Overview: The Jo Jones/Kenny Clarke beat, 26 blues riffs, 6 rhythm riffs, 100 standards + commentary.
If you want the free pdf of the blues and rhythm riffs + the list of 100 standards, just sign up for my newsletter Transitional Technology (sign up is free) and email me back (you can “reply” to any TT email). If you already have the info for the dropbox with my educational handouts, “Core Repertoire” has been added, so just look for that link.
After working at a conservatory for several years, I’ve decided to focus on teaching the core repertoire, the collection of compositions and motifs created during a 30-year window from the mid-1930s to the mid-60s: Arguably the greatest music of the 20th century.
A major part of the repertoire is rhythm. There are no unique or new rhythms within a swinging 4/4 context; it all goes back thousands of years to Mother Africa. These rhythms percolated alongside European harmony in New Orleans, the Southwest, and Kansas City before circling the globe.
At the drum set, the basic motif was finalized by a group of geniuses that included Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke. The right hand plays “Spang, spang-a lang, spang-a lang” on the ride cymbal. The right foot plays four soft beats on the bass drum. (“Feathering” the bass drum.) The left foot snaps the high-hat on beats two and four. The left hand plays fragments of clave on the snare.
Clave is as relevant to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane as it is to the most famous rumba and salsa musicians.
Great drummers take all those Jo Jones/Kenny Clarke elements and make it high art, but the basics are there for anybody. This essential beat powers all the famous records from the 30s through the mid-60s; it is also heard in countless movie scores, TV commercials, and much other flotsam and jetsam from American culture. American music could take giant strides forward if everyone (not just the jazz musicians) were able to play a basic Kenny Clarke beat at a moderate tempo.
The perfect delivery system for swing rhythm is the big band, which in its day was genuinely popular music, absolutely inescapable in the culture at large. While big band music is almost by definition all written out, it is also true that the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands had another element in the mix. Those early black big bands had an extensive repertoire of short melodies called “riffs.” However they generated the sounds, it was not a purely European process, in the manner of Beethoven handing out finished parts to a symphony. According the oral histories, the earliest iterations of the Ellington and Basie bands were quite collaborative when generating melodic material and riffs. Rhythmically, these riffs resemble fragments offered by the lead musician in a classical drum choir connected to Mother Africa. Again, riffs absolutely relate to clave.
Harmonically, the music of the swing era begins with parlor piano music derived from the European system: light classics, a little bit of easy Bach and Chopin, Tin Pan Alley showtunes. On top of that are swinging riffs that deny the harmony. Riffs contain non-harmonic notes that are not pretty extensions a la the French (Debussy etc.) or Russians (Scriabin etc.). These swinging phrases ignore the harmony. This is the New World! There was absolutely no previous piano-based European music where the melody and the harmony were on different tracks. Again, riffing over parlor piano harmony is the American version of the classical African drum choir.
A big part of denying the harmony is the blues. Blues melodies do not have harmonic direction in the European manner, they tend to stay in one place. In the tempered system, like at a piano, blues music employs a flat third and flat seven in tonic major. The original folksong blues played on guitars used a variety of structures, but, by the swing era, it had generally resolved to the twelve bar form formally notated by W.C. Handy.
Everyone involved with this music should know a bunch of easy blues melodies. Here’s a collection of two dozen examples. Sometimes the riff happens three times, and that’s that. Frequently the major third is lowered for the second iteration on the subdominant, and occasionally the last iteration has a different tail.
Swingin’ the Blues. Kansas City in the 1930’s gets a lot of credit, partially for the rhythmic feel. The concept perfected by Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones immediately influenced all music everywhere and remains fresh and undated today. On top of that superlative swing, the horns played their little melodies. Kansas City = Riff Central.
One O’Clock Jump. All the masters are more idiosyncratic than a newbie might expect. Everyone speaks the same language but the details are delightfully personal. Basie’s theme song (for a lifetime) begins with a piano solo in F before going to D-flat for the band. What?
Sent For You Yesterday. Lyrically, blues music often has one line repeated, perhaps a question, then a third and different line that answers. In the first chorus Jimmy Rushing sings, “Don’t the moon look lonesome, shining through the trees. Don’t the moon look lonesome, shining through the trees. Don’t your house look lonesome, when your baby packs up to leave.” The second chorus contradicts the first: “Well, I sent for you yesterday, and here you come today. I sent for you yesterday, and here you come today. You can’t love me, pretty baby, and treat me that way.”
Boogie Woogie. Part of the black music progression was piano boogie to jump blues to R& B. I love the horn riff on Basie’s “Boogie Woogie” because the horn riff does not flat the third on the subdominant. (Intentional) ignorance is bliss.
Jumping’ for Symphony Sid. Lester Young created many of the riffs in the Basie book. For his own band in the ’40s, Pres came up with this tiny scrap of tune, barely a composition, yet also instantly memorable.
C Jam Blues. Talk about your tiny scraps — yet at the same time, strangely idiosyncratic and compelling. Ellington’s blues pieces are all bizarre in one way or another, generally making Basie look straightforward in comparison. (“Main Stem” is a delightful “weird” Ellington riff beloved by connoisseurs.) In the case of any authentic performance of “C Jam Blues,” the “break” leads into the tonic, rather than the subdominant, an effect that pulls the rug out from under.
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. Most of the time, a riff tune repeats in place. Here the whole melody transposes up on the subdominant, which gives a more European feel to the argument.
Woodchopper’s Ball. Woody Herman’s theme song is literally the 2:3 son clave.
Little Joe From Chicago. A lot of jump blues pieces were novelty numbers. In this case, the whole Andy Kirk band puts down their horns and sings barbed comments about Louis Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser.
Night Train. Jimmy Forrest’s sexy 1950 recording was a huge hit and remains key repertoire for bump-‘n- grind burlesque shows. Another important slow shuffle blues (that defies casual notation, otherwise I would have included it) is “After Hours,” played by Avery Parrish with Erskine Hawkins. I can’t imagine any of my students actually playing “After Hours” or “Night Train” on a gig, but they are basic building blocks of American music.
Buzzy, Bluebird, Cool Blues, and Now’s the Time. Charlie Parker was from Kansas City, and — as fast and complicated as his bebop got — Bird always kept that riffing blues style close at hand. However, even on the page, Bird’s riffs exude a cool sophistication unlike the Basie riffs from a decade before. “Now’s the Time” is a little too complicated to be called a riff blues, but if you don’t know “Now’s the Time,” then you aren’t a jazz musician.
Bud’s Blues. Bud Powell wrote the most complex bebop lines of anybody, but he wasn’t above creating an unforgettable riff. The quartet session with Sonny Stitt is one of the best.
Emanon and Blue ‘n Boogie. Dizzy Gillespie’s smart riffs are usually part of a longer compositional conception. Bonus listen: “School Days,” a novelty number where Dizzy’s band plays pure R&B.
Blues in the Closet. Also known as “Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas.” When I played this on my high school gigs in Wisconsin, people asked me if I was playing “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes.
Rue Chaptal (AKA Tenor Madness). The “answer” in the third line is pure bebop, and contextualizes the previous swing riff in another kind of way.
Centerpiece. From 1958, this riff by Harry “Sweets” Edison is one of the last 12-bar blues written by a bona fide jazzer to enter the larger cultural consciousness. Jon Hendricks wrote the lyrics for Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.
Bags’ Groove. Milt Jackson, a major swinger, played his most famous tune with Miles Davis and with the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Miles version is a simple arrangement, the MJQ is comparatively complex.
Sonnymoon for Two. It should go without saying that notating black music in the European system is a fool’s game. Big band riffs almost work, but trying to write down exactly what Sonny Rollins plays with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones is absolutely impossible. Wonderful riff; essential recording.
