It’s essential for every musician who wants to become a great jazz improviser to learn jazz standards. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to play original music or not. Jazz standards are the common repertoire used by jazz musicians to communicate. If you want to learn jazz language, you need to study jazz standards. It’s an important part of your jazz education.
But there are thousands of jazz standards out there. It can be overwhelming. Also, if you’re new to jazz, these songs can be intimidating! They are full of lush 7th chords with extensions and alterations, fancy chord progressions, and even key center changes.
To think that there are hundreds of jazz standard that musicians could call at gigs or jam sessions may discourage you off of the bat. You may have learned a few standards already and found that they took a lot of effort to learn. How could it be possible to learn 50 or even 100?
What you need to do is practice smarter not harder.
What if you could put the time and effort into learning a small handful of standards, and as a result have essentially learned 100+?
Here’s the truth of the matter: many jazz standards are the same. Once you know a certain amount of jazz standards, you start to realize that they use the same chord progressions and the same harmonic movement over and over again. The only thing you need to worry about is the melody, which is usually the easiest part (unless it’s a bebop head).
Eventually, the struggle isn’t learning the chord changes to songs. It’s trying not to forget which tune you are playing in the middle and accidentally start playing the changes to another!
10 Jazz Standards That Will Make Learning Jazz Easy
To try to help you out with your jazz standards learning, here’s a list of 10 that are helpful to know. If you know these, you essentially know hundreds more.
Why? Like I said, many jazz standards repeat the same kind of chord progressions and harmonic movement. Eventually, many of them become predictable. If you’ve learned one that goes to the relative minor, the next one you learn that does this is that much easier.
This is not to say that learning these ten will make all jazz standards easy to learn. There are songs such as Fee Fi Fo Fum, Giant Steps, or Con Alma that either has unconventional harmony or use conventional harmony in less traditional ways.
Another thing to point out is these 10 are not necessarily easy. Some of them are challenging to learn. But wouldn’t you want to spend your time and effort learning a song that will help you out with others?
So without further to do, here are 10 jazz standards that will make learning jazz easier. Click the titles to get resources for learning the songs. If you want a more in-depth explanation of these tunes, check out the LJS Podcast episode where I talk about these.
This is a classic one to know and is called on gigs and jam sessions often. But more importantly, it’s an excellent study in moving between the relative major and relative minor. This harmonic movement will happen time and time again in other jazz standards you learn. It’s also a great study of the ii-V-I and the minor ii-V-i. These are two crucial chord progressions to be familiar with.
This jazz standard is an excellent study of cycling chords in 4ths. In fact, the melody moves in fourths for the most part. Many of the chord progressions in jazz cycle in 4ths such as the ii-V-I. This one explores some different key centers as well.
3. I Love You
This Cole Porter tune teaches you about two separate things that you’ll see in other jazz standards: The half diminished ii-V to the major I (Gmin7b5-C7-Fmaj7) and the transition to a new key up a major third during the bridge (from Fmaj to Amaj).
This tune is a great study in minor ii-V-i’s. There are a lot of them in it, as well as some of the half diminished ii-V to the major I’s that I described in I Love You. There are plenty of other tunes that use lots of minor ii-V-i’s but this is a commonly called one and worth knowing.
This jazz standard is an excellent study of the I-VI-ii-V and diatonic harmony in general. This is one of those songs that will particularly help you learn others much easier.
This song is a fantastic study of dominant 7 chords cycling in 4ths. For example, F7-Bb7-Eb7-Ab7. These kinds of dominant 7 movements happens a lot in jazz, notably in rhythm changes tunes during the bridge.
7. Just Friends
Just Friends is a good song to study because it starts out on the IV chord rather than the I chord. This helps you further understand diatonic harmony. In the first few bars it also goes from the major IV to the minor iv. This is a technique used outside jazz as well.
This song is a great study of moving up a minor third to a new major key. In I Love You it moves up a major third, but in Green Dolphin, it’s a minor third (Cmaj to Ebmaj). This is something you will certainly see in other jazz standards.
Stella is quite a challenging song, but it is a great harmonic study. It combines diatonic and non-diatonic harmony. There are chromatic ii-V’s and all sorts of different harmonic things going on. It’s not an easy one, but it’s a classic, and if you know it, many others will seem quite easy in comparison.
Miss Jones is a great study of passing diminished chords (Fmaj7-F#dim7-Gmin7-C7), and also cycling through 3 different keys during the bridge. Again, it’s not the easiest of songs to learn out there, but the challenge will make you better for it.