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?

Dear Nano: Staying Sane as a (Female) Freelance Musician

For this week’s Dear Nano, I’m writing a guest post for my dear friend and colleague Lauren Husting. This month, she’s blogging about mental health, work-life balance, and other topics that are valued curricula here at Nanoversity of Jazz.

Dear Nano,

How does a freelancing musician find any time for herself? What does it look like to balance ‘always being on’ with a healthy approach to playing and performing?


Overwhelmed Minnesotan

First of all, I’m tickled that it’s week two of Dear Nano and already we’re getting formal notes with moniker signatures!

Second, it’s funny that you should mention finding “time for herself.” The vast majority of books about freelancing are written by White men. It’s not that they don’t have good advice, it’s just a totally different game if you’re female, a POC, LGBT, disabled, etc. (or some combination thereof)

Advice like “take time for yourself” and “learn to say ‘no’” is great unless you’re having to work twice as hard to prove yourself and are the only person fighting the good fight on an issue. So instead, I’m going to offer some advice to female freelance musicians that’s going to sound a bit crazy and require some explanation and pop-culture references: embrace your animus.

Growing up, my mom was really into Jungian psychology and effectively passed it on to me. Jung postulated that men have a feminine anima and women have a masculine animus. In true dude fashion, he wrote mainly about how it affected men, which is why there’s no widely-discussed counterpart to “a man being in touch with his feminine side.”

There’s a whole book on the topic called Invisible Partners (available in full on Scribd), but at almost 40 years old, it’s a bit dated (such as some cringe-worthy discussions of how homosexuality is sometimes the product of maladapted anima…)

Instead, I’ve opted for pop-culture references. I was recently watching the video for Kelis’ “Caught Out There” (1999), directed by Hype Williams. Just listen/watch and I’ll explain what I mean.

Notice that the only time the male actor speaks with his own voice is at 1:55 when he says, “I love you” – that’s her philandering ex. The other times, when he’s lying on the floor or bruised on the therapist’s chair, it’s her voice which (IMHO) represents her animus.

I totally get it – when you’re betrayed by a male partner (or watch male superiors and colleagues get away with annoying, abusive, or criminal behavior; or get constantly told that femininity is inferior to masculinity), you get mad as hell and pummel your “invisible partner” within an inch of his life.

The video outlines a good course of action: tear shit up (my primary regret of being rendered homeless by my last breakup was that I didn’t get to destroy a living room in such an epic fashion), march in solidarity with other rightly angry women (or honor your feminine archetypes, if you want to read it that way), but ultimately embrace your masculine side (the way Kelis kicks it with the Neptunes (who produced the track) at the end of the video).

This isn’t about manning up or copping male entitlement, it’s about becoming a whole, balanced person in the face of hardship and trauma. If you’re going to be a successful freelancer, you need to be a one-woman-army and have all archetypes on deck – including some strong, sensitive masculine ones.

Byte-Sized Guide to Principles

I’ll cut to the chase: traditional goal-setting doesn’t work. Why? Because (sexist language aside),

Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (cited in Transitions)

In the past, I’d set detailed goals from 5-year plans to daily to-do lists, and life would get in the way of all of it. What I’ve found works better are guiding principles that can be followed regardless of any transition.

Nanoversity of Jazz was borne out of a major life transition. I never set a goal to transition from being a bassist, instructor, and perpetually emerging author to bandleader, online consultant, and blogger/videocaster. I did it out of personal and financial necessity. While I know it’ll take people a while to get used to the new professional identity, I’m confident I’m on the right track.

My five principles for Nanoversity of Jazz (and life in general) are outlined on the index card (the ultimate tool for byte-sized information) above.

  1. Be helpful: In any creative and/or professional endeavor, you must ask yourself, “Am I being of service to others?” If not, it’s just narcissistic pretentiousness.
  2. Be responsible: While you can’t always be on top of your game, you can always choose to be proactive, ethical, and professional.
  3. Be competent: I don’t practice anymore – I work. If I’m not teaching, performing, or composing (or preparing for any of them), I put the instruments down and work on developing as a writer, instructional designer, entrepreneur, etc.
  4. Be engaged: Like many, I’ve had extensive wish-lists of different relationships and experiences. What I’ve learned, however, is that if you can’t be present and mindful in your current relationships and experiences (as well as being open to new ones), you’ll never be satisfied with anything.
  5. Be healthy: After years of highly restrictive diets and intense exercise routines, I’ve settled in on a more balanced approach by just listening to my body. I try to eat healthy most of the time, splurge occasionally, sleep as much as I need, and move constantly (usually walking and gentle yoga). I’m not as thin as I have been in the past, but I’m a lot happier (and healthier).

What are your principles for life and music?

Patreon for Nanoversity of Jazz

Earlier this year, I found myself functionally homeless, hitting a major career wall, and planning to relocate across the country. Thanks to the support of some amazing friends, I’ve figured out a way to realize my professional vision and (maybe) stay in the area.

