Learning jazz standards has long formed the bedrock of education for most musicians, providing a list of classic repertoire for players to draw upon.
There are a certain bunch of these tunes that every jazz musician is expected to know as they’re frequently played at jam sessions and gigs.
As such, it’s important to learn jazz standards !
Looking for a quick overview before we get started? Here’s our top 10 list of jazz standards:
- I Got Rhythm
- Body and Soul
- All The Things You Are
- Autumn Leaves
- What Is This Thing Called Love
- Stella By Stalight
- On Green Dolphin Street
- Have You Met Miss Jones
- It Could Happen To You
- There Will Never Be Another You
These ‘standards’ have traditionally been taken either from the Great American Songbook – popular songs or tunes from film or theatre, mostly written between 1920s-1950s – or original pieces composed by jazz musicians.
Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Benny Golson, Tadd Dameron and Wayne Shorter are some of the most often-played composers in jazz history.
For this list, we’ve aimed to highlight 20 of the most essential jazz standards that musicians around the world draw upon on a regular basis.
For each one, we’ve included:
- A ‘classic’ version to check out [because learning jazz from the original performers is the best way!]
- A modern version to check out [because it can be really interesting to hear how modern jazz musicians approach classic repertoire]
- A contrafact (a new melody written on the chord changes of the original standard) [because this is a great way of performing classic tunes in a less ‘obvious’ way]
Of course, most top jazz musicians will have a much wider repertoire than this – often many hundreds – but these songs, and the alternative versions and substitute chord progressions they’ve spawned, are an important starting place.
We’ve made sure to include jazz tunes which cover a range of the most important and common chord sequences, forms and harmonic movements, with brief references to each.
If any are not familiar, though, it’s well worth studying some music theory so that you can understand what’s going on both aurally and intellectually.
And, lastly, whilst it’s easy to find a lead sheet or Real Book to help you learn these, doing as much as you can ‘by ear’ first is great practice.
Depending on where you live and the musicians you play with, your ‘scene’ will probably have its own favoured standards to learn.
Let us know in the comments below if you think we should have included some different ones.
NB all keys given are in concert pitch.
One of the cornerstones of American music, the 12-bar blues offers almost limitless possibilities for harmonic variation.
In its most basic form it only uses chords I, IV and V, but jazz musicians are now most likely to play some variation on a ‘bebop blues’, as exemplified by Charlie Parker tunes like ‘Billie’s Bounce’, ‘Now’s The Time’, ‘Cheryl’ and ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’.
Bird’s ‘Blues for Alice’ changes are an even more harmonically dense route through the 12-bar sequence.
Most classic straight-ahead jazz albums contain at least one blues, and virtually all of the great jazz composers have tackled the form.
List of common blues heads
- Take The Coltrane (Duke Ellington)
- C Jam Blues (Duke Ellington)
- Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (Duke Ellington)
- Sandu (Clifford Brown)
- Bags’ Groove (Milt Jackson)
- Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk)
- Straight No Chaser (Thelonious Monk)
- Billie’s Bounce (Charlie Parker)
List of minor blues heads
The minor blues is another, less frequently heard, variation on the 12-bar form.
- Birks Works (Dizzy Gillespie)
- Mr. P.C. (John Coltrane)
Classic blues recording: Charlie Parker – Now’s The Time
Modern recording of the blues: Jochen Rueckert Quartet feat. Melissa Aldana
After the blues, ‘Rhythm changes’ is the next most common form in jazz.
The term refers to tunes that are based upon the harmony of George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ .
It has a 32-bar AABA form with A sections usually in the key of B flat major and a bridge containing a cycle of dominant chords. (Actually, ‘I Got Rhythm’ has an extra two-bar tag on the last A section, making a 34-bar form, but most Rhythm changes tunes do not include this).
Famous jazz tunes based on rhythm changes
There are countless famous tunes based on the form, including:
- Oleo’ (Sonny Rollins)
- Moose The Mooche (Charlie Parker),
- Ow (Dizzy Gillespie)
- Cottontail (Duke Ellington)
- Rhythm-a-Ning’ (Theloniou Monk)
Like the blues, rhythm changes offers the chance for players to imply a number of harmonic substitutions, with numerous routes through the A sections especially, and is often used as an up-tempo number for players to flex their musical muscles or ‘battle’ with other players.