Trane’s Slo Blues. A great composer stamps their personality into the smallest of fragments. In 1957, Coltrane was just getting going with his pentatonic development, but it’s all right there in embryo for “Slo Blues.”
Splanky. The New Testament Basie band was always fun to listen to. Neal Hefti’s “Splanky” is included partly because many students would have played the chart in high school. If you know the riff, you can play part of it almost anywhere, anytime, on any standard 4/4 changes. I’m serious!
Blues Everywhere. Not that familiar but truly beautiful. I learned this complex series of riffs from Houston Person, one of the big-toned sax preachers comfortable setting up next to organ players like composer Shirley Scott. “Grits ‘n gravy” is sometimes what they called the post-1950’s style where organ, guitar, and tenor blow the blues all night long for drinking and dancing. However, those organ groups played serious bebop and the latest radio ballads as well. This working-class black music is not always in the history books but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or truly great. Gene Ammons, Lockjaw Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Houston Person, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff, the list goes on. Some of the guitarists birthed in this scene went on to be big stars: Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino. The lone book in the whole library of jazz criticism that addresses some of this topic in terms of record sales and radio play is Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community 1945-1975 by Bob Porter.
Take the Coltrane. It’s unlikely that Ellington sat down and studied a bunch of Coltrane to prepare for their record date. Probably Duke just heard enough to know “descending thirds” (like “Giant Steps”) and “minor modal” (like anything after “So What” and “My Favorite Things”) in order to come up with a riff that sounded like both Duke and Trane at the same time.
Then there are AABA riff tunes. The chord progression of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” from 1930 was probably not exactly new, but it consolidated something important, and the best and the brightest ran with the inspiration. This is not yet bebop, where fast eighth notes thread through changes. In swing era riff tunes, the harmonic base is essentially a drone. The tonic just sits there, a benign major key, as blues and clave dance on top. Often the bridge is open for fancy improvisation, contrasting with the tight riff of the A sections.
Christopher Columbus. Not that familiar today, but the riff credited to Chu Berry was a huge success among musicians in the late ’30s into the ’40s. In that era you would hear this melody at almost any jam session. The 1936 Fletcher Henderson big band record with varied riffs in counterpoint was famous. Fats Waller recorded another hit version with amusing lyrics by Andy Razaf.
Lester Leaps In. The theme song of the ultimate Kansas City riff master, Lester Young, first recorded in 1939.
Mop Mop. Credited to Coleman Hawkins, who first recorded it in 1943. The riff spread like wildfire; there are many versions on wax (including by Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, and Howard McGhee) before the famous 1947 recording (as “Boff Boff”) by Louis Armstrong at Symphony Hall with Sid Catlett, who takes a canonical drum solo. (Max Roach’s “For Big Sid” is based on “Mop Mop.”) Phrasing the rhythm accurately is harder than it looks. It would be great if all American musicians knew how to play “Mop Mop.”
For the non-rhythm changes riff tunes, I’ve put the melody and the bass line. This is closer to figured bass in Baroque music than a lead sheet with chord symbols. Musicians of that era would have understood these charts, partly because chord symbols arrived a bit later in the timeline. Writing out the bass motion helps clarify the inversions of basic tonal harmony, a conceit that remains a bit inelegant to spell out with chord symbols.
Flat Foot Floogie. A massive hit. Everyone had to play this nonsense novelty song, and if you were in a top band, you had to sing it (or more like shout it) as well. The first Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart version was from 1938; in 1945 Charlie Parker joined Gaillard for a remake and took an impeccable 16-bar solo, sitting stylistically just between old-school Lester Young and pure modern Bird. I freely admit my transcription is not that accurate! Nonsense syllables definitely relate to swing and black music, from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie to the infinite lyrical possibilities of hip-hop.
Tuxedo Junction. A real swinger and one of the big hits of the big band era, first recorded by composer Erskine Hawkins in 1939.
Flying Home. Co-authored by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman, first recorded in 1939 as a Goodman sextet number with a beautiful Fletcher Henderson piano intro and quality solos from Goodman, Hampton, and especially, Charlie Christian. The piece gained new life as a major hit for Hampton’s big band in 1942 with a wildly popular tenor sax sermon by the great Illinois Jacquet. Hampton/Jacquet played the song in A-flat, while the original Goodman was in E-flat. My E-flat score includes Henderson’s piano intro and the concluding sextet riff.
“Flying Home,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “Flat Foot Floogie” happen to be all connected to Malcolm X. A major dance sequence in the Spike Lee movie starring Denzel Washington features the Hampton/Jacquet “Flying Home,” while in his autobiography, X writes, “I pleasured myself these Saturday nights by gawking around the Negro bars and restaurants. The jukeboxes were wailing Erskine Hawkins’ ‘Tuxedo Junction,’ Slim and Slam’s ‘Flat Foot Floogie,” things like that.”
A tuxedo usually contrasts black and white colors, and Gerald Early called his important essay collection surveying the interaction of black and white culture Tuxedo Junction.
Erskine Hawkins wrote the song while in residence in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom, but the masses of white America learned “Tuxedo Junction” from the far more popular Glenn Miller record.
I actually dig the Glenn Miller version, except for Moe Purtill’s clunky drum fills, which would have never passed muster in an African-American context. For that matter, Malcolm X dug Miller too: X mentions “Moonlight Serenade” in Autobiography. Still, it is important to note how the reception history has never been adequately sorted to this day. Black musicians used to be erased entirely from the histories of American music, and, sadly, jazz education has participated in the whitewashing. Things are a lot better now, but it is still necessary to confront this topic head on.
These riffs are black music. Period. Anyone can have fun with these riffs, but the rhythmic information (and nothing defines a riff more than rhythm) comes from Africa. It was brought here on the slave ships during the Middle Passage.
At the time Malcolm X was “gawking around” the bars and listening to “Tuxedo Junction,” American society was segregated. (Perhaps in 2022 American society is still segregated, but that topic is beyond the purview of this short article.) X was hanging out in Lansing, a Northern city, but nobody thought there was parity there at that time, let alone “down in Birmingham,” the town name-checked in the lyrics to “Tuxedo Junction.”
Probably some people are looking at this page in disbelief. “Does a college jazz student really not know the simple melody of ‘Lester Leaps In?'” According to anecdotal experience: No, many do not.
And this is where I make my plea about scale theory and advanced harmony, which seems to be the first place a lot of jazz teachers start. In my view, there’s just no point in handing out a dorian, mixolydian, or lydian scale until the student knows some riffs. If the student can’t riff, what the hell are they gonna play on a dorian, mixolydian, or lydian scale? Scale patterns? But scale patterns just don’t swing on their own without riffs to sort the basic structure of this music.
“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.” — Malcolm X.
After the swing era, there was the explosion of bebop, hard bop, modal, and avant-garde music. In general, the students paying for jazz education seem to like this era of American music, roughly 1945 (Charlie Parker’s recording of “Ko-Ko”) up through the last works of John Coltrane in 1967.
Each major figure of the avant-garde has their own rules and regulations, perhaps not unlike musicians from before the swing era. Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith require their own classes, just as Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley do.
But the center of the mosaic, the thread from bebop to hard bop to modal, is more similar than different. All the musicians knew each other, and most had spent time in a big band playing for dances.
The durable original compositions from this era contain supersonic riffs, where clave intertwines with harmony in amazingly sophisticated ways. All the original pieces have consecrated African-American rhythmic information.
Famous Bebop compositions include: Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche,” “Confirmation,” “Now’s the Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Anthropology” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” “Groovin’ High,” and “Con Alma.”
Famous Hard Bop compositions include: Miles Davis’s “Walkin,” Horace Silver’s “The Preacher” and “Song for My Father,” Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and “Airegin,” Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty,” and “Killer Joe.”