I’ve set up my Patreon page to be a combination of crowdfunding, subscription service, and online instruction. On the page, you can sign up for one of four levels of support:

  • Kilobyte ($12/month): weekly access to exclusive content
  • Megabyte ($33/month): weekly access + monthly 10-minute email consultation (answer to one question, may be used for Dear Nano posts)
  • Gigabyte ($45/month): weekly access + monthly 25-minute phone or Skype consultation
  • Terabyte ($78/month): weekly access + monthly 60-minute phone or Skype consultation

Your support will allow me to create the following content:

  • Byte-Sized Guides: concise overviews of practice methods, music theory, etc.
  • Dear Nano: answers to learner questions
  • Nano Jazz Videocast: interviews and performances with musicians of various backgrounds
  • Patreon Exclusives: exercises, practice resources, and other bonus materials (see Patreon page for links and passwords to posts)
  • Tune Analysis: breakdown of common jazz repertoire with practice exercises

My goal with Nanoversity of Jazz is to make musical learning accessible and welcoming to everyone – regardless of their age, level, or background. In the next few weeks, I’ll be producing my first episode of Nano Jazz featuring everyday jazz musicians like me. If I’m able to get the site and online teaching off the ground by late August, I’ll be able to stay in the area and travel to other cities for Nano Jazz episodes. Stay tuned!

Autumn Leaves: Chord Progression

Yesterday, I talked about learning “Autumn Leaves” in multiple keys – which is much easier when you understand its chord progression. In the chart above (using the key of Bb/G), you can see the major ii-V-I-IV progression (red) and the minor ii-V-I progression (blue). The purple arrow represents a jump across the circle of fourths – the same “cheat code” that works for tritone substitutions (which I’ll talk about in a later post).

In my post yesterday, I recommended learning the “Autumn Leaves” chord progression in at least two keys, but I now think there’s a case for learning it in all 12 keys (and as my friend Charlie pointed out, there’s an Aebersold track for practicing just that). Doing so will allow you learn timekeeping and/or soloing for all 12 major and minor ii-V-I/i progressions. These 24 bytes of information show up again and again in jazz standards.

Dear Nano: Key for Autumn Leaves?

Dear Nano is going to be a weekly advice-column-like post to answer to questions posed by students or colleagues. This week’s question:

Which version of “Autumn Leaves” is going to get called on the bandstand – G or E? Should I memorize both? In the Real Book, it starts with an A min7 chord.

Calling “Autumn Leaves” always gets confusing because it moves between two key centers: the major and its relative minor. When you call it in ‘G,’ you mean Bb major/G minor. For ‘E,’ it’s G major/E minor.

When in doubt, ask everyone to identify their first chord. In Bb/G, it’ll be a C min7 (ii of Bb); in G/E, it’ll be an A min7 chord (ii of G) – as you identified.

In my gigging experience, “Autumn Leaves” gets called more in Bb/G – mainly because that’s the key it’s in on Cannonball Adderley’s classic Somethin’ Else recording (featuring Miles Davis).

(Bass players: make sure you’ve transcribed Sam Jones’ opening bass vamp!)

I’ll analyze “Autumn Leaves” in a future post, but for now I’ll say that it’s important to memorize it in both keys to start thinking more functionally (ii-V-I-IV instead of each individual chord).

If you just memorize it in one key, you can skate by with muscle memory on your instrument. Learning it in two or more keys gets your brain more involved.

That said, I usually bring my tablet with iRealPro to each pickup gig or jam session. Sometimes, you’ll play behind a singer who requests standards in atypical keys or someone will call more obscure tunes.

I was always taught that “real” jazz musicians know hundreds of tunes in all 12 keys, but I’ve moved away from that line of thinking. Being a jazz musician in the digital age requires a lot more “soft” skills than it used to, so outsourcing some of the “hard” skills to technology just makes sense.

I’d encourage you to memorize “Autumn Leaves” in those two keys (at least) because it’s such a common tune and it’ll help you build your knowledge of jazz theory.

C Jam Blues: Arpeggios

In addition to the melody, arpeggios (linear spellings of the chords) can also serve as a rich source of practice material. The simple 12-bar blues progression of “C Jam Blues” is a good starting point for learning dominant seventh apreggios.

In the byte-sized guide to musicianship, I recommended writing out and practicing arpeggios up to the ninth degree. In the opening graphic, you can see the C7 arpeggio including the root (C/R), major third (E/3), perfect fifth (G/5), minor seventh (Bb/b7), and major ninth (D/9) – which is the same as a major second.

The F7 arpeggio uses the same intervals, but built on an F (F-A-C-Eb-G):

F7 Arpeggio.png

The G7 arpeggio also uses the same intervals, but with different notes (G-B-D-F-A):

G7 Arpeggio.png

In the PDF exercises (written for treble clef, bass clef, Bb transposition, and Eb transposition), you’ll find arpeggios for all three chords (adjust the octaves as needed). You can use these chord tones to compose basslines (here, using half-note roots and major thirds) and comping voicings (here, whole-note major thirds and minor sevenths). Note that horns can adapt the comping voicings into backgrounds by playing one line at a time.

“C Jam Blues” Arpeggios, Treble Clef

“C Jam Blues” Arpeggios, Bass Clef

“C Jam Blues” Arpeggios, Bb Transposition

“C Jam Blues” Arpeggios, Eb Transposition

That’s it for the first week of Nanoversity of Jazz! Stay tuned next week for more instructional materials and information about supporting this site through Patreon.