A number of Rhythm changes, including ‘The Eternal Triangle’ (Sonny Stitt), ‘Straight Ahead (Kenny Dorham) and ‘Dizzy Atmosphere’ (Dizzy Gillespie), utilise an alternative, chromatically descending bridge.
Classic recording: Miles Davis – Oleo
From the 1956 album Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, this take features a great John Coltrane solo that is packed full of archetypal Rhythm changes vocabulary.
Miles’ 1954 recording of the same tune from Bags’ Groove provides an interesting comparison, with more tenor brilliance from Sonny Rollins, the composer.
Modern rhythm changes recording: Joshua Redman/Brad Mehldau – Oleo
Originally titled ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’, this French song was given English lyrics and retitled by Johnny Mercer and is one of the most instantly recognisable jazz standards, having been commercially recorded over 1000 times!
It offers a great introduction to some core jazz harmony, as it is largely based on long (one chord per bar) II-V-I progressions in both major and minor keys, these being probably the most commonly used cadences in jazz.
It’s popular with pretty much all instruments, but it’s widespread use by guitarists saw it included in our list of the best jazz guitar songs for beginners.
Classic recording: Cannonball Adderley – Autumn Leaves
From the album Somethin’ Else, this is another classic jazz standard version that features Miles Davis. This classic Blue Note session was one of the trumpeter’s last sideman appearances and Cannonball Adderley’s blustery, bluesy solo is one of his best known.
Modern recording: Keith Jarrett – Autumn Leaves
This recommended version of Autumn Leaves, played by the Keith Jarrett Trio, was released as part of the live album Tokyo ’96. You can find out more about his legendary live releases on ECM here .
Jerome Kern famously hated jazz musicians interpreting and improvising over his carefully crafted theatre songs.
Unfortunately for him, many of his compositions have become jazz songs (others include ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘Long Ago and Far Away’), but ‘All The Things You Are’ is a particular favourite.
Its surprising harmonic shifts and journey through a number of key centres make it a challenge for improvisers, particularly in comparison to other simpler American Songbook tunes.
It contains lots of classic jazz cadences, including quick (two chords per bar) and long (one chord per bar) II-V-Is, which you can learn more about here.
The song originally appeared in Kern’s musical Very Warm For May, which was otherwise something of a flop.
Melodies written over the chord changes to ‘All the Things You Are’
- Ablution (Lennie Tristano)
- Prince Albert (Kenny Dorham)
Classic recording: Dizzy Gillespie – All the Things You Are
This 1945 recording includes Gillespie’s famous introduction, which has since become a standard part of the tune.
If you haven’t heard it before, listen to a young Michael Jackson singing a somewhat surprising rendition of the song in 1973.
Modern version of All The Things You Are – Dick Oatts
In the 1960s John Coltrane would embrace searching modal jazz music, where he explored one chord or scale for long periods on albums like A Love Supreme.
But directly before that period he was experimenting with music that, with fast moving chord changes and key centres moving in thirds, was almost the polar opposite of that approach.
Giant Steps almost sounds like a technical exercise, and it is famous for being hard to play: certainly the jazz world had heard nothing like it when Coltrane recorded the piece in 1959 (although ‘Moment’s Notice’ and ‘Lazy Bird’ from Coltrane’s 1957’s Blue Train foreshadow it to some extent).
Other tunes that use ‘Coltrane changes’
- Countdown (based on the jazz standard Tune Up)
- Satellite (based on the jazz song How High The Moon)
- 26-2 (based on the bebop classic Confirmation)
‘Coltrane changes’ can also be applied to ordinary II-V-I cadences as a harmonic substitution.
‘Giant Steps’ is probably less likely to be called on a gig or jam session than other jazz standards on this list, but virtually all top musicians will now have studied it at some point, and if you can construct strong melodies over a fast, awkward chord sequence like that then you’ll be ready for almost anything.
Classic recording: John Coltrane – Giant Steps
The original, classic recording from 1959 features tenor saxophonist John Coltrane tearing through the changes.
Modern Giant Steps version – Kenny Garrett (Triology)
In the late 1950s musicians began to experiment with modal jazz.
The more functional harmony of bebop (largely based on the II-V-I chord progression) was discarded in favour of chords and corresponding scales that often remained static for long periods before movements to other, possibly unrelated, chords and scales.
