Have you ever wondered what are the first jazz tunes you should learn? 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
In 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 is your main source of learning and a fakebook being 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 few things in mind.
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 bu can create sort of “square” phrasing and a pretty vanilla interpretation of the tune.
So, 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.
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.
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.
If you want to learn how to swing like Chet does on Autumn Leaves you can also check out this Autumn Leaves swing lesson.
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.
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.
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?
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