How do you end a jazz standard?

As jazz musicians, we spend so much time and energy working on learning jazz standards and developing the craft of improvisation that we sometimes forget to address very practical matters such as how to start and end tunes in real-life performance scenarios. Often, musicians simply don’t put much thought into how to create convincing endings to songs.

We should pay more attention to the way we end tunes! It’s important to consistently end our interpretations of jazz standards in a way that provides a satisfying sense of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic closure. A well-constructed ending should always fit well with the overall musical mood and character of the song in question.

Sloppy or disorganized endings can undermine what otherwise may have been a flawless and moving rendition of a jazz standard. From an audience standpoint, musicians who don’t conclude their songs in a tidy fashion may be perceived as less professional or competent. Likewise, strong endings are especially important because it’s the last thing the audience will hear, and it’s important to leave the audience with a good final impression of the tune and of our playing.

With this in mind, I want to address six of the most common ways to end a jazz standard that every jazz musician should know. Practice these endings in all 12 keys, and try rehearsing them with other musicians during a rehearsal or jam session so you can get used to how they work. The most important factor in pulling of these endings is communication, so it’s important to practice quickly, subtly, and efficiently explain to everyone which ending you want to use, and then get some practicing cuing the endings and cutting off chords cleanly. Of course there are innumerable appropriate and compelling to end the performance of a jazz standard, but here are a few essential endings to get you started:

1. The “Take the ‘A’ TrainEnding

Although it has a reputation for being a bit cliché or “cheesy” in some jazz circles, this old standby is great ending and a must-know. It works best when the melody of the tune lands on the root of the tonic chord at the end of the tune (before any turnarounds to get back to the top of the form), because the closing melodic gesture starts on the root of the I chord. This ending works best if everyone in the band jumps on it and plays it in unison. Here it is in the key of C major (concert pitch):

Alternatively, here’s the same ending with a final held-out chord:

2. Ending on the Tonic Major 7 (#11)

When in doubt, whenever you’re playing a jazz standard that harmonically closes the songs on a tonic I chord, you can just stop playing when you get to that measure of the tune, and play a tonic I maj7 (#11) with a fermata. Note that you will very often have to change the final resting note of the melody in many instances.

A lot of jazz standards end with the root of the tonic I chord in the melody, and you can hit that note and then quickly pivot away to a major 7th or 9th or the #11 to avoid having the “crunchy” sound that results from having a major 7 in the piano or guitar voicing clashing with a root played by a melodic instrument (often a minor 9th above). Or, you can simply skip playing the root when the final chord arrives and simply jump onto a note from the chord’s extension (such as a major 7th, 9th, 13th or the #11). Here’s an example using the last few bars of “All the Things You Are”:

3. Ending on bII Major 7(#11)

This is a common maneuver jazz musicians use, and often players will play the b2 maj7 (#11) with a fermata and then cue and resolve that chord down to a tonic I major chord (often a major 6/9 to avoid a major 7 in the voicing which could clash with the root if it’s being held out in the melody). The reason this device works so well is that, again, the melodies of many jazz standards end on the root of the tonic I chord, and the root of the I chord is the major 7th of the bII maj7.

Further, by making it a bII maj7 (#11), you have a rich and colorful chord with another important common tone (the #11 of bII is the same pitch as the natural 5 of the I chord). Since some tunes melodically end on the 5th of the I chord, and the #11 of the bII is the same note as the 5th of the I chord, this ending also works great on tunes which melodically end on the 5th of the I chord. Finally, since the 3rd of bII maj7 is the same as the 7th of a V7 chord, you get a satisfying sense of harmonic resolution of you resolve a bII maj7 into a I chord because the 3rd of the bII voice leads convincingly down a half-step to the 3rd of the I chord.

Here’s an example using “You Stepped Out of a Dream” [some players end this song melodically on the 5th, others on the root, so I’ve notated both pitches – both will work over Db maj7 (#11)]:

4. V7(alt.) to I Major 7 with Short Cadenza

Cadenzas seem to be especially effective and common for ballads. Simply have the band stop at the penultimate V7 chord (it should be played as a V7 with some alterations, a b9 at minimum to create tension), and then allow a soloist or a few players to emerge with a melodic improvisation as the band lets the V7(alt.) chord die out.

When the soloist or soloists are done playing their unaccompanied solo, they can visually and/or musically cue the band to play the final tonic chord and cut it off when they’re done. Here’s a example using “Stella by Starlight”:

5. “Moment’s Notice” or Blues/Rhythm Changes I7(#9) Ending

This is especially common over Blues/Rhythm Changes and features prominently as the ending to John Coltrane’s iconic jazz song “Moment’s Notice.” Simply play and hold a I7(#9) when you get to the final tonic chord of the song, and feel to add other alterations and perhaps allow a player or a few musicians to briefly improvise a closing cadenza or short melodic flourish while the chord is being held out. You can always change the last note of the melody to the #9 for this to sound work best. Here’s an example using the end of “Tenor Madness”:

6. Vamp and Fade Out

You can always just vamp out on a single chord or short progression. For example, when you hit the final tonic chord of the song, you can make that the start of a 2-bar repeated phrase featuring a I-VI-II-V progression (with 2 beats per chord). Just keep improvising and slowly fade out. It’s especially effective if you improvise using the last melodic idea of the melody as a motif that you riff around with – repeat it, change it around, add and subtract notes/rhythms to it etc. as you fade out. Alternatively, you can vamp out on a single chord. Good choices for a single chord to vamp out on include I7(sus4), V7(sus4), I-7 (especially for modal tunes), or bII maj7 (#11).

I hope these endings prove useful for you. Happy practicing!

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Josiah Boornazian is an award-winning saxophonist, composer, and educator currently active in New York City, Miami, California, and Washington state. Josiah has performed with a wide variety of artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Dave Holland, Mark Farina, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Cyrille Aimee, Dafnis Prieto, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Shelly Berg, Chris Potter, Drew Gress, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Tom Scott, Ari Hoenig, Dan Weiss, John Escreet, Jacob Sacks, Fima Ephron, Jonathan Crayford, Obed Calvaire, Will Vinson, Matt Brewer, Ben Wendel, Eivind Opsvik, Ferenc Nemeth, Alan Ferber, John Daversa, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. Josiah holds a Master of Arts degree in music from the City University of New York's City College campus and a Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, Josiah, who has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools in California and Washington, began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's prestigious Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. Josiah also teaches at the Frost School part-time as a graduate assistant. In 2017, Josiah's ensemble was selected to participate in the Bucharest International Jazz Competition and he was awarded a Björn Bärnheim Research Fellowship at the Hogan Jazz Archive during the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information, please visit josiahboornazian.com.

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