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July 2013 - Tips for Learning Jazz Standards

Monday, July 15, 2013

Jazz music has a core group of common songs called “standards” that all Jazz musicians need to be familiar with. These are the songs you’ll hear when you go to listen to Jazz at a club or restaurant.  As a player, these are also the songs that you will play all the time.  Most of these standards can be easily found in songbooks like “The Real Book”.  Here are a few tips for learning these classic Jazz standards.

These songs are more than simply catchy melodies. If you pay attention, they can also be the best learning tools you will find for understanding how Jazz works and how you can create great sounding improvised solos.

1) Start by Focusing on Three Classic Jazz Standards – a Medium-Tempo Classic, a Slow Ballad, and an Up-Tempo Tune.  Eventually, you will know dozens of songs but the thought of this can be intimidating at first.  So, start by learning three.

Great medium tempo Jazz songs to start with would be songs like “Autumn Leaves” by Johnny Mercer or “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington.  Some good ballads to learn are “Misty” by Erroll Garner or “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by David Mann.  “I’ve Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin or “There Will Never Be Another You” by Harry Warren are great up-tempo songs to know.

2) Think About How the Chords Move. Jazz standards aren’t just random songs - they are classic studies in what makes a great chord progression.  Analyze the chords that are used.  What chord does it start out with?  What chord does it end with and how is that ending approached by the chords that precede it?  Identify the ii-V changes used to resolve to various chords within the song.  Think carefully about how each chord is working within the song.

In Jazz, every chord means something – it is either leading to another chord or being resolved to by something else.  Understanding how these chords are functioning is a major step in knowing how to solo over them.

3) Learn the Melody.   Be able to play the melody stylistically correct without much embellishment.  Too often, inexperienced Jazz players treat the melody as a mere “suggestion” as a platform for their solo rather than giving it the importance it deserves as a melodic line that has stood the test of time.

Notice how the melody moves and where it peaks in the phrase.  Knowing the words of the song will help you to phrase the melody more musically.

4) When Soloing, View the Chords in Four Measure Segments. Most Jazz standards can be broken down into four measure phrases.  Chords within these four measure segments are often relating to each other.  Many times, players will solo based on one chord as it comes by, then solo over the next chord as it comes by rather then looking at a group of chords and trying to weave a line through each of the chords.  As you solo, think of lines that weave in-between the changing notes of the chords in a phrase.  This will create a much more musical solo.

Learning Jazz standards is the core activity of the Jazz musician.  As the great guitarist Tommy Emmanuel says, “People don’t want to hear you play scales or exercises, they want to hear songs.”  If you’re familiar with and can play these timeless melodies then you’ll never be out of demand as a player.

- Steve
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