. That still does not mean that the bassist is only playing the theoretically correct notes in the bass line—he or she should be listening to determine the best sounding counterpoint line to support the ensemble and play the song.

For example, in Israel Crosby’s classic bass line “But Not For Me,” there are plenty of non-chord and non-scale tones.

Israel Crosby With Ahmad Jamal, 1958

Hector Continues:

Here’s how I’m conceptualizing it. As long as I know what the chord tones are (so that I emphasize them in important moments), I could really play ANY note against any chord.

My response:

Yes! This is jazz and improvised music at it’s finest. Know the harmony, melody, rhythmic feeling—and then let yourself be free within the music. This might not work with a pop or rock band, where the role of the bass is more constrained.

Hector’s Conclusion:

I’m not saying I’m going to stop practicing scales. As the saying goes, “you gotta know the rules before you break them.” But, I’ve practiced the “correct” theory for far too long. I think it’s time to loosen up a bit. I don’t REALLY have to be thinking “I’m gonna play a diminished scale fragment for a few moments against this Maj7 chord.” I could just go with my ear, and, as Scott said, know where you’re headed in the form, what the next chord is and how to resolve from one to the next.  and you should be ok.

As bass players, we have to contend with our function as well. So, I figure that when it comes to building bass lines for most genres, this concept would not necessarily be applicable. But, in jazz, I believe it can work both during solos and walking bass lines. Again, you’d have chord tones on the important beats. Other than that, just go with the flow and your ears without worrying with stuff such as “Oh, this is a min. 7 chord, I gotta play Dorian now.”

My conclusion:

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music.

Right—don’t stop practicing scales! Scales are building blocks of technique, and we need technique to express ourselves. There are reasons why certain theoretical practices have become hard, fast rules: they describe things that sound good in particular situations. Scales (and arpeggios) are the musician’s bread and butter. The better one can play scales, the more fluency he or she has on the instrument. As I wrote in my first book, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist, “Great musicians are in control of their technique. If a great musician does not possess extraordinary technique, the musician still keeps his or her performance within the boundaries of available technique. If a musician knows the limits of his or her technique, great music is possible.”

A musician practicing scales is like a basketball player doing wind sprints, stretches, drills and lifting weights. The exercises are not the game, but they provide the technique and facility to play the game well. Scales in themselves are not music, but they provide the framework that connects our instrumental ability to our musical intuition.

The value in studying theory books and methods, is that we can look inside the mind of a particular author/improviser. Many great musicians have written practical books about jazz theory and how they apply their theoretical technique to achieve musical results. Recently I had the pleasure of working with saxophonist Gary Campbell, who has written several books that have influenced my thinking and playing very much: Connecting Jazz Theory, Expansions, and Triad Pairs for Jazz.

One of the first and finest scale compendiums was written by pianist Dan Haerle, Scales for Jazz Improvisation. Haerle’s book shows you many of the typical scales that are used by jazz, rock and pop players—it’s a thorough compendium which I often used when I first learned to play. And the best bargain on the market is Jamey Aebersold’s Free Jazz Handbook (that’s “Free” in that it costs nothing).

So, practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but scales and chord/scale theory do not by themselves magically yield great music. I think the following video from a true jazz master sums up how great players really learn to play.

A Master Speaks: Jimmy Raney On Chords and Scales

The legendary Jimmy Raney was one of the greatest bebop guitarists, alongside Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Smith, and Jim Hall. In this brief workshop video, he talks about using scales and chords and how he learned them. “We didn’t have it worked out like Jamey (Aebersold) and all those guys do now,” recalled Raney. “I of course learned scales, because the classical teachers they assume that you are going to play classical … scales are very helpful. I think I just did it on my own more. I knew chords. I just picked up what I call grips.”

Talking about the value of only relying on theoretical knowledge, Raney says “To be very honest with you—playing scales or modes, or seventh chords—in the last analysis, it’s here — your ear guides you or fails to guide you. As E.B. White says about prose—all the rules of grammar and syntax ain’t gonna’ help if you don’t hear it. It’s good to know all that stuff, but it’s not going to make you play. Don’t think it will.”

Jimmy Raney On Using Chord/Scale Theory

Jimmy Raney Playing ‘Out Of Nowhere’

Whaddya’ Know? Learning Jazz and Standard Repertoire

I recently got a dub from a cassette recording of a gig I played in 1979. I was young, in over my head, and playing with Buddy DeFranco and Jimmy Raney, a couple of true jazz masters, plus the swinging Louisville drummer Darryl Cotten. DeFranco and Raney were featured for a week at Stanley J’s, a club in Louisville, where Darryl and I had the steady gig as house rhythm section.

