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.

Jazzstandards.com 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.



  1. Blake Still says

    I think a big problem with younger generations is they have a “fast food” attitude where they want something as quickly as possible, and don’t want to invest time into learning the slow way that will actually get them learning tunes faster in the long run. What do you advise someone do to keep learning tunes when you can’t find people who consistently want to play and just have fun and learn together?

    • Thanks for your comment, Blake. There is so much advice about learning tunes now, and so many resources, that I think younger players are overwhelmed by the convenience of everything. There is not often the desire to learn tunes deeply, if everything is easy to call up on a phone or iPad.

      I advise players to play along with “real” records, that is, put on a recording by Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Wynton Kelly, whoever — and just play along with that recording. it’s great ear training, you learn the tunes if you do that for a few days in a row, you cop the rhythmic feeling and attitude of the musicians. It’s a great way to learn tunes and remember repertoire. It might help to have some version of a lead sheet when doing this, but I also like to just put on a recording and jump in without knowing the tune at all — eventually I know which key they are in, where the bridge goes, etc. This compares to the way I learned to play, which was often having to hear tunes on the bandstand or at jam sessions. I did learn tunes on my own, but I also trained my ears to be able to hear changes “on the fly.” If the student “likes” jazz, and I assume they must, then learning tunes this way should be a no-brainer. It’s fun!!!

      It’s hard to remember tunes if you don’t play them often, but if you know a handful of tunes in several styles, then people will want to play with you.

  2. Conor Murray says

    What tips would you have for learning chord progressions though?
    Is there any specific way you figure them out?
    Right now im learning tunes out of a fake book(the real real book) But still learning solos by ear.(I plan to run the tunes through all twelve keys, Its gonna be hell with Anthropology though 😉
    The trouble is that I don’t have the same gig oppurtunities John So there’s no real experience on the bandstand for me. ]=

    • Hi Conor, I also learned tunes from fake books and (a lot) from playalongs. There are three parts to learning to play something by memory: analytical (knowing what the chords and/or melody are—i.e. so you could actually write the changes out without looking); aural (hearing in your head how the harmony and/or melody should sound); and physical (moving your hands to make the right sounds), You have to train all three of those areas to master a chord progression.

      When I get a new chart, I first look through it without playing and analyze the form and look for key centers and harmonic movement. I might see that the changes have certain sections with functions (V to I, or ii-V-I, or iii-iv-ii-V-I) and I think about those functional chord movements. If the tune is modal or more modern, i think of chord types and intervallic movement: i.e. ‘Maiden Voyage’ is an AABA form in 4-bar sections. It starts with 4 bars of a Dsus chord, and then moves up a minor third to Fsus. The bridge moves down a whole step to Ebsus, and then down another whole step to Dbmin7. Then there is a repeat of the 1st A section. That’s an easy tune to remember, but I use the same, intervallic method on more intricate modal tunes also.

      Regarding learning ‘Anthropology,’ that is the same harmonic structure as ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes. I would also recommend just learning ‘I Got Rhythm’ (chords and melody) before you tackle ‘Anthropology.’ I recommend that students work a lot on playing Blues changes and I Got Rhythm changes in all twelve keys. I wouldn’t worry so much about learning the melody to Anthropology — you can, but it will just be a heavy technical project. it would be better to hear/sing/play ‘I Got Rhythm’ in all twelve keys.

      I generally recommend learning the ‘source’ tunes for the famous bebop melodies first: How High the Moon (Ornithology), Back Home Again In Indiana (Donna Lee), What Is This Thing Called Love (Hot House), etc.

