Jazz Standards You Should Learn Part 1

Have you ever wondered what the first jazz tunes you should learn are?

If so, I’d like to help you get started.

There are so many fantastic jazz tunes in the Great American Songbook that it can feel overwhelming when trying to find a place to start.

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of wonderful standards to choose from.  We can’t learn all of them right away though so we have to start somewhere.

In this post we are going to discuss 5 jazz tunes to know that will give you a great start in building your jazz repertoire.  Once you master these be sure to all check out these 9 must know jazz standards.

Jazz not Classical

jazz standards to learnIn classical music you learn music almost exclusively by reading the exact written notation of a piece on a score.  

Unlike classical music though much of the way we learn jazz tunes will be based off listening to “reference” recordings of the tune.

With the recordings we will be either learning the tune completely by ear or using a fakebook in conjunction.

(You don’t want to waste your money on garbage fakebooks so be sure to also read this article on finding the best fake books for sale.)

It is VERY important to listen to great reference recordings with your fake books.  This step should not be skipped. 

Jazz is an aural artform and the best way to learn is to listen.  I’m not saying don’t ever use a fakebook.  Rather, what I’m saying is make sure the recording or a video is your main source of learning. Usually a fake book is more of a supplementary guide.

Finding Great Recordings of Jazz Tunes

So, how do we find the right recordings of jazz tunes to learn from?

Lets lay down a couple of “ground rules”.  When I’m researching to find a good recording of a tune I general start with these 4 things in mind.

Rule #1

If I’m learning a song from the Great American Songbook I start by trying to find a good vocal recording of the tune.

Listening to it over and over will help me phrase the tune properly and eventually help me put some style into my interpretation.

Learning from a fakebook is often times easier initially but can create sort of “square” phrasing and a pretty vanilla interpretation of the tune.

jazz songs to knowSo, what singers should you listen to?  I like to start with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, or Johnny Hartman.  

They sing the melody fairly straight ahead but usually are using swing rhythms.  This is especially true with Frank.

I’m a HUGE fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and Sarah Vaughn but often times they will play with the melody of the tune.  

So, I love listening to recordings of them but not as my first “reference” recording.  I will usually turn to them a little later in the process.

Rule #2

Once I’ve found a vocal recording I like then I’ll try to check out some of my favorite instrumentalists interpreting the tune.

This gives me tons of ideas and hopefully some material in which to develop my own version.

Rule #3

If the tune is a jazz composition (meaning that it was written by a jazz composer and technically not part of the American Songbook) I will listen to the original recording of the tune.

For example, if I’m trying to learn Blue Bossa I will refer to the first time the tune was recorded. In this case it was introduced on Joe Henderson’s album Page One.

Jazz Tunes To Know

Now that we have discussed how you should be learning the tunes lets move on to the actual tunes you should be learning.

I will briefly discuss why and give you some great reference recordings.

Satin Doll 

This one is an Ellington classic and is requested all the time.  The whole tune is II-V’s or II-V-I’s.  You will learn a ton about what to play over II-V-I’s on this one.  

It’s also usually played at a fairly relaxed tempo.  So, it’s a great starter tune.

I transcribed a Wes Montgomery solo on this tune a number of years ago that really helped my overall jazz playing.  You can check out the Wes Montgomery Satin Doll transcription here.  

Or you can even take a free jazz piano lesson on how to play Satin Doll.

Here’s a great version of Oscar Peterson playing it as well. 

Autumn Leaves

This is one of the first tunes I ever learned.  It features both major II-V-I’s and minor II-V-I’s.  In addition, most of the tune features diatonic chords progressing in 4ths.  

This chord progression is extremely common throughout jazz standards.  It’s also a tune that “non jazz fans” usually recognize.

Here’s a swingin’ version of Chet Baker doing it. (Want to learn how to play Autumn Leaves like the pros do?

There are over 2 hours of in depth tutorials on it inside the Premium Jazz Lessons Membership Course.)

Blue Bossa

 Not all jazz music swings.  A lot of times you’ll hear tunes played with a straight eighth note feel and more latin rhythms being used.  