Famous Modal compositions include: Miles Davis “Milestones” and “So What,” plus the Coltrane changes tunes like “Giant Steps” and “Countdown,” leading into the most famous 60s tunes of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter.
(Although many regard “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” as the conclusion of the previous tradition, I have come to see it as the beginning of the new one. Despite their many fast moving changes, “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” lack bebop riffing; also, Coltrane soon abandoned the bass motion and played Coltrane changes almost exclusively in modal music with a slow-moving harmonic base. It’s the great divide. Many proficient modal players who sound good on “Giant Steps” don’t quite get the out-of-sync and riffing corners of bebop, while many bebop masters just could not make the leap to modal music.)
I’ve heard jazz teachers complain about Silver’s “Song For My Father” and Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” saying that they are overplayed by beginning students. Possibly, but, also, the precise African-American rhythmic information in the melodies is usually neglected. If the kids were playing the tunes correctly, they would be a lot easier to listen to.
There’s so much more original repertoire, of course, including the stunning canon of Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn and over 40 charismatic themes of Thelonious Monk.
But the Duke Ellington universe is very hard. The Thelonious Monk universe is very hard. Playing Charlie Parker’s melodies correctly is challenging, let alone Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge.” It was usually years before most of those pieces were recorded correctly by anyone but the original composer.
An intermediate step is learning standards: the pop themes from movies, musical theatre, and crooners on the radio. Literally everyone learned those tunes, and learned from those tunes, besides. Even more than the original compositions, the standards were the common tongue and the common teacher.
In the end, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane are the most important figures. It’s a smooth thread: Bird hired Miles, then Miles hired Trane. Nearly every other significant figure of the 40s, 50s, and 60s played with one of the three. They were the most influential, and while Bird was never a truly popular figure, Miles and Trane commanded genuine real estate in the culture at large.
One hundred familiar standards played by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane are listed below. Charting a chronological course shows how the harmonies and melodies evolved. While there is rarely swing or any kind of serious African-American know-how built into these tunes, adding clave and blues-based riffs to any of these pieces will immediately create the correct texture.
Sure, I know all these tunes and could play them at a jam session. This is not an unusual declaration from a professional. However, I don’t know them all equally well. Some I’d need to “fake it until I make it.” But that’s no problem, for there’s that kind of wiggle room in this music. Indeed, “faking it” is a crucial professional tool. Perhaps filling in the cracks with something “wrong” that turns out to be “right” is even part of the higher space of creativity.
How do you learn the standards? There’s no one way. Back when Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were recording these songs, they could be heard on the radio and at the movies. I encourage my students to play along with current radio hits, for that is part of the same mechanism that enabled midcentury practitioners to learn all these tunes.
The melodies are simple, usually diatonic and motivic. Knowing some of the lyric helps fix the melody more firmly in one’s mind. Probably the horn players were in charge of knowing the melodies, and the piano players were in charge of the whole book. Miles said that Red Garland told him what ballads to play, and Coltrane told vocalist Johnny Hartman to call McCoy Tyner for their famous album together. Maybe there were some primitive fakebooks around, but many piano players would have looked at original sheet music. On DTM I have posted 24 standards in their original sheets, including little videos of the sounds. The original sheets can sound quite fresh compared to the received wisdom of modern-day iReal Pro etc.
There are good fakebooks around everywhere these days. Red Garland or Wynton Kelly would undoubtedly be astounded to see what’s available on the shelves of a decent conservatory library.
Ron Carter says something like, “Tell me the home key and the first chord of the bridge and I’ll be cool.” The standards are more alike than different, that’s part of their beauty and their utility. After you learn a dozen, the next dozen is easier. After you learn half this list, the rest can be almost be learned in “real time” on the bandstand or as you listen to a performance.
The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord is a helpful resource that attempts to collate all the jazz records ever made. For fun, I have included the number of The Jazz Discography entries for each song (TJD: x). “Body and Soul” tops the list with two and a half thousand recordings. But even a smaller entry, like “Strike Up the Band” at 357, is not too shabby, especially when one considers all the times that tune must have been played on a casual gig.
Sometimes the melody might change a bit over time, but definitely the harmony changes over time. These songs are far from fixed. That must be one reason why the masters loved these standards so much: Each slim melody and predictable form was an open gateway to creativity.
My topic on this page is instrumental jazz, but the singers are so wonderful as well: Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, so many others. Yesterday I heard Joe Williams sing “Old Folks” and it broke my heart. Anyone serious about playing standards well should listen to some great singers.
I have included a brief riff or two about each song. My comments were stream-of-consciousness and are in no sense definitive.
There are many more standards than these 100 — even Bird, Miles, and Trane recorded dozens of pieces that aren’t on this list — but this is a worthy starting point.
My Melancholy Baby (1912, Burnett/Norton) (TJD: 376) Bird and Dizzy played this with Monk on their only session together; much later Monk recorded an unforgettable and intentionally “old-timey” solo version in his final studio performances. The melody and changes were also admired and used by the school of Lennie Tristano.
Tiger Rag (1917, LaRocca (disputed)) (TJD: 1162) The chord cycle of “Tiger Rag” was a key sequence for early jazzers. Art Tatum served notice with a legendary solo version; Bird and Dizzy played a proper New Orleans-style confab, deliberately traveling into the past, live with Tristano.
(Back Home Again in) Indiana (1917, Hanley/MacDonald) (TJD: 1163) The framework for the popular bop anthem “Donna Lee.”
After You’ve Gone (1918, Layton/Creamer) (TJD: 1377) Black Broadway was very important for early 20th-century entertainment. Turner Layton was one of those pioneering composers; his most famous tune starts on the subdominant and features unexpected harmonies and phrase lengths. (This may be the first example of an unresolved major seventh chord highlighted in the melody.)
Oh, Lady Be Good (1924, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 1308) George Gershwin is vastly influential to the very fabric of this music. In “Lady Be Good” George goes from G to C dominant and then back to G, a blues move that suited everyone straight down to the ground. In the early years, this was one of the most popular tunes at a jam session. Lester Young’s two-chorus solo with “Jones-Smith Inc.” in 1936 is a basic building block. In 1993 Tommy Flanagan recorded “Lady” with the verse played “straight” and a slow beat from Peter Washington and Lewis Nash.
Limehouse Blues (1922, Furber/Braham) (TJD: 890) English composers, a racist context, and a lot of dominant chords. The first example of Coltrane playing his Coltrane changes occurs next to Cannonball Adderley (who also sounds just wonderful on this track).
Tea for Two (1924, Youmans/Caesar) (TJD: 993) We live and die by the II/V in this music. Youmans’s early sentimental song offers a bald statement of this essential sequence. In the bop era, Youmans’s melody could show up as guide tones just about anywhere.
The Man I Love (1924, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 1188) A lovely ballad as is; Coleman Hawkins did a double-time version with Eddie Heywood, Oscar Pettiford, and Shelly Manne that has gone into the books as one of the best places to hear the transition from swing to bop.
Sweet Georgia Brown (1925, Bernie/Pinkard) (TJD: 1918) Like Turner Layton, Maceo Pinkard was another early Broadway African-American composer whose extensive output remains relevant thanks to one or two familiar tunes. For many years “Sweet Georgia Brown” was the theme of the display basketball team The Harlem Globetrotters. A casual Art Tatum jam with Frankie Newton offers remarkable harmonic extensions in the piano blowing. Thelonious Monk, always a fan of cycling dominants, used the framework for “Bright Mississippi.”
Bye Bye Blackbird (1926, Henderson/Dixon) (TJD: 945) On various records with Miles Davis, Paul Chambers showcased the “two feel,” which not only sounds good on its own, but also builds tension heading towards a release when the bass begins walking quarter notes. “Bye Bye Blackbird” on Davis’s Round Midnight with Chambers is definitive.
