Learning jazz standards has long formed the bedrock of education for most musicians, providing a list of classic repertoire for players to draw upon. In this article we’ve picked 10 of the most famous jazz songs for you to get started with.
There are a certain bunch of these tunes that all musicians are expected to know and, as such, they’re frequently played at jam sessions and gigs.
As such, it’s important to learn jazz standards!
These have traditionally either been taken from the 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 jazz composers.
For this list, we’ve aimed to highlight 10 of the most essential jazz standards that musicians around the world draw upon on a regular basis.
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.
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.
Table of Contents
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)
The minor blues is another, less frequently heard, variation on the 12-bar form. Examples include ‘Birks Works’ (Dizzy Gillespie) and Mr. P.C. (John Coltrane).
Classic blues recording: Charlie Parker – Now’s The Time
Bird’s mix of chromatic bebop and expressive blues language contrasts with a more restrained and diatonic approach from a young Miles Davis.
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.
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.
All The Things You Are
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 standards (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, 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 standard 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 the tenor saxophonist 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 II-V-I cadences) 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 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.
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 songs. 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 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. McCoy Tyner also features on a brilliant set.
Modern version of Blue Bossa – Marcus Printup
Thanks for reading and hope this list led you to discover (or rediscover) some great versions of these jazz standards.
As always, let us know in the comments section which ones you think should have made the top 10 (and in place of which others!)
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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