Over many years of teaching student jazz combos (and playing professionally), I’ve developed some opinions about “must-know” repertoire. Here is my effort at selecting the 100 most important standards for an aspiring jazz improviser to learn. These include both Broadway-type songs, and tunes written by jazz figures as improv vehicles. They are organized into “Top 50” and “Next 50” groups. Following each title is the source that I consider most useful and/or accurate.
Please note the comments following the tune lists, explaining my criteria, and including what I hope is further good advice about learning jazz tunes.
RB1, RB2 = Old Real Books; HL1, HL2, HL3, HL4 = Hal Leonard “6th Edition” Real Books; NRB1, NRB2, NRB3 = New Real Books (Sher Music); POC = Pocket Changes (old Aebersold one, not the newer commercial one); CP = Charlie Parker Omnibook; SRB = Standards Real Book (Sher Music); TM = Thelonious Monk Fake Book; COLO = Colorado Cookbook; LTR = Listen to the recording, and check what the chart might have missed.
Top 50 Must-Know Tunes
|All Blues||HL1 (but change C7 to G- and LTR)|
|All of Me||NRB1|
|All the Things You Are||NRB1, HL1|
|Autumn Leaves||NRB1 (Gm), RB1 (Em) (learn in both keys)|
|Billie’s Bounce||CP, HL2 (as commonly played, but LTR) (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|Black Orpheus||HL1, RB1 (slight diff.)|
|Blue Bossa||NRB1 (includes shout chorus, nice but seldom-played), RB1|
|Blue Monk||TM (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|Bluesette||SRB (complete), RB1 (abridged)|
|Body and Soul||HL1, RB1|
|Bye Bye Blackbird||HL2 (but m.3 keeps F7, m.18 F7 for head E7 only for solos, m.23 is D7, m.30 C7 whole bar)|
|C Jam Blues||HL2 (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|Cantaloupe Island||HL2 (LTR)|
|Corcovado aka Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars||RB1 (includes the intro)|
|Days of Wine and Roses||RB1, HL4|
|Don’t Get Around Much Anymore||NRB1, RB1 (bridge diff. in these charts; either is correct)|
|Fly Me to the Moon||HL2|
|Footprints||RB1, NRB1, HL1 (different changes - RB1 easier, NRB1 and HL1 more correct)|
|Four||HL1 (bar 5 could be played Abmaj7) (RB1 has wrong changes)|
|Freddie Freeloader||HL1 (LTR)(use printed changes for solos)|
|How High the Moon/Ornithology||HL1/HL1 (changes to these tunes are similar, but not identical)|
|I Got Rhythm||SRB (many variations of the chords are possible - some, not all, are listed here)|
|I’ll Remember April||HL1, RB1|
|In a Mellow Tone||HL1|
|Lester Leaps In||SRB (alternate head to “I Got Rhythm” - all variations of Rhythm changes apply)|
|Night and Day||RB1 (but bars 1 & 5 are Abmaj7), SRB (but play in C)|
|Now’s The Time||HL2, CP (exact notes of head may vary depending on source) (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|On Green Dolphin Street||RB1 (C), NRB3 (Eb) (learn in both keys)|
|One Note Samba||RB1, HL1 (slightly diff. rhythms)|
|Out of Nowhere||RB1, HL1|
|Recordame (aka No Me Esqueca)||RB1 (abridged), NRB1 (as “No Me Esqueca” - includes intro, shout chorus)|
|Scrapple From the Apple||HL1 (C7b9 on bar 4 of each A section)|
|So What||HL1 (LTR)|
|Solar||HL1, NRB1, RB1 (differences in head, chords compatible)|
|Song for My Father||HL1|
|Stella by Starlight||HL1, RB1|
|Straight, No Chaser||HL1 (originally in Bb, often played in F) (Rhythm section players should learn the head) (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|Summertime||POC (but play in Am; intro and mm 1-3, 9-11 use Am to Bm vamp), HL4 (same advice for vamp) (Note: chords, key vary greatly in diff. versions)|