Star Dust (1927, Carmichael/Parish) (TJD: 1668) One of the most complex older standards; indeed, “Star Dust” stands far apart from the rest of these tunes from the 1920s. Hoagy Carmichael really pulled off a coup with this one. Has been recorded by everybody from Louis Armstrong to Willie Nelson.
Strike Up the Band (1927, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 357) Most of these pieces are AABA. So is “Strike Up the Band,” although the second A is up a fourth and the bridge moves back to the home key. The early Branford Marsalis version with Kenny Kirkland, Charnett Moffett, and Jeff Watts showcases the way the ’80s generation dealt out new polyrhythms and rhythm section interaction within an older container.
Embraceable You (1928, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 1023) A favored ballad of Charlie Parker, also the only standard recorded by Ornette Coleman (in a notably abstract arrangement).
Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise (1928, Romberg/Hammerstein) (TJD: 865) At first, the minor tonic was a triad, maybe a minor sixth. This is the harmony Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly, and Sonny Rollins use for “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” in the 50’s. After “So What,” tonic minor could also mean minor seven and the associated dorian and pentatonic scales. One can hear this 60’s language evolve on records of “Softly” by Coltrane and the wonderful version on Larry Young’s Unity with Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. Eventually the tune would be tricked out with full chromatic regalia by ’70s players like Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach. Quite a journey for a fairly square melody from 1928! The original notation is in 2/4, like ragtime.
Lover Come Back to Me (1928, Romberg/Hammerstein) (TJD: 667) That’s two from the same year from Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II. Nice work, cats. “Lover Come Back to Me” is not as familiar today, but it was popular with the beboppers. Its framework was used for Hawkins’s “Bean and the Boys” and Horace Silver’s “Quicksilver.” Coltrane played it very fast indeed with some lovely hardbop hits.
Honeysuckle Rose (1929, Waller/Razaf) (TJD: 1570) Fats Waller was one of the greatest pianists but also wrote tune after tune. This silly and sexy ditty is a shade impressionistic and intervallic, almost foreshadowing modal jazz. The framework went on to be “Scrapple From the Apple” and others.
What is This Thing Called Love? (1929, Porter) (TJD: 1166) Cole Porter, a true genius of the American song form, makes his first appearance with a tune that has never gone out of style. James P. Johnson recorded the first jazz version within a year. The framework would be used in Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House,” Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” Coltrane’s “Fifth House,” and others.
Just You, Just Me (1929, Greer/Klages) (TJD: 478) The Lester Young/Johnny Guarneri/Slam Stewart/Sid Catlett record is divine. Later the song would almost become exclusive property of Thelonious Monk, both as is and as the framework of “Evidence.” (Bebop wordplay: “Just You, Just Me” = “Just Us” = “Justice” = “Evidence.”) For the wonderfully chaotic version on The Jaki Byard Experience with Roland Kirk, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson, “Evidence” is combined with the Coleman Hawkins line “Spotlite.”
A new decade. Charlie Parker turned 10 years old in 1930, Miles Davis and John Coltrane would be four.
Body and Soul (1930, Green/Heyman/Sour/Eyton) (TJD: 2563) Immortalized by Coleman Hawkins in 1939, although plenty of other earlier great versions exist, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman with delightful Teddy Wilson, and a comparatively restrained Art Tatum solo track from 1938. After Hawk, all the tenor players have played “Body,” from Lester Young to Joshua Redman. (Benny Golson and Branford Marsalis recorded a version together.) Coltrane added a pedal point and Coltrane changes; the Atlantic track is classic, but the later wild-and-woolly version live in Seattle is also simply a must. Dexter Gordon influenced Trane; eventually, Dexter would play “Body” with Coltrane’s arrangement, a telling nod to how the music moves backwards and forwards at the same time. More recently, Jason Moran has added a touch of hip-hop know-how with notable success.
I Got Rhythm (1930, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 976) The most popular set of changes after the blues. While some of the most smoking bebop piano lines ever captured in the studio are on Hampton Hawes’s “I Got Rhythm” from his first Contemporary album, truthfully the tune is rarely heard in its original form, especially these days, perhaps partly because the composer included a four-bar tag that has been almost universally rejected by jazzers (although Paul Motian tried the tag out for one of his On Broadway albums). Wonderful video exists of Gershwin himself playing a fancy arrangement at the piano in 1931. He starts in D-flat and then takes a chorus in F, full James P. Johnson-style. It’s all too easy to take Gershwin for granted but he truly was something else.
Memories of You (1930, Blake/Razaf) (TJD: 757) Eubie Blake was there at the very dawn of the music. In later life he was the visible African-American exponent of ragtime during the post-war revival. Blake’s unique career also included the composition of many terrific songs, the most famous being “Memories of You.”
On the Sunny Side of the Street (1930, McHugh/Fields) (TJD: 1203) The Dizzy Gillespie session with Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt has perfect choruses from each saxophonist. Rollins is more motivic, Stitt is pure bop. The Dizzy arrangement of “Sunny Side” is cute as well.
But Not for Me (1930, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 906) Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Horace Silver recorded two magical takes accompanied by Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. A few years later Coltrane added his changes for a swinging rendition with McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, and Elvin Jones.
Love For Sale (1930, Porter) (TJD: 1194) Most of the lyrics to these love songs proceed pretty much as expected. Racy Cole Porter takes on prostitution, a proposition that might cause an eyebrow to be raised even today. Perhaps as an allied equivocal sentiment, the song also displays an intriguing lack of harmonic clarity as to whether it is in major or minor. The Miles with Coltrane and Cannonball is phenomenal, as is Dexter with Sonny Clark and Billy Higgins.
My Ideal (1930, Whiting/Chase/Robin) (TJD: 332) A short and sentimental melody immortalized by Coltrane in his long sequence of standards for Prestige with Red Garland on piano.
Three Little Words (1930, Ruby/Kalmar) (TJD: 472) I grew up on a mainstream 1976 Teddy Wilson performance with Milt Hinton and Oliver Jackson where Hinton plays the melody. The piece was one of Sonny Rollins’s favored standards during his peak years of abstraction in the ’60s.
All of Me (1931, Marks/Simons) (TJD: 1183) I never get tired of this basic and almost corny pair of 16 bar phrases. Used to good effect in the Steve Martin movie of the same name; also the framework behind the Tristano masterpiece “Line Up.”
Out of Nowhere (1931, Green/Heyman) (TJD: 849) Some of these standards have just one cool move that makes them popular. In “Out of Nowhere” that move is obviously the distant II/V in bar 3. Bird, Bud, and Fats Navarro played the hell out of it live at Birdland. The song was popular with the Tristanoites; Warne Marsh keeled over and died during his last performance of “Out of Nowhere.”
You’re My Everything (1931, Warren/Dixon/Young) (TJD: 228) The 1962 Freddie Hubbard version with Herbie Hancock and Clifford Jarvis is spectacular, an old-timey standard reimagined with the very latest tools.
Just Friends (1931, Klenner/Lewis) (TJD: 791) A slightly updated child of “After You’ve Gone,” starting on the subdominant and singing out a major seventh. Child actor Tommy Bond belting out “Just Friends” on The Little Rascals is essential Americana. Charlie Parker with strings is also certainly canon.
How Deep is the Ocean (1932, Berlin) (TJD: 866) Like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin wrote his own words, and his lyrics for “How Deep is the Ocean” are particularly fine. Eventually this song was the property of Bill Evans, updated by Chick Corea as “Now He Beats the Drum, Now He Stops.”