Blues Bossa is an example of this. In addition, it also features diatonic chords progressing in 4ths similar to Autumn Leaves.

Here’s the original recording of the Kenny Dorham tune on a Joe Henderson album.

Blue Bossa is another tune that is explored inside the Premium Jazz Lessons Membership Course as well.

We explore tons of pro piano voicings you can use, 3 different pro piano arrangements of the tune, and much more.

If you want to start making a big impact on your jazz piano playing right away then Premium Membership will be an essential tool for you to that.

Girl From Ipanema

This is one of the most popular jazz standards of all time.  It’s another bossa nova based tune with some beautiful harmonies in there.

Here’s is a good reference version of the tune played and sung by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz.

I also love Oscar Peterson’s version of Girl From Ipanema

Green Dolphin Street 

This tunes features all kind of cool stuff.  

  • Feel changes (latin to swing)
  • An ABAC form
  • Playing modally over various chords in the A section.
  • The B section has some long form II-V-I’s.  
  • The C section has some several short form II-V-I’s.  
  • Also, it has a catchy melody too :)  
  • Most importantly, it’s called at jam sessions very often.  

If you would like more ideas on how to solo on the tune check out this transcription of Barry Harris solo on Green Dolphin Street.

Here’s a great Miles Davis recording of it.  Awesome solos on this one and I love Bill Evans intro.

More Jazz Tunes To Learn

In the next post we will discuss 9 more essential jazz tunes you will want and need to know. Please make sure you bookmark or subscribe to the site as I promise you won’t want to miss the next one. Cheers until then and keep practicing!

Update: You can find the lesson right here 9 must know jazz standards

What tunes do you love to play?

 If you enjoyed reading this post please leave a comment below.

Steve Nixon is the proud owner of Freejazzlessons.com. He is a world touring jazz and blues keyboard player and educator.

Steve is the author of Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership (A comprehensive all-in-one online jazz piano course.)

He is also the author of the The Jazz Masters Method DVD (A study of 9 legendary jazz piano players).

If you are a blues piano fan you can also check out his popular Learn Blues Piano DVD Course.

His brand new course \”The Christmas Jazz Piano Super System\” will be released on Monday November 3rd, 2014.


  • moody

     Hi Steve! Thanks again for what you are doing here it’s very helpful!
    Can you advise me some exercise which can help to improve my skills of transcribing? For me is very hard to “get” tune by listening and I’m struggling to change that.
    Thank you!

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Hey Moody,
        I wrote an article about a program that will help you transcribe.  http://www.freejazzlessons.com/jazz-transcription/ This will definitely help. 

      • moody

         Thanks! That works great!!!

  • Paul

    AWESOME SITE STEVE!
    GREAT TEACHING…….

    Paul
    south jersey
    USA
     

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Thanks Paul!

  • Oscar

    Love and admire your site and what you are doing here, Steve. “All my loving” from Spain.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Very nice of you to say Oscar and so happy you’re enjoying the material.

  • Zlatko70

    Thank you , great site ! Giant steps by Coltrane is my favourite song and Four brothers by Anita O’Day … Keep teaching !

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Thanks Zlatko! Always nice to hear what tunes people love.

      *
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  • lilleytwo

    I love this site. Thank you! I am getting so much understanding. Now I can really appreciate these great artist. You have given so much in these lessons and I will always be thankful for finding you.

  • EDMOND

    Thanks Steve, actually I don’t know how describe my feeling it’s like you’ve opened A treasure box for me, I don’t know , I just want to take every thing for me . YOU ARE GREAT

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      You’re welcome Edmond!

  • Brian

    “On the Street Where You Live” is a favorite and it would be a good topic for you Steve since it has so many concepts you teach. I also keep coming back to Becker and Fagen (loved your Steely Dan lesson), “Sugar” by Stanley Turrentine and “Road Song” by Wes Montgomery. I plan to study “Maiden Voyage” using your Herbie Hancock lesson. Thanks for the enthusiasm you display which is always welcome. Also appreciate the clear teaching style.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Thanks for your comment Brian!