Building A Personal Repertoire
by Paul Combs
In my last article for Jazz Improv (Practicing Under Duress, vol. 3, no. 3) I stressed the importance of learning a repertoire of tunes by heart. Not only does this give you the confidence to take to the stage for a set or two, it gives you a practical understanding of the workings of the song forms and associated harmonies that are the basis for the mainstream of modern jazz. As you will see in this article, it can take a lot of words to describe just some of the levels of this music (or any music, for that matter), but once you know how to use your ears and memory to get around the music, you find that it is much easier to understand all of this on a directly musical level. This article is intended to help the developing jazz player get a handle on building the kind of personal repertoire that is necessary for mastery of this art.
A couple of years ago I was doing a workshop on improvisation for a group of adult learners and I thought it would be a good idea to give them a list of important tunes to learn. I based my list, in concept anyway, on a list of ‘100 tunes you should know’ that Dr. David Baker had published somewhere. There have been other such lists of 100 tunes and so it seemed like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, instead of providing the comfort of a structure to work from, this list only served to terrify and demoralize my students. "100 important tunes I should know!?!! How can I ever learn all these?" the students said. I replied that they did not have to learn them all at once, but the damage, however small, had already been done. Since then I have been thinking about how to present a guide for acquiring a useful, focused personal repertoire for the serious amateur or part-time professional jazz musician.
Rather than provide a list, I will attempt to give some guidance in selecting tunes to learn. Toward this end, I would like to share some ideas of mine on how to memorize songs, since rote memorization is the first step in the process of understanding song-forms on a level that will allow one to comprehend previously unknown melodies by ear. The kind of skill that is often referred to as "having big ears."
First, one needs to start with simple pieces. For some reason, many of us feel we have to start with something really complex. I remember trying, at first, to try to memorize and put into all twelve keys Jerome Kern’s "All The Things You Are." This only left me feeling frustrated and inadequate. Memorization of tunes and learning to be able to transpose them, which is necessary to get beyond just rote memorization, is a skill that has to be built slowly and steadily. It is probably best to start with a twelve-bar blues, perhaps something as minimalist as Duke Ellington’s "C-Jam Blues." In fact, that might be a very good one to start with, since it is based on the important fundamental relationship of sol to do, or the fifth note of the scale to the first.
This brings us to a skill that I would recommend for every musician and that is the use of solfeggio, or the assigning of singable names to notes. Some would suggest that for jazz you use numbers, and that is OK if it works for you, but it is a problem for me in the case of '7', since it has two syllables and can, therefore, be awkward to sing. Obviously, I am making suggestions here and you are welcome to use what ever system gets the job done for you, but I prefer moveable-do solfeggio since it allows me to focus on the relationship of the notes one to another. In this method do is always the major tonic and la the minor tonic, so that the major scale would be sung as do re mi fa so (or sol) la ti do. For the ascending chromatic scale I use do di re ri mi fa fi so si la te (or li for an augmented sixth) ti do, and for the descending chromatic scale, do ti te la le so se fa mi me ri ro do. There is more variation in syllables for chromatic notes and these are just the ones I use. It is not necessary to be able to solfege every song, but familiarity with this tool makes it easier to transpose and to understand the relationships of the notes in a melody. By this method "C Jam Blues" would go so so, so so, so so, so do, and the first eight bars of "I Got Rhythm" would go so la do re, re do la so, so la do mi, mi mi re mi re do.
You can often find sight singing books for a reduced price in the music section of used book stores, and with just some brief daily practice, say about ten to fifteen minutes, you will start to be able to make use of what ever system you choose to use, whether movable do, fixed do or one of the number systems. Remember, do not make yourself crazy trying to master these techniques all at once, but gradually absorb them into your repertoire of musical skills.
As I said, rather than give a list of tunes I will offer a priority of types of tunes and some things to keep in mind as you choose the ones you are going to work on. Not only do you want to start with simple melodies, but you will find it helpful to try to think of tunes in groups, so you can generalize from one song to several others. The blues, with its shorter form and many variations is a natural starting place, and as you memorize each new tune you should learn to play it in several keys, if not all twelve. This way you really get to know how the notes work together to make the melody in question what it is. From the very simple "C Jam Blues" you would probably want to go on to other riff type tunes like "Tenor Madness" (a/k/a "The Royal Roost") or "Bag’s Groove."
Once you know several blues heads and are comfortable with both transposing them and learning new ones you should be ready for the longer forms like the 32-bar AABA and ABAC. I would suggest moving on to the AABA tunes based on the so-called "rhythm changes." This harmonic sequence existed before George Gershwin used it for "I Got Rhythm," but since his song is the most famous we identify this model with it. Basically the A section either goes:

I-vi / ii-V/ I-vi / ii-V / ii - V of IV/ IV-iv/ I-V / I

or stays in the I-vi-ii-V pattern through out. In the key of Bb this would be:

Bb - Gmin7 / Cmin7 - F7 / Bb - Gmin7 / Cmin7 - F7 / Fmin7 - Bb7 / Eb - Ebmin / Bb - F7/ Bb.

The bridge or B section (also sometimes called the "channel") is:

V of VI / V of VI / V of II / V of II / V of V / V of V / V / V,

or in the key of Bb: D7 / D7 / G7 / G7 / C7 / C7 / F7/ F7.
If you are new to all this, it should become obvious to you that a basic knowledge of harmony is really helpful. There are several self-teaching work books available for you to get yourself started, but tutoring or classes in the subject are the most effective.
Other than the famous Gershwin tune the simpler melodies, like Lester Young’s "Lester Leaps In," are often found with an open bridge. That is there is no melody for the B section and you are left to improvise in those eight bars. An example of a fairly simple "rhythm" tune with a bridge melody would be the theme from the old TV show "The Flintstones." There are probably more variations on "rhythm changes" than any other basic model, but I will offer a couple more songs that can be used as "templates" to give you some ideas on how to go about prioritizing the tunes that you learn.
"Honeysuckle Rose" contains another very useful progression to know. Not only is it used as the basis for some other songs (Count Basie’s "Miss Thing" is playing in my head as I write this) but its bridge is sometimes replaced with the "rhythm" bridge, as in Charlie Parker’s "Scrapple From The Apple." The bridge changes for "Honeysuckle Rose" are also very important in their own right. Sometimes referred to as the "pedestrian bridge," this chord sequence is probably the most used of any for the B sections of AABA tunes. It goes:

ii of IV / V of IV / IV / IV/ ii of V/ V of V / ii / V,

or in Bb:

Fmin7 / Bb7 / Eb / Eb / Gmin7 / C7 / Cmin7 / F7.
Some of the bridges to Duke Ellington’s tunes like "Just Squeeze Me" and "It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing," use this sequence, for instance, and as you get deeper into building your repertoire you will find this bridge often.
As you gain "ownership" of several blues, "rhythm" and "Honeysuckle Rose" based tunes, you will be ready to build on subtler similarities. One song that I recommend learning is Cole Porter’s "Night And Day." Although its form is the less common AAB, it contains two harmonic sequences that occur in several other tunes. The first is the minor ii-V resolving to the parallel major or, in the key of C (standard key for this song) Dmin7b5 (sometimes spelled Fmin6) - G7(b9) - C. Porter uses this progression in many of his songs, but other composers like it as well. The other important sequence is:

#iv7b5 - iv7 - iii7 - biiidim7 - ii7 - V7 - I,

or in C:

F#min7b5 - Fmin7 - Emin 7 - Ebdim7 - Dmin7 - G7 - C.
This downward chromatic progression can be found, with minor variations, in Jerome Kern’s "I’m Old Fashioned" and Marvin Fisher’s "When Sunny Gets Blue," to name just two examples.
Speaking of Cole Porter, another key tune that should be near the top of your list is his "What Is This Thing Called Love?", the changes of which serve as the basis for many modern jazz compositions. It is also another interesting example of Porter’s mixing of parallel minor and major modes.
The above information should help you to get started. As stated at the beginning of this article, as you acquire a personal repertoire, the need for these kind of complicated explanations decreases, unless you need to explain what you know to someone else. I would think that if someone learned a couple of dozen songs following the advice I have given, they would begin to be able to make the kind of observations I have made for themselves. I would like to conclude by answering a couple of anticipated questions, give some further advice on learning to hear the melodic/harmonic relationships involved and offer, heaven forbid, a sample list based on the concepts I have presented.
I would imagine that some readers are saying "I play ‘free’ or ‘smooth’ or ‘intergalactic-pan-cultural’ jazz. What do I need these tunes for?" Well you probably would not need to have an extensive repertoire of the standards and bop heads, but they are at the foundation of modern jazz, and I would submit that if you want to think of yourself as a jazz musician of any kind you should have a working knowledge of the foundation. Adventurous musicians like David Murray, Dave Leibman, Geri Allen, Don Byron and Bill Frisell, to name but five, know these concepts as well as they know their own names. There are also many fundamental musical principles that are made clear in these tunes, that will be of use to you no matter what stylistic direction you take as you go forward in music. My aim in presenting this advice is to offer a path to improved musicianship and an internalized understanding of the fundamentals of the music we call jazz. I am not concerned with promoting some kind of orthodoxy.
Another concern some may have might go something like this: "I can memorize the melodies, but I am still having trouble with the chord changes." If this is true for you should learn more about basic harmonic concepts, as mentioned above. Learn to sing the songs. Most of them have words and the words can help you sing them clearly. Once you can sing the melody, go to the piano or grab your guitar and play the changes as you sing. You do not need to know the hippest voicings, nor do you need to do this in a manner acceptable for public performance, you just need to be able to experience getting the melody and harmony to happen at the same time. You can also try arpeggiating the changes so that you get to know where the chord tones lie, melodically, on your instrument. Jamming with others and using play-alongs to further your study is not only helpful, but necessary. After all the goal here is to be able to make music with other people.
Here is a model list of tunes to get you started.
12-bar blues:
C Jam Blues, Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid, Tenor Madness, Sonymoon For Two, Now’s The Time.
"Rhythm" Changes:
I Got Rhythm, Lester Leaps In, Meet The Flintstones, Cottontail, Oleo, Anthropology.
All-around important standards:
All The Things You Are, Body And Soul, A Foggy Day In London Town, How High The Moon, I Can’t Get Started With You, Misty, Out Of Nowhere, What Is This Thing Called Love.
Jazz standards with their own changes:
Confirmation, Four, Lady Bird, A Night In Tunisia, Solar.
As you add to any list you will want to take into consideration your own tastes and interests, and those of the community or communities of musicians you play with or would like to play with. The songs favored at jam sessions vary depending on local and other considerations. For instance north of Boston you really should know "Day By Day," but it is not heard as often south of the city; and some jammers value the classic bop heads, while others might prefer tunes associated with Art Blakey’s 50's and 60's bands; and so on. If you play weddings these days you will probably want to concentrate on classic R&B songs and a variety of huge pop hits; if you want to accompany singers you will want to know standards and show tunes, and you had better be able to play them in any key.
The above list is just a model, but if you can play all of these tunes from memory and in a few different keys, then you should be able to move on in building your repertoire with confidence. As always in this or any art, there are no absolutes, so if you have any questions about all this, or even a bone to pick, please feel free to contact me. E-mail: (which may have been changed to by the time this is published); regular mail: c/o BoMuse Music, 14 Berkshire Pl., Cambridge, MA 02141.
© Paul Combs, 2003, 2012
Performer, composer/arranger and educator Paul Combs leads small combos and his 9-piece Pocket Big Band in the Boston, MA area. He teaches privately, offers a range of workshops and lectures and is currently at work on a book about the importance of Tadd Dameron. You can find out more about him at