How to Learn a Jazz Tune
BY NATE NALL, JUNE 21, 2023
A very important part of being a jazz musician is knowing tunes! Learning musical repertoire is an important part of basically every musical genre, and part of being a competent jazz musician is learning the tunes. BUT, where do we begin? There are so many lists of tunes and not one master cannon of essential tunes.
Mark Levine in his "Jazz Theory Book" has a nice list of Jazz Standards. And some universities and other resources have repertoires lists available via PDF for free online which can be helpful. These can be a great place to start. Other books have some collections of Jazz standards (like The Real Book 6th edition, though not all the tunes in that book are commonly played.)
To further complicate things, different tunes are more common in different cities. For example, the tunes played in New Orleans, or Memphis, or Kansas City, or Portland Oregon are going to have some overlap, but also differences. In NOLA you gotta know some trad jazz tunes, in Kansas City, birthplace of Charlie Parker, you gotta know some bebop and bird tunes, in Memphis you had better know the blues and some R'n'B or Smooth Jazz hits.
And that is just a handful of places!
Try going to a local jam session and write down the tunes that other musicians are playing. Talk with some older and more experienced musicians and ask their advice on some tunes to learn. A private jazz teacher can be great at helping to guide you with tune learning as well.
Other things to consider are different tune types:
Some are common song forms like "The 12 bar Blues" or "Rhythm Changes", while others are jazz compositions by people like Herbie Hancock or Duke Ellington, tin pan alley tunes, great american songbook (or old broadway, early movie, and pop song hits).
And that doesn't even cover Bossa Nova and other Brazilian songs, Afro Cuban, or Funk, Fusion etc...
This list is from the University of Oregon Jazz Studies Department.
SO...once you've identified some tunes to learn...
HOW do we learn a tune?
Here are some helpful tips with getting started learning jazz standard repertoire.
Actively listen to many recordings of the tune:
Get the melody and changes in your ear and have a working understanding of how some other musicians have interpreted the song. Listen to vocal recordings especially! I prefer starting with more of the "pop" jazz vocal recordings because usually it can get you closer to the melody at first. Many jazz instrumentalists and vocalists interpret the melody. I'd recommend singers like Judy Garland, or Frank Sinatra or Mel Torme. Ella Fitzgerald can be great for learning too!
One of my favorite singers of all time, Sarah Vaughan makes many recordings I love, but she tends to highly interpret the melodies. Same with Billie Holiday, another favorite of mine.
By listening to many recordings of a tune, you will start to hear what the melody is.
SO MANY free recordings (some of the best recordings) can be found on youtube and spotify for free. Or at the local record store!
A quick google search of a tune and some of the best recordings can be helpful to find important recordings.
Ex. Autumn Leaves,
Some excellent recordings of “Autumn Leaves”:
Miles Davis with Cannonball Adderley (Somethin' Else), Bill Evans Trio (portrait in jazz), John Coltrane, Nat King Cole, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Wynton Marsalis (standard time vol 1), Chet Baker (She was too good to me), Ahmad Jamal etc...
Learn the lyrics of the tune (if the tune has lyrics) with a vocal version:
This will help with the phrasing! Learning the lyrics allows you to understand where the melody naturally phrases with the chord changes. The lyrics also let you know what the meaning behind the song is. Is it a happy song, a melancholy song, an angry song...learning the lyrics can help learn the meaning.
Ex: Autumn Leaves:
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburnt hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Autumn Leaves for example is a song of love lost. This mood is reflected in the harmonic move to the relative minor at the end of the A section and the Bridge.
Memorize the lyrics ideally! (If you sing you have to do this of course)
Another benefit of this, is that not only will you learn to properly learn and interpret the melody, but you also could sing some of the tunes on a standards gig. I have done this and it is fun, if you like to sing as well.
Learn some History.
I like to use this point of the tune learning journey to learn some history about the tune which puts the composition in context historically.
“Autumn Leaves” is considered the most important non-American jazz standard.
It is the 8th most recorded jazz tune behind “All the Things you are”. First Entitled “Les feuilles mortes” (literally ‘The Dead Leaves’) it was originally a melody composed by Joseph Kosma  as a pas de deux (choreographed duo) for the ballet Le Rendez-vous, with a plot by Jacques Prévert.  It was introduced by Roland Petit in 1945, without words. The copyright is dated February 27, 1946 and it was first published by Enoch (Paris, France) in 1947.
Since “Autumn Leaves” introduction it has been recorded by great jazz trumpeters like Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and even classical artists such as Placido Domingo and Maurice Andre, and rock/pop artists like Eric Clapton.
Find a good lead sheet for the tune:
The REAL BOOK (6th Edition, Hal Leonard), has pretty good lead sheets of many standards.
Also many can be found online, but often the chords can be wrong, so listen to a recording when checking out the lyrics and let your ear be your guide. As you are developing, this will get easier, but early on just try to get the lead sheet from a published source, which is usually correct. As well, sometimes there are variations in the way people play a particular tune, again just go with a published version like “THE REAL BOOK”.
The leadsheet is for learning purposes only, but shouldn’t be brought into a jam session. You don’t REALLY know a tune unless it is memorized.