Don’t Blame Me (1932, McHugh/Fields) (TJD: 557) Key versions include Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
April in Paris (1932, Duke/Harburg) (TJD: 507) Vernon Duke was a concert composer of note, and his several standards are more complicated than most of their fellows. Count Basie tracked Wild Bill Davis’s riff-heavy arrangement of “April In Paris” in 1956 and had a surprise hit on his hands, later reprised in an unforgettable sequence in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.
The Song is You (1932, Kern/Hammerstein) (TJD: 557) Jerome Kern apparently plucked his immortal themes right out of thin air. Hammerstein is a canonical lyricist. For the first half of “The Song is You,” we think the narrator is singing to their lover. At the bridge, we suddenly learn that the narrator hasn’t told anyone yet. “Must it be? Forever inside of me?” cues the first minor chord in the song. In the ’70s, Keith Jarrett got very involved in basic modal music with simple repeating structures, for example on the best-selling solo piano album of all time, The Koln Concert. A few years later, Jarrett was playing standards with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, and for their “The Song is You” on Still Live, the simple repeating structures combine with jazz. The result is thrilling.
Lover (1932, Rodgers/Hart) (TJD: 490) The first of several appearances by Richard Rodgers. “Lover” was originally a waltz, but the descending key conceit made it perfect for fast 4/4 blowing. In the 50’s they called it the “Max Roach tempo,” and Roach is there for Sonny Rollins and the ultra-fast “B. Swift” on “Lover” changes.
Night and Day (1932, Porter) (TJD: 1059) Several of Porter’s pieces have non-standard forms, in this case eliding the bridge to the back half of the A section. (Porter’s ABCDEF structure in “Begin the Beguine” is officially the longest form in the Great American Songbag.) The blocky parallel move at the top of the bridge (In C major, up to E flat and back again) is vaguely “exotic” and foreshadows much more of this kind of thing coming down the pike. Joe Henderson recorded it with Coltrane changes.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1933, Kern/Harbach) (TJD: 494) The composers were working pros, filling up stacks of blank staff paper on deadline. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” began life as an instrumental 2/4 interlude for some long-forgotten show before Kern reworked it as a torch song. Black music moves in mysterious ways: The Platters snuck in a number one doo-wop hit with “Smoke” in 1958. I’m partial to the Thelonious Monk performances.
Yesterdays (1933, Kern/Harbach) (TJD: 1328) Minor key themes are far less common than those in major. The only proper Art Tatum on video seems to be a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it traversal of “Yesterdays.” John Scofield called his gloss in 7/4 “Last Week.” Kern wrote a two bar tag required for the lyrics that most jazzers ignore when treating it as an instrumental.
Summertime (1934, Gershwin/Heyward) (TJD: 2162) Porgy and Bess, a wonderful and problematic score, birthed a few standards including “Summertime.” Unlike most casual performances, Charlie Parker’s rendition with strings hews closely to the Gershwin original harmonically. Of unique interest is Duke Ellington’s stunning trio deconstruction with Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard in 1961. Duke never said, but this truly avant-garde track might have been in reaction to Civil Rights unrest…or it might have been in anger about Gershwin’s continued eclipse of Ellington as the great American composer after Gershwin was dead. Continuing in an extreme direction: Albert Ayler recorded a few LPs of standards with a European rhythm section, and his over-the-top statement of “Summertime” has remarkable pathos.
I Get a Kick Out of You (1934, Porter) (TJD: 390) The Clifford Brown – Max Roach recording from 1954 displays remarkable rhythmic finesse on the head and fleet solos from Brown and Harold Land.
My Old Flame (1934, Johnston/Coslow) (TJD: 410) One of the more oblique torch songs boasts a maze of false endings from composer Arthur Johnston.
East of the Sun (and West of the Moon) (1934, Bowman) (TJD: 625) Charlie Parker played this pretty collection of II/Vs a lot. The tag at the end is required.
(You’d Be So) Easy to Love (1934, Porter) (TJD: 458) A nice Sonny Stitt LP with Bobby Timmons, Personal Appearance, kicks off with a smokin’ rendition of “Easy to Love.”
These Foolish Things (1934, Strachey/Maschwitz) (TJD: 863) The 1945 studio recording by Lester Young is a touchstone.
Autumn in New York (1934, Duke) (TJD: 563) Once again, Vernon Duke supplies one of the more challenging standards, particularly hard to learn by ear.
Just One of Those Things (1935, Porter) (TJD: 804) Above, racy Cole Porter talked about working girls, here racy Cole Porter celebrates a hot one-night stand. Jazzers tend to play this one as fast as possible.
Lush Life (1936, Strayhorn) (TJD: 896) The most complex song in this list is undoubtedly Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” As a teenager, Strayhorn loved musical theatre as much as swing, and his famous lament can be played “straight” in a cabaret style with total success. Indeed, based on Strayhorn’s own records, a cabaret approach seems to be the way Strayhorn intended the work to go. That hasn’t stopped jazzers from taking many blowing choruses on the long and sticky form. The verse is mandatory, even in instrumental performances.
The Way You Look Tonight (1936, Kern, Fields) (TJD: 703) A gorgeous tune, often played as fast bebop. Under the hood, it turns out that the A sections are “rhythm changes” at half the speed. A serious amount of tenor saxophone is present for A Blowin’ Session with Johnny Griffin, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley. Lee Morgan sounds great too. Art Blakey occasionally clarifies if they are playing the Kern tag or not.
I Can’t Get Started (1936, Duke/Gershwin) (TJD: 1134) Vernon Duke’s final contribution to this list is a bit more obvious than “April in Paris” or “Autumn In New York,” yet a few details still stick out as unusual. Dizzy Gillespie’s early version with contrapuntal lines in a sextet is glorious, and updates a few Vernon Duke moves with bebop progressions. What we now play as the intro to “‘Round Midnight” appears on this early Diz track.
If I Should Lose You (1936, Rainger/Robin) (TJD: 507) Hank Mobley lays down the law on Soul Station alongside Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey. Their setlist concludes with “If I Should Lose You.” Straight-ahead perfection.
Pennies From Heaven (1936, Johnston/Burke) (TJD: 691) A goofy lyric works in dramatic counterpoint to the spectacularly grim Steve Martin movie of the same name. Lennie Tristano darkened the first chord to make it “Pennies in Minor” and the challenging melody “Lennie’s Pennies.”
There is No Greater Love (1936, Jones/Symes) (TJD: 623) Originally a ballad, now usually a relaxed swinger with easy dominants circling the tonic. Perfect for elite pianists such as Cedar Walton or Kenny Barron. The collective Circle (Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul) recorded a singularly angular version.
All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm (1937, Kaper/Jurmann/Kahn) (TJD: 150) The original framework features II/Vs in sequence, borrowed for bebop melodies like “Little Willie Leaps” and “Reets ‘n I.”
My Funny Valentine (1937, Rodgers/Hart) (TJD: 1682) Using mostly the diatonic scale in stepwise motion, Richard Rodgers builds a major compositional achievement. The two familiar Miles Davis recordings with Red Garland/Paul Chambers/Philly Joe Jones or George Coleman/Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony Williams are both extraordinary, two peaks in human expression.
They Can’t Take That Away from Me (1937, Gershwin/Gershwin) (TJD: 621) Erroll Garner delivers this one with irresistible good humor. Garner’s harmony is always precise and simply perfect, a good place to look when seeking a worthy set of conventional changes on any given standard.
Someday My Prince Will Come (1937, Morey/Churchill) (TJD: 536) It’s 1937, and we’ve landed on our first piece in 3/4 time, thanks to a Disney cartoon. It was not in the jazz repertoire until Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis took it up in the late ’50s/early ’60s.
Old Folks (1938, Robison/Hill) (TJD: 637) A rare occasion where the lyric is unconcerned with romantic love. “One thing we don’t know about Old Folks/Did he fight for the blue or the gray?/But he’s so democratic and so diplomatic/We always let him have his way.”