      So, when you are learning new tunes from a fake book or playalong, use these steps:
      1. Look at the changes and analyze the function of the chords. Look for keys, key centers, functional harmony (ii-V-I, etc) and modal type sections (where there are chords that do not serve a function—they are just a voicing that you can play an arpeggio and scale over).
      2. Play the roots through the tune over and over. Then slowly outline the chords using arpeggios and scales through the changes. Notice spots that go outside of the predictable types of chord movements. These are easy to remember because they are so different.
      3. Sing the root movement through the changes.
      4. If the melody is relatively easy, play the melody.
      5. Trade with yourself: four bars of walking, four bars of melody. Or: four bars of soloing, four bars of melody.
      6. Play the song in (a) ballad tempo, (b) medium tempo, (c) fast tempo. In the ballad, maybe play the melody with the bow. Medium tempo, play melody, walk, solo through the changes. Fast tempo: just walk through the changes.
      7. Learn ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes and blues changes in all 12 keys. You might want to eventually tackle other tunes in several keys, but that is an advanced step. Learn the tune really well in one key first!
      8. When you are learning a new tune, put the chart away after awhile. You might find that you know the whole tune, except for one or two spots. Go back and look at those two spots in the harmony—and then put the chart away again!

      I hope these ideas help. You sounded really good in Sligo at the SJP, Conor!

  3. Sebastian Netta says

    I agree totally with playing together using your ears. After 45 Years of playing drums in various Jazzsettings I started learning the bass. This is a major step in my life. Not that I have not learned my music and also I have quite well trained ears. I compose and I sing and play other instruments. But learning the bass is different. To support a player or even to understand a tune is a whole new experience. I am so glad to benefit from my musical career in all those years. I know where i am in a tune, but still I have no clue about playing the bass in right way. I hav to start like a young student, and that is the best part about it. Life is great, when you are able to learn. I will use my ears and my heart as you mentioned it, but I use my Ipad eagerly. it is very useful. Still I hear what I play, and what is played. It is a whole new way of learning. New things are happening. The ipad is a strating point, It is very different from the way i learned playing the drumes. I didn’t have Youtube or any videos ( otherwise I would not have spent 40 Trizzolion hours of practicing “50 Ways to leave your lover” thr wrong way. Steve Gadd plays it with the left hand on the hihat. I discovered that in the late 80ties, when I watched a Concert. ) I use all the input options of the ipad and try to learn as much as I can. I took lessons from guys all over the planet by skype. This is fantastic. Still, you are right John, making Muisc is not reading the black dots. But I am afraid this is a very old “problem”. There will always be a difference … and I don’t find it very disturbing. Just interessting to watch an listen. I prefer the earplayer, with a vast background.
    All the best from my vacation place in Austria. Yours Sebastian Netta

    • Hi Sebastian, Nice thoughts — that’s great that you are playing bass. Of course, you have thousands of tunes in your head. Reading those tunes from a chart is just confirming what I think you are hearing. As a musician of your caliber, I know it’s only a matter of time before your fingers just go automatically to the right notes, that is, to the notes that you hear.

      • I hope so. it is fun to play with loops and sounds on that ipad thing. It is fun to take it anywhere and fumble around. I got an old beatls bass from my father that I took with me to Austria. Now i experiment with teh ipad and star hearing and reading those standards basslines. I recomend the ” incredible slowdowner” and listen to Israel Crosbys lines on …now any tune he recorded. I am amazed, even after listening to it for all my life. When I get home I will translate to the double bass what I found on that little violine bass thingy. The ipad is very helpful, but I think if I had started as a young man with this thing it would have altered my perception of music. In those times i had to use a cassette recorder or a walkman to get the ideas and lines. The time is changing and that what and how we learned is changing too. Our kids will learn in a differnt manner, and so will the music change. To my opinion it sounds poorer, less rich in harmony, but that in mind I understand, why my music is not beeing heard by those young people anymore. There is too much going on hamonically. what do you think?

        • With a lot of contemporary music, I think the harmony and rhythm are disguised to the point that the average listener can’t follow what musicians are trying to “say” with their music. The great thing about a player like Israel Crosby is that when he played a line on a standard, he approached it as counterpoint — not just thumping out roots on every downbeat. Have fun with the Höfner bass — it that’s an original (a 500/1 model) then it’s a real collectors item 🙂

  4. Sebastian Netta says

    The Ipad is great beacaus you don’t have to shlepp those tonns of paper around! 😉