Sing and Play the Melody
Always SING First! Singing and HEARING comes before the instrument. The Piano can be a helpful tool here for matching pitch while singing. Remember that the rhythm of the leadsheet is not usually what you will play, interpret the rhythm with the lyrics like a singer. Then translate this to your instrument.
Refer back to the recordings you checked out previously when doing this. Use a favorite player as inspiration!
MEMORIZE THE MELODY
Sing and Play the Roots of each chord:
Try singing and playing on piano, and then translate to your instrument.
While doing this, note the bass movement---does it cycle around the key circle, or move in an interval, like a minor 3 or half step.
Note the Key Centers,
Autumn Leaves (first four bars)
C-7 |F |Bbmaj7 |Ebmaj7
ii-7 |V7 |Imaj7 |IVmaj7
These chords all derive from the Bb major diatonic scale.
Next four bars:
A-7b5 |D7b9 |G-7 |G-7
ii-7b5 of vi | V7b9 of vi | i-7 of vi
The tune has now moved to the relative minor of Bb, that is Gminor.
MEMORIZE THE BASS MOVEMENT
Sing and Play the Chord Arpeggios of each change out of time first and then in time.
C-7 |F7 |Bbmaj7 |Ebmaj7
C Eb G Bb |F A C Eb | Bb D F A |Eb G Bb D
I also like to play these up to the 9th, 11th, 13th.
MEMORIZE THE CHORD TONES
Sing and Play the Chord Scales of each change, first out of time and then in time.
C-7 | F7
CDEbFGABbC | FAGBbCDEbF
(Note that these are both modes of Bb major-the same scale)
Play these over 1 chord at a time and then practice alternating between chord scales.
Then practice doing this in time. Once you can change chord scales in time over the form, then try a DIRECTIONAL STUDY: changing to the chord scale of the next chord while continuing in the same direction up and down the scales.
MEMORIZE THE CHORD SCALES
Sing and Play the Voice Leading Melodies (3rds and 7ths).
These are melodies naturally created by the chord changes. 2 naturally occurring melodies on a 251 are great to practice, one melody starts on the 3rd of the chord and the other starts on the 7th of the chord. It helps to play this on a piano while singing!
C-7 |F7 |Bbmaj7
One Note Melody:
Eb |Eb |D
3rd |7th |3rd
Bb |A |A
7th |3rd |7th
Again, MEMORIZE THE VOICE LEADING MELODIES
Approach each voice leading melody note with an approach tone and/or a chromatic step (or multiple approach tones and chromaticism):
C-7 | F7
d---Eb | Bb--A
This can help with adding in encircling (chromatic passing tones) into your musical lines.
Start with a single chromatic note from above or below each of the chord tones on a particular chord, and then try adding 2 chromatic notes or more. This is FUN and can make your lines start sounding more like BEBOP!
Connect the voice leading melody with scale steps
C-7 |F7 |Bbmaj7
Eb D C Bb |A G F Eb |D
3 2 1 7 | 3 2 1 7 | 3
Bb A G F |Eb D C Bb |A
7 6 5 4 | 7 6 5 4 | 7
This is a line that naturally weaves through the chord changes. Notice that the chord tones are on the strong beats of the moving harmonic motion (beats 1 and 3).
11.) Combine Arpeggios with scales on the change:
C-7 |F7 |Bbmaj7
C Eb G F Eb D C Bb | A C F (E) Eb D C Bb |A G F Eb D F Bb D
12.) Play a language piece from a transcription on each change.
Take a short lick from a solo that you’ve learned from a player that you love and transpose this to each chord (key center) of the tune that you are working on.
Shorter pieces are the easiest to manipulate (1-2 bars or less)
13.) Play a separate language piece on the changes, and then alternate between the 2 language pieces.
Now try alternating between 2 language pieces and creating your own lines that weave through the changes.
14.) Connect the language pieces with Scale steps and arpeggios on the chords.
This combines the earlier concepts with the language pieces that we are working on.
15.) Practice singing melodies over the tune, transcribe yourself with your instrument and “play your inner ear”.
The more you do this the faster it will come. This is ultimately the goal! Transcription and listening just informs the ear. I like to turn a play along recording on and just sing a solo, or record myself singing a solo (learn jazz standards tracks on youtube are free and great, or Aebersold recordings are excellent as well and feature a who’s who of jazz rhythm sections). This shows me right away which changes I’m not REALLY hearing, but skating by, or avoiding.
This also gets me closer to the most authentic musical voice that I’m hearing.
Breath and just sing. Don’t judge your singing quality, but try to match pitch
16.) There are countless other ways to practice a tune, but BE INTENTIONAL!
Add chord substitutions, change the tessitura or the tone color or dynamics. Improvise just in one octave or with certain harmonic parameters.
The key is to BE INTENTIONAL! What are you practicing? And WHY are you practicing it?! Don't noodle, be intentional.
Practicing with restrictions actually leads to musical freedom.
Using Singing when practicing improvising and also playing piano is not only a great “hearing” tool, but helps to not wear out the chops for horn players.
How do you practice a tune? Feel Free to share any helpful tips from your journey.
What are some commonly played jazz standards in your region or city? I'd love to hear about some of the similarities and differences in common repertoire.