Dear Nano: 10 Must-Know Tunes for Jam Sessions

Dear Nano is a weekly advice-column-like post to answer to questions posed by NoJ supporters. This week’s question:

What are the top 10 standards you need to memorize for jam sessions? When I go to one, I want to be able to call three tunes and not have people cringe because I don’t know one.

First, the bad news: every jazz musician has a different list of “must-know” jazz standards. In my opinion, you should memorize the tunes that you think are important and bring a tablet with iRealPro to jam sessions. If the musicians there make you feel ashamed for not knowing a tune, find a different jam session (or start your own!)

Which brings me to my next point – jazz musicians are way too focused on jam sessions. Sure, they’re a great way to network and try true group improvisation, but they’re focused on one level of musical development: individual musicianship (see bottom level in the pyramid above). In jam sessions, you’re building skills in and often being evaluated on just timekeeping and/or soloing.

While musicianship is a good foundation, you also need teamwork (the ability to function in an ensemble) and leadership (the ability to improve group performance) skills. So rather than focusing just on preparing for jam sessions, you’re better off booking a gig, putting together a group, and constructing a setlist with common tunes (which you can then call at jam sessions).

I put together the tune list above, broken up into two sets, trying to create stylistice variety:

  1. Bags’ Groove (F Blues)
  2. Autumn Leaves (Medium Swing)
  3. Oleo (Rhythm Changes)
  4. Body and Soul (Ballad)
  5. Take the ‘A’ Train (Medium Swing)
  6. Sonnymoon for Two (Bb Blues)
  7. Summertime (Minor Blues)
  8. Someday My Prince Will Come (Waltz)
  9. Blue Bossa (Latin)
  10. There Will Never Be Another You (Medium Swing)

Later this week, I’ll put together a byte-sized guide to bandleading. Musical leadership doesn’t necessarily mean weekly rehearsals and regular, high-profile gigs – it can be as simple as playing an occasional backyard barbeque. By leading the occasional gig, playing in ensembles, and going to occasional jam sessions, you’ll develop all three levels of musical development.

What tunes would be on your list of 10?

Author: Leah Pogwizd

DIY Professor, Nanoversity of Jazz

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