Know Your Standards!

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Wynton Marsalis Dedicates Time to Jazz Education

To become a well-rounded musician, there’s a lot to learn. You need to be able to read, improvise, learn about the masters, and keep your mind open to a lot of music. By listening, you will come to know common tunes, known as standards. In other articles, I’ve written about how I have attended some jam sessions back in Copenhagen, which made me think about writing a bit about what I have learned; these are just some thoughts which came to me.

When the word “standards” is mentioned, most people think of jazz standards,  this is not the only meaning of the word. If you are into rock, you need to know your 60s rock and pop, 70s punk rock, 80s hard rock and metal, and 90s grunge. If you are into funk, you need to know early r&b, gospel, Motown, 70s funk, and 80s and 90s R&B. I mention these specific years since they are a must for musicians planning a career as a performer. Look at the guys who are on late shows and talent shows. They go through a process of learning up to 300 tunes a week. One of the best examples I’ve heard was featured in an interview with a member of Prince’s band, talking about how Prince had them learn the same number of tunes (probably even more) before they go on tour. He would cue them into whatever tunes he wished to play. With this, I am saying: be prepared for the big world.

Being a drummer and performance major at Berklee, I wanted to learn more tunes. Berklee offers a variety of repertoire classes; last semester I took a jazz repertoire, application, and development class with drummer, trumpeter, educator, and composer Ralph Peterson. The class is built around playing and learning repertoire in various jazz styles. You talk about song forms, the drummers, what to listen for and how to imply the melody. Berklee also offers similar courses focusing on different styles such as rock, funk, fusion, and hip-hop. One thing Peterson told us, which I find extremely important and that even I struggle with, is when you are at a concert, listen and look at the other musicians, NOT the drummer. This goes for all instrumentalists: focus on the musicians in the band other than the ones who play your instrument.

Returning back to the example of learning a lot of music in a single week: Remember that these guys have been doing it for years and were once students as well. At that time, they were going through the process of learning and absorbing maybe 1-3 tunes a week. We are all different. One thing I highly recommend is to make playlists with different categories, and perhaps categories within categories by dividing your music into a variety of styles, periods, era, feel, etc. In the case of jazz, I’ve categorized playlists into ballad, slow, medium and up-tempo swing, Latin to swing, odd time etc. You can also divide them by forms, so you know the difference between a 12-bar blues, 32-bar AABA, 32-bar AABA rhythm changes, 16-bar form and so on. Look at tunes such as “Alone Together”, “Stablemates” and “Moment’s Notice”. If you can, I highly recommend that you download the iRealbook, as it will give you the forms and chord changes, but also gives you the option of seeing tunes listed by style, which will help you when you go into the practice room. Make time for playing in your practice session because learning repertoire and listening is crucial and will help you with internalizing music. A former teacher used to ask me if I knew a certain tune — usually a tune I hadn’t heard before. He would explain the form and whether the song had hits, a shout chorus, or any other special aspect to look out for. That’s a great way to develop your ears!

Herbie Hancock speaks with the current class of Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance masters degree students.

Herbie Hancock speaks with the current class of Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance masters degree students.

Something crucial to know about standards is that they are called standards for a reason. Let’s take a look at “Autumn Leaves”, originally “Les Feuilles Mortes” by French-Hungarian composer, Joseph Kosma. The form is AABC and mainly consists of ii-V-I progressions. I mention this particular standard because it’s one of the most well known. When looking through my iTunes I see that I have a variety of versions of the tune, featuring jazz greats such as Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Marsalis (this particular version is really cool) but also a non-jazz version with Eric Clapton. Learn the vocabulary necessary for the style(s) you wish to pursue in your musical studies. Listen to as many versions you can and see what the different musicians are doing.

A final thing I would like to add, even if you are not into jazz: please give standards a listen. They will build you as a musician. The same goes for strictly jazz players: please listen to classical, rock, and funk. It’s all music. To the drummers who are reading this: don’t just learn to play time, but learn the rhythms for these tunes and move them around the drum set as well as learning to sing the bass lines. For non-jazz tunes, learn the grooves, but be able to sing the melody and harmony back as well.

A final tip: If you are into jazz, check out the Facebook group “Jam of the Week”. I love this group! It gives you the chance to do a submission of the tune of the week. I have submitted a few times and gotten some great comments and critique that has helped me.


How to Approach a Jam Session with Vocalists Michael Mwenso and Charenee Wade
Paris Blues with Louis Armstrong
Thoughts on Building and Maintaining Repertoire
Learning Repertoire Quickly 


          February 10, 2018