Cherokee (1938, Noble) (TJD: 978) A basic proving ground for bebop excellence, with a bridge that goes through many distant keys. One of Bud Powell’s best records and the framework for Bird’s “Ko Ko.”
I Thought About You (1939, Van Heusen/Mercer) (TJD: 752) Shirley Horn (re)discovered this for Miles Davis. Davis told his pianists (Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, etc.) to check out Horn’s luscious piano voicings.
All the Things You Are (1939, Kern/Hammerstein) (TJD: 1783) All the standards have infinite possibility, but Kern’s famous 1939 song has been particularly flexible. The melody is perhaps less important than the attractive cycle of changes. Bud Powell to Barry Harris to Cedar Walton is one line, while Lennie Tristano to Paul Bley to Keith Jarrett is another. Art Tatum has a strong opinion on the topic, so does Brad Mehldau.
What’s New (1939, Haggart/Burke) (TJD: 887) Haggart was a good jazz bassist who wrote a few items that have entered the repertory. Jackie McLean’s bittersweet bebop cry is perfect for the opening “What’s New” on Swing, Swang, Swingin’.
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (1939, Rodgers/Hart) (TJD: 554) The melody is almost entirely diatonic as the chromatic chords roil beneath. The supergroup Sphere (Charlie Rouse, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Ben Riley) performed this one with distinction.
Darn that Dream (1939, Van Heusen/DeLange) (TJD: 753) Quite a sophisticated ballad full of wayward ideas. It is bad form to plug my own stuff, but the solo piano version on The Purity of the Turf is definitely the best I’ll ever play it.
All or Nothing at All (1939, Altman/Lawrence) (TJD: 310) After being hidden in plain sight for a few decades (except for vocal versions), the quasi-latin arrangement done by Coltrane with Elvin Jones soon became common currency.
In 1940 Charlie Parker had his 20th birthday, while Miles Davis and John Coltrane both turned 14.
How High the Moon (1940, Lewis/Hamilton) (TJD: 996) The bebop era is about to flower, and the scene has their anthem, “How High the Moon,” which is the first standard on this page to move relentlessly through II/Vs from the home key. The framework for Bird’s “Ornithology” and Trane’s “Satellite.”
Everything Happens To Me (1940, Dennis/Adair) (TJD: 668) A pretty ballad with an ironic edge. Elvin Jones leads Charlie Mariano and Richard Davis in a moderately chaotic and thoroughly charismatic situation.
You Stepped Out of Dream (1940, Brown/Kahn) (TJD: 528) The first progression is almost a flamenco idea, and the whole tune foreshadows Brazilian guitar composers like João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim. Charlie Byrd helped Stan Getz bring the Bossa Nova to America, and one can hear those elements coming together during Byrd’s performance of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” at the Vanguard in 1961. Chick Corea knew a lot about latin music, and his first original on record, “Chick’s Tune,” uses “You Stepped Out of a Dream” as the framework.
It Never Entered My Mind (1940, Rodgers/Hart) (TJD: 415) One of the key romantic ballads for Miles Davis in the early ’50s. The pure plain of a diatonic scale in the Rodgers/Hart songs “My Funny Valentine” and “It Never Entered My Mind” definitely relates to George Russell’s forthcoming scale theory for jazzers.
Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?) (1941, Davis/Ramirez/Sherman) (TJD: 1280) Closely associated with Billie Holiday, and written by a good working jazz pianist, Ram Ramirez. In Charlie Haden’s opinion, Bill Holman’s arrangement for Stan Kenton and soloist Lee Konitz was one of the greatest things ever recorded.
Just Squeeze Me (1941, Ellington/Gaines) (TJD: 507) I could have included a few more Ellington/Strayhorn compositions but that world is almost separate from all this common-practice material. Indeed, Bird and Miles didn’t record that much Duke, and neither did Trane, with the exception of their album together. On their own, Duke’s ditties don’t always mean much. “Just Squeeze Me” is a pretty good example: At first glance, a lead sheet of “Just Squeeze Me” is not that interesting. However, the 1943 Ellington band record recording with Ray Nance singing is phenomenal. There’s a wild saxophone counter-line on a dissonant major seventh, and the brass phrases in sexy gasps. In contrast, the Miles Davis record of “Just Squeeze Me” with Coltrane is “merely” excellent in the house style of the first great Miles quintet. For myself, I prefer hearing that quintet play all the normal Broadway composers rather than Duke (or Monk, discussed below).
I Hear a Rhapsody (1941, Fragos/Baker/Gasparre) (TJD: 385) A celebratory outburst that is usually played in the straightforward manner initiated by Coltrane in 1957. Do all the familiar changes really fit the melody, though? Bill Evans and Jim Hall went back to the sheet music and found a few interesting harmonizations at a drag tempo.
You Don’t Know What Love Is (1941, Raye/de Paul) (TJD: 1186) A torch song in dark minor, with expressive ninth perched on top of the tonic at the start. Many great versions; the one I grew up with was Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Al Foster on Outpost.
I’ll Remember April (1942, Johnston/de Paul/Raye) (TJD: 926) Another essential steeplechase. At the time it was innovative to have four bars of tonic major followed by four bars of tonic minor. One can almost hear the composers willing modal jazz into existence.
Star Eyes (1943, de Paul/Raye) (TJD: 497) That’s three in row from Gene de Paul and Don Raye. Nice work, cats. “Star Eyes” is a smooth and groovy progression of II/Vs, perfect for Bird and everyone else. Bird’s latin intro is frequently used. Young McCoy Tyner plays it straight down the middle in flawless fashion on Nights of Ballads and Blues.
It Could Happen to You (1943, Van Heusen/Burke) (TJD: 768) Many of these pieces entered the repertoire thanks to the sequence of Prestige dates by Miles Davis with Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Philly Joe Jones including Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Workin‘. Those sides remain a basic dictionary of swinging excellence and don’t sound dated in the least.
Speak Low (1943, Weill/Nash) (TJD: 751) Kurt Weill’s career isn’t easy to sum up in a word. The austere Violin Concerto is successful, The Threepenny Opera is one of the most important music theatre pieces of the 20th century, his Berlin cabaret songs are beloved, and, yes, there are several standards written in America that the jazz cats play over and over. “Speak Low” has notably colorful pitches in the melody and eventually would frequently get a “latin” treatment.
The Surrey with the Fringe On Top (1943, Rodgers/Hammerstein) (TJD: 275) Not all the source musicals are that interesting to watch today, but the amusing and fast-paced 1955 film version of Oklahoma! offers some astonishing Agnes de Mille choreography. Both Mary Lou Williams and Ahmad Jamal tracked the earliest jazz versions of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in 1951. McCoy Tyner’s trio rendition is one of his finest studio performances.
‘Round Midnight (1943, Monk/Hanighen/Williams, although the lyric by Hanighen is reasonably irrelevant and Williams contributed an interlude that has been rarely heard since 1943.) (TJD: 1918) Thelonious Monk’s most famous piece has been done in all sorts of contexts, including situations closer to cabaret rather than jazz, so it would be churlish to deny “‘Round Midnight” the status of “a standard.” Yet Monk remains on the fringe of the common practice tradition. When Bird and Dizzy recorded with him in the studio, it was a bit uncomfortable, and the same goes for the session with Miles Davis and Monk. (Miles didn’t like Monk’s comping and made the pianist lay out behind the trumpet solos.) Monk was one of our greatest composers, he fought for every note, and there was no reason for Miles to casually re-do the melody and changes for “Well, You Needn’t.” (Monk complained.) When I’m in charge of the classroom, I enforce the practice of Monk’s tunes being played exactly like the composer, something I would never bother to do for Gershwin or Porter. However, perhaps that attitude betrays something stiff or academic in my approach as a teacher. At any rate, for my list here, I have only included “‘Round Midnight,” which has many variant changes.
