The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire

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This article appears in the prologue of The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).


When I was learning how to play jazz during my teenage years, I kept encountering songs that the older musicians expected me to know. I eventually realized that there were around 200 or 300 of these compositions, and that they served as the cornerstone of the jazz repertoire. A jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart.

In fact, I soon learned that knowledge of the repertoire was even more important to a jazz musician than to a classical artist. The classical performer at least knows what compositions will be played before the concert begins. This is not always the case with jazz. I recall the lament of a friend who was enlisted to back up a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival—only to discover that he wouldn't be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people. Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado. Another buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader—a famous saxophonist who wouldn't identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, than stamp off the beat with his foot... and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues. For better or worse, such is our art form.

I had my own embarrassing situations with unfamiliar standards during my youth—but fortunately never with thousands of people on hand to watch. I soon realized what countless other jazz musicians have no doubt also learned: in-depth study of the jazz repertoire is hardly a quaint historical sideline, but essential for survival. Not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment.

But no one gave you a list. Nor would a typical youngster of my (or a later) generation encounter many of these songs outside the jazz world—most of them had been composed before I was born, and even the more recent entries in the repertoire weren't part of the fare you typically heard on TV or mainstream radio. Some of these tunes came from Broadway, but not always from the hit productions—many first appeared in obscure or failed shows, or revues by relatively unknown songwriters. Others made their debut in movies, or came from big bands, or were introduced by pop singers from outside the jazz world. A few—such as "Autumn Leaves" or "Desafinado"—originated far away from jazz's land of origin. And, of course, many were written by jazz musicians themselves, serving as part of the legacy of Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, and other seminal artists.

My own education in this music was happenstance and hard earned. Eventually "fake books" appeared on the scene to clear up some of the mystery, but I never saw one of these (usually illegal) compilations until I was almost 20 years old. When I first encountered The Real Book—the underground collection of jazz lead sheets that began circulating in the 1970s—even the table of contents served as a revelation to me. And, I'm sure, to others as well. Aspiring musicians today can hardly imagine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago—no school I attended had a jazz program or even offered a single course on jazz. Most of the method books were worthless, and the peculiar culture of the art form tended to foster an aura of secrecy and competitiveness. Just knowing the names of the songs one needed to learn represented a major step forward; getting a lead sheet was an unwonted luxury.

A few years later, when I started teaching jazz piano students, I put together a brief guide to the repertoire, listing the songs my pupils needed to learn and the keys in which they were normally played—a rudimentary forerunner to the work you now have in your hands. Still later, as I began writing about jazz, I continued to study these same songs, but from a different perspective. I now tried to unravel the evolution of these compositions over time, understand how different jazz artists had played them, and what changes had taken place in performance practices.

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