When I listen back on my performance from 33 years ago, I sound like myself—just very unsophisticated. Here we play the Gershwin standard, “But Not For Me.” I learned tunes like this by listening to recordings, playing them at gigs and jam sessions (usually with no chart), using Jamey Aebersold’s playalongs, and sometimes referring to fake book versions of the song. There are various ways to approach the chord changes of “But Not For Me,” and in this version we start on the dominant II chord.


One of the recurring themes I encounter when I teach jazz is repertoire—which standard songs should players know? Is there a canon of must-know jazz tunes, and does an improvising musician need to have a large command of American-style jazz repertoire to effectively offer something new on the modern improvised music scene?

In contrast to learning tunes from records or other musicians, I’ve noticed another trend lately: I’ve experienced both student and professional players using iPhones or iPads to read tunes in lessons and even on gigs. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, especially in a lesson—but it’s different than the way I learned to play standards. Using an iPad as a folio to carry original tunes to a gig is a huge convenience, but it becomes a crutch if a player calls up every standard on the gadget just because he can’t remember “where the bridge goes.” I would contend that if a player is reading a tune chorus after chorus, he’s not learning the tune, rather just playing with the eyes and reading the chart—over and over.

It’s less work to pull out an iPad or phone and play a tune from the PDF fake book. But this means that the player is playing visually, and not using their ears as much as they could. Musicians should be learning tunes from recordings (as in, just put on the recording and learn to play along with it), but most of the time due to convenience, rehearsal time constraints, laziness, or fear of making a mistake, many musicians seem to prefer just reading a chart. Another issue for consideration is that some electronic fake books are legal (iReal Book), some are in a legal gray zone (a PDF copy of an illegal fake book) and some are downright illegal (PDF collections of Sher, Aebersold, Hal Leonard, etc. that you didn’t purchase). But this post is about repertoire rather than law.

The Big Problems
Most jazz students I’ve encountered recently have thousands of songs stored on their phones, iPads or computers. But they only really know a handful of songs.

There are fewer chances now to learn standards on the bandstand compared to a few decades ago, and most tune-learning today is done through fake books (not through recordings or through live playing experience). Many young jazz students see standards in a historical perspective—the compositions exist mainly as versions on old recordings, or as versions in fake books. Many non-American jazz players see the canon of material that was recorded from the 1920’s to the ’60s as distinctly American, and dated from the start.

Many young jazz players are encouraged to write their own compositions long before they have a handle on how to improvise on classic standards. Being an improviser is hard; being a great songwriter is also hard. Not many players do both well. A lot of players do themselves a disservice because they always choose original compositions over some classic standard compositions that might be better vehicles for their improvisational voice.

Books About Songs

I’ve recently read two books that deal with jazz repertoire: The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia, and The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians by Barry Kernfeld. These books have also made me think about the state of jazz and whether young improvisers absolutely need to know standards to the extent that older generations knew them.

In The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, Gioia convincingly makes his case for just over 250 jazz standards and why he thinks they belong on top of his list. He cites over two thousand recorded examples of the tunes to point out that these are truly among the most important. The Jazz Standards highlights a lot of essential songs that a jazz player should know inside and out, but by its nature the book also highlights many great standards by omission. Gioia is a thoughtful writer and he makes a good case for the inclusion of each of his selections.


The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians looks at the history of selling sheet music and fake books to musicians. Barry Kernfeld tells the whole history, from the Tune-Dex sheet music subscription service to the development of legal and illegal fakebooks. Pat Metheny and Steve Swallow weigh in on the development of the Real Book at Berklee in the ’70s. There are a couple of surprising points about the marketing of song sheets and the distribution of legal and illegal fake books, but I’ll let you read about those for yourself.

Lists Of Songs

When I did a workshop recently for the Monk Institute, I saw their list of 100 “must-know” jazz standards, which is available for download on their resource site here (bottom of page). This is a thorough list of basic should-know standards, compiled by Dr. J.B. Dyas at the Monk Institute.

Jamey Aebersold’s list of all the tunes on his playalongs is worth checking out. Not every tune can be considered a standard, but almost all of his playalong songs are good vehicles for improvisation. Download Jamey’s list here. has nice lists of songs in their own “most popular” ranking system, along with analysis plus recommendations for definitive recordings.

No discussion of fake books or tune lists would be complete without mentioning the valuable work and products that Chuck Sher has delivered over the years. I’ve especially enjoyed The European Real Book, which highlights hundreds of beautiful, contemporary jazz compositions from the pens of European composers. These tunes cover styles from very modern to completely straight-ahead.

How I Teach

I teach on the premise that I play in the tradition of American-style jazz, where there is a standard repertoire and everyone knows most of those tunes. That’s because I learned to play those tunes by playing them with other people, from recordings and also from fake books. Although I’ve named several fake books here, I still think the best way to thoroughly learn a song is by hearing it, and playing it over and over.