My Shining Hour (1943, Arlen/Mercer) (TJD: 379) The great Harold Arlen makes an appearance at last. Easy breezy, a nice workout with a slightly different form, ABCA.
Laura (1944, Raksin/Mercer) (TJD: 870) David Raksin composed for many movies; in the case of the film noir Laura directed by Otto Preminger, the score is mostly comprised of a sinuous theme that almost becomes a character in the story. Celebrated lyricist Johnny Mercer added his contribution after the movie was successful and people wanted to play the theme on their home piano. Ran Blake is dedicated to film noir, and his version of “Laura” with wonderful Jeanne Lee is peak Blake.
Stella By Starlight (1944, Young/Washington) (TJD: 1398) The original song is quite dramatic; jazzers took up the song en masse after the superlative relaxed take by Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Bill Evans. The melody is by Victor Young, but, harmonically, Evans is probably the true author of what we hear every day. The Evans conception was a softball to Herbie Hancock, who added more riffing and African-American know-how to Evans’s innovations. Between them, Evans and Hancock were so powerful that their harmonic language has held more sway in “conventional modern jazz piano” than anyone else before or since.
I Fall in Love Too Easily (1944, Styne/Cahn) (TJD: 554) Most standards are 32 bars; like “My Ideal,” “I Fall in Love” gets it done in 16. Miles Davis’s second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams could take this ballad to some dynamic and far-away places. The music recorded at the Plugged Nickel in 1965 is generally held to be some of the most advanced playing on standards ever recorded, with notably transcendent sax solos from Shorter.
Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (1944, Porter) (TJD: 580) Porter’s original harmonization is non-functional, jazzers usually insert II/Vs. A touchstone disc for me is the duo of Chet Baker and Paul Bley, Diane, where the aging heroes ruminate through ballads. Baker plays open trumpet like an angel and Bley digs inside for melodies remembered from distant places. One for the diehard romantics.
I Love You (1944, Porter) (TJD: 759) Two medium bounce 1957 trio versions, Coltrane/Earl May/Art Taylor and Bill Evans/Teddy Kotick/Paul Motian, show where the music was headed.
Like Someone in Love (1944, Van Heusen/Burke) (TJD: 731) Barry Harris can bebop you to death, but he also deeply loves the standards. The 1976 gig in Tokyo with Sam Jones and Leroy Williams begins with a superb “Like Someone in Love” inspired by Bud Powell.
Out of This World (1944, Arlen/Mercer) (TJD: 292) Arlen’s long form is a bit deceptive. Coltrane’s rendition with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones is the perfect alignment of time and place. Out of this world.
Multicultural interlude: It’s the mid-40s, and more and more core repertoire is taking on an “exotic” cast, with pedal points, latin rhythms, and added-note harmony.
There’s an important thread in jazz that stretches from Jelly Roll Morton’s early reference to a “Spanish tinge” to Danilo Perez’s current Global Jazz Institute, where even-eighths, world rhythms, and clave all intersect with swing and the blues. Bird, Miles, and Trane had a lot to do with this concept. Charlie Parker recorded South of the Border with a mambo rhythm section, the Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain is a stone classic, and Coltrane unselfconsciously titled LPs Olé and Africa/Brass and pieces “India” and “Exotica.”
The word “jazz” is problematic enough. Once we open the door to multicultural tropes, then the different areas of appropriation stack up like a dozen fighter jets trying to land on an aircraft carrier with one available dock.
Something like Elvin Jones’s drumming on “Out of This World” is generally considered unimpeachable, and these days many of the best and brightest (like Perez) are scholars of clave. Not everyone is so sophisticated. A lot of mid-century jazz masters took a pretty casual view of the matter. Early on, Duke Ellington was famous for “jungle music,” and Duke never tired of looking to non-American sources. Drummer Steve Little explained to me that when they were quickly taping “Blood Count,” Duke told Little, “Play something exotic,” and that was the take — which, not so incidentally, is one of the greatest things ever recorded.
The Wikipedia entry on “exotica,” the late 50’s fad created by Martin Denny found in any bachelor pad alongside Kind of Blue, is helpful. “The musical colloquialism exotica means tropical ersatz, the non-native, pseudo experience of insular Oceania, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, the Amazon basin, the Andes, the Caribbean and tribal Africa. Denny described the musical style as ‘a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient…what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like…it’s pure fantasy though.’ While the South Seas forms the core region, exotica reflects the ‘musical impressions’ of every place from standard travel destinations to the mythical ‘shangri-las’ dreamt of by armchair safari-ers.”
Arlen’s “Out of This World” has been recorded almost 300 times by jazz musicians, and the rhythm section rarely starts with a Kenny Clarke swing beat. It is usually something “exotic,” some kind of friendly and easy way to mix up a set that is otherwise concerned with swing.
Johnny Mercer writes in the lyric: “You’re clear out of this world/When I’m looking at you/I hear out of this world/The music that no mortal ever knew.”
I Want to Talk About You (1944, Eckstine) (TJD: 148) Billy Eckstine led a key big band that transitioned from swing to bop. He sung his tune to an arrangement scored by Tadd Dameron, the man who perhaps knew more about II/Vs than anybody. Coltrane played with Dameron, and eventually made “I Want to Talk About You” the epic ballad feature of his classic quartet. Indeed, the many triplets in Eckstine’s original melody seem related to Coltrane’s everyday phrasing.
Autumn Leaves (1945, Kosma/Mercer) (TJD: 1687) Joseph Kosma wrote scores for the films of Jean Renoir and one jazz standard. It’s an important one, one of the tunes every beginner learns as a matter of course. Ahmal Jamal took an exotic view of the tune with a fancy bassline and syncopated hits; Miles Davis pilfered some of those ideas for his date as a sideman for Cannonball Adderley. Ron Carter found seemingly every possible alternate bass progression for “Autumn Leaves” on stage with Davis in the ’60s. The short avant-garde version that begins David S. Ware’s Third Ear Recitation (with Matthew Shipp, William S. Parker, and Whit Dickey) is really quite perfect.
I Wish I Knew (1945, Warren/Gordon) (TJD: 308) Harry Warren’s original piano score is impressionistic, referencing Debussy and foreshadowing Gil Evans. Hank Jones, a magician when it comes to tasteful reharmonizations, hooks Wes Montgomery up with the right stuff on So Much Guitar!
Come Rain or Come Shine (1946, Arlen/Mercer) (TJD: 828) Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers would frequently feature a standard ballad done in forthright hardbop style. “Come Rain or Come Shine” on Moanin’ with Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt is right in the pocket.
Angel Eyes (1946, Dennis/Brent) (TJD: 829) One of the bluesiest of standards, perfect for those pianists who like to get deep in the shed such as Ray Bryant, Gene Harris, and Oscar Peterson. These comments are not about vocal performances, but in this case I will make an exception for the Chairman of the Board and namecheck Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely and the arranger Nelson Riddle.
On Green Dolphin Street (1947, Kaper/Washington) (TJD: 1044) As we near the end of the list, some of the harmony becomes non-functional. The opening of “On Green Dolphin Street” offers parallel triads over a pedal point, a concept that future jazzers would have a lot more to say about. Wynton Kelly owns this piece in trio with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb; the same rhythm section played it for Miles and Coltrane.
The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, Brainin/Bernier) (TJD: 255) Jerry Brainin is not a familiar name but his tune has a sophisticated mixture of exotica and II/Vs. Another piece essentially given to the repertoire by Coltrane; it was played a bit in the ’50s (including a nice version by Horace Silver) but if you call “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” at a jam session, you are probably cueing up the Coltrane arrangement in G with a pedal point on D.
