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Keeping a List of Jazz Standards

Have you ever shown up to a gig without any idea of what songs you would do? I certainly have. There is a certain confidence that comes with knowing that you can do a four hour gig of jazz standards without a set-list. Set-lists can be confining, which is never a desirable thing for an improviser. We are, by nature, people who excel in the moment, and creating something from nothing. It is especially rewarding to play in band that creates great music without set-lists, fakebooks, charts, or even music stands. Certainly some masterful musicians can play a memorable, even astonishing, set of music after walking on-stage with no idea what songs they are going to play.

However, sometimes musicians argue about what tune to play on the bandstand, take too long to decide what tune to play, or leave uncomfortable dead-air space between songs. If this has happened to you very often, you may consider spending more time preparing for gigs. I like to group the way in which you organize your songs into two categories: the set-list and the song-list.

Set-lists have certain advantages. For one thing, you know exactly what you are going to be playing. In many instances, this may produce a more professional atmosphere for your audience. There is a certain level of confidence that comes from being prepared, to be sure. However, a set-list may detract from the spontaneity of the music in certain cases. An old, worn-out set-list may encourage stale performances.

Song-lists are another good way to go. How many tunes do you know? If you are like most musicians, you probably do not know. However, it’s a good idea to keep track of the tunes you know. It is a very good idea to start compiling two lists of tunes-one of tunes you know, and another list of tunes you should learn. Gradually, the list of tunes you know should become longer as the other list becomes shorter! While it may not be quite as organized or as pre-planned as a set-list, a song-list has a nice advantage in that it does not lock you into a particular sequence of tunes, and you are free to “read your audience” and figure out what you should play based on the needs of the audience instead of the needs of a small piece of paper or napkin with scribbles all over.

For some people it may not be a bad idea to take an inconspicuous list of tunes to your gigs-either a set-list or song-list-to help you remember what you know, especially when you’re on the spot. This way, the next time your bass player asks what tune is next, you’ll hear the confident sound of your own voice calling a tune rather than crickets chirping while your audience shuffles out the door!

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


  1. Hi to anyone,
    interesting posts…and nice graphic.
    I’m an italian bass player, personally I don’t like to play with sheets, but I do use a list. It’s useful, from time to time, when we play with new guys, before a jam session, to read when traveling on a bus to review mentally some tunes we’d like to play or recall some “old” ones…I think it’s a way for a better organization, to refresh our memory and it doesn’t take out, our improvising skills!

  2. I’ve started using the iReal Book ap on my iTouch for calling tunes on gigs. It allows you to create set lists and I’ve found the changes to be pretty good (MUCH improved from the original Real Book!). I selected 140 tunes from the index and will sometimes just randomly scroll through the list to select songs to play during a set. It can help reduce the indecisiveness so often seen on jazz gigs.


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