‘So What’, the opening track from Kind of Blue – the biggest selling jazz album of all time – remains the classic example of this. It has a typical 32-bar AABA form, with the A sections using a D dorian scale, moving up a semitone to E flat dorian.
‘So What’ doesn’t actually get played on jazz standards gigs that often – perhaps because it feels too much like walking on hallowed ground – but it is an excellent introduction to the different approach required for modal improvisation.
John Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’ has the same chords and form but a different melody, and is usually played at a faster tempo.
Classic recording: Miles Davis – So What (from Kind of Blue)
Helped on his way by Jimmy Cobb’s famous cymbal crash, Miles’ solo is perfect: cool, melodic and showcasing his trademark use of space.
Whilst this is undoubtedly the most famous version the recording by jazz guitar player Wes Montgomery is well-worth digging out too!
Modern recording: Dave Stryker feat. Chris Potter – Impressions
This recommended modern version is taken from the Dave Stryker album Messin’ With Mister T .
Body and Soul
Body and Soul is one of the most played and recorded ballads in jazz . Composed by Johnny Green in 1930, it’s a song of unrequited love that is a favourite of singers and instrumentalists alike.
Usually played in D flat major, it modulates up a half step to begin the bridge in D major. It’s quite harmonically dense, with chords coming thick and fast throughout.
Coltrane’s lilting arrangement applies ‘Coltrane changes’ to the bridge, and Freddie Hubbard’s version (from Here To Stay) also adds a harmonic twist.
Classic recording: Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul
Hawkins barely refers to the melody on this famous 1939 recording, but his highly chromatic improvisation foreshadows bebop.
Modern Body & Soul recording – Lionel Loueke
‘Cherokee’ is often seen as a something of a test for budding jazz musicians for two main reasons.
Firstly, it is usually played fast, with many versions coming in at over 300 beats per minute.
Secondly, the bridge goes through a number of less familiar keys, which are perceived as being ‘harder’, starting with a long II-V-I to B major, a half step up from the home key of B flat major, and descending in tones from there.
[Actually, B major’s perceived difficulty is probably more to do with the fact that most standards remain in a handful of keys, so the tunes that do venture away from those can feel like a bit of a shock to the system]
It was written in 1938 by British bandleader and songwriter Ray Noble and, at 64 bars, is twice the length of most standard jazz tunes. Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko-Ko’ and Jimmy Raney’s ‘Parker 51’ are both based on its chord sequence.
Classic Cherokee recording: Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Modern recording: Christian McBride – Cherokee (from Out Here)
Take The “A” Train
Composed in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn, this popular jazz standard was a signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
The title refers to the subway line in New York City, which was new at the time. Usually played in C major, the third and fourth bars of each A section offer the chance to work on your ‘secondary dominant’ (the dominant of the dominant – in this case a D seven chord, which is the dominant of G, which is the dominant of C) language, which is highlighted by the sharp 11th in the melody.
Bonus points here if you learn the ‘shout chorus’.
Classic Take the “A” Train recording: Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra
From 1941, this is the first instrumental recording. A 1952 Ellington version features a vocal chorus from Betty Roche.
Modern recording: Ehud Asherie – Take the “A” Train
A jam session favourite, this Kenny Dorham composition fuses Bossa Nova rhythm with hard bop harmony.
It has a relatively short 16-bar form, so should be fairly easy to memorise, and offers a nice workout over long II-V-I cadences in both major and minor keys, with altered scale harmony implied at various points in the melody.
Classic recording: Joe Henderson – Blue Bossa
Page One, Henderson’s debut as a bandleader, is also one of a number of classic collaborations with trumpeter Kenny Dorham. Legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner also features on a brilliant set.
Modern version of Blue Bossa – Marcus Printup
What Is This Thing Called Love
Written in 1929 by Cole Porter, What is This Thing Called Love opens Act Two of the Broadway musical Wake Up and Dream.
Although productions were popular in New York and London, the stock market crash affected box office takings severely and it closed the following year.
This song, though, lived on.
The tune uses the common AABA structure, and the harmony calls on the improvisor not only to demonstrate minor ii-V-i cadences but also conclude a minor ii-V with a major I.
Recorded widely by jazz heavyweights, the chord sequence has also been used many times as a basis for new melodies.
The small selection noted here shows how a flexible harmonic progression can be put to use in styles from bebop to the avant-garde.