Nature Boy (1948, eden ahbez) (TJD: 634) Minor key moodiness. Modal jazz is now really on the music’s doorstep. Nat King Cole’s recording was a big hit, eventually Coltrane would give it to his classic quartet.
In 1950 Charlie Parker would turn 30 and only had five years left to live. Miles Davis and John Coltrane would turn 24.
Invitation (1950, Kaper/Webster) (TJD: 647) Bronislau Kaper is represented by three entries, “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” “On Green Dolphin St.,” and “Invitation.” Thank you Mr. Kaper for your contribution to jazz! Truly. In 1975 Kaper played through some of his themes on his home piano for a TV documentary, and the LP compiled from that session gives an idea of the gulf between whatever one of these composers thought about and whatever a jazz cat thought about. Kaper’s “Invitation” is originally pure European sweep; John Coltrane or Joe Henderson add in African-American riffs, swing, sonority, and texture. Henderson’s first 1968 recording of “Invitation” with Don Friedman, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette put the theme firmly on the map: Within a few years, every serious cat in New York was putting the modal burn on “Invitation.” The bridge begins just like “Cherokee,” and I’ve heard “Invitation” described as, “the modal ‘Cherokee,'” meaning pieces that one must play well in order to “pass the exam” with a certain community. Henderson always kept “Invitation” in his repertoire, a particularly awesome recording is live in Italy with Charlie Haden and Al Foster.
If I Were A Bell (1950, Loesser) (TJD: 355) Red Garland played bell-like structures in his harmonic conception, and those twinkling sounds goose a wonderful version of “If I Were a Bell” by the first great Miles Davis quintet. Many Woody Shaw albums are concerned with menacing modal originals, but late in life, the great and innovative trumpeter recorded a few albums of standards. The Shaw solo on “If I Were a Bell” from Imagination offers a concise dictionary of Shaw harmonic thought.
My One and Only Love (1952, Wood/Mellin) (TJD: 855) Wood’s long-limbed melody walks all over the page in rhapsodic fashion. I’ve attended two weddings where the bride and groom danced to the Coltrane/Hartman recording.
When I Fall in Love (1952, Young/Heyman) (TJD: 604) Another one from the Miles book. The Boston scene led by Sam Rivers was important in terms of injecting a European-based modernism into NYC, especially through his student, Tony Williams. Rivers’s loose and somewhat deconstructed album of standards, A New Conception, begins with an attractive version of “When I Fall in Love.”
All of You (1954, Porter) (TJD: 455) The last Cole Porter tune to be taken up as a jazz standard. In Eb, Porter wrote the first sonority as Ab major over the tonic, a chord generally ignored by jazzers, who play Ab minor or F half-diminished. Ahmad Jamal got to it before Miles, playing it in C with the first chord hinting at Db, a move expanded upon by Bill Evans in his impressionistic version, also in C. (Scott LaFaro seems like a likely collaborator for the creation of unusual pedal points in Bill’s remarkable reharmonization.) Everyone else plays it in E-flat thanks to Miles and the great version on ‘Round Midnight. The live Miles records of “All of You” with either Wynton Kelly and Herbie Hancock show how the greatest rhythm sections evolve from gig to gig: Each crew has their own collection of hits and riffs.
My Favorite Things (1959, Rodgers/Hammerstein) (TJD: 511) The famous movie The Sound of Music was yet to be made when Coltrane tracked it for his breakthrough album. McCoy Tyner said that he was hesitant at first: were they really going to play this novelty waltz sung by a nun in the family-friendly Broadway show? The opening unison piano lines, the minor-major structure, and some of the voicings are straight from the sheet music, but then the band cracks the song wide open for infinite exploration on a drone. Coltrane played it over and over up until the end, including on his last recorded gig, April 23, 1967 in Harlem.
Miles Davis quit playing standards, acoustic music, and swing music shortly after Coltrane’s death. A later-in-life Davis recording of a pop song from the radio, “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper, couldn’t and wouldn’t be subsumed into the common practice repertoire.
Again, there are many more standards, but 100 is surely enough to get going with.
During the 1950s and 60s, a bevy of great jazz pianists made trio record after trio record of standard after standard: Erroll Garner, Hampton Hawes, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans for starters. These records are serious jazz but they were also popular as undemanding background music for the post-war Hi-Fi. Each pianist has their own harmonic conception, and they all arrange for the trio. The atmosphere is quite different than the post-Keith Jarrett Standards Trio idea of “spontaneous and interactive blowing right away” that seems to rule the roost at jazz schools.
In the last several decades there has been a rush to transcribe and teach virtuoso improvisations from the masters. There’s nothing wrong with this; I hand out a few transcriptions myself (Doodlin’, Bird is the Word). However, solos should probably be only learned after a student knows a fair amount of basic repertoire.
Years ago, for a high school talent show, I accompanied a saxophonist who had more or less learned Charlie Parker’s solo on “Ko-Ko.” He never sounded that good playing Bird’s phrases, and then, at the jam session after the talent show, he couldn’t sit in because he didn’t know any tunes.
Did many masters learn a lot of solos? Charles McPherson, one of the greatest living bebop musicians, never learned any Charlie Parker solos when he was starting out. His teacher Barry Harris didn’t ask his students to learn any Bird solos, either. “The solos were just too fast and hard,” Charles told me. “But we learned all the tunes.”
Singing the solos is different, especially the solos of the first two great swingers, Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. In my opinion jazz education should back off all the insanely difficult transcriptions of Coltrane and other virtuosos and replace them with singing along to Pops and Pres. It’s a comparatively small canon to assess: the Hot Fives and Sevens of Louis Armstrong and the early Lester Young sides with Count Basie. All of the solos are short and any of them will do. Four favorites:
Pops: “Potato Head Blues” and “Muskrat Ramble.”
Pres: “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy.”
There’s nothing new about singing along with Pops and Pres. Indeed, in, say, 1945, I believe many good working players could drop a needle on a Louis Armstrong and Count Basie 78 and immediately sing right along. It’s how you learned some basic repertoire to improvise with. Everyone understood that was how it was done.
To sum up: 26 blues riffs, 6 rhythm riffs, 100 standards, the most commonplace original music from the ’50s and the ’60s (“Moose the Mooche” through “Inner Urge”); a few sung solos by Pops and Pres, and Kenny Clarke’s beat on the drum set.
This might seem like a lot of notes, but compared to learning, say, the Bach Passions, the Mozart operas, or the Beethoven symphonies, it is actually not so many written pitches. And certainly there’s no worthy intellectual reason not to treat Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane with less seriousness than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Obviously, if students develop into artists, they are not expected to slavishly play the selected repertoire in the manner of the mid-century records. The endgame is new music. If my own professional career has been somewhat successful, it has been because I made fresh sounds.
But no teacher can teach a burgeoning artist how to appropriate the “now.” Indeed, I wrote a whole post about how I am already too old to advise my charges on the latest developments,“There is Only Today.” That defiant post also notes, “The more you know about the jazz tradition, the deeper your jazz will be, even if the surface of your music doesn’t have a straight-ahead sheen.”
Thanks as usual to Mark Stryker and Hyland Harris for reading, corrections, and at this point well over a decade of discussion concerning the repertoire. Billy Hart has also been a significant help in a thousand ways. Also thanks to my wonderful Twitter followers, who helped remind me of certain riffs and performances.
If you want the free pdf of the blues and rhythm riffs + the list of 100 standards, just sign up for my newsletter Transitional Technology (sign up is free) and email me back (you can “reply” to any TT email). If you already have the info for the dropbox with my educational handouts, “Core Repertoire” has been added, so just look for that link.
Other DTM teaching posts are collected at Consult the Manual.