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Essential Jazz Tunes

I was thinking about standards, and I decided to create a guide for students (and for myself, and anyone else who is interested) that placed the most common jazz tunes into three tiers. I do not mean for this to be a guide to conquering jam sessions, although it's undeniably true that the jam session, however exasperating it can be, is still the best way for jazz musicians, especially those in new places, to meet other jazz musicians. (And who am I kidding, as I write in December 2020. I would kill to go to a jam session right now.)

It's also true that jazz has a standard set of tunes that, pretty much anywhere in the world you go, people will know. It's important to be able to play these tunes in order to converse with musicians. But on top of that, learning these tunes will create a base for harmonic ability, form identification, vocabulary, and other skills that you will be able to build on as you get into more obscure, and more modern, jazz music. Most jazz musicians start from the same basic roots, and then splinter as they discover their musical identities.

It’s also important to remember that there are a lot of factors that go into what any single jazz musician would consider an “essential” tune. In many respects, the tunes that would fit into a list like this are geographically dependent - perhaps the musicians in Chicago play “Invitation” all the time, but never “Speak No Evil,” whereas the musicians in Houston love “Speak No Evil.” Additionally, there are 100% some tunes on this list that I have higher than some might, or lower than some might, based on how and when that song came up in my own personal education. This list is not meant to be infallible, merely a guide based on my own experience in the jazz world. I also definitely forgot some, I just don't know which ones yet.

Finally, this list will mean something different to you at different moments in your journey. I have not actually played Cantaloupe Island, for example, in many years, and I don't really care to. In that sense, is it an essential jazz tune for me? Not exactly. But there was a time when I needed to know it, so I learned it. Additionally, it's important to remember that tunes in all three of the difficulty categories can teach something to any level of player. Just because someone has been playing professionally for many years does not mean they cannot get anything out of "Freddie Freeloader." And just because you can play the notes to "Blue in Green" does not mean that it's easy to sound good playing it. The difficulty level assigned to these tunes is not meant to suggest that you should or should not work on any of these tunes, it's merely a (very) rough guide for people who are looking for something to practice.

Let's get started.

Tier One

These are tunes that every serious jazz musician should have memorized - and other jazz musicians will expect you to know them.

Tier Two

The tunes in tier two are somewhat less common than those in tier one, but I would still consider them tunes that every serious jazz musician should know (and, ultimately, memorize).

Tier Three

These are tunes that you will still encounter fairly often, and you should know, but they're not quite as important to know as those listed above.

One Hundred Bonus Tunes

And finally, here are 100 more songs to learn, of varying style and difficulty. They're not especially common jam session tunes but they're still good to know.

  1. Along Came Betty

  2. Angel Eyes

  3. Avalon

  4. Birdlike

  5. Birk's Works

  6. Black Narcissus

  7. Bolivia

  8. Cheesecake

  9. Come Rain or Come Shine

  10. Come Sunday

  11. Con Alma

  12. Conception

  13. Contemplation

  14. Countdown

  15. Cousin Mary

  16. Crisis

  17. Cry Me A River

  18. Cyclic Episode

  19. Dat Dere

  20. Dear Old Stockholm

  21. Dearly Beloved

  22. Deluge

  23. Dig

  24. Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me

  25. Doodlin'

  26. East of the Sun

  27. Eighty One

  28. El Gaucho

  29. Emily

  30. Epistrophy

  31. Fall

  32. Firm Roots

  33. A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing

  34. For All We Know

  35. For Regulars Only

  36. The Frim Fram Sauce

  37. Grand Central

  38. Green Chimneys

  39. Half Nelson

  40. Here's That Rainy Day

  41. I Cover The Waterfront

  42. I Didn't Know What Time It Was

  43. I Hear A Rhapsody

  44. I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart

  45. I Mean You

  46. I Should Care

  47. I'm Beginning to See the Light

  48. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

  49. In Your Own Sweet Way

  50. Inner Urge

  51. In Walked Bud

  52. Jeannine

  53. The Jody Grind

  54. Jordu

  55. Joshua

  56. Lament

  57. Laura

  58. Limehouse Blues

  59. Lonely Woman

  60. Long Ago (And Far Away)

  61. Lonnie's Lament

  62. Manteca

  63. Mean to Me

  64. Milestones (Old)

  65. Moment's Notice

  66. Moonlight in Vermont

  67. Moose the Mooche

  68. My Shining Hour

  69. My Ship

  70. Nature Boy

  71. Nica's Dream

  72. The Night Has A Thousand Eyes

  73. Our Love Is Here To Stay

  74. Parisian Thoroughfare

  75. Passion Dance

  76. Pent Up House

  77. The Preacher

  78. Solitude

  79. So Nice (Summer Samba)

  80. The Song Is You

  81. Stormy Weather

  82. The Surrey With The Fringe On Top

  83. Tea For Two

  84. The Theme

  85. Three Little Words

  86. Time After Time

  87. Triste

  88. Tune Up

  89. Valse Hot

  90. The Very Thought of You

  91. The Way You Look Tonight

  92. West Coast Blues

  93. What's New?

  94. When Will the Blues Leave?

  95. Wildflower

  96. Willow Weep For Me

  97. Windows

  98. Without a Song

  99. You're My Everything

  100. You Stepped Out of a Dream


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