Classic Recording: Clifford Brown & Max Roach (Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street)
Modern Recording: Lee Konitz (Alone Together)
What Is This Thing Called Love Contrafacts
- Hot House (Tadd Dameron)
- Fifth House (John Coltrane)
- Subconscious Lee (Lee Konitz)
- What Love (Charles Mingus)
How High The Moon
Featured in the short-lived 1940 Broadway musical Two For The Show, this number was composer Morgan Lewis’s only contribution to make it into the jazz canon.
Brought to wider public awareness by recording wizard Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford, jazz aficionados will recognise it as one of Ella Fitzgerald’s signature tunes.
Written in ABAC form (‘Two Sixteens’), the principal difference between the two halves is a major cadence in the final eight bars which occurs in a minor form earlier.
Jazz students beware: mixing these up is a cardinal sin and will mark you out as a rookie!
Ella Fitzgerald’s seminal live recording in Berlin in 1960 includes a lengthy scat solo famed for its precise rhythm and intonation as well as countless quotes from other tunes, including Charlie Parker’s ‘Ornithology’.
Classic Recording: Ella Fitzgerald (Mack The Knife: Ella in Berlin)
Modern Recording: Ari Hoenig (Lines of Oppression)
How High The Moon Contrafacts
- Ornithology (Charlie Parker)
- Lennie Bird (Lennie Tristano)
- Satellite (John Coltrane)
It Could Happen To You
As the Hollywood machine gradually displaced audiences from theatres to cinemas through the ’30s and ’40s, the great songsmiths of the post-Tin Pan Alley era found employment writing for films.
It Could Happen To You was included in the 1944 film And The Angels Sing, a picture created to benefit from the success of Benny Goodman’s 1939 hit record of the same name.
The film is long forgotten, but Jimmy Van Heusen’s song has served as a vehicle for jazz improvisation since.
The melody spends the first eight bars ambling leisurely upward and reverses course in the following eight, a sixteen-bar pattern which repeats and eventually arrives at the tonic.
This is in contrast to the harmony which insistently pulls back to the key centre, despite the best efforts of a few ii-Vs to move to a different region.
Chet Baker’s sung solo on his 1954 recording is a paradigm of economy and poise.
In his cool-school style, Baker’s balanced combination of melodic phrasing and bebop vocabulary serves as a model to aspiring vocalists and instrumentalists alike.
Classic Recording: Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You)
Modern Recording: Keith Jarrett Trio (Tokyo ’96)
It Could Happen To You contrafacts
- Fried Bananas (Dexter Gordon)
Love For Sale
Back to Broadway, Love For Sale was penned by Cole Porter in 1930 for The New Yorkers, a musical which satirised the city’s underbelly.
The lyrics advertise a prostitute’s trade and were controversial at the time, resulting in many radio stations vetoing it.
Like much of Porter’s jazz repertoire, the harmonic rhythm is in cut time which makes the piece a lengthy sixty-four bars in AABA form.
The A sections imply major and minor simultaneously and are often played with a Latin feel, moving to swing in the bridge.
On his seminal album Somethin’ Else, Cannonball Adderley chooses to keep the changes in feel a little looser, hinting at Latin at the end of the A sections rather than using it to demarcate the form.
Pianist Jacky Terrasson, on the other hand, underpins his performance with an ostinato pattern from Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, dipping in and out of the melody with experimental abandon.
Classic Recording: Cannonball Adderley (Somethin’ Else)
Modern Recording: Jacky Terrasson (Alive)
Love For Sale contrafacts
- Ezz-thetic (George Russell)
Stella By Starlight
Written by Victor Young for a 1944 horror film, Stella By Starlight is one of the most frequently played of all the jazz classics.
The lyrics, penned a couple of years later by Ned Washington, were problematic to incorporate owing to the shape of the melody, leading to the title appearing near the middle of the song rather than at the beginning or end.
The form, rather than following AABA or ‘Two Sixteens’ patterns, consists of thirty-two bars divided into four eight-bar sections best described as ABCA.
The harmony is full of classic Great American Songbook tricks, such as:
- misleading ii-Vs
- backdoor cadences
- IV-minor substitutions
- minor ii-Vs cadencing to a major I
This complex tune has a rich recording history, played by all the greats and in particular is associated closely with Miles Davis.