“Teach what you know” is a valuable tidbit of advice that I received from a jazz teacher when I first started teaching jazz in about 1980. At that time, I was worried that I didn’t have the goods to talk about and demonstrate good jazz techniques and practices. I could do a few things: I had a good sound on the bass, good time, a pretty good beat, and I understood the importance of learning tunes by ear and committing them to memory. I could remember standards because I listened to them on records a lot, and I played them every day at jam sessions and on gigs.

When I first started teaching, that’s what I tried to teach: good sound, good time, and playing jazz standards—the repertoire. Although I’m a much better teacher now, I still encourage my students to work on the exact same things: sound, time, and repertoire.

How I Learned Lots Of Tunes

When I began learning to play jazz, I also had the good fortune of steadily working five or six nights a week playing jazz standards in clubs. As I remember, almost no musician at that time was using a fake book on the bandstand.

In 1977, I got a call to work a steady trio gig five nights a week at the Jefferson Club, on top of the Citizens Fidelity building. It was a private club, visited by business people. I’m not going to mention the piano player’s name because I think he was either on the lam, or in the witness protection program. The gig paid union scale, which at the time was $6.20 per hour, 4 hours a night, 5 nights a week—good money at the time for an 18 year-old bass player who only knew a few tunes, but who claimed to be able to fake his way through anything.

That trio gig led to other, better gigs in hotels and jazz clubs. In ’79, I was working in the house rhythm section of a Louisville jazz club called Stanley J’s, along with pianist David Leonhardt and Daryl Cotten. We backed up all kinds of famous and not-so-famous jazz players who would join us for a one-week or two-week engagement. I was thrilled, but also scared to death because every week, a new guest soloist was coming with their own list of favorite tunes—Johnny Hartman, Jimmy Raney, Helen Humes. I remember learning “Airmail Special” with Barney Kessel showing me the bass line. When I couldn’t quite figure out “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” Buddy Tate honked out the roots through the whole tune until I got it. I was learning on the spot with the pressure of having to “do it right” at least the second pass through the tune, if not the first.

If I didn’t know a tune that was called, I would generally just say I knew it, ask what key it was in, and then listen like a maniac to the other players to hear the harmonic movement, melody and form. Since this was the way that I liked to learn tunes (put on a record and play along with it), I could get pretty far playing standard repertoire—even if I was learning the tune under pressure on the spot.

This is a fine way to learn standards. Of course, for more complicated songs—Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett—it’s practical to read a chart (at least for a few choruses) if there’s no chance to learn the song by ear.

Towards A Better Grasp Of Jazz Standards

Improvising musicians need to have a repertoire of standards that they understand deeply. The typical list of tunes—at least in an American college jazz program—would look like the Monk Institute’s list. The list of Aebersold play-along tunes is much more expansive, but it’s also a mainstream list.

A list of standards could also come from a different place than the Great American Songbook—like Chuck Sher’s European Real Book—but it would have to be a list of tunes that are often played and that the musician has worked on alone and in groups for years. I run into lots of  ‘modern’ players who don’t want to learn old American-style standards.

Musicians who only play their original music have double duty—they have to be composers and improvisers at the same time. Lots of modern players are taking this approach—composing their own material and playing that with their close-knit inner circle of like-minded colleagues. Some players do actually reach a high level on both counts—artful composing and incredible improvising. At best, they figure out a way to compose a framework where they and their band mates can shine through on the improvisational level.

I maintain that every improvising player needs to have a cache of musical material that they and their musical colleagues can play on the spot with no written music. In my opinion, that does not mean they have to play Jerome Kern, Charlie Parker, or Thelonius Monk. But when I play with a player, I can almost immediately tell if we share the same listening history and knowledge of standards. If a student tells me that their standard repertoire ranges from Kenny Wheeler to Dave Holland to Vijay Iyer to Coldplay to their own compositions, that’s cool with me. But they must have a repertoire under their fingers and in their ears to be able to effectively function as improvisers. They have to intimately know a large body of song-form material in order to freely improvise. Always reading everything does not encourage musicality and spontaneity.

During another college workshop recently, some of the students were supposed to play for me. Since they couldn’t decide on a tune, they all pulled out their iPhones and played “There Will Never Be Another You” (all of them except the horn player who was playing the melody, and the drummer). After letting them read from their phones for two choruses, I went over and took the phones away in the middle of the tune. At that moment, they started listening to each other—for the first time in that performance.

There are lists everywhere that suggest a canon of jazz standards that every player should know. My conclusion is that yes, a jazz musician must have a repertoire and repository of hundreds—or thousands—of tunes that are played over the course of weeks, months and years.

What do you say?

What are the most effective ways for musicians to learn tunes? Of the thousands that are considered standards, which tunes should be on the list? Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about iPads with gigabytes of fake books, the ultimate jazz standards list, or the best way to help students learn tunes.