|Take the ‘A’ Train||NRB1|
|Tenor Madness||HL2 (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|There Will Never Be Another You||NRB1|
|What is This Thing Called Love||RB1|
The Next 50 Must-Know Jazz Tunes
|Anthropology||CP, HL1 (alto players: don’t use NRB1 - it’s written 8va too high) (use changes as written, or any standard rhythm changes variations)|
|Beautiful Love||HL1, NRB1, RB1|
|Blue Train||HL1, LTR (RB1 is very wrong) (solos on standard bop blues changes)|
|But Not for Me||RB2 (chords vary a lot in diff. versions)|
|Confirmation||CP (don’t use HL1)|
|Cool Blues||HL2 (solos over any standard blues changes - see note at the bottom of this article)|
|Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me||NRB1|
|Donna Lee||RB1, CP (alto players: don’t use HL1 - some notes wrong octave)|
|Doxy||HL2 (LTR - printed and recorded sources differ on exact notes in head)|
|East of the Sun||HL3 (but add C7 in bars 2 & 18, and delete D7 in bar 30)|
|Georgia on My Mind||HL2|
|Girl From Ipanema||HL1, RB1|
|Groovin’ High||HL1 (LTR for breaks, intro, ending not in HL1)|
|Have You Met Miss Jones||HL1, RB1|
|I Remember You||RB2|
|It Could Happen to You||HL2 (but also played in Eb. RB2 has it in Eb with some wrong chords)|
|Like Someone in Love||RB1, NRB1 (diff. keys, some diff. changes)|
|Moose the Mooche||CP (changes as marked, or else just play rhythm changes w/whatever variations)|
|My Little Suede Shoes||CP|
|Night in Tunisia, A||HL1 (LTR for form and which parts are swing/latin)|
|Oh, Lady Be Good||SRB|
|Once I Loved||HL1, RB1 (NRB1 has this in A, a bad key for horn players)|
|Pennies from Heaven||HL2 (there are other OK ways to play chords in mm.1-2, 5-6,17-18)|
|Perdido||NRB2, RB2 (“Perdido Line” in RB2 is a nice shout chorus)|
|Poinciana||POC (but try m3 of bridge as Dmaj7, m7 D7sus4, m8 D7)|
|Round Midnight||TM, RB1, SRB (diff. charts differ a lot - chords prob. correct in TM)(SRB has Dizzy’s intro, coda)|
|Samba de Orfeu||HL3 (but LTR and simplify changes)|
|September Song||POC (charts differ considerably; RB2 is quite wrong)|
|Shiny Stockings||SRB (but play in Ab)|
|So Danco Samba||HL3 (but m.2 could be F7)|
|Softly As In a Morning Sunrise||SRB|
|Some Day My Prince Will Come||NRB1, RB1, HL1 (NRB1 changes differ slightly)|
|Stolen Moments||HL1, RB1|
|Sweet Georgia Brown||SRB|
|The Theme||COLO (use changes as written, or any standard rhythm changes variations)|
|There Is No Greater Love||HL1, NRB2, RB1|
|Wave||HL1, NRB1, RB1|
|Willow Weep for Me||NRB1|
|Work Song||RB2 (LTR for head)|
|Yardbird Suite||HL2, CP (HL2 has the original ending)|
Comments on the “Must-Know” list
So what were the criteria in choosing these tunes? For what purpose “must” one know them? For a jam with hard-core boppers, or for a casual gig at a retirement home? I’ve tried to
- consider various gig and jam situations, and make some “practical” choices.
- Mainly, though, I have decided to exercise my teacher’s prerogative. That is, given my personal experience, what is the basic knowledge that the next generation of jazz musicians should have?
- A further purpose was to include tunes that are easy enough that a student can take his or her improv to a higher level, without getting too bogged down in remembering and dealing with complex changes.
- Another criterion was: Would most jazz professionals and teachers agree with these choices?
This list attempts to take all of the above into consideration.
What does that mean? Let’s say that there are four stages of “knowing” a tune.