Classic Recording: Miles Davis (My Funny Valentine)
Modern Recording: Chris Potter (Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard)
Stella By Starlight contrafact
- Gilt, Be All Thy Stars (Mark Eisenman)
On Green Dolphin Street
Another song with lyrics by Ned Washington and made famous by Miles Davis is On Green Dolphin Street.
Written by Polish composer Bronisław Kaper in 1947, it appeared in a film of the same name and has become such a part of the public consciousness that author Sebastian Faulks featured it in one of his novels.
The melody is laid out in ABAC format with the A sections underpinned by a tonic pedal under chords which encourage descending voice leading.
More often than not, rhythm sections will alternate between a Latin feel for the As and swing for the Bs and Cs.
Although Miles Davis made this jazz tune his own, it crops up in the repertoire of a wide variety of musicians, including a live album by fusion band Return To Forever.
Classic Recording: Miles Davis (1958 Miles)
Modern Recording: Herbie Hancock (The Piano)
On Green Dolphin Street contrafacts
- The Green Street Caper (Woody Shaw)
Out of Nowhere
Johnny Green, of Body and Soul fame, composed Out of Nowhere in 1931. It became Bing Crosby’s breakout record later that year and was quickly adopted by jazz musicians.
An ABAC form, the song’s harmony is straightforward enough with the exception of a curveball in bars three and four: we encounter a ii-V to a tonic a tone below the key centre, which never arrives! Instead we land back on chord one.
Recordings of this tune are not hard to come by, and its popularity at jam sessions makes it a must-have on everyone’s repertoire list.
There have been plenty of new melodies written over the chord changes too, including a theme tune for a little-known sci-fi television series…
Classic Recording: Charlie Parker (The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes)
Modern Recording: Jerry Bergonzi (Simply Put)
Out Of Nowhere contrafacts
- Nostalgia (Fats Navarro)
- Casbah (Tadd Dameron)
- Jayne (Ornette Coleman)
- 317 East 32nd Street (Lennie Tristano)
- Theme from Star Trek (Alexander Courage)
The Girl From Ipanema
Bossa Nova’s vogue in the ’60s and subsequent ubiquity as Muzak has led many to write off jazz standards like The Girl From Ipanema as cheesy, only performed under duress.
This is understandable – unless, of course, you’ve had a go at faithfully imitating that intensely relaxed feel and taken the changes from the recording (rather than the Real Book).
In AABA form with a sixteen-bar bridge, jazz musicians would normally perform it in the key of F. However, on the Getz record Astrud Gilberto sings it in D♭.
Eliane Elias’s album of modernised Jobim numbers has the song seamlessly move from one key to another, with maestro Michael Brecker playing backings and solos.
Classic Recording: Stan Getz & João Gilberto (Getz/Gilberto)
Modern Recording: Eliane Elias (Eliane Elias Sings Jobim)
Tenor saxophone great Sonny Rollins, although born and raised in New York City, had parents from the US Virgin Islands.
Their music was a part of his upbringing and contributed to his tune St Thomas, based on a Caribbean nursery rhyme.
An archetype of the calypso style, this sixteen-bar melody is full of buoyant syncopation and reassuring cadences.
Getting to know this tune will not only tick another off the list, but also broaden your stylistic awareness.
Classic Recording: Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus)
Modern Recording: Joshua Redman (Spirit of the Moment – Live at the Village Vanguard)
No list of jazz standards would be complete without a nod to legendary jazz piano player and composer Duke Ellington.
Satin Doll was composed in 1953 with collaborator Billy Strayhorn and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Written for Ellington’s mistress, the song was one of his last popular hits.
In classic AABA form, the melody and harmony rise and fall in tandem in the A sections. It moves to the IV in the bridge as is common in American songs of the time, and winds its way back to the final A.
Duke Ellington wrote countless reworkings of his first arrangement of ‘Satin Doll’ throughout his career, the soloists’ contributions becoming as important a part of them as his own ink.
Classic Recording: Duke Ellington (Duke Ellington – Capitol Sessions 1953-1955)
Modern Recording: Enrico Pieranunzi & Rosario Giuliani (Duke’s Dream)
Thanks for reading and hope this list led you to discover (or rediscover) some great versions of these jazz standards.
If you’re learning to play jazz, you can find all our articles related to that topic here.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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