100 "Must Know" Jazz Tunes


Peter Spitzer

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.

Suggested sources

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
Impressions NRB2
In a Mellow Tone HL1
Just Friends NRB3
Lady Bird RB1
Lester Leaps In SRB (alternate head to “I Got Rhythm” - all variations of Rhythm changes apply)
Misty NRB1
Mr. PC HL1
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)
Satin Doll NRB1
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
Tune-Up NRB1
Watermelon Man HL3
What is This Thing Called Love RB1

The Next 50 Must-Know Jazz Tunes

Alone Together RB1
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)
Cherokee NRB2, RB1
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)
Gentle Rain RB1
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)
Laura NRB3
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)
St. Thomas NRB1
Star Eyes NRB3
Stolen Moments HL1, RB1
Sugar NRB3
Sweet Georgia Brown SRB
Take Five SRB
Tangerine HL2
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)
Yesterdays HL1

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

  1. consider various gig and jam situations, and make some “practical” choices.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

About memorizing:

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
  • Solar
  • 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.
Note: There are a number of commonly-used sets of changes that are used in blues tunes. The fake books will specify changes for the head. For solos, some blues tunes seem to want pretty much the changes that are played for the head, while in other tunes, soloists and/or rhythm section players are likely to alter the chords (in various standard ways) if they feel like it. Tunes marked with a (v) are those that I think are more often played in a “variable” way; the others need to have the changes kept constant (more or less!).

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