First, you should be familiar with at least one or two recorded versions, and be able to play the head and a decent solo while reading from a lead sheet.
Second, you should be able to get rid of the printed music, and get through the tune by ear and/or by memory (“winging it”). Rhythm section players must know the changes, but can fake the head. Horn players must know the head, but can fake the changes.
Third, everyone should know the head and chord changes precisely (using one reasonably well-accepted version as a reference), without reading.
Fourth - our goal - you should have researched different printed and recorded versions, and know different variations of the tune, as well as different solo approaches - and know the lyrics, where that is applicable.
About different versions:
You will not find agreement on a “definitive” source for many, or most, of these tunes. The original bootleg Real Books had plenty of errors, as well as some “correct” but idiosyncratic versions. The “Sixth Edition” (Hal Leonard) Real Books have continued the great tradition of imperfect fake books. The New Real Books (Sher Publishing) are better, but not perfect either. There are many more fake books available, both legal and illegal. All fake books, and even the “original” sheet music, are suspect. You will have to make a choice for each tune, and go with it. Again - you should research each tune as best you can, comparing different recorded as well as printed versions, and then decide how you want to learn it.
Yes, we should all learn tunes by transcribing or copying a recording by ear - one learns far more that way - but it’s not always practical, and that is why we have fake books.
About standardization of standards:
When the first (bootleg) “Real Book” came out in the early 1970s, musicians welcomed it as a great improvement over earlier fake books: jazz-friendly tune selection, readable calligraphy, relatively correct changes. It was supplemented over the next few years by Bb and Eb editions, and with “Old RB” volumes 2 and 3. These books became standard in the world of the everyday jazz musician; those versions of tunes, for better or worse, became commonly accepted. Since then, many more sources have become available. While more and better information is always a good thing, this can result in a lack of agreement between musicians as to the correct changes, melody, or even the key of a given tune. Life is more complicated now than in the early RB days. We just have to deal with it. As of today, Old RB versions are still generally accepted, with the exception of charts with the grossest errors (e.g., Desafinado, Four, Blue Train).
You may ask, “Why should I? I’m not a pro, and no one else expects this out of me.”
It’s about putting away the fake book, and listening. It’s worth the effort. It will open up your ears, and you will play more musically.
Playing from memory/by ear might be uncomfortable at first, if you have spent many years with the music in front of your face - but as with anything else, the more you do it, the better you get.
About interpreting melodies:
Heads of standards are often written in simple note values (quarter, half, whole), but are usually not actually played that way, and need to be jazzed up (interpreted). This will make it hard to play with more than one person on the melody, unless you know each other’s preferences. Some heads are already “arranged” for you, and can be played in unison, e.g. Have You Met Miss Jones (as presented in HL1 and RB1), and most bop tunes.
About suggested sources:
I’ve tried to give preference to legal books like NRB and HL (buy them!), but this was not always possible. If I left out NRB or HL as a source on some tunes, there was a reason for doing so. All suggested sources are legal except RB1, RB2, and Colorado Cookbook.
Not listed here, but often valuable, are the versions in the booklets that come with the Aebersold play-alongs.
If more than one source is listed for a tune, then they are all acceptable - but not necessarily compatible.
If you are researching changes, check out Ralph Patt’s “Vanilla Book” at ralphpatt.com. Changes are not always what I’d use, but it’s an interesting take on what constitutes a “basic” version.
Ten Easy (non-blues) Tunes to Memorize:
Here’s a good place to start, maybe even in this order.
- Blue Bossa
- Autumn Leaves
- Take the A Train
- So What
- All of Me
- Cantaloupe Island
- Lady Bird
- Tune Up
- Black Orpheus
Eight Easy Blues Tunes to Memorize:
Maybe even in this order.
- C Jam Blues (v)
- Now’s the Time (v)
- Blue Monk (v)
- Freddie Freeloader
- Tenor Madness (v)
- All Blues
- Billie’s Bounce (v)
- Mr. P. C.