One of the best things about being a jazz musician is that there is a common core of standard tunes that enable us to get together and jam with each other, with no prior planning. Someone simply calls out a tune and the music starts. So if you're a beginner, this means you'll have a lot more fun once you learn some songs. (And by "learn" I mean "memorize," so you can play them anywhere, anytime.)
Here's a list of 10 "Must-Know" jazz tunes to get you started. Most, but not all, of them are in The Real Book, vol. 1, which is still the most popular basic collection of jazz standards around.
These are by far some of the most popular jam session and gig tunes out there, and learning them from memory will help you feel comfortable playing with your peers. These particular tunes are so commonly played that I hear them all the time. In fact, I was recently at a dance concert at a well-known concert hall in Westchester County, near New York City. During intermission, a small jazz group comprised of nearby college students played in the lobby while people walked around. As they finished their first song, "Autumn Leaves," I jokingly whispered "All of Me" to the person I was with. The students, who were across the noisy room and couldn't possibly have heard me, immediately launched into the familiar melody of that very song! Real Book 101 🙂
Here's your beginning jazz assignment: Learn these 10 tunes. I would actually recommend that you learn them all at once, so they "sink in" over time as you work on them. Start by learning the melody to all 10 tunes. Then keep playing the melodies for your own enjoyment as you learn the chords and begin to improvise solos on them, one-by-one.
Here's the list, along with a famous recording of each. I suggest you learn them in this order, since the first few are the most popular among beginning and intermediate-level jazz musicians. Most of all, have fun!
1. "Autumn Leaves"
This is the famous Cannonball Adderley/Miles Davis recording of the song, from 1958. The solos are amazing!
2. "So What"
You don't have to learn the slow intro, which nobody plays on gigs. Just start where the bass picks up with the rhythm.
3. "All of Me"
Not to be confused with recent pop songs and piano pieces of the same name, this is one of vocalist Billie Holiday's early versions of the classic. We can all learn a lot from her phrasing!
The classic version by trumpeter Miles Davis, as arranged by his best friend, Gil Evans. It's good to know at least a few tunes like this that aren't in The Real Book, for variety.
5. "Blue Bossa"
I've played this one a million-zillion times and itstill feels fresh every time!
6. "Straight, No Chaser"
One of the more popular blues "heads" in The Real Book. This live recording, again by Miles Davis, will give you a good model to emulate as you learn the jazz language.
7. "The Girl From Ipanema"
A great melody and relaxed latin rhythm to improvise over.
8. "Satin Doll"
A timeless tune that still gets people to pay attention.
Perhaps the most challenging tune to play on this list, but it will let you dive right into the bebop style!
10. "In A Sentimental Mood"
The only ballad on this list, this is from one of my favorite albums: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Hauntingly beautiful, and it's a great tune to improvise on.
Hungry for more? Here's the first of my 10-part series on how to learn jazz piano. Good luck with your playing!
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