Student Questions #1 "Tunes"

Published by Frank on Dec. 12, 2019

Q: How do you approach learning tunes?

If you know tunes you can work, simple as that. You can be a mediocre improviser or a poor reader, but if you know tunes, that will get you started. Leaders can use you, you can play casual, non-jazz dates, background music gigs or other situation where people just call tunes. You will be in it, standing next to experienced people who know what they are doing, and you can ask them how they do that, and they will tell you. You will be in the room where it happens.

Memorizing tunes to me involves learning the correct melody, the correct chords and the standard key. That's it. I don't factor in learning how to improvise on the tune yet or figuring out chord substitutions. I consider those separate subjects.

I was advised to spend two hours per day just learning tunes, and that's what I did. I used to spend the first hour learning ten new tunes, just playing the melodies and the changes repeatedly. I would alternate reading with trying to play by memory. The second hour I would review ten tunes that I already had learned well enough to say I knew them. I did that for years. I used a list of songs that the Association of Professional Orchestra Leaders put out years ago that represented the repertoire that the bandleaders wanted their sidemen to know.

The first tune i tried to memorize was Watch what Happens. It took me six weeks to learn one stupid tune. I kept losing the form.

If you live in Chicago learn the tunes they play in Chicago first. What tunes do your friends play? What tunes does your school combo play? What tunes did they play at the last jam session or gig you attended or participated in? Learn those.

I am old enough where standard tunes were played on the radio and television shows when I was a kid. My parents played them on our record player. They were and are in my head, so that is an advantage. I think you should find vocal versions of the standard tunes you are interested in and create a file on whatever device you use. Play them when driving or relaxing. Get them in your ear.

If you want to be a professional musician, learn standard tunes. If you want to be a jazz musician, also learn the tunes written by the great jazz musicians. If you want to play fusion, learn all the fusion stuff starting with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. To play rock, learn all the classic rock stuff, and so on.

People play melodies more or less the same. But on the chord changes you often hear differences of opinion, especially when playing with jazz players. I have a few insights. First, if you learn a tune from a fakebook, the changes must and will agree with the melody theory wise, but those changes may not be the preferred soloing harmonies. Dominants may have different alterations, most commonly. Piano players might show up on the gig wanting to play changes they just learned from a Bill Evans album. Everybody used tritone substitutions all over the place. So you have to develop your ears. You need to remember which piano player likes to side slip bar 7 of Have you Met Miss Jones and which one doesn't. If you play I'll Take Romance with Jack Wilkins he plays the first chord as D minor instead of F major, then he walks the bass line down to the B half diminished two measures later. Good chord substitutions are when the player plays something that the composer didn't write, but that work just as well as what he did write. It's all in the game. Develop your ears.

Standard tunes have lyrics. Learn them. You will play the tunes better if you know